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.

Advertisements

What a World

Over the weekend I went to see a show…a show like, well, frankly none other that I’ve seen.

It wasn’t a traditional theater venue, instead, it was in a fairly empty, downtown mall that hasn’t been a hive of activity for about fifteen years. Furthermore this popup theater didn’t have a typical stage or seats. The audience wandered about as the action happened around us. Plus, the plot was nowhere near linear, and I’m fairly certain that only a portion was scripted, and that much of what we saw and experienced was improvised.

20131110_151007The whole thing felt more like a happening. Some sort of art happening.

We were encouraged to take pictures with our phones and upload them during the show. We meandered from place to place and took part in the work of this art studio by posing for photos, painting pictures, dancing, singing songs, writing thoughts, feelings or stories on a large wall. There was a live feed video and a small stage where music was being played. There was a grand piano. In one feng-shui dead corner there was a badminton court, and a couple audience members played that for a while.

There was also a large display of hundreds of cans of Squirt, which were handed out to those in attendance.

Squirt. I supposed it’s today’s Campbell soup.

This show’s been running for a couple weeks, so the graffiti wall to which I contributed is getting full.


In this menagerie of characters, there was a central, powerful figure who hardly appeared. He was the prominent artist and seemingly the leader of this group of ragtag protégés. There was infighting and jealousy. There was a visit by a songstress whom everyone knew and revered.

I’m not wholly sure I understood it all or even tracked all the story lines. And I think that’s ok. That’s what happens in life around us all the time.

I was intrigued, and drawn in. I wanted to know more about these people and their history. And I was moved.

At the heart of it all, it was about creation and expression. Not results or even quality or wealth and prosperity. It was about sharing stories, thoughts and feelings with others. Connecting with other people.

Experiencing life.

At a climactic moment of revelation (which I’ll hold off on saying in detail, as it plays through next weekend) I felt a rush of clarity.

Make something.

Do something.

Create something.

Anything.

Maybe it’s my current status of being between projects that spoke to me. Maybe it’s a response to a recent online debate in which I’ve taken part.

But maybe it’s the constant drive I hear within myself, quieter at times than others, and sometimes it shouts.

What world do you want to live in? Figure it out. Because it’s yours to create.

This is a World to Live In from Sandbox Theatre continues for three more performances.

The Nominees are….No One. Or, Everyone. Appropriately

Once a year for the last nine years my theatre community has gathered downtown to honor and celebrate the previous season of theatre in this town. It’s an awards show like few others. While there are all the trappings of what might be expected—fancy red carpet, lots of photographers, flashing lights, gawkers driving by on the main strip downtown, and loads of people (who typically see each other in jeans, t-shirts and occasionally underwear) are all dressed up with high heals, long gowns, sexy gowns, jackets and ties. (And sometimes several of these items at once.)

iveys2013But what makes the Iveys really different is that no one is a nominee. Unlike other awards shows where there a people nominated for awards, the pre-awards buzz for this event is not about any single individual or production, it’s about all productions. There aren’t a handful of nominees walking the door and chatting up their colleagues or getting their picture taken – instead nearly everyone in the crowd is a potential winner.

This awards program has neither nominees nor categories (save for two – Emerging Artist and Lifetime Achievement.) And the possibilities are widespread. Awards can be given to individuals (actor, director, designer, playwright), entire casts, collaborators or a company for a production. The number of awards and the breakdown of categories is never the same from year to year.

This year a good friend of mine, Craig Johnson, won for his performance as Oscar Wilde in Gross Indecency, a production I was fortunate to have been a part of. I’ve worked with him on many productions over the years and feel I know his work very well.  This was a big production—it’s a long, wordy script, and it’s not Oscar Wilde at his wittiest, finest self. It’s more complicated, more layered, than that. And it was very much an ensemble piece, albeit one whose success would hinge strongly on the man at the center of it all. It was a successful show, well received by audiences and certainly a highlight of the year for everyone involved. As for Craig, our fearless leader, I’m familiar with how hard he worked on this show, and with how his work turned out. I saw it in his eyes every night in our scenes. His winning was a highlight of the evening for a lot of people.

My big takeaway from the evening were several of the other winners. They were individuals and companies whose work I either didn’t know, didn’t see or….in one instance didn’t even know about. (Eek! How did that happen?) I feel like I know what’s happening on stages across the city, I feel like I see a lot of shows and read about and follow many more, and I know and talk to theatre artists all the time. Of course, sometimes I too am working, and I’m only human and can’t see everything. Still, this year this element of “i don’t know that person” felt stronger than in the past. (The after party only solidified it. Or maybe my cohorts are just getting older and leaving earlier.)

