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.

Abandoned Theaters, or Losing our Cultural History

Earlier today on Twitter someone posted a link to a buzzfeed article about abandoned theaters around the country. The combination of theatre + history + photography immediately grabbed me.

Abandoned Grand Theater, Long Shot - Alton, Illinois - 4/26/09

Grand Theater, Alton, IL. (copyright: CherryRodeo)

It’s a pretty cool collection of images of old vaudeville houses, movie houses and actual theatre theaters. Some have falling plaster, some are filled with broken seats, other are nearly empty vessels where you can almost hear the chatter and laughter of a crowd, the ghostly seats—or what’s left of them—sitting eerily quiet and empty.

I was immediately struck with sadness. These great architectural and design feats, parts of our collective history and cornerstones of a local community, being left to decay. Society’s moved on without them because they’re no longer needed or no longer viable to sustain. The economy of the arts often sits on a precarious cliff, and renovating or maintaining buildings like these is an expensive undertaking.

As I looked at the pictures, questions ran through my head about how it is people could let places like this deteriorate and fall to dust? How sad. Naively I didn’t realize how close to home this really is.

Here in Minneapolis there are a number of old abandoned-and-at-one-time theaters. Some have been repurposed as other things, like an antique store on Lyndale Ave and a gospel mission/church on E. Lake St. They have ornate fronts and shade-making marquees, wide glass door fronts that invite in large audiences. People walk past them every day and probably don’t even notice.

Abandoned theatre, Hudson Valley

abandoned theater, Hudson Valley NY (copyright: Timothy Neesam)

I walk past and picture a theatre’s logo and name hanging on the facade and a “now playing” announcement spelled out on the marquee. I want to see small cafe tables out front for patrons to gather at intermission.

If I were to win the lottery I’d buy one and renovate it back to its glory. Then again, that’s what I think with every orphaned brick building erected before 1950.

This list of 75 abandoned theaters includes Minneapolis, but ironically it’s the Shubert, a 1910 classic theater which was moved (literally) in the mid 1990’s about a block and a half down the street (to make room for a downtown suburban mall of all things.) There it sat until last year when enough money was finally raised to start the actual renovation and turn it into the Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts. So in this case: NOT so abandoned after all. Good job Minneapolis!

SouthernMeanwhile, down the street about 15 blocks , the 1911 Southern Theater is struggling to stay afloat due to mismanagement of funds. After its early life as a vaudeville type stage, when it often presented Swedish productions of traveling performers and had a “sister” theater in Sweden, it became a movie house. Then it spent several decades as a garage. Its interior was all but gutted, and its decorative facade was removed. Finally, in the 1970s it returned to its rightful place as a performance venue. The space has been a mainstay in dance, theater and even music performance since then, but has struggled with its management in the past few years. They’ve put out a desperate cry for help to the community (artists and arts-lovers alike) to raise an enormous sum in only a little over a week.

This request for money has been critiqued and questioned by some people. The question has been posed, “If you’re in trouble over financial mismanagement, what are you going to do with my donation to make sure it doesn’t all fall apart again?” They’ve tried to answer it, but frankly I’m not sure it’s an answerable question.

But will it become one of these 75 (or 74) others?

No one questions the value of the space, the need for a venue plausible for dance and theatre ranging from experimental to classic. The arts community is strong and vibrant, and this place has played an important role. I’ve seen a number of fascinating pieces on this stage, and the space itself is hard to compare to other things. It’s an open, raw space with exposed brick and its history showing in faded paint chips, while its cracked proscenium presents a unique backdrop to any performance. It’s booked year round with shows, and every weekend plays host to Balls – a midnight cabaret of sorts, featuring bits and pieces of myriad performers from different disciplines.

