A Not So Bad Audition

The other day I auditioned for some independent film, at an old warehouse or factory building in northeast. Northeast Minneapolis, that is. Or also known as Nordeast. After living here for 20+ years I’ve finally started to find my way around that part of the city, and I don’t get lost up there nearly as much as I once did. I’m not directionally challenged in most of the world, except for a small area of Minneapolis on the other side of the river.

It was sort of an audition. More like an audition/interview. There was no camera recording me, even though this was a film audition, and strangely, think I was the most calm and confident person in the tiny studio. The writer/director seemed nervous and not sure how to go about any of this. The other person (whose position wasn’t made clear to me) was more confident, and tried to act like she knew what she was doing, even though she clearly questioned herself.

Not unlike a set of red lips along a highway

All this was fine with me—I don’t mind when others are nervous. In fact, I often wish everyone else were nervous most of the time and not me.

What would life be like then? Perhaps discomforting.

But I digress. I didn’t end up getting it.

So what does all this have to do with this picture?

Nothing really.

Except that on this beautiful afternoon when I went on this audition and as I was walking back to my car I noticed how prominent the General Mills building was on the skyline in that part of the city. In some weird way it made me think of the Magikist sign off the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago, which is sadly no longer there. (The sign, I mean, not the expressway. Or Chicago.) And it didn’t remind of that because a set of big lips are like tall white mills but because it seems so brazen, so distinct against the back drop. You drive past it every day, see it all the time, and don’t really acknowledge its presence.

I stopped a moment at my car as I tossed my stuff in to the back seat and I thought, “Well, I don’t think I’m what they’re looking for, but it’s a lovely day and it wasn’t a bad audition and I’ve met some new people, so life’s not so bad. And hey—that’s kind of a cool view!”

So I took a picture.

General Mills. “Life’s not so bad.”

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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!

Art and Music under the City Sky

Opera isn’t really something, as they say these days, in my wheelhouse. While I love the music, I find the singing and performance styles to be too over-the-top for me. Drawing out a moment so extensively loses…I don’t know…perhaps the genuineness of the moment. I’ve written before how my tastes run toward realism and naturalism, and I appreciate expressionism….but that’s not opera.

Back in college in I was in a production of Cyrano de Bergerac (not an opera) and the most memorable piece of direction we were given was delivered in a loud, excited exclamation: “It’s a f***ing opera!”

But I digress.

Along the banks of the Mississippi River, on the edge of downtown Minneapolis, is a partially destroyed flour mill – destroyed from a massive fire. There’s now a roofless courtyard surrounded by partial century-plus old walls.

Turns out it can be beautifully transformed into an open air theater.

And in this case, Pagliacci.

It’s a f***ing opera.

This is where I was the other night, under the setting sun, feeling the breeze. It was a beautiful night and a number of things, some unexpected, made for some surprising magic and art.

The setting sun during the first act – perhaps the longest light cue I’ve seen.

The beauty of the lighting during the second act, illuminating the performance and musicians and crumbling walls, with darkness and twinkling city lights beyond.

The passersby along the river who would stop and look in our direction, hearing the the music and singers. Wondering.

The wind that accompanied the prima donna’s aria, and the way it made her skirt flow in the breeze.

The timing of the bicyclists as they sped down River Road during the orchestra strings’ momento di agitato. Countered by the tug boat going down river accompanying an adagio moment.

The people who peaked in on the performance from the upstage gate, and the two children who sat on the ground there, watching the final pieces.

As soon as curtain call ended, and the houselights rose, a helicopter flew overheard, returning us to the city.

By the end, I found myself quite moved. And inspired.

I want to create a whole site-specific, theatrical piece, where all the elements – the sunlight (via the time of day,) the weather, the smells, sounds and the seemingly random (completely and effectively) planned interjection from people on the streets, cars, overheard planes, perhaps flocks of birds…..

…all those elements come together to create a whole world, a whole experience, to tell a story.