Then there was this great presentation in the middle of the show about the vast number of playwrights in this city, along with the vast number of original scripts produced by a wide variety of companies. Original scripts are the heart and blood flow of the theatre. All presented, appropriately, by the head of the Playwrights Center, the nationally recognized vital writing institute.

So what does all this tell me?

It tells me that the Twin Cities theatre scene has grown. A Lot. Not only has the number of actors, directors, designers and writers increased dramatically over the years, so has, I think, the quality. The breadth, depth and caliber of talent amazes me.

This is the thought I landed on ultimately…..this town is chock full of talent. Amazing, strong, varied and eager talent.

I’m proud to be a part of this community. I can’t wait to see what happens in the coming year. And I can’t imagine living anywhere else right now.

Wandering the Camino

Tennessee Williams is, as everyone knows, one of America’s greatest playwrights, and I can’t imagine anyone arguing otherwise. One of his lesser known, or at least lesser-produced, plays is Camino Real, an enigmatic, poetic, dreamscape that eludes most elements of plot, place, time and character relationships. Some say this piece is known mostly for its bad productions. (It ran a scant 60 performances on Broadway.)

courtesy Girl Friday Productions

When I first read this play I wondered how it could be staged, how someone could make it work for an audience. It’s a piece that relies on a strong director’s concept. William’s Glass Menagerie is known as a “dream play” but this one….this is a fretful, fever-induced, tossing-and-turning, disturbing dream-filled kind of night. It’s replete with varied and international characters (including several literary and social icons—Kilroy, Don Quixote, Casanova, as well as deathly street sweepers) and with bits of different romance languages and dialects thrown in and multiple sub-plots and themes, all taking place in an unidentified country. (Unidentified for Kilroy especially, who isn’t sure at all where he’s come ashore, and no one will tell him.)

My initial take on the script was that it was a piece which would be extremely difficult to produce and could be extremely risky for a producer. It’s complex. It may not be readily accessible to an audience. It might just be Wiliams’ most challenging play, requiring strong skills to wrangle it into a presentable vision. However, with the richness of the language and the delicious complexity of the people who inhabit this world, with the right talents it could provide a big pay off.

In other words, if you can make it work it could be amazing.

After all, art is hard. (Or at least the song says “art isn’t easy.”) If it were easy it wouldn’t be worth it.

Girl Friday Productions has taken on the daunting task of staging this work. This play is so different from Williams’ other works, and I suspect that the fact that I knew this going in allowed me to be open to simply experiencing the performance. Because I knew that the plot wasn’t linear and the characters were representative, I didn’t spend energy trying to figure out where we were, who was who or what those relationships were. And it’s not that I knew the answers to that so much as I thereby allowed myself to just listen and watch.

I let it roll over me.

I found the whole thing fascinating.

It helped, of course, that the director is a strong visionary, and I think it helped even more that he gathered an extraordinary cast of talented actors. Together they created a world that was intriguing and engaging (and frankly, kind of f***ed up) from beginning to end.

One big take away for me was a desire to learn more about Tennessee Williams’ personal life. Other than its clear theme of being lost, this play has prominent motifs of loneliness, betrayal, desperation and longing. There’s a real sadness that pervades these lives, albeit with brief poignant and touching moments of hope and connection.

It makes me think he wrote it from a sad and lonely place, and that this is (was) the way he felt the world worked when it came to satisfaction, whether that was satisfaction in love or satisfaction with one’s own self or one’s own accomplishments.

I could, of course, be completely off with that. I’ve heard he wrote it while holed up in some small Mexican or Central American town, where he got rather sick. Hence the fever dream quality. Still, it’s what I took away from this experience and whether that’s what Tennessee wanted or not, or even this director or cast, it’s what I got. The beautiful thing about art is in its subjectivity.

This show taught me once again that the power of theatre lies in the truth, earnestness and details of the work put up there by the directors, actors and designers. All done here with a ferocious manner by each member of the cast and team.

And such honesty creates intrigue, and such engagement creates a special night with strangers, in the dark, at a theater. It was a bizarre, fascinating and engaging walk down that road.

This rare opportunity continues through July 27 at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage.

Halsted and University

There’s something about a small, urban storefront converted into a theater that I love. Maybe it’s just my Chicago origins where storefront theater spaces abound and where I first experienced professional theatre as a professional wannabe. That city has a slew of them, so many in fact that they’ve at times become their own marketing tool and arts category.

As a young man studying acting I remember numerous trips to Steppenwolf in their old little storefront space at 2851 N. Halsted. Sadly today that spot is some modern building housing something called Golf Tec, an indoor golf lesson business or some such thing. To some people those are hallowed grounds for the pioneering work done by that company in the 1980s, and I cringe at the thought of a modern building filled with plaid pants and cleats taking up that space. Also I’m not much of a golf fan, but still – I’m sure you see my point.

