Friday, February 27, 2009

Why Bother With One Acts?

In my limited experience, the words "One Acts" on a postcard or marquee is a death knell. My theory, at least in regards to Los Angeles, is that and evening of One Acts = "Actor Showcase", that dreaded beast that virtually guarantees an evening of egos on parade and what my old acting prof called "emotional masturbation".

Yet I believe that the production of short plays is vital to the health of a company, and in particular a Theatre Tribe. The trouble is, an evening of one acts is rarely done correctly or for the right reasons.

I haven't had a successful model to point to and say "like that" in order to better illustrate my vision for short plays. Now I do.

John Kricfalusi is a curmudgeonly cuss who certainly has some opinions. You probably know him best as the creator of Red & Stimpy, the wildly anarchistic "children's" cartoon. He's also a bit of a historian of animation, and blogs frequently at www.johnkstuff.blogspot.com. Recently he began a series of posts on the subject of the whys and wherefores of cartoon shorts:
Shorts Program Goals Headings

TALENT

To Discover Talent

To Find A Director with Experience as Well as Raw Talent

To Surround the Director with like minded supporting talent

TO DEVELOP AN EFFICIENT PRODUCTION SYSTEM that allows the talent to flourish

TO LEARN FROM MISTAKES AND SUCCESSES

To Give Cartoonists Real Experience

To Bring Back Apprentice System and develop the talent
I'm not going to quote the whole thing here, because I want you to visit his blog and get the straight dope from the master himself.

Obviously, there's not a 1:1 comparison to be made between animation and live theatre. But I believe what John K is outlining may serve as a jumping off point to define a useful purpose for the production of short plays.

So what do YOU think? Should a theatre company do an evening of one acts simply because they're cheap to produce, or should we strive to use the short form as a laboratory? To throw stuff out there and see what sticks? And to what extent should we demand the audience contribute to the process (comment cards, Q&A sessions, etc.)?

My Postcard Theories

[NOTE: I originally posted this on the Theatre Tribe group. That group seems to be on the verge of deletion, so I thought I would move it over here.]

I'm not sure if this holds true for the rest of the world, but in Los Angeles the first line of marketing is the postcard.

Postcards are ubiquitous in Los Angeles. They advertise plays, acting schools, nightclubs, taxi services, raves, escorts ... if it can be bought, sold, consumed or otherwise experienced, chances are there's a postcard advertising it. The upside of this is the ease and affordability of having mass quantities of high-quality postcards printed. The downside is the sheer volume of postcard static.

So the trick is to cut through that static, and create within the potential audience member a desire to go to the theatre. And we all know how difficult that can be, even when you’re not in direct competition with clubs and escorts.A couple of years ago I began collecting postcards, specifically those advertising theatrical events. I looked for consistent features across the array of postcards in my collection in an attempt to determine what works and what doesn’t. This wasn’t a very scientific survey, but I believe my conclusions are valid enough to share:

  • Resolution is vitally important. If the postcard is all aliased or fuzzy, it looks cheap and unprofessional.
  • There must be some sort of graphic representation of the show. Text-only postcards do not have the impact that a picture has. You would think this is obvious! Just as you find in really bad PowerPoint presentations, some people just like to throw a bunch of words at their audience.
  • This representation should communicate the mood/spirit/theme/approach of the show in a compelling and interesting way.
  • It is preferable for this representation to give the viewer a human connection. I'm partial to a photograph of the cast that invites the viewer into the scene.
  • If you have a choice between a list of actors or a synopsis of the play, CHOOSE THE SYNOPSIS OF THE PLAY. This goes double for new works. Unless you have a marketable asset in the play (Val Kilmer is Moses!) a list of actors will not bring people to the show. No one will care who is in the show until they've seen the show. At that point, they'll have the actors' bio in the program and their 8 x 10's in the lobby to gaze upon.


Above is the postcard front for "Pin-Up Girls," shot by local burlesque photographer Chris Beyond. I selected the location for this shoot and did the set dressing. I placed the actresses, and "directed" them off camera as Mr. Beyond snapped away. There are a number of dirty tricks in this picture:

  • The mirrors in the background add cavernous depth to an otherwise claustrophobic scene. This taken together with the soft lighting creates a womb-like (read: "inviting") environment.
  • The three figures on the right are focused on a postcard. The figure on the left is lost in thought. There's a huge mystery in this scene.
  • We're peering over the shoulder of the actress holding the postcard as she's turned away. We only see the back of the far right actress' head. This contributes to the mystery.
  • The entire scene is vignetted, meaning there is a dark border around the central image. This contributes to the womb-like environment, and hopefully casts an "old-timey" feel over the picture.
  • As mysterious as the picture is, there are patches of color, feathers, and fur in the shot. It is a play about burlesque, after all!
This picture turned out perfectly considering how deliberately set up it is. But I should point out that of all the photos Mr. Beyond shot for this postcard, only two accomplished what I hoped for (through no fault of the photographer, I should add).

And here's the back. I have had audience members come up to me and thank me for putting a synopsis of the show on the postcard! The decision to forgo actors names on the postcard has been firm company policy for Theatre Unleashed since the getgo.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

"I feel ... I am ... I think ..."

Dr. Farmer, God bless him, just could not convince me that "To Be" verbs were universally weak choices. He is right, but it's the sort of lesson you kind of have to learn on your own, on stage, failing miserably. Playing a state of mind is death on stage. Acting is action, not "feeling," which is certainly not to say you should wring all the emotion out of your performance. I think Mamet is correct on this score when he says (with italics for emphasis, no less!) "Everything you ever feel onstage will be engendered by the scene." This is a quote from True and False, Mamet's exceptional book on the subject of acting.

