11 Things about 2011

It’s the last day of the year. We’ve been inundated with lists lately, so…..here’s a list of 11 highlights of 2011 for me:

  1. Street Scene: I was lucky enough to be a part of the (massive) ensemble that created a highly successful and beloved production of this Elmer Rice script. The cast included children and a dog and a couple dozen actors playing in an intimate (and, frankly, run down) theater. It was a huge show and we worked very hard to bring it together. Because of the the way in which we rehearsed, wherein many people watched other people’s scenes and we were mostly all there most of the time, we developed a great bond as a cast which went a long way to each of us individually, and collectively, owning this piece of theatre. I hope I’m lucky enough in 2012 to have a similar experience. I celebrated that show with several friends at the Ivey Awards where two statues were given out in relation to the production.
  2. The 3-Cent Stamp: I wrote, directed and edited a 1-minute “commercial” for inclusion in a local theatre’s mock production of Fargo. I had a blast putting this together and want to do more of this stuff in 2012.
  3. It’s not about the money: I got paid. Truthfully, it’s no one’s business but mine (and my agent’s) but a couple well paid gigs this year (primarily a single commercial) made 2011 one of the most profitable years for me as an actor. I’ve put it in savings for a rainy day. And while it’s never about money and there’s not a lot of it, especially in theatre, it’s nice to feel compensated for my time and talents.
  4. Testing my skills: I jumped in to a production of a full-length play that didn’t have a full-length rehearsal, and it tested most everything I know about acting, building a character and, in some instances, how to be a nice guy at rehearsals and not get bitchy. Next time I’ll be more prepared.
  5. Flexing my (imaginative) muscle: I once again joined a holiday show where in a single hour I had to play multiple characters, be funny, run my ass off and charm and ad lib a small group of strangers. And then do it all over again for the next group. And…once again for a third group. It was exhausting and exhilarating and fun, and made me enjoy performing.
  6. Inspirations: I was inspired by many things I saw this year on local stages, and one piece of theatre that keeps sticking with me in my head is Moving Company’s Come Hell and High Water. A beautiful, epic (true) story, done in bold imaginative ways and with the utmost attention to the minutiae of the characters’ lives and details. Steve Epp is one of the best actors I’ve ever seen work. This whole thing made me want to be a better, bolder theatre artist. I was also inspired by the depth of work that goes in to the making of a Scream Blue Murmur piece. I was fortunate to spend some time with these great folks whom I admire so much, and learned a bit more about their process. They’re not messing around. We should all be so diligent.
  7. The Silver Screen: I was twenty feet tall. The short film I shot last year was finished and had a sneak preview at the Twin Cities Film Festival. Seeing myself on the big screen was a bit surreal, especially since it focuses primarily on my character and I open and end the thing. It was exciting and makes me want to get to know the film community even better. (On a side note, the other day I discovered that the film is listed on IMDB, so subsequently I’m finally listed there too.)
  8. Disappointments: I wasn’t cast in many things, including one or two that I really wanted. But that’s to be expected. In one case I was sort of relieved to not be cast (even though I was a bit surprised.) I know this is all vague but why go into great details…I’m not naming names. Let’s just say that I was invited to audition for a play I hadn’t heard of but in researching it found it to be incredibly challenging and exciting. Done, for lack of a better word, correctly it could be an amazing and powerful piece of theatre. What I witnessed in the auditions and callbacks, particularly from the director and the choices she was making, was that this was not a stellar opportunity and in fact could be a complete train wreck. I debated for days whether I’d take the role when offered. I decided I wouldn’t because the “good enough” and lackluster approach I witnessed was…well, I guess it was challenging to my own standards and beliefs. (See Creed if you need to know more.) Yes, this probably makes me sound pompous. Of course, they didn’t cast me anyway. I unfortunately wasn’t able to see the show either due to my own work schedule, so I’m not sure how big that wreck may have been. I’m confident I made (or would’ve made) the right choice. It’s disappointing though because I think done right it could’ve made a huge splash on the theatre scene.
  9. 365 Images of 2011: I shot pictures. Lots and lot of pictures. I challenged myself to post a picture for each day (even if not posted every day.) I don’t think I’m going to make the goal, unless I take and choose another 30 or so in the next 5 hours. Nonetheless, I had fun doing it and found new and interesting images around me all the time. I think some even turned out to be good. I’ll probably add them here over the coming months.
  10. Nook: I read. A lot. Although I haven’t written about it I received a Nook for my birthday, and have subsequently doubled the number of books I’ve read. I never thought I’d have the capacity to read more than one book at a time, and keep things clear in my head about each one, but now…it’s only a matter of the mood I’m in when I crawl in to bed at night (that sounds so wrong, but it’s when I do most of my book reading) and I’ll have two or three different books going at a time. Super Sad True Love Story may have been my favorite of the year.
  11. What’s next: I imagined. I still have a small dream in the back of my head to make a film of The William Williams Effect. I know nothing about making a movie, truly, but I know some people who do. I’ve been thinking of taking a stab at putting together a film script version this winter. (Note to self: talk to co-writer.) Recently while driving through the rolling Iowa fields (strangely empty of snow for December) and listening to a Mumford and Sons album I was struck with some images of what the film might incorporate and how it might feel and flow. I think I’ll make it a longer term goal, but plan to find a project or two to write and shoot this coming year, as practice, as learning the craft of filmmaking, in preparation for what might come next with that story.
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Community and Friends and Celebration

