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.

Starting an Adventure

Starting rehearsals for a new show is always an exciting time. Working on a play brings people together in a unique way, in an intense work period, for a very short time. The other night the cast and production team gathered in a large room for a read-thru of the play. Up on a white board was written the show’s name, production dates and some other details.

One person pointed out, “Hey! We better get started. We close in exactly two months!”

He was right and I was surprised. Two months is nothing, and it feels like we have all the time in the world. Of course, this play was cast over eight months ago, and there have been a number of production meetings and marketing plans implemented, so it’s just the heart of it that will be a two-month adventure.

And that’s the exciting part. This is a smart, farcical, romantic comedy and I think we’re all excited by the great cast. There were plenty of laughs in that room, and one or two tough-not-to-break moments were already identified. I’m thrilled to be working the volume and levels of talent there too.

I’m sure a few weeks from now I’ll still think it’s hilarious and yet never even laugh. It’s a weird phenomenon that happens the closer you get to material, whether it’s comedy or drama—you can still be moved but not really express it.

What I’m not as clear about yet is what I’m doing for the next 4+ weeks of rehearsal.

For this production I’m the Assistant Director, a position I haven’t officially done in a while and one which can vary from director to director. I’m really there as a second set of eyes and ears, and I’m there to do whatever the director needs doing. I just don’t know what that is yet.

I’ve worked on shows as an actor where the A.D. was highly involved, occasionally working scenes in a room separate from the main rehearsal, and ones where this person was fairly invisible and never seemed to say or do anything. I’ve been the assistant to a few directors in the past where I was having conversations with him or her during rehearsals, acting as a sounding board and offering requested advice, or where I’ve taken notes in rehearsals only to share them afterwards.

We begin full rehearsals this week. I’m not a novice to the environment, but this time I have no idea of what I’m going to do.

Since this is a production of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, I guess being ready for “an adventure” is right on target.

Life’s Too Short for Disappointments

Recently a colleague and friend made a public announcement that he was quitting the theatre. It came as a surprise to hear, partly because people rarely make such an announcement, and instead they simply drift away until one day someone says, “What ever happened to Joe?”

It was also surprising because Joe (as I’ll call him in this case) seems to work fairly often, had expanded in to directing, and is well respected for his talent, hard work and likable personality, making him valuable in any project.

The reasons he talked about included things that felt rather painful, to him and to several others who read it. Primarily it was disappointment, frustration. I interpreted it as being that every time things seemed to be looking up, as if his star were rising (so to speak) it would suddenly stop. Momentum couldn’t be obtained, and/or there was a level he felt he couldn’t crack. Mostly, he stated, he had disappointed himself.

Sounds like broken dreams to me. But even more so since the point of blame seems to be inward. He said he disappointed himself. He didn’t use the word “fail” in any sense but that’s certainly what it sounded like he was describing. He failed, and it was his own fault.
actorquitsI found the post heartbreaking. On one selfish hand, it meant I would not likely ever work with or see him work again. (So now I’m disappointed.) On the other less-selfish hand, it makes me sad that the dream or goal he had set for himself was either unattainable or simply missed by his efforts.

Working in theatre is not something someone does for long unless they really want to do it – and he’d been at it for at least fifteen years. I find it sad that someone would want something like that, work so hard, and ultimately feel as if the only choice were to throw in the towel.

I had an acting teacher in college who used to tell us all that being an actor is one of the hardest choices, because the work is unsteady, unreliable, intermittent, and it’s a path full of rejection, most of which has nothing to do with the actor’s talent or passion. He would say we should allow ourselves to think about quitting once a year. Think long and hard, really wallow in it, get it out of our systems…..and then if we still wanted to do it we had to put those thoughts aside, don’t think about them, and get back to work.

I can relate to much of what Joe stated. If I took a hard look at myself and my career, and compare it to what I thought would be my path when I first started, I could only come to the conclusion that I too have missed the mark, that I’ve failed somehow. I’m not completely off—but it’s just different. And yet the truth is, goals and dreams change, and morph. I have certain expectations of myself and my work, and I’m disappointed when I don’t meet them. But if I had never changed my perception of what a theatre career could look and feel like, as I experienced actually working in it and thereby learning, then I too might have had to call it quits.

I don’t mean to sound critical or harsh towards Joe. I haven’t had an in depth conversation about this, so my analysis could all be wrong. Truthfully, if the work was not fulfilling, if the constant struggle was taking the joy out of it, then he’s right to move on. I hope for him what I hope for all my friends, whether they’re theatre artists or otherwise: That he find work and a calling that fulfills him, that brings out the best in him, and that satisfies him.

After all, we only get one life. No one should waste time being unhappy. .

When Theatre Doesn’t Measure Up

Nothing is more disappointing for me than going to see a play with high expectations and finding it weak, messy and poorly directed. Especially after hearing good things.

Makes me question all the “good things” I hear about many shows.

A recent experience was more than disappointing. I was on the verge of anger at the dragging and irrelevant plot, and was livid at the allowance by the director for one actor to play a caricature while most others were doing some downright Shepardesque realism, while he tossed in odd moments of expressionism.

Actually, those moments were about the only engaging thing in the performance.

And I guess I could give Mr. Director the credit for not making it boring.

Boring is the worst.

This was just….irrelevant. Ineffective.

It was also taking up the space and time in a theater that something better, more artful, more meaningful could have occupied. And that’s just a shame.

Life is short. Don’t waste it at a bad play.