An Actor Prepares, Again

After a longer-than-needed, self-appointed artistic hiatus, I did my first general audition today in a long time. And, it feels good. I mean, earlier today beforehand I wasn’t so sure. I kept imagining scenarios in my head that included everything from my mind going blank to having a medical emergency on stage to being straight up kicked out of the place and not allowed to audition at all!

That’s when I realized I was a bit anxious and needed to relax.

General auditions are odd, and often annoying. When auditioning for an individual show, depending on the company and the script and the director’s choice, the audition may consist only of reading sides, and only occasionally involve showing up with prepared material. Most actors I know sort of hate the monologue auditions, even while understanding its value. General auditions typically ask for two contrasting pieces, sometimes one needing to be verse, occasionally with a song. Plus there’s little sense of for whom or what you’re actually auditioning, as you’re part of a lined up schedule – go in, state your name and what you’re about to present, do your monologues, say thanks and leave. NEXT!

My problem with monologues is that I absolutely hate finding them, and even more so I think I’m pretty bad at finding them. Over the years I’ve often had a small handful of them at my disposal, but the problem is that over time they get to feel stale or no longer work for me or, even worse – I’ve shown everyone in town this monologue and it needs to be retired. (This is part of why I track what monologues I’ve done for which directors, to try to avoid repeating it.)

My hiatus wasn’t a fruitful time where I read lots of plays (where I would find great audition material.) In fact, during the past year or so I’ve probably read the least amount of any time in my life. I usually have at least one book on my nightstand, but it’s been a real dry spell. So when I realized it was time to get back in the game I started monitoring the audition sites again, looking for opportunities. When this came up, I put a reminder on my calendar for the signup date (there was a small window of opportunity) and started thinking about what I would do.

That’s when I realized I was screwed. I needed some fresh material.

I spent the next several weeks flipping through plays, anthologies, my paper files of monologues, my electronic files of monologues….I think it’s the worst part of being an actor. I hate it. If there were a service where someone would send me recommended monologues appropriate for me to do on a regular basis, I’d read those plays and happily pay for that service. Thankfully I came across something in time, and in the course of about 9 days I worked up a new 1 min 15 second, dramatic monologue – scored, memorized and fully embodied. (I coupled it with a contrasting one I’ve done before, but this theater hadn’t seen.)

Honestly, I wasn’t sure I could do it – that I could be ready. And I was prepared to cancel my audition slot. (For which I’d kick myself for months.) But it went off without a hitch, and in fact, I think I had their attention and that it went well! Not only do I recognize more clearly the time and committment I personaly need to work up such a thing, I’m confident I could do it again.

I’m feeling back in the game, and tomorrow I’ve got another chance to use this new piece!

Note to self: Keep reading and looking for material!

See #1

Sometimes, it seems, nothing gets under my skin more than a bad couple hours at a theater, and this past week I had a doozy of an irksome experience. So much so, that I spent a good portion of act one wondering if I should just leave at intermission.

I’ve never done that — I’ve never not stayed until the end. In this case, I could’ve easily left at intermission because 1) I was seeing it alone and 2) I had no close friend in the cast that was aware of my presence. Furthermore (!) I was seated near the back of the house, on an aisle seat and I could’ve slipped out without disturbing a soul!!

I stayed.

I think the only thing that may have kept me there were the facts that I didn’t have to pay for my ticket because I’m an ARTshare member and that due to a parking ramp ticketing malfunction I was pretty certain I had free parking. This literally was only costing me my time. And, of course, a few brain cells in the end.

Still….I should’ve left.

I’m not going to go into all the details of why I didn’t like this show. I’m not even going to name it or anyone involved. Instead, I’ll just list the things I’ve identified as the problem and hope that I learn from this experience to never fall victim to such things.