Arriving at the Ivey Awards, Historic State Theater, Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

New York has its Tony, Chicago has its Jeff. For many years Minneapolis didn’t have such a thing, but for the past seven years we’ve had the Ivey. Unlike most award programs, the Ivey Awards doesn’t have set categories and there are no nominations, although there are two standard categories of Emerging Artist and Lifetime Achievement. These elements have been a point of criticism since the beginning, but so far it hasn’t kept away the crowds, lessened the excitement or diminished the glory. Of course, with no set categories and no nominations, honorees have no idea they’re going to win, so every statue handed out is a surprise to most of the room.

Two nights ago the Twin Cities theatre professionals, along with numerous fans, gathered at the historic State Theater downtown for this year’s event. It’s colloquially become called “theater prom” by some because in a field where most of the workforce tend to spend rehearsals and pre-show time wearing rather casual (often very casual) clothes, this is an opportunity to dress up big time.

But unlike prom where only certain people are invited, everyone’s welcome to this show, and elbows are rubbed between the newest and most experienced artists, between the smallest shoe-string budget company and the multi-million dollar funded institutions and everywhere in between. The beauty is in the community, coming together for one night to celebrate each other and honor some (though not all) of the standout moments and works of the previous season.

Oh, and then there’s an after party. A HUGE after party, where more elbows are rubbed and ears are bent and deals and promises are made.

I didn’t win anything although I didn’t really think I would. I am, however, awfully proud to have been a part of a show that garnered a lot of attention that night, as two of those little statues went out because of that show, Street Scene. One went to our show’s heroine, Anna Sundberg (who not surprisingly to many was the year’s emerging artist) and one to our show’s director, Craig Johnson, for his direction of the show – an overwhelming task with its 3-acts, 65 characters, 26 actors and a dog on a (relatively) tiny stage. Sitting next to Craig as his name was announced (or rather, the work and the show was announced which prompted a large contingent around him to cheer loud enough he couldn’t actually hear his name) and seeing the stunned look on his face was a real joy. I’ve been fortunate to work on many shows with him, for many years, and I couldn’t have been prouder of my good friend.

Of course, at the after party the cast members in attendance decided we made his direction look good and gave ourselves due credit. But more importantly, we celebrated our friends who won and celebrated our fortunes of working in a community with such widely diverse and strongly talented artists as these Twin Cities have. I’m happy to call it home.

When good shows go away

Last weekend the Street Scene closed. Done. Over. History.

That’s part of the gift of theatre – its impermanence. It’s an event, an experience, not an object to be revered and enjoyed for now and the future, and even when it is enjoyed for long it’s not the same experience every night.

What remains of my last show.

This was a large cast, which gave us plenty of opportunity for drama and in fighting and awkward moments, or even (to steal a word from reality tv) show-mances. Yet none of that happened. This group of actors got along and supported each other like few groups I’ve experienced before. I think part of the reason was we were all keyed up to take on this mammoth of a play, and were excited by the challenge, by the people we were working with and by the opportunity. Or perhaps we were simply caught up in the excitement which was all around us. We all wanted it to be a good production and we were all proud to be part of it.

Every night was a joy to go out and play. To actually work in tandem with other actors, listening, responding and creating this world. It was seriously a group effort, and I was fortunate to be in the mix. Perhaps the best part was that the show was very well received, most importantly by the audiences and the theatre community, less importantly by the reviewers (though they liked it too.)

We each had our routines for the evening of a show. There were the places we’d set up in the green room, or where actors would warm up. One actor jokingly chastised me for not being in the same spot I’d always been in that moment before curtain when he’d show up ready to go on. There were the conversations and games and puzzles to pass the time, the inside jokes and the post-show drinks (which included the unique cocktail created for this particular show by one of the cast members. It was called an Elmer, and it was tasty.) But then, like all good things, it had to end.

Those people who saw it will remember it, likely for years. Some people will remember that they didn’t get to see it. Others will have just missed out. I will have memories for many years, and several new friends to go with them.

Yesterday the 2011 Minnesota Fringe Festival opened. If ever there were an event that was the epitome of the fleeting moment of energy and excitement around a theatrical production, it’s the Fringe Fest. The time and energy needed to put together just one of the 169 productions is enormous, and it’s going to be gone in what really feels like the blink of eye. And most of it will never see the light of day again.

Ah, the dog days of summer! I’m grateful most theaters have extra-cold air conditioning.

Backstage art

We’re in the thick of performances with this show. Perhaps more than the thick, in fact, since we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. In some ways it feels like that light is the last day of school and we’re all to be released for the summer. In other ways, it’s the clear ending to a memorable experience.

