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.

Butts in Seats

backstage, opening night

It’s been an interesting and tough couple of weeks throwing this show together, but we’ve reached the finish line….or rather, the starting line.

Two nights ago we opened to a small, but warmly receptive, audience. The evening was replete with opening night fumbles from most of us, though nothing was likely noticed by the the audience. Not even the seemingly gaping hole filled only with the thoughts on stage of “why is no one speaking??”

And, even more, what the audience didn’t know was that when the SM got to the theater a few hours before call she discovered that all the light cues had disappeared from the board, and had to make an emergency call to the lighting designer (or his assistant) to come in and reprogram it all. Which she magically did.

I’m happy to say that last night didn’t have its often too typical second night slump, where the excitement and energy of an opening night can drop you like some crash after a sugar high. No, our Saturday night show ran pretty well, we felt. No blunders (well, okay, I had one or two funky lines and one incorrect word which could have changed things in the plot entirely, but really it all worked in the end) and things ran smoothly and on time. What’s more, I’ve come to realize that there is some fine work being done in this show. The mystery script is well written and the actors have come together to play rather well with each other. I’m really starting to enjoy this little gem, and am looking forward to its run.

What didn’t work last night, on a beautiful autumn evening, was having an audience. The group gathered in the house was smaller on this second night than on the first. Very small. This was rather disappointing. Felt a bit like a let down.

There are several problems with having a small audience, but I think that the main one is that everyone is aware of it. Everyone on stage and in the house. An audience member in this situation may not feel compelled to laugh or respond when it will easily make him or her noticed (though thankfully last night’s group did!) and that may be complicated by a feeling of being relied upon to laugh or respond. Okay…so now they aren’t relaxed and enjoying the show but are instead feeling their own pressure to perform. (Although I do think the folks last night did enjoy it…so my hypothesis may be totally off.)

Meanwhile, up on stage, actors are keenly aware of the few people (especially if they’re known to all or most of the cast) and perhaps feeling their lack of relaxation, and it all combines to give the whole thing a strange kind of air. It’s almost, but not quite, that of yet another dress rehearsal, and leaves us wondering when  the audiences arrive. This isn’t to say that the actors weren’t working as hard as they would’ve otherwise. That’s certainly not the case here. But in the end, it’s not quite the same experience as playing to fuller house made up of strangers.

What’s more, though, is that if this were a show where I was uncertain in my own work or questioned the quality of the acting, I might be less bothered by the small houses (or no reviewer to my knowledge, but that’s another story) but in this case, as I said to one my cast mates after the show, I think there’s some good work being done here and I hope people will witness it.

As for a reviewer…well, that might help put butts in seats, and that’s the only thing this production is currently lacking.

I’ll be there again today, at 4 pm, where I expect to take the experience of the last two performances and combine it with the knowledge learned from rehearsal, and hopefully forget all of it as the lights come up, and continue growing and polishing my work and my connection with my fellow actors. As I’ll do throughout the run.

If anyone cares to join me, Dial M for Murder is playing at the Gremlin Theater through November 19.

10 Things about 2010

  1. I completed my full-length play, which lives in limbo waiting for its knight on a white horse of a production.
  2. I work-shopped and staged a challenging script with a committed and fun group of actors. Ari Hoptman is the funniest man I know and almost made me piss my pants in rehearsal. fyi – The script was a drama.

    self-portrait, silhouette on rocks, north shore, fall 2010

  3. I jumped in to the fray of commercial and industrial work (again) and met and worked with awesome people.
  4. I dipped my toe in the pond of Twin Cities independent film, and had some of the most fun acting experiences I’ve had in a long time while shooting a film. I look forward to seeing the results this coming Spring.
  5. I started reading more blogs, finding new ways to write, just for kicks and exercise.
  6. I exercised my creativity while helping design our remodel and construction project, and I now have a comfortable, cozy home. (Side note: in 2011 I need to find that right piece of art to hang over the new fireplace.)
  7. I witnessed a number of spectacular productions, including Unspeakable Things at Sandbox (extremely creative,) The Homecoming at Gremlin (extremely polished acting and directing,) two Minnesota Fringe Festival production: Standing Long Jump (a beautiful new script) and Missing (a beautiful real, one-person show,) and saw some astonishing work in the Tony Award winning August: Osage County.
  8. I took part again in one of the best theatre experiences possible, with Chicago Avenue Project.
  9. I enjoyed my photography hobby, taking over a thousand pictures throughout the year and shared a few here.
  10. I failed to expand my horizons, having only completed 1 of the 5 items I listed on that 2010 Resolutions…or What I’ve told myself back in January. The only thing I accomplished was #2 which didn’t even get me out of the house. Maybe I’ll blame it on having spent so much time, energy and money on making the new house this year. Yeah, that’s it.
Happy New Year!

Pinter: Beautiful and Creepy

Last night I went to see a production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, a play that I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure…if that’s the right word…the pleasure of seeing on stage before. Rarely have I seen a play where the first thing I wanted to do was go home and take a shower.

Ew. Ew. Ew.

And I mean this in a good way.

What an incredibly twisted family, in their own little twisted world. It’s no wonder that Pinter isn’t done more often—he’s incredibly hard to do well. This production was very well done. Hence…”Ew.”

I so enjoyed watching actors doing scenes with dialogue that echoed with its own depth and nuance. These weren’t just actors expressing lines or characters saying things. These characters move into the moment with their words, and the scenes bounce with a volley not often experienced in lesser writers’ works.

The direction was purposeful, and clean, and thorough. The cast was solid.

Every….pause….filled.

It was one of those shows where I kept watching the people who were not speaking, who were not part of the main action, because the performances were so fully realized in such detail.

One moment, however, stood out to me and it wasn’t scripted. Charlie (Charles) Hubbell is a well respected, very talented actor. He was also the ew factor. His portrayal of Lenny was, as one of my acting teachers used to put it, “lovely.” There was a detail to every move, every line, every sigh, every single moment. His monologue to his older brother extolling all the virtues of living such a high life in America was hilarious and beautifully played. But it was the actor’s unexpected stage business that has made me a fan.

At one point in the first act, as someone put something on or took something off a standing coat tree, a hat fell to the floor. Charlie did what any decent actor would do and didn’t ignore it; he acknowledged it and picked it up and put it back on the tree. But it was the way he did. He didn’t simply lean over and get it, he did the entire thing in character, but not just in character but with the same complexity of the moment that permeates this script and this production. There was meaning in the way he hung it up. It revealed to us his character, it revealed to us how he likes his home to be and it revealed how he felt about the person to whom the hat belonged.

It was a stunning and brilliant moment. It was an example of what truly fine acting can and should be.

And as for the “ew” factor, well. If you know the play then you should know that the creepy, twisted family dynamics were fully explored and presented. If you don’t know the play, well then, I’ll just say that the weird uncle or loner down the street or any strange man who gives off a strange vibe, every one of them has a family.

Ew.