Proscenium of The Southern Theater, Minneapolis (copyright: The Man in the Yellow Hat)

Personally one of my own projects (work I’m most proud of) was produced there a few years ago. The historic true story of The William Williams Effect found a perfectly lovely home on the Southern’s stage, where things felt remote and distant while intimate, raw and real all at the same time. The backdrop perfectly echoed the time of our story. It was only serendipitous that the show was in that space, but looking back I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

It would be a shame if this stage went dark, if the things it presents lose their home. It would be a difficult venue to replace, and I wonder where those shows would end up. The Southern Theater is worth saving because of the part it plays in the cultural community of this city, a city that’s sadly too often known for not preserving its architectural history. The organization running it needs some serious re-working, and I hope they’re looking as hard for the talent and know-how to do the job as they are seeking the funds to stay afloat.

Take a look at these abandoned theaters, and then keep an eye out for them in your neighborhood.

Hiatus Blues

Now it’s officially summer, and for many people in Twin Cities theatre that means one of three things: 1) hiatus, 2) summer stock or 3) fringe festival.

Last year at this time I was over my eyeballs in work for my Minnesota Fringe Festival show, a project that took over the majority of my entire year and has become a highlight of my work in many ways. It’s something I was, and am, very proud to have created.

This year right now I have bupkus, although I should probably think of it more like #1 – hiatus. My home life is chaotic enough (we’re in the midst of a major remodeling project) that doing a show in any way right now would be perhaps very difficult. Perhaps. Maybe it would be a welcome relief, but truthfully I probably wouldn’t be able to commit the sufficient time, energy or focus to it. I certainly couldn’t do this year during all that’s going on what I did last year.

That said, I’m realizing that my self-worth has suddenly diminished, and I find it troubling because I know it’s not a valid feeling. I find it difficult and depressing to hear and see so many of my friends and colleagues busy with shows and planning productions. I become jealous. I still remain supportive, and happy for them. I would still jump in to the fray and join a show in progress or help a struggling producer.

Still, my creative hunger isn’t quite being properly fed.

I wish I too were in the midst of a great creative endeavor. I have some inklings of things I want to do, some small idea of how I might mount a show, write a piece, hawk my abilities or products. And I will.

I only wish my sense of worth wasn’t so tightly tied to my artistic pursuits.

Getting close

We’re getting very close to being finished—or at least ready—with this new version of The William Williams Effect. It’s a 90-minute (or  so I think) version of the 50-minute play we did last summer.  I find some of the new things really exciting, plot elements that help flesh out the world of this play. I can’t wait to hear it read out loud. My only fears are that either I discover there’s something drastically wrong, missing or jarring, or others people will think so and I don’t.

It’s all nerve wracking. After all, I started working on this project a year ago. And the thing is…I can’t really concentrate on anything else, especially my other projects.

2009: The Art in My Life

The world is over-run with top lists for the year. This being my own little world I figure I’ll make a list of the top ten things about 2009. Below, with no real sense of order, are highlights of my life in the arts and the art in my life.

Photography is a hobby of mind, and according to iPhoto I imported almost 1,000 pictures this year. I think the money saved in film development has now paid for that digital SLR.

This picture was taken last January from a boat off the coast of Puerto Vallarta. I love it for how it looks like a watercolor or something, but it’s a completely untouched photo. The guide had thrown bread crumbs in the water to attract the fish, and got more than we expected.

Another favorite picture of mine also came from a vacation. This shot was taken from the rooftop at Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours, in the old city portion of Montreal. Wings seem to be a theme this year.

When I made my list of highlights I knew I would want to include pictures, so I chose those two, although there are many other photos that excited me this year, including ones below. But it turns out that most of my highlights are theatre related.

Caroline, Or Change was the surprise of the Kushner fest. While all eyes were on his big-new-will-he-ever-finish-it Homo’s Guide, this wonderfully imaginative musical, with singing washing machines and solidly written characters stole people’s hearts, and lingered for days with me. I should probably add that to coincide with the Kushner fest at the Big G I finally got around to seeing HBO’s Angels In America and wondered why it took me so long to see that masterpiece.