Today is a beautiful day in Minneapolis, and after the sweltering heat and humidity, and driving storms, that we’ve been experiencing, it’s almost a little disappointing that I’ll spend the entire afternoon inside at a matinee followed by another hour or more of production photos.

But every performance I’m thankful for having an opportunity to do what I love. So I will not complain.

And I do love this show, and this cast. I’m a bit disappointed in myself that I haven’t written more about this experience.

This show is almost a stereotype of “life in the theatre” with its independent theatre company hunger, large cast where most have worked together before, and its high energy and laughter before and after (and during) each performance.

The space itself is, frankly, kind of a dump. The owner of the building isn’t known for his reliability for upkeep. From the patron’s p.o.v. it’s a slightly rundown, but intimate space. From the actor’s and crew’s p.o.v. it’s cluttered, damp, dusty and nearly health-threatening environment. I can only imagine that from a producer’s p.o.v. it’s a nightmare of electrical and plumbing dangers and fears of something truly horrible happening to shut down the whole show. The basement leaks, the AC rattles and stairs creak.

But more than the physical environment it’s the people that make this beautiful and unique stereotype. (I know – oxymoronic descriptor.) This a large cast show (23 actors, 3 children and a dog) with 65 characters (if you count the off-stage voices) which means backstage and downstairs in the green room and dressing rooms is often buzzing with activity. Plus this show has a lot of sound in it— there’s almost always background, city-scape sound playing. (Which means the constant footsteps behind the set probably blend in, right?) And quite a bit of that sound is done live…..things like snoring and banging and gun shots. On stage this is juxtaposed by moments of tableaus, stillness that comes to life or action that reverses and goes to a freeze.

One of my favorite points in the show is during the music-like sounds of the opening of the second act, which take place while the city comes to life. From silence and stillness different things start up at different times on stage, sounds start to sprinkle in and backstage there’s a melange of characters in various dress, milling about, moving quickly or trying to stay out of the way, some making noise while others try to not make noise, surrounded by ladders and platforms and speakers and cables as if in the midst of some fantastical second hand store with things piled on top of each other, and it’s all dimly lit by the back-stage blue lights and spills from the lobby door or from the stage. Each night after I make my exit, after coming to life on stage, I meander through those dozen or more people crammed back there and wonder at the magic of the play-making. This group of actors all working in concert, ready to make an entrance or being the offstage sound, ready to play their part in the creation of this world and doing so in tangent with their cast-mates.

It’s that ensemble, that collaboration, that trust between each person knowing that together we can create this unique and lovely world – that is the thing I will miss most once we exit this tunnel.

Street Scene, by Elmer Rice, produced by Girl Friday Productions plays at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage through July 30.

Actors and Eggshells

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I love watching actors act. I love the creative developmental process of watching a character slowly come to life through trial and error and exploration, like some animal breaking its way through an eggshell.

Today is our last rehearsal before preview and opening, and I’ve been fascinated in the past couple weeks by the process I’ve witnessed from several actors in this show. Partly due to the ensemble-ish nature of the play and partly due to the nature of the rehearsal space, much of the off-stage time has been spent watching the scene in progress, a scene which often has anywhere from three to fifteen (or more) people on stage together.

OK. I’ll also admit that while on stage myself I couldn’t help but notice the detailed exploration happening around me.

The other day at rehearsal I was suddenly struck by one actor’s sudden progression in the development of his character. Not that things hadn’t been coming along for Mike, but suddenly something had clicked and fallen in to place, like some puzzle and now instead of floating across the stage he was flying, now instead of being fairly interesting he was fascinating. There was a depth and detail and history to this character that was suddenly clear and present. Or, maybe I’m putting those things on with my own mind, connecting the dots that he’s simply putting out there. Either way, it works.

What’s that line? “Did I leave the iron on?” Sort of like that.

I had watched Mike making different choices, almost like he was working through a maze and wasn’t sure which path was correct, but Mike kept himself focused on finding that path, and suddenly it seemed things clicked. Vocally, physically, emotionally. He was a human being, and suddenly Mike had become the character he had been working towards.

I’ve seen Mike in several shows and have always enjoyed his work and was excited to be in a show working with him. I figured I might learn a thing or two, but his process seems so organic that I’m not sure I could define it. Not, without, at least talking to him explicitly about it. Which I won’t do. Maybe when this show closes, but not before.

The really great thing for the show is that many other actors in the show have also done some amazing and fun stuff to watch—Larry, Shannon and Faye have gone to some great depths of detail in their work. Strong, bold, interesting and supported choices, combined with deep connection to their character’s goals and high stakes.

Of course, the thing I can’t be sure of is how my own work fits in. I can’t be objective about that. I’m continuing to search for details each moment with each run through, and as some props have been added I find new things about my character, the way he deals with his cigar and how he really eats when there’s actual food and not mimed food. (Unfortunately, he chews with his mouth open.) I can only hope my own work can keep up with this great group of actors.

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* Actors names have been changed to protect…well, I don’t know what. Perhaps an ego.