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.


Another Closing Night

Almost any theatre artist will tell you that closing nights can be bittersweet.

There’s a camaraderie amongst a cast and crew that grows quickly, and at times intensely, over the few months’ course of any given production. People come together to create this living, breathing piece of art which by its very nature is not permanent – which will have to disappear into memory. In this process they come to know each other intimately, rely on each other and, hopefully, trust each other. This is most true for those who are part of every performance, on stage and off, working with a live audience who may love it or hate it or both.

There’s nothing like performing live. There are no second takes in theatre, there’s only another chance the next night….until there isn’t. And you close.

Tonight is the closing night of my current show: Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.

It’s an ensemble piece in the truest sense. Nine actors creating over fifty characters. (The remnants of one of mine are seen here.)

The remnants of a character

There’s a beauty in this kind of group work, in this non-linear script, where energy is tossed or thrown or deftly handed from person to person. And in this show most of us are always on stage the entire time. I don’t think I’ve ever watched my cast mates more in any other production. I love watching actors work. I’ve loved watching these actors work.

This has been quite a memorable experience, challenging in its own unique way. There are so many new-to-me people and the cast is filled with actors I’ve come to admire—well, a few I already had admired and I’m very glad to have had this experience with them—but most of the them I didn’t know before this show.

Part of this cast is young—young enough to make me feel old, and I don’t think of myself as old. They’ve reaffirmed my hope for the future of theatre. They’re creative, talented, ambitious and hungry. They’re the reason the theatre has never died, despite the calls for its demise that appear every now and then.

Until I get another chance to do so, I’m going to miss working with all of them.

I’ve been fortunate to have been working on some project, whether as actor or director, since September, and do not have anything definite laid out in the future just yet. (That actually may change as I write this….) This too makes the closing a little bitter. Doing theatre is something that fills me like no other thing, and when I’m away from it from too long….well, I go a bit stir crazy. I doubt that will happen.

There’s only one take left, one more chance. Like every play I’ve done there are things I still strive to make more beautiful, more artful, more true. No two performances are ever the same, and tonight there’s another unique group of people who will come together to be the tenth actor in this performance: our audience. I hope they bring their A-game. I suspect we will.

Opening Night, and the Morning After

I haven’t written much lately – I’ve been a bit more than busy. My schedule has been full getting to another opening night, which occurred a little more than twelve hours ago. Here it is, Saturday morning, and I’m in a daze, unsure what to do with myself. I’ve got the day free, but am still reeling from last night’s performance and am anticipating tonight’s.

This play, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, is a big play. There are dozens of characters played by nine actors, using numerous actual sources to tell the story of Wilde’s love and trials. There are a lot of words. And a lot of interjections with little scenes and asides, often in seemingly non-sequiterian ways. Just memorizing lines became a challenge.

Theatre GarageLast night we opened to a huge crowd, who laughed at all the right places (and a few we didn’t know would be funny at all) and got very quiet, just the way the rehearsal room would, when we got to those other, more difficult and tender moments. The challenge of last night was to not let all the extra energy and stimulus in the Theatre Garage—a small, intimate space where almost every audience member can be looked at in the eye by every actor on stage—to not let it throw us off our game, not distract us, not put some new random thought in our head and take us off our the path of our previously discovered objective and strategy.

Add to that challenge that the construct of the play includes that our characters constantly talk to the audience. So it’s like getting a new scene partner after five weeks of rehearsal. Things are bound to get wobbly.

Thankfully, of course, nothing went awry. A few stumbled words here or there by a few people, but nothing really. This was immediately followed by some drinks and snacks and long conversations in the lobby. Somehow, strangely, almost the entire cast ended up back down in the green room with a few guests, chatting along before someone said “Why are we down here?!” (Anyone who has been in the green room of that theater would understand.)

And now here I sit. The morning after opening. It’s a bit like the first day after the semester when all that’s left is finals’ week. There’s a sense of relaxation, a sense of freedom of time, but there’s the continual presence of being ready to go back, muster the concentration and connection, and do it all over again with another new scene partner, made up of another hundred strangers, and see what happens this time around.

In the meantime, perhaps I’ll do some laundry and finish my taxes.

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.

