Saturday, December 31, 2011

PERMANENT INK
2011
 

Parker Duofold nib / Parker Duofold tollhegy (János Fehér) / CC BY-SA 2.0
Here's Bright Everlasting!
Here's a Crumb of Forever!
- Louis Bogan, I Saw Eternity

What a fantastic inaugural year!  This is not a perfect list, but I've come around to believing in the old canard "don't let perfect be the enemy of good."  There will be a few changes made for next year's list, but I'll get into all that later (I can opine and comment on another day.  It's New Year's Eve!)  I will say this:  I did actually check to see if these plays premiered in 2011 in Los Angeles.  So to the individual or individuals who tried to slip one past me:  Nice try, but no dice.

What follows are the top five original, unpublished plays that debuted in Los Angeles in 2011, as determined by a wholly unscientific survey.  In the coming days (once I've had a chance to vet them to ensure they indeed premiered in Los Angeles in 2011) I will publish an "Honorable Mention" list of the plays that didn't make it into the top five.

Without any further adieu, I present the 2011 Permanent Ink List! 

Small Engine Repair
by John Pollono
Premiered March 25, 2011 at Theatre/Theater.  Presented by Rogue Machine Theatre.
Read review excerpts on Bitter Lemons:  100% Sweet

Summary:
Welcome to Frank's Small Engine Repair Shop where men behave badly and deep secrets are revealed... in this gritty, candid and darkly comic exploration of friendship, alienation, loyalty and social networking. An alcohol-soaked, Bro-mantic Thriller.

The War Cycle: Gospel According to First Squad
by Tom Burmester
Premiered July 28, 2011 at Powerhouse Theater.  Presented by Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble.
Read review excerpts on Bitter Lemons:  100% Sweet
Summary:
The highly anticipated third installment of Tom Burmester’s War Cycle, Gospel According to First Squad, takes place in the Theatre of War. On the brink of civilization in Eastern Afghanistan, deep in the deadly Korengal Valley, the men of First Squad walk the tightrope between boredom and terror everyday. In a valley lit by firestorms of chaos, courage can be proved by a casual walk to the burn-shitter.  As First Squad navigates the human terrain, winning hearts and minds from the Taliban, a new addition to their team threatens their mission, the populace, and their dreams of home.  Gospel According to First Squad will take you on a tour of duty -- as an American -- that will shine a light on our mission, our morals, and asks what you will do -- or won’t do -- to keep your freedom.

Quicksand Rising*
by Markietha Ka'Von
Premiered April 9, 2011 at the NoHo Performing Arts Center
Summary:
"Quicksand Rising" is a show that's based on the abusive relationships encountered by one woman.  It entails her struggle to rise in the midst of extreme chaos as well as the unraveling and rebuilding of spirit. In the midst of struggle to survive in a world where relationships threatens to pull her under; this woman fights to rise out of quicksand, taking courageous steps to take control of her life.

Monkey Adored
by Henry Murray
Premiered October 8, 2011 at Theatre/Theater.  Presented by Rogue Machine Theatre
Read review excerpts on Bitter Lemons:  77% Sweet
Summary:
When the monkey is taken to the animal testing lab, the dog must choose between his loyalty to humans and the use of violence to free the animal he loves.

Part wartime drama, part tender love story and part sex farce, Monkey Adored follows the exploits of a group of animals in a human-dominated society.

Hermetically Sealed
by Kathryn Graf
Premiered October 14, 2011 at Skylight Theatre.  Presented by The Katselas Theatre Company
Read review excerpts on Bitter Lemons: 93% Sweet
Summary:
The May family has its daily routine; the oldest boy comes home from partying at dawn the same time his mother, Tessie, begins her work baking cakes. At noon, Tessie wakes her younger son, Conor, and throughout the afternoon Tessie bakes cakes and Conor plays video games.

This day-today works just fine, helping them maintain a private, isolated world where they can keep their secret carefully concealed and almost evade their unspeakable pain.

This evening, however, when Tessie’s boss picks up the cakes, their carefully balanced life may be undone.
And that's the list!  A big thanks to everyone who played along, forwarded the link, and especially to Bitter Lemons for calling me a mad genius.  Let's do this again next year, shall we?

* I had a difficult time finding any information about this play, and it seems to have been performed for one night only.  If anyone has any information about the show, including any critical reviews, I'd be very interested to learn more about it.  It obviously had a very enthusiastic fanbase.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Biting Footbullets

This:
Walking to my car, I feel disgust and disappointment with the world. This whole evening has been so amateurish, so insultingly half-assed, it is as if the theater had stood up and said “Fuck you” to me. It’s even colder now, and I have to wait while my heater skims the frost from the windshield. I drive home to someone who loves me and I taste my bile a little less sharply.
(Read Jason Rohrer's entire piece at Bitter Lemons.) Boy howdy, have I been there. But what really drew my attention was this comment from Gedaly Guberek:
This is what happens when artists have a business that needs to stay open. “We need to keep producing non-stop in order to pay rent.” I don’t think you need an MBA to see the problem with this [lack of a] business model.
That has been my experience, exactly.  There was a time when I crowed about the old company producing twenty to thirty individual productions over the course of a year.  I was a fool.  You shouldn't chart theatrical success in numbers of productions, certainly not at the Under-99 level.  Success (and ambition, for that matter) at the margins is reflected in quality, not quantity.  Any idiot with access to a space and enough gullible friends can slam together a season of thirty individual productions.  Successful companies (like Rogue Artists Ensemble, for example) put their resources behind a small number of thoughtfully and artfully rendered productions.

It sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it's really not:  The best shows I've seen at the Under-99 level looked and felt like college productions.  In college we had the luxury of time; of stock costumes, set pieces and props; of practically living in our theatre spaces; and -- in most cases -- a guaranteed budget for each show.  To replicate that level of polish at the Under-99 level is nothing short of ... what's that word I'm looking for?  Oh yeah.

Professional.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

2011 PERMANENT INK


Let's do this thing.
   
Let's generate a list of the best original, unpublished plays to debut in Los Angeles in 2011.
   
"The Black List" takes votes from studio executives.  Well, we're looking at produced plays, so I think we should include all comers:  Artistic Directors, other playwrights, critics, audience memebers, and all folks in between.  It may prove to be a big mistake, but we're going to do this on the honor system.
   
Just like The Black List, this isn't a "best of" list, it's a "most liked" list.  Voting will be closed on December 30th, and I'll publish the results on New Years Eve.  So vote, forward the link, and spread the word.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out!
   

Friday, December 09, 2011

The Fright Before Christmas

Art by Noel Belknap

Phillip Kelly and I produced our second variety show this past weekend, The Mr. Snapper & Mr. Buddy Rumpus Revue in: "KRAMPUSNACHT!" The through-line had me and the Rumpus Revue regulars playing a prank on Mr. Buddy. Since he had been a naughty boy all year, and since he still believes in Krampus, we decided to mess with Mr. Buddy a little bit. Little did we know that the REAL Krampus (played to the hilt by Scot Nery) was on hand. The through-line played out in bits and sketches between the acts.

Performing on our stage this time:

Comedy and Burlesque by Meredith Tittle (aka Honey Ima Home) and Red Snapper
Music by the Incredibly Odious Ari and the Capable Miss Puddles
A rap performance by Jayk Gallagher
“Gravinipulation” by our Craigslist Wildcard, Broadway Brian

We also had the usual slapstick hijinks of Chase McKenna as Billy and the absurd mimery of Jacob Smith as Pistachio the Mime. Phillip Kelly and I performed a couple of songs as well. At an hour and a half long, we need to either change our pitch or start calling ourselves “The Longest Hour-Long Variety Show in Los Angeles!”

Here are some observations and lessons learned:
  • Have a fall-back plan to cover for emerging issues. Holy smokes, the sound cue worked in rehearsal. But when it came time for Red to wow us with her fan dancing awesomeness, the sound cut out. As our booth op and the theatre manager struggled to fix it, Jake and Scot took the stage with some general, unrehearsed Tomfoolery. It worked in a pinch, but I think we should have a rehearsed bit that we can throw in as needed. (If it’s rehearsed we’ll probably never need to use it!)
  • Los Angeles is a crazy talented town. Our Craigslist Wildcards have practically stolen the show both times. These are complete strangers, folks, people we’ve never seen perform. The talent we know that we book are likewise incredibly talented. It boggles me that we are able to book such amazing artists.
  • We book acts that entertain us. This is the secret to a consistent variety show. Granted, we’re going for a patchwork quilt type of show; a Muppet Show-esque collection of eclectic acts. But since they are acts that Phillip and I book, they reflect our tastes, and our tastes define the show. Now, there is one thing that sucks about booking acts that you love: When you’re backstage preparing for the next bit, you can’t watch the performers you’ve booked.
  • Know your collaborators, trust your collaborators. Comedy depends upon trust. If you can’t trust the person you’re onstage with, you will hold them at arm’s length and nothing will land. You have to know and trust the people you share the stage with. That doesn’t mean you have to like them! I can hear the objection already: Laurel and Hardy couldn’t stand each other at the end, Martin and Lewis fought, etc. That may be the case, but onstage they knew they could trust the other performer. When that trust goes away, the partnership ends. (As it so happens, I love my collaborators.)
I would like to write a few words about Noel Belknap, the artist whose work has featured on our first two postcards.  In short:  She is terrific!  She perfectly captures the fun and fancy-free spirit of what Phillip and I do.  The image above set the tone for our show, as all good postcard art should.  Connecting up with Noel was serendipitous!

I will have photos before too long to share (from Markus Alias, another great artist!), and hopefully some video. In the meantime, enjoy this classic Mr. Snapper & Mr. Buddy performance:

Thursday, December 01, 2011

A Hard Knock Life

A stimulating read at HowlRound today, by Howard Sherman:
I wonder whