Thursday, June 24, 2010

FRINGED




Steven Leigh Morris says it all in his latest, "Fringe on Top":
Our theater has been defined, wrongly, as being a hobby, an afterthought, an apology for the film and TV industries. This may have been valid 20 years ago, but that misperception has been fading. The Hollywood Fringe, if it's allowed to continue, will help to usher our city's theater from adolescence to young adulthood, where it's no longer suffering the pangs of identity crises.
I cannot tell you what a joy it has been running into people at random this week.  A few times I've just missed Theatre Unleashed's Gregory Crafts coming and going.  On Sunday he attended a performance at Comedy Sportz that started after Pamela and I left after taking in Back to You: A Dear John (Mayer) Letter.  I didn't know until I saw his tweet a little later.

It's neat.  For this ten day period, there is a very real, very tangible community of theatre people in Los Angeles.  We've seen shades of this before: At LA Stage Alliance meetings, familiar faces showing up for auditions, at the ADAs, etc.  But, as Morris points out, Ben Hill and the gang at HFF made a very smart choice in limiting the geographic scope of the festival.  It has distilled us; concentrated us in a way that just doesn't otherwise happen in Los Angeles.

I'll be honest.  When I first heard they were keeping HFF in Hollywood, excluding the vibrant theatre district in North Hollywood, the current home of Theatre Unleashed, I was irritated.  We (meaning TU) have become so enmeshed into NoHo -- ironic for a company that used to boast about being "geographically unleashed" -- that I took it as something of an affront.

Good thing I've learned some measure of patience.  I kept my comments to myself, and opened my eyes and ears to the festival.  The inclusivness, the energy and excitement that Hill and the gang bring is inescapable and intoxicating. 

Penny Starr, Jr. invited me to join the insanity that is her politically incorrect variety show, The Wrong Show I thank my lucky stars that I am a participant in Fringe, not merely a spectator.  I have been kicking myself over TU's inability to provide more material support to Crafts as he brings Friends Like These to HFF.  This will long be remembered as a turning point in Los Angeles Theatre.  This is the focus we've needed

In the past I've blogged about the lack of some hierarchical model for the advancement of Under-99 plays to larger houses.  What we lack is a greater goal, a bigger destination for the work we do.  What's the point of a four week run that only friends and family see?  Now we have Fringe; equal parts bazaar and open forum.  This is something to build towards each year; a bigger goal.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The High Jinks Architect

A view of the Pin-Up Girls set.  Photo by Starlet Jacobs (I believe), swiped from her online portfolio.

Starlet Jacobs has started a blog dedicated to sharing her exploits as "A West Coast set designer in the Big Apple."

Starlet kept pace with my champagne tastes and beer budget, and brought backstage at the "High Jinks Burlesque Club" to life in the 2008 production of my play, Pin-Up Girls.  She's crazy talented and tirelessly dedicated to her work. 

My undergrad experience was steeped in the collaborative process.  I crave the kind of interaction with designers that Dr. Partridge fostered among us scrappy kids.  I found some measure of that sort of exchange with Starlet, and it remains my greatest experience working with a designer at Theatre Unleashed.  I think the results speak for themselves.

I wish her all the success in the world, and she's well on her way.  She has the chops and drive to achieve whatever she sets out to do.  I only hope I get a chance to work with her again before she gets too big to take on one of my Under-99 productions!

Monday, June 21, 2010

TRACING JOHN MAYER

Brianne Hogan's Back to You: A Dear John (Mayer) Letter is a charming piece of theatre, equal parts mash note and fantasy daydream.  A little rough in some patches, it nevertheless accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do.


John Mayer (Martin Lindquist) has a problem:  Himself.  Hoping to recapture the joie de vivre of his early days and escape the douchebaggery his lack of a social filter engenders, he ventures back to Connecticut to reconnect with a long-ago summer romance, Rhianna (Hogan).  He is intercepted by Rhianna's wannabe roomies, aspiring celeb blogger Calvin (Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll) and his too-old-for-American-Idol sister Carly (Carla Lopez).  The past romance, retold through flashbacks, is weaved through the narrative.

Lindquist integrates a few of Mayer's physical mannerisms into a performance that never devolves into mere imitation.  He brings to the role the strong personality and the sometimes genuine, sometimes shined-on confidence a born performer such as Mayer possesses.  He handles the guitar well, giving us just enough of a taste to satisfy our suspension of disbelief.

In "Carly," Lopez embodies the not-so-quiet desperation of a performer well on her way to "washed-up" without ever having the opportunity to be a "has-been." This is a character on the edge, steering the screwball antics of the play.  It would be easy for such a role to be played as a one-note caricature of a needy loser craving fame, but Lopez brings a sense of playfulness to the borderline hysteria.  She has a strong singing voice, as well.