2851 N Halsted, post Steppenwolf, pre-demolition. (Courtesy of PerformInk.)

I remember walking in to that theater for the first time and was surprised at how….small it was. There was hardly any lobby to speak of, the box office was a tiny corner, the ceiling was low and the place felt cramped. On another visit I recall walking in and not noticing any of those those elements because it now felt comfortable to me, but I immediately noticed the Tony Award proudly and simply displayed in a small glass case in one corner.

The theater space itself was a shallow stage, with a low ceiling. There was no room to fly anything in and if there were ever any wings it was only due to scenic design and perhaps by hanging black curtains. It wasn’t the fanciest place or the largest, but that’s not what that company is or ever has been about—it was about the work, the plays, the acting, the art of theatre. And I saw many a magic and beautiful moment on that stage, up close and personal.

After Steppenwolf built their current home, others moved in and the storefront continued to be a theater, but in 2004 it was demolished.

I’m thinking about all that now because last night after my show I was having drinks with some friends and learned about this article: Gremlin Theatre looking for a new home.

2400 University, Moon over Gremlin, November 2011

2400 University, Moon over Gremlin, November 2011

That is the theater where I’m currently doing a play. It’s a small, intimate, store-front space in an old building on University Avenue in St. Paul. The company moved in there only about five years ago, and has put a lot of sweat equity into it, as it wasn’t a performance venue prior to them. In addition to their own productions, they lease the space out to other, nomadic, groups.

It has a small lobby, the box office is an old bar in one corner, there’s no fly space, no wings, the ceiling is low, the stage itself is shallow and there are about seven rows of tiered seating.

Storefront spaces like this aren’t as common in the Twin Cities as they are in Chicago but few have reminded me as much of 2851 N. Halsted as 2400 University.

Gremlin, and the other theatres that have used its space, are gritty groups. Gremlin’s own mission includes “Gremlin Theatre seeks to… [perpetuate] the idea of theatre as a relevant, entertaining, and socially valuable activity for the audience and the artist.” An intimate space like this is just what that mission needs.

There’s something about how a storefront space is accessible and pedestrian friendly, and how a theater in such a place makes it feel like an integral part of our community, that it enhances the experience as both an audience member and as an actor. There’s no stage door for separate entrances by company members, it’s not in a big building with other businesses with which to compete or have to accommodate, and yet there’s a nice big window in front that thousands of cars drive by and pedestrians walk past and they can see that the arts are present and active and essential to our local culture.

It’s intimate and immediate and there’s nothing like it to put an audience and actors in the same space. And in my heart and mind, we as theatre artists and we as a community need more of this, not less.

2400 University closes as a such a space this coming August, and the owners will renovate it into something else entirely. I sincerely hope Gremlin finds a new home just as special.

Working and Invisible

Should effort equal outcome? Sometimes I wonder about that. It’s not like I want anything easy, and really anything worth anything shouldn’t be easy. The harder we work, the more we value something. And if that’s the case, then October was a gold mine.

Ghostly shadows from “And Things in the Walls”

It all started with a mad dash to produce and direct a show. I went from having almost nothing on my plate to possibly too much, although truthfully when “the day-job is getting in the way” I am usually rather happy with the state of affairs at that moment. I gathered a talented cast, found a space, arranged for costumes, set pieces, rehearsed and ran from sun up to sun down and then some.

If you’ve read my creed or know me or have worked with me it would come as no surprise that I would never want to put out bad or weak or lackluster work. (Perhaps this blog aside.) I’d cancel a production (if possible) before showing crap. I guess plan B would be what a friend told me today—direct under a pseudonym.

“Me? No, that wasn’t me! I was out of town during that show. Never even heard of it. Was it really that bad?…..”

This, however, did not occur in October.

Despite the haphazard puzzle of rehearsals, working around five actors with busy schedules (not to mention my own conflicts,) hoping actors would memorize (much less embody) the dense and long material, somehow it all came together, and in the end was more than satisfying.

Here we were doing a show about…well, mostly madness, I’d say. In one portion of the show, an adaptation of “The Yellow Wallpaper”, we watch as a charming, smart woman slowly loses her marbles. I loved how the audience laughed, and then laughed a little less, and then watched in silence, fascinated by both the story and the actress’s delicate and detailed performance.

Nothing’s more satisfying as a director than sitting in the back of the theater and watching the audience watch the play.

Afterwards, one person told me, “You have a really good cast.”

“I know.”, I said.

“No. I mean your direction was good, but…..you have a really good cast.”