How Peter Pan Changed My Life

Recently I came across a short video about pursuing work that makes one happy. It was  by a college professor who identified it as the kind of advice he’s provided to his students over the years. Its message was essentially “don’t worry about making money, instead do what you’re interested in doing and making money will find a way to happen.” While I don’t think that’s entirely true—that is there’s a need to find a way to make ends meet because that doesn’t happen by magic—it’s a bit of a philosophy which I’ve followed for many years.

When I was 16 I decided I wanted to be an actor and work in theatre because I enjoyed it. I had considered a number of fields, but only because I was a good student with good grades. I was expected to consider things like engineering or law. As I explained to my mother that this was my choice for my college major (a big discovery, by the way: “I can major in acting?!”) I told her how I had watched her and other adults go to jobs that they didn’t enjoy. I remember saying, “If I’m going to put that much time and energy in to something, I want it to be something I like doing.”

Many years later I still thoroughly enjoy it. Now, of course, I know the realities of working as a theatre artist and how that idyllic life I dreamed up when I was a kid is a far fetched reality. But I digress.

My discovery and love for live performance came in what I now see as an unlikely adventure, and were it not for a technical error I might be a financial broker today.

A few years before that fateful life choice, when I was in middle school I went on a field trip to see the Broadway touring production of Peter Pan, starring Sandy Duncan, which had come to Chicago. It was there in the Arie Crown Theater that my life changed.

This was a big, colorful happy musical and we were enjoying it as much as a bunch of kids could. I knew the story, for the most part, and I even knew that Sandy Duncan was a big famous person, so I knew this was something special. But then the moment came for Peter to fly for the first time and things went wrong.

Commemorative program from the national tour

Commemorative program, 1981

The music intro began just fine, the kids asked all the right questions—”Can you really fly?”—and Ms. Duncan raised her arms and said, “You just think lovely, wonderful thoughts and up you’ll go!”

And she didn’t move.

And then the wire jerked, and she sort of lifted and stopped and landed again, and she began singing, and the wire jerked again, and lifted and dropped, and finally up she went a small ways.

And then the moment happened that I’ll never forget. Sandy Duncan stopped the show.

She stopped singing, she dropped character, started waving her arms about, shouting “Stop! Stop! Let’s go back! Stop!” Directing the crew to put her back down and the orchestra to stop. As they lowered her down and the instruments dropped out, one by one, I became enthralled, because it was all so real. “The fourth wall” had been broken and I didn’t even know what a fourth wall was!

Finally she looked out to the audience and said to us, “You paid good money to see this, you might as well see it the right way!”

I was stunned: This wasn’t Peter Pan on script, this wasn’t planned, this was Sandy Duncan talking to us. This was all happening unrehearsed and live.

She and the kids all got back to their spots, she looked around, addressing the cast, crew and musicians, asking “Everybody ready?” Then pointing at the youngest boy, shouted “Hit it, John!” He piped up with his line, “Can you really fly?!”

And this time with her “…up you go!” Sandy Duncan flew high in the air! And despite our seeing behind the scenes the magic of theatre filled that huge auditorium and we erupted into applause.

I had already dabbled a bit in performing but that experience made me fall in love with the craft of storytelling, the beauty in pretending and the immediacy of a live performance. As I did with most movies I saw as a kid, when I got home I described every moment of the play in great detail to my mother. (I’d follow her around the house, talking and talking….it probably took as long as the actual production.) But I recall that this time I focused mostly on the most remarkable moment of the show—that part that wasn’t supposed to be, the part that was a one-time only, unique, experience just for those of us in that theater on that particularly day.

My program is still in good shape

Sandy Duncan as Peter Pan

I know this only goes to show my naiveté at the time, but I was really just a kid, and I’d never seen anything like it. That moment is still vivid in my mind and thirty-two years later I still tell the story, still attribute it to why I do theatre, and yes…..I still have my “signed” program.

Looking over my shoulder

I probably shouldn’t compare years. It doesn’t seem fair. Some years are better than others for their own reasons, and one year can have great successes for me while others seem to have been nothing but wasted opportunities.

Odd numbered years seem to be important to me, more than even. This, of course, makes no sense either logically or in fact.

Good years = 1985, 1989, 1992, and 2009. (No, that’s not a 17 year dry stretch.) Bad years = 1985, 1999, 2008. See? No sense. But it’s generally how I feel.

2012 was a fine year.

So before moving on to the (odd) 2013 future, I’m pondering just a few highlights of the art in and around my life for the past year:

  • One day out of the blue I was contacted by a local theatre looking for other theatres and/or performers to produce a late night show during the run of their own play. My schedule allowed for it, or so I figured, and I was suddenly producing, adapting and directing a play, to go up in mere weeks. Four classic tales, unrelated and yet thematic, with a talented (and hard working!) ensemble were worked staged and presented. We called it And Things in the Walls and it came together beautifully. It was exhausting.
  • In the midst of that chaos, I squeezed in the best theatre experience once can have: Pillsbury House Theatre’s Chicago Avenue Project. Take a group of young, eager, energetic neighborhood kids, help them write their own plays, and bring in directors and actors and produce it for their families, friends and neighbors to see. This is the third time I’ve directed for this program, and it warms the inside of my sometimes jaded heart. We should never lose the playful imagination we used so easily when we were 8 years old. I think those kids teach us more than we teach them.
  • It was great to spend time as a real hired actor on multiple occasions and projects this year, but one stood out. Last spring I shot an anti-bullying video where I played a guy getting more than picked on at his work place. The piece was used by a national anti-bullying project, about which CNN did a story that included the video. My Facebook feed lit up and I had a voice message asking if I realized I was on the home page of CNN. (I later learned portions of it were aired as part of their broadcast story too.) It was a powerful video that garnered many, many comments for months from everyone I knew. At first I was just glad to get a gig, shooting a little video for a day. But it’s nice when art (acting) and work (paid gig!) combine to make an impact. It’s on YouTube, but you can see it on their site here.
  • I’m always taking pictures.

    Crashing waves in Puerto Vallarta

    In 2012 both my cameras were stolen, although thankfully one was returned. And when I upgraded my cell phone to to the latest and greatest, the camera was a serious downgrade. (Thank goodness for Instagram, huh?) Still, I took this picture, one of my favorites, in one of my favorite places.

  • As always, I saw a lot of theatre. Some good, some…not so good. The Fringe Festival is always a mixed bag, but this year’s crop gave me two great inspirations. Make that three if you count the stuff I really didn’t like and would never want to emulate. But it’s always great acting that makes me most excited, as I wrote about back in May in what was likely my favorite production I saw in 2012: Compleat Female Stage Beauty.
  • And when it comes to pop culture meets drama: I fell in love with Downton Abbey. Well written, impeccably performed, beautiful to look at and compelling story lines. I mean, come on! Maggie Smith alone...”What is a ‘week-end’? Indeed.

That’s what’s over my shoulder back there, where I also was able to line up two productions to fill what’s in front me, thus getting me through the winter and well into spring, working with companies and people new to my resume. Not bad, 2012!

So far it’s looking like a lucky ’13.

Acting with my Whole Body

Last weekend I finished up my brief run of a holiday show, which was both exhausting and a lot of fun. It was at a history museum, with an historical story-line.  Audiences seemed to have a good time with its broad and quirky comedy, and there were plenty of opportunities for me to improv and ad-lib things, interacting with audience members.

Part of the setup of the show was that I’m a museum employee, not an actor and am sort of recruited in to playing some parts so I have to carry the script around (this huge binder weighing several pounds) and learn things quickly. Some people continue to think it’s true that I work there as opposed to being a hired actor. I’m not sure how.

One woman actually said to me after the show, “You should consider taking up acting!”
Ok, perhaps I will.

The play was under an hour but we would do three shows a night, each an hour apart. I spent most of the performance running up and down stairs, changing costumes, and grabbing props. Then after leading the audience out, and running around resetting props and costumes I would have maybe five minutes to sit, get a drink of water and then start all over, looking fresh and happy and hopefully free-of-sweat, for the next group.

I’d get home tired and sore.

I’m avoiding the “I’m getting too old for this….” remark.

This week I started rehearsals for my next play, and one night we spent the evening sitting on gym mats on the floor because there were no chairs available. I’ve never been much of floor sitter, but nowadays….boy was my back stiff when I crawled my way up. Then at last night’s rehearsal I was finding myself doing things like climbing over, through and twisting around metal hand railings up on a raised level, sliding down the short wall to the floor beneath (completely my idea, by the way) and then I found myself sore this morning.

I may not be getting too old, but boy am I out of shape. I’ll take credit though for throwing everything I’ve got in to my work. Ouch.