It's easy to take pot-shots at a person who takes on the Orson Wellesian task of writer-director-actor.  It's exceedingly difficult to do, but Hogan manages it.  I believe her performance would benefit from an extra pair of eyes in the director's chair -- you must sacrifice some of your attention and energy as a performer when you're wearing as many hats as Hogan is wearing in this production -- but had I not known that she was the powerhouse behind bringing this story to the stage, I would say the same thing about her performance.  She is an appealing love interest, at turns mousy and confident; awkward and self-assured.  I get how Rhianna could be an 18 year-old Mayer's love interest.

Fernandez-Stoll steals the show.  A dead-pan delivery and incredible timing provide him the biggest laughs in the piece.  Like Lopez's Carly, Fernandez-Stoll's Calvin avoids caricature with an infusion of humanity:  He is too well-mannered to ever become what he aspires to be.  He's too clever to become Perez Hilton, too discerning to work for TMZ. 

I have a couple of problems with the script.  Minor issues, really.  In the flashbacks, we see how events inspire some of Mayer's early hits.  The attempt to weave the actual lyrics into the dialogue was a bit cutesy at times, and unnecessary.  For instance, we don't need to hear Mayer recite the first verse of "Your Body is a Wonderland" to get that Rhianna is the "body" in "Your Body is a Wonderland."  Subtlety would play better, and offer a chance to see Mayer have a moment of sweet, innocent intimacy with the only girl to ever really "get" him.

There is an extended video bit that plays out too long by half.  Ironically, the videotaped segments seemed less "real" than the work done onstage.  This video can be cut down considerably, moving us to the "punchline" much quicker.

Hogan packs in some wonderful Easter Eggs for the Mayer fans in attendance.  My wife and I have seen "Big Head" in concert a whole buncha times.  Seven times for me, nine times for my wife. There were a few references that my wife and I laughed at that no one else got.  Lindquist strums "Tracing" a relatively obscure Mayer song a few times in the play; a real treat for my wife, the John Mayer superfan:


Back to You is light satire, not a heavy work about celebrity and the eternal struggle over what motivates man to abandon civility and empathy.  You will not walk away from this play chewing on deep thoughts concerning human existence.  God help us if that's all theatre set out to do.  Hogan tells us the story she has to tell, and does so in a delightful way. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Kick in the Pants

Boy howdy, am I dense.

I blogged the other day about Spot.Us, an online micro-donation facilitator used by journalists to fund their work.  I opined about how nice it would be if someone would set up a similar service for live theatre.  I joked that such a thing probably already existed.

I posted an update yesterday about Kickstarter, "A new way to fund & follow creativity."  A friend of a friend is using the service to get a new theatre company off the ground, 3Monkeys.

So, I'm an idiot.  The Ahimsa Collective -- a talented group of individuals I know first hand and not just as friends of friends -- they have used Kickstarter a few times this year.  I had some dim recollection of those guys using some sort of online donation service, but it didn't register until I began searching through the returns for "theater" and "theatre" on Kickstarter.  All apologies, guys.  I can be very myopic at times.

My research into Kickstarter continues.  I ran across this great article from The New York Times: "You, Too, Can Bankroll a Band."  This funding model meshes well with my pet philosophy of theatre (i.e., "It's the audience, stupid!"):  "Fans 'are not buying music, they’re buying a personalized experience,' said Yancey Strickler, a Kickstarter co-founder."  Hear, hear!

What theatre has over movies and television -- and I would argue, what Under-99 theatre has over LORT and larger theatre -- is the personal connection between audience and artist.  This was brought home to me in New York, through the religious experience that is Theatre  For One.

I read about Theatre For One in Stage Directions:
In the center of the New York City Theater District, acclaimed Broadway set designer Christine Jones will debut "Theatre for One," a four foot by nine foot portable theatre with one performer playing to one audience member. The uniquely intimate theatrical experience will be available to anyone on a first-come, first-served basis between May 14–23, 2010 in Times Square.
SCORE! I had a business trip that put me in New York on May 16th.

Theatre for One in Times Square.

I got to the queue just in time to be shut out, but managed to talk my way into the final performance of the day. A poetry reading, I must confess I missed the first half of the performer's words. I was so struck by the intimacy and immediacy of the experience, I think I forgot how to breathe.

My goofy mug upon emerging from the venue.

I may not remember the details of the poem, but I cannot forget the performer's eyes.

Our serviceable mission statement at Theatre Unleashed commits us to "striving to reach that emotional resonance with our audience that only live theatre can create."  The dead horse on this blog bears further beating:  Theatre is relevant only so long as it serves the audience.  Integrating a service such as Kickstarter into an end-user-based funding model places the ensemble before that audience at the very beginning of the process.