Didn’t see all my direction? All my adaptation? That’s ok. I wanted you to listen to and experience the stories, well told. If I’m invisible as the director then that’s fine by me.

A lot of work went in to perhaps too few performances, but that’s the nature of the form, and all that work was worth it.

What I’ve Learned at this Year’s Fringe

Today is the last day of the 2012 Minnesota Fringe Festival, and due to various reasons this is my least attended Fringe in several years. (I will not likely hit the dozen shows mark.) However, just like all other years I’ve learned something, but this time it might be more about myself than about art, performance or experimentation.

courtesy of Minnesota Fringe Festival

The ten shows I’ve seen thus far have been a bit of a mixed bag of things. Some were on my schedule because I felt obligated or had a personal connection to someone involved or to the show itself and I needed/wanted to find out how it evolved. Other shows were on my list because the topic intrigued me and I thought it would be interesting. And then there were the sure-fires, though few.

Part way through the week I realized my first truth about how I like my art:

I will put up with weak writing and good performance more than the opposite recipe. One of the shows was Ash Land, which had some good word of mouth, an interesting preview and it was getting a lot of buzz. The creators had done a few previous Fringes with some success, but I hadn’t seen them. I thought the show was beautiful, creative and intriguingly staged. The audience seemed exuberant in its reception. I was enthralled, and even jealous at times that someone had done some creative stuff on a topic I’ve been toyed with approaching.

Upon leaving I commented to my partner, “That was really good.” He didn’t share the opinion. He thought it was “good” but that it could’ve been so much better. After reviewing the audience reviews more closely, and talking with others whose opinions I trust (aka understand) I saw that there were really mixed reactions. I could see the weaknesses others pointed out, but somehow I over looked it because, I think, I enjoyed the approach they took to the work, the quality of the staging, and the performances of a couple of the people. (A few performances were significantly weaker.)  But all in all, I finally said, I guess I’ll value performance over writing.

These words would soon get modified.

A few days later I was watching a one-person story-telling piece by a writer/performer whom I’ve known for several years, but have seen little of his work. These stories were interesting, clever and even a bit funny at times. I’d love to read them, in fact. In a published form. But the performance was weak, clumsy and painful to watch. I wasn’t sure if the whole thing was memorized or not and there were several moments where I thought the whole thing had come crashing down.

So: ok writing but weak, amateurish performance and I wanted to slip out the back door. (Sadly, I couldn’t.) I considered the whole thing a waste of my time.

The lesson: I value performance over all else. The material can be crap or brilliant, but if the performance is weak I won’t care either way.

My favorite experience, if there can be a favorite, was probably Carol and Cotton. I was intrigued because it was a local, historical crime story. I’m a bit partial to stories of real people and have always been fascinated by things like crime, wondering what it is that can take a person to the extreme of humanity with something like murder. I was almost turned off by the promo video, which I felt was lacking in its enticement. But it had a strong cast and it’s a company with a good rep. And as the writer and director of a previous successful Fringe play about local history, I felt I should go. It was a strong, powerful production, with finessed details in the performances. Good writing and solid acting with effective staging. Like real theatre. This was exciting to me.

And, of my sure-fires, I wasn’t disappointed. The comedic talents of Nightmare Without Pants alone could have their own festival.

As I was thinking about my limited availability to see shows during this final weekend, and as I contemplated what I had seen I came to the conclusion that my time (and money) are worth something. I’m willing to take a risk, and I’m eager to see new works, new writers, new performers. But I’m not willing to waste my resources on mediocrity. I’m a more demanding audience member.

My top five take aways this year, thus far:

  • Fringe Festival is a performance festival. I want to see a good performance. I would think the performers (and directors) would want that too.
  • Any topic, no matter how mundane or pedestrian it might seem, can be turned in to an engaging and moving story with the right words, staging and treatment.
  • Dated material is ineffective, even if its subject matter is still relevant.
  • There is nothing more boring to me as an audience member than self-indulgence, and if it’s in the performance, writing and subject matter, all at once, then it can be deadly. It should be avoided at all costs.
  • Simplicity can be powerful, and anything in a script or production that doesn’t support the spine of the play in some way should be eliminated.

Actually, let me throw in one more lesson:

  • Never start a play with a group of guys sitting around on stage and have the first line be “What do you guys wanna do?” I think I sprained my eyes as they rolled.

In the end, these aren’t new truths I’ve realized for myself, and these aren’t things I’ve never said before here. It’s just that my experience over the past week have brought these once more to the fore-front of my critical mind.

I think I can catch one more show, in just a few hours, and I’m hoping this leaves the positive after-taste I need to sustain me until next summer.

Happy Fringing!