Sounds like film. Or smellovision.

I want it live.

Moonlight Watercolor

Midnight, July 1, 2012.

The other night we had a garden dinner party, and I took a bunch of pictures. I like this photo from the end of the night.

It’s completely untouched, it’s slightly out of focus due to the long-shutter required, and the ISO factor is working as hard as it can. I don’t think it’s necessarily high quality.

I like it because it looks like a painting.

See the moonlight playing on the clouds, up behind that tree? I think it looks like a watercolor painting.

A Chilly Night at the Theater

As Samuel Pepys often said, “To the theatre….” and that’s where I was last night. And I have to write about it here so as to catalogue it, in its way, in a Pepys way, I guess, for the tremendous experience it was.

First a little self-disclosure: I’m going to gush about an actor, and I should make it known that I’ve seen his work for years and have loved it, and have had the pleasure of working with him—in fact, his work on my show was what made my work so good—and I like to call him a friend. So, I’m biased.

I’m also opinionated about things, so I hope in the end I’m being fair.

Also, I’d like to say, this isn’t a review. I just want to write about my experience.

So….”To the theatre….” I went last night. A Tuesday. It was pay-what-you-can night, a night usually attended by theatre-folk, and there were plenty in the house. There were plenty of civilians too. The place was absolutely packed.

Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty is about the first female actresses in England (Margarat “Peg” Hughes and Nell Gwyn, the King’s girlfriend) and one of the last actors who was known for playing the women’s parts, Edward Kynaston. Walking Shadow’s production was just as I expected from the talented team that runs it and the talented people they have work for them on stage and off. The show was entertaining, enlightening, touching, funny, tragic and uplifting all while being beautiful to look at.

Yes, I’d say that’s about right.

So to keep from being a review, let me move on to what it was that struck me so powerfully last night.

There’s a moment in the play when Kynaston, whose career has been ended by the decree that women must play women’s parts, is auditioning for a theatre to play a man’s role. He begins a monologue, gets a few lines in and stops.

He starts over. He gets a few lines in, a bit further, and he stops.

His body, his mind, his voice…all the tools he’s used for years as an actor are suddenly betraying him. He finds his hands and arms making soft, woman-like gestures. He struggles with it, tries to control it. It controls him. It’s as if he suddenly doesn’t know how to act, and it’s the only thing he’s really ever known. He becomes lost.

The thing is, Wade Vaughn‘s work has always been incredible. He’s an extremely smart, hard-working and thorough actor. I’ve worked with few people who have his steadfast determination to find the truth. And Wade as Kynaston may be the best I’ve seen him. Watching that scene, I was enraptured by this man Kynaston, and because it’s how I watch actors act, I was even more enthralled by Wade. The depth, detail and wholeness with which he was working, his powerful focus, the layers of character that were coming to the forefront at that moment, were astounding.

I literally got chills watching him. It was that good.

Now…was it really that good? Was I just being pulled in to the play and the story and the characters? (I mean, after all it’s a play about theatre people, I’m bound to be interested.) Was I just proud and happy to see friends doing such good work, and Wade in particular?

Maybe.

Does it matter?

No.

It was effective. It worked. I felt deeply sorry for this character, who frankly otherwise had been, at times, an arrogant bully. But we felt for his human side, his pain, his struggle. In him we saw a moment that could be for any of us: If suddenly I discover that how I define myself can no longer exist, what happens to me? Who am I? What do I then do?

If finding layers of questions—more questions than answers, in a moment created by an actor on stage such as this—if that doesn’t make for good theatre, for good acting….then I don’t know what can. So I feel confident I wasn’t just in the right mood at the right time in the right place to be impressed. That was some amazing work.

I have some favorite moments I’ve experienced watching plays. I think that moment of Kynaston looking at his hands with wonder, fear and pain, will stick with me a long time.

Congratulations on the lovely work.

Compleat Female Stage Beauty continues at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage thru June 2.