To quote marketing guru Seth Godin, "the act of paying fundamentally changes the dynamics of the relationship."  One of the most frustrating things for me as "President Moore" has been the attempt to involve the audience in the process of making theatre.  "Read the blogs!  Watch the videos!  Tell us what YOU think!"  Involving the audience in direct funding of the project would actually invest them in the project, in fact and in spirit.

Further, I believe it would revitalize any ensemble to be made accountable to the People in the Dark well in advance of "Ladies and gentlemen, the house is now open."  Can you imagine it?  If the Main Stage selections you put on Kickstarter are not funded by the deadline, they don't get produced.  Boom.  You have to engage the audience before they so much as pick up a postcard for the production at their local coffee shop.

And that's just one side of the coin.  The other side:  Competing with other artists.  Sure, it's a gentle, friendly competition wherein everyone can get funded.  Yet, I encourage you to go to Kickstarter and browse through the projects up for funding.  Not just the theatre projects; all of them.  To have your project listed in that incredible marketplace demands you bring your best.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Towards a New Model

Photo by Alan Cleaver
"You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."
-- Buckminster Fuller
An article posted last Thursday on Reason.com has me thinking.  Contributing editor Katherine Mangu-Ward penned a piece about microfinancing and a new model for journalism, Spot.us:

Spot.Us calls what they do "community powered reporting." The goal is to allow the public to "commission and participate with journalists to do reporting on important and perhaps overlooked topics." And here's the good news for reporters: "On some occasions we can even pay back the original contributors." Right now, a pitch for a story on a failed redevelopment project in Los Angeles has picked up $450 in donations and is looking for $1,050 more. A pitch about space-based solar panels has snagged $205 worth of interest, with $145 to go. A ongoing investigation into the question of whether regents in the University of California system were making private profits by investing public funds garnered $6,117 in cash, with $3,883 to go. One installment of that story, which was republished by the San Francisco Public Press and North Bay Bohemian, tied Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to the scandal and inspired a California state senator to call for an audit of the system—just the kind of awareness raising, watchdogging, and dogged digging that doomsayers were afraid would fall by the wayside as traditional local papers faded away.
According to the New York Innovative Theatre Foundation's 2008 report, "Statisical Analysis of Off-Off-Broadway Budgets," the average budget for an Off-Off Broadway show is $18,000.  41% of those shows have budgets of $10,000 or less.  Speaking from experience, that budget figure is often less, at least in L.A.'s Under-99 scene.  The projects Mangu-Ward cite range from $350 to $10,000.

Why not do what Spot.us is doing, but for theatre?

Let's say Theatre Unleashed has a raft of shows we'd like to do in 2011.  We post six productions online, with budgets ranging from $2,000 to $10,000.  Whatever gets funded, that's our season.  Like Spot.us, no one individual can fund more than 20% of the project (to prevent, say, me from tipping the scales in the direction of a play I'm writing.)  All who donate to the project receive a golden ticket to the show: They can come as often as they want for free.

There is an immediate feedback loop from the community-at-large as to what they want to see on stage.  Perhaps, as in the Spot.us model, the community can offer tips as to what they'd like to see, but the projects offered are offered from the ensemble itself.  So although the community may want to see Nunsense, The Odd Couple and Our Town, the ensemble may offer Twelfth Night, Pin-Up Girls, and Landscaping the Den of Saints.  Perhaps this model would enable us to find a middle ground between what we as artists want to do and what the audience actually wants to see?  Or at least make informed decisions about what we do.  If the public keeps saying they want heavy, politically-charged theatre, we'd know to not do You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.  Maybe we'd do Dog Sees God instead.

And hey, if the TU community doesn't care to see Pin-Up Girls, that doesn't mean I don't write it.  Oh, I write it.  Perhaps if this idea were done on a national level, I could find an audience for my play.  Maybe the theatre-going community in Cincinnati or Cambridge would really like to see my play about backstage high-jinks in a 1940s San Francisco burlesque club.

There is a really good idea here, one that I cannot develop on my own.  Collaborators wanted!

(Now comes the part where someone points out that this sort of thing already exists.)

UPDATED:

Of course it already exists.  Sort of.  Not a 1:1 comparison with Spot.Us (I think an equivalant to the "Tip" option would be a huge boon) but close enough for horseshoes and the internet.

It's called Kickstarter, and a friend of a friend is raising money to start a new theatre company and produce (ironically) Dog Sees God with the service:  3Monkeys

Currently there are 264 returns for "theater" and 39 returns for "theatre."  No telling how much overlap there is between the two.  That's a research project for another day--possibly this weekend.

Life is a game of Minesweeper. When I clear a chunk of the board, I'm humbled to discover how much territory exists that I knew absolutely nothing about. And the board is HUGE.