Scream Blue Murmur is my absolute favorite Northern Irish performing poet group. Ok, perhaps the only group of poets I’ve seen perform. But let me just say that I love these people. They brought their piece Morning After the Summer of Love to the Fringe Festival this summer, and not surprisingly it was a huge hit. (Lovely piece about 1968 – love, war and civil rights. Powerfully current.) I first learned of them when they were here a couple years ago, and fell in love with their flowing words and images and energy and depth. This summer I fell in love again. I’d go to Ireland just to see them, and I think it would be awesome to be in some little village pub, listening to them and chatting them up over a pint after. Chatted with a couple of them briefly during the Fringe and I was like a Marcia Brady meeting Davey Jones.

The Syringa Tree at the Jungle was the best one-person show I think I have ever seen. No props, and virtually no set. Numerous characters from a single, amazingly talented actress. It was astounding. Kudos to director Joel Sass. As for the actress, well….I had to write Ms. Agnew a fan note.

I saw a production of The Skin of Our Teeth that I described as “…this whole play boils down to hope and optimism and the fight to not lose it or have it destroyed. If that’s not a theme for 2009, I don’t know what is.” I applaud Girl Friday Productions for taking on such a massive and complicated play.

And as for small, independent theatres go, I have to give kudos to Walking Shadow. I saw two of their shows, Squawk, and Some Girl(s) and both shows were incredibly impressive. These people are hard working, dedicated and smart—all of which I find very exciting. If they don’t burn out like so many theatre companies can easily do, they’re on their way to making a big name for themselves.

Earlier this year there was a gathering of actors who did a semi-staged reading of The Seagull. Not only was the reading very well done, and thoroughly enjoyable, but it represented so many of the things about theatre that excite me, and exemplifies the high quality of artists in Minneapolis. I recall saying that we need more of this kind of thing, and I hope we see more next year.

Romeo & Juliet at The Children’s Theatre Company was the first time I’d ever seen a promenade style production, and now I want all my Shakespeare to be staged this way. The audience stood, and moved, throughout the show which took place in a huge black box space, with a few set elements up on accessible platforms around the perimeter. The action moved throughout the crowd, directing audience members out of the way as needed. It was like we were all standing in the town’s center plaza, surrounded and part of the action—even the sword fight. And the performances were all incredibly strong and beautiful.

June of Arc, or more specifically Heather Stone’s performance blew me away with the strength and power of her work. It was a beautiful, riveting performance, and I was inspired by the detailed, focused work she did and how she so fully owned it. Some folks will be able to catch Sandbox’s reprisal of this show in January at the Guthrie, and I hope many people do. If Heather keeps up that kind of work, her life is going to change in 2010.

The William Williams Effect, with Balance Theatre Project, was virtually all of 2009 for me, and has a very prominent place on my theatrical resume. I felt almost arrogant telling some people before it opened that I thought it would be a “highlight of my so-called career” but that’s just what it’s become. The performances, the response—it was all more than I had wished for. I can’t even begin to describe the challenge and excitement and pride I have regarding this project. As a director there’s nothing so satisfying as watching a crowd in a packed theater sitting with rapt attention on a show. 

It was also thrilling to once again join forces with my long-time friend Nancy Ruyle in researching, writing and getting this show up on its feet. The whole thing, from start to finish, was a collaborative process, and much of it was organically created in rehearsals with the cast, too.

While I feel very fortunate to have had such a successful show, I feel even more fortunate to have such a great working relationship and friendship with Nancy, who can challenge me, keep me on track and, frankly, keep me balanced.

The trip didn’t end with closing night back in August, and this script has a new version that will be shared soon. So, thank you 2009 for being good to me.

Here’s to 2010.

Happy New Year.

Begin Again

Tonight we started a two night workshop of the new version of the script. I thought I’d post a picture about it. I’ve used this analogy before, but so what, right?

This is the sun rising at Mather Point in the Grand Canyon. Silhouetted are several people (of around a hundred or so) who anxiously waited the moment.

I was anxious to hear the script out loud and get feedback on it.

I don’t think it compares to the spiritual moment that happened when the sun peaked over the cliff. But it’s still a whole new beginning.