But this is not an essay on acting. No siree, Bob. It's a brief word or two on the subject of weak playwriting.

I'm still learning. The day I stop learning is the day I hang up my spurs and start making doll house furniture. Because really, what's the point? If you know all there is to know in a certain field, why stick with it? Where's the challenge? So I approach each writing task as a chance to learn something new about how to create dramatic literature.

A lesson recently learned is a corollary to the lesson I refused to learn under Dr. Farmer's tutelage. And here it is:

Statements of personal emotional state are bad writing.

There very well may be exceptions to this rule. Mercutio's pithy "I'm hurt" springs to mind. So maybe I should hone this phrase a bit. At any rate, here is an example of what I'm talking about:

Y
So you're leaving.

X
Yes. I just feel suffocated by you.

Y
You feel suffocated by me?

X
Yes. I need room! Room to breath!

(pause)

Y
I can sleep on the couch ..?

This is just an example, and not a very good one at that. But I am loath to bring in examples of other people's work, and the bit of writing I did on Tracing Sonny that inspired this blog entry is a plot spoiler. So just bear with me.

Here's an edit:

Y
So. You're leaving.

X
Will you please just give me some room?

Y
I want to hear you say the words.

X
I can't breath! Give me some room!

(pause)

Y
Do you want the bigger closet?

So yes, this is a lame example. Hopefully it makes the point. Two hours of people walking around on stage talking about how they feel is at best self-indulgent. The same people speaking words that grow out of that emotional state is compelling. It forwards the action of the scene and engages the audience in the moment.

I reckon it's a lot easier to play, as well.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

A Secretary of the Arts?

[NOTE: I posted the following at my general subject blog on the 25th of January. I've edited it slightly for this blog.]
   
I know that quite a few of my fellows and friends in the theatre community are quite excited about the prospect of the President appointing a Secretary of the Arts. There is a petition online for people to sign with the hope that enough people can persuade the President to create a cabinet-level post for a Secretary of Art. However, it's a prospect that is far from certain; President Obama has far more important matters to attend to.

I haven't felt the need to speak out on this subject myself. I should probably keep my fool mouth shut on the matter. As this touches on an area near and dear to me, I feel that I must throw my two cents out there.

I do not think President Obama should appoint a Secretary of the Arts.
Art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.
-- JFK (emphasis added)
I place a high value on art. It borders on religious expression for me, as many of my past collaborators may attest. I don't expect art to change the world, but I have known it to change the lives of individuals, if only for the moment. I know that in my own life, the right song at the right moment has roused me from the depths of depression. Whenever I feel washed-out emotionally and physically a trip to the Getty Museum recharges my batteries.

I found the above quote from President Kennedy in the body of a speech entitled "The Separation of Art and State." This speech was delivered by David Boaz, Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute to the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts in 1995. It sums up my feelings on the matter of a "Secretary of the Arts" with near perfection. Actually, the title sums it up nicely.

Imagine for a moment that someone were proposing a Secretary of the News Media or Secretary of Peaceable Assemblage. It's a no-brainer, right? Freedom of expression, as well as the freedom of the press and the right to peaceably assemble is guaranteed by the first amendment. Why would we want to petition for bureaucratic centralization of the Arts? There is a quote from the above mentioned speech that speaks to this very issue. It's kind of long, but worth the read:
The latest newsletter from People for the American Way identifies a lot of threats to free expression. Some involve an actual assault on private actions--such as censorship of the Internet, a ban on flag-burning, a denial of tax exemption to groups that support ideas some congressman doesn't like--and fortunately the First Amendment will protect us from most of these. But most of them involve restrictions on the way government funds can be used. Duke University law professor Walter Dellinger, now a member of the Clinton White House, warned recently that such rules are "especially alarming in light of the growing role of government as subsidizer, landlord, employer and patron of the arts."
Keep in mind that this speech is concerned primarily with the National Endowment for the Arts, and was delivered during the Clinton presidency -- a very arts-friendly administration! Multiply this scenario by an executive department on par with the Department of the Treasury, the Justice Department, the Department of Labor, the Department of Commerce ... are you beginning to see the problem?

Bureaucracies must create work for themselves to justify their very existence. This means regulation. Don't get me wrong, some regulations are good. Protect the little guy against entrenched power -- please! I'm that little guy. But I also believe, "That government is best which governs least." In short, if they don't regulate it, they can't take it away. Fewer cages means more freedom, plain and simple.

"But this is the Obama administration," you may say. "President Obama would never allow something so diabolical as regulation of the arts to occur!" True, but Obama will only serve at most eight years in office. Are you willing to run the risk that the next president won't regulate the arts? What if the country swings hard-right and elects a Pat Buchanan? What if it swings hard-left and elects a Tipper Gore?

So that's worse case scenario: a government agency which regulates art. It's not the likeliest scenario. But how likely was it that torture would become a sanctioned approach to interrogation?

It is not lost on me that the appointment of a Secretary of the Arts would be a largely symbolic gesture. Why in God's name should we pay $193,400 a year for the highly symbolic job of Secretary of Art? And that's just the salary for a cabinet-level position. It does not include the expenses of such an office, including the staff and overheard. It would certainly cost more than the budget of the NEA, which will top out at just over $144 million this year. The Department of Education is the smallest cabinet-level department, and it has an annual budget of nearly $69 billion. You can figure a Department of the Arts would have a budget somewhere between those two numbers, which would be a lot to pay for symbolism.

This is a matter of politics, and I understand how passionately people may feel about this. I am open to differences of opinion, and would be happy to hear other points of view.