  1. The direction was flat, uninspired and not nearly as creative as it wanted to be or seemed to think it was. There was an “aren’t we clever feeling” that was inorganic.
  2. The set design was fascinating and really cool (no, really…I liked it!)…but only for half of the play, and the director didn’t know how to use it well or to his advantage. (see #1.)
  3. The cast had some of the most diverse talent levels I’ve seen in a while, and by this I mean there were some miscasting situations (see # 1) and (even more frustrating) there were some brilliantly talented actors giving mediocre performances. (see #1) I think I could see in their eyes at times that they knew it, and they couldn’t overcome it.
  4. Why couldn’t they overcome it? Because of the lousy, ineffectual, sloppy, weak and pedestrian approach to the script and story and staging, including what I noted as unnecessary edits to the text, or a bad translation. Most of the time there seemed to be something interesting or detailed happening, but barely anything that was being created on the stage between those people was making its way across the threshold and landing on the laps of their audience.  Some of them seemed to have fun, but it wasn’t being shared with us. And the pacing gave me hives. (see #1…or is this just repetitive of #1? Huh. Well, it deserves to be said twice, in either case.)

What I wanted to see, with all the talent and hard work put into this, were grounded, rooted, characters striving for  something — even when, as in this case, that something was completely unattainable.

I saw a lot of striving but hardly anything grounded. I was shown the longing, but I didn’t witness longing. I saw lots of interesting attempts at being clever that either fell flat or rang out as clever for clever’s sake.

And also, I’m fairly certain that Chekhov never put the word see-you-next-tuesday in a script.

Ooops…..that may have revealed the production. Ah, well.

At least for a few hours I understood “I’m in mourning for my life.”

Love and Kindness, and other Hateful Things

Yes, that title sounds cynical, but it’s not. Here are a few things that have happened recently, culminating in today – Valentine’s Day.

Yellow Tree Theater opened a production of Clybourne Park, the hilarious and touching, Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play about race, race relations, and loving (or not) one’s neighbor. I was able to watch a run-through before their tech week, and I look forward to seeing the finished product.

I love this script because it touches on the heart of how we treat one another in so many different facets, and it does so through humor – sometimes uncomfortable humor. Reading or watching this play you might find yourself laughing, and then feeling uncomfortable because you laughed. And then a moment later, while laughing, something truly touching or disturbing sideswipes you and you stop laughing.

Sometimes much like life itself.

One of the fascinating factors of this script is in its premise: the story of our racial and ethnic divide as told through one neighborhood – and more specifically – one single household, fifty years apart. In the end, we discover that not much may have changed over the time span except the way we talk about race. In the 1950s we were all a bit more plain-spoken in our stance, whereas today our language has become nuanced, coded and even deceptive. In either case, there are people doing hateful things in the name of love for family, protection and preservation.

In light of modern-day events, such as racial profiling, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the politically charged discussions by and about anti-Muslim leaders over immigration and refugees…..well, I think Yellow Tree picked the perfect time to produce this play, and to let us all take a good look in the mirror.

Last week I did a segment on Minnesota Public Radio’s Art Hounds podcast to promote this production, because, between the script and the expectations I have of the theater and the artists involved, I anticipate it being something not to be missed.

And speaking of hateful things, Justice Antonin Scalia died this weekend, and Marco Rubio ended a debate by going back to the “marriage is between one man and one woman” remarks. I know I don’t talk politics here, so I’ll keep it brief. But somehow, in light of this play that I’ve had on my mind, and these things in the news, and sitting here looking at roses on Valentine’s Day – the confluences struck me. Whatever happened to “do unto others…” and “love they neighbor”? Why is there so much hate, anger, and distrust in our society?

What does it mean to be part of a community, or of a society, and what’s our individual responsibilities to that? 

These are the things that Clybourne Park (and this week’s news) make me think about.

Love thy neighbor……Happy Valentine’s Day.

 

 

Make Theatre. Not Speeches.

There’s a practice by some theatres to incorporate a curtain speech into every performance. These are usually done by a volunteer board member or company member, and generally is a “welcome to the show….we’re glad to have you here..etc.” and sometimes includes a pitch for season tickets or donations.

Blah!

I hate these speeches. I know hate is a strong word, but it’s appropriate here. I hate these speeches because they take me out of the moment and out of the experience of theatre-going. They ruin the moment. They do NOT add to the production.

I believe that experiencing a play includes the venue—its setting and atmosphere. I appreciate pre-show music, and pre-show lighting on an exposed set, because they create a tone for the play that I’m about to experience. To have all that interrupted, albeit momentarily, for someone to “welcome” me and possibly try to sell me something, is really off-putting.

(I’ve barely become accustomed to the pre-recorded messages about turning off cell phones. I dislike those too.)

The other night I went to a show in a non-typical theater space. It was an intimate production with less than 100 seats. The pre-show music and lighting of the room (I say “room” because there was little differentiating from the “stage” and the “house) was perfectly used to place the audience in the right time period and setting. The intent was to put us right there in the middle of the action, and it worked.

Then the lights shifted, and someone came out and……started talking at us about how proud she was of this show and how important it was and how excited they all were that we were all  there and how if we wanted to support the company (because after all they couldn’t do it without us!) we could make a donation……blah blah….and “please enjoy the show” and off she walked.

Ugh. I was out of it. I was no longer in the room. I was down the street, around the corner, I was anywhere but the place that had been created.

And I thought to myself, “I hate curtain speeches.” And this time?

This time, after about a fifteen-second pause, the same woman walked right back on from whence she went and started the play.

Awful.

Awful!

To top it off, the play begins with this lead character on stage alone for several minutes. No dialogue. Naturalism. Simple. But I wasn’t interested because I just listened to her sales pitch. She’s already broken the believability for me.

I don’t know anyone who loves a curtain speech, but most people I know have a much higher tolerance for them than I do. Call me a purist. I believe in the power of theatre. I believe it’s the greatest of the art forms that can speak to its audience in the most detailed way and reach greater depths.

I wish producers would stop ruining it with curtain speeches. Put it in my program. Let me read it instead. In fact, show me some great work and THEN prompt me to take action to make a donation when I read it in the program….the program I’ll review again after the show when it’s been a great experience.

Then? Then you’ll get my donation money.

All Artists Matter

You may have heard or read about the brouhaha that’s arisen around a small, amateur theatre group down in Rochester (MN) that put out a call for play submissions for their short play festival. The posting (you can read it here) indicated clearly that they are an amateur group, with youth performers, limited budget requiring little or no set, and with no monetary compensation. They emphasized that their aim was, in part, “to give writers and [the amateur] directors first-hand experience of the vagaries of ‘marketability’ as much as the more arcane goals of ‘art.’” and they “will strive to make each play both understandable and interesting to [their] audiences.”

I find nothing disturbing about this premise (other than the bar may not be very hight) and, in fact, am heartened to see an organization (in a place not known for its arts, but instead its sciences) to be working with young people on a creative endeavor. Working with youth in a manner such as this can be rewarding and productive and a great development tool for the kids on many levels.

But…the professional responses and criticisms of this posting (which has been blogged about most prominently here) are right to be bothered.

What’s wrong with Words Players Theatre’s approach is that it’s disrespectful and dismissive of the writer’s work, and is about as far from a lesson in the creation of theatre or in directing (or acting for that matter) as one can get.

Take for instance these portions of the post:

“While authors are welcome to confer with the directors, such conference is at the discretion of each director.  Student directors will develop their autonomous interpretation and will maintain independent control of each production.” This makes a little sense, and is generally a fair description of the way a play’s production sometimes works. But it’s immediately followed by this statement:

“They will in all probability modify settings and dialogue to fit our production situation and their own visions of the shows.  Directors will, in particular, strive to make each play ‘entertaining’ to our audiences and may modify the scripts, accordingly.”

Um…I’m sorry…you’re going to rewrite the play to fit not only your ideas (“visions”) but also the resources at your disposal (“production situation”)  and then decide how to alter it to make it “entertaining”?! That’s not a director’s job. The great challenge in directing is finding the truths and core of script and its story, and finding ways to bring that to light through the production for the benefit of an audience. The great challenge—and reward—of making theatre is the collaboration!

Another portion of the call for scripts reads:

“We largely ignore considerations of age, race and gender in our casting decisions.” Well…ok…fair enough, I guess, given you’re a youth group. Plus, color-blind and gender-blind casting are often done, without detriment to the script or production. But you follow it up with,  “We may modify scripts, as necessary, in light of this consideration.” What’s this word you use, “modify”? Are you altering all characters to be between ages 12 and 17?

And their name is Words Players Theatre….oh, I’m not even going to touch that one.

Now some, with an eye toward leniency, have defended the actions of the “Words” Players Theatre, and offers the viewpoint that there’s a difference between a professional production or company and the work of this youth-oriented, education, workshop, production. I think that’s a fair assessment—yes there’s an important difference and there perhaps should be different standards— but this leaves out the education part as it relates to working with writers, or respecting the work of others, or of collaboration. So, I guess, perhaps not a fair assessment after all.

This “Words” Players’ posting eventually caught the attention of the Dramatist Guild, whose president, Doug Wright, wrote a sharply worded, public letter.  The leader of the theatre, Daved Driscoll, responded in a lengthy diatribe, attempting to defend himself and his organization’s intent.  He explained in great detail the route they’ve traveled to get to this point, how it’s primarily an educational endeavor, and that’s it’s developed organically from when the kids wrote the plays too, and worked with kid directors, etc., in putting on these small productions.

That sounds great! It’s collaborative and the writer is directly involved. Why not do that some more? If you’d kept to that format, no one would raise an eyebrow.

Of course, in the letter I’m a bit put off by the tone of  “gee, we’re just a little group down here where we weren’t trying to hurt anyone and we’re being honest about it all” attitude, until by around page 4 or 5 when he moves on to truly defending his guidelines.

And truthfully—he has a point in his defense. He lays out in the submission guidelines the expectations with transparency, and makes the point that if a writer were to submit something having read the guidelines there’s an implicit agreement to those guidelines.

The fact that the guidelines are ridiculous and insulting to writers is beside the point, to him anyway.

Near the end of the letter to Wright, Driscoll states,  “I will assure you, beyond the slightest fear of contradiction, that ten minutes conversation with any of the young people under my tutelage would demonstrate to you their profound respect, their deep abiding reverence for texts, for words, for the process of creating new art and for those who do so.”

The fact that the experience these young people likely have had would’ve included ignoring elements of the scripts, changing dialogue, and rewriting a playwright’s story, leads me to believe that the respect for words which they may demonstrate, if in fact they’ve developed any at all, would be due to a misdirected reverence for their own creativity. It would certainly not be reverence for writers, or for the collaborative and unique endeavor of making theatre.

But Mr. Driscoll, I’ll give you that last phrase about their reverence for “creating new art” since that’s just what they might be doing—even if on the backs of another writer.

The Quick Pace of Time

The last few months flew by and my schedule was unbelievably hectic. This is why it would be so nice to not have a day-job when rehearsing a show. I likely had the easiest job on the production, and miraculously could turn it off at night (as opposed to taking a couple hours to wind down after a rehearsal), and yet still there was no extra time or spare brain space. We opened over a week ago and I’ve perhaps just now caught up with myself.

A few of the things I wish I had written about here include:

  • I love watching actors work
  • I’m constantly amazed at the limber imagination of some artists
  • Directing a play is sometimes like making a clay sculpture – push a little here, pull a bit there, and see what you have.

All that work is being followed by a relatively short run. It’ll all be over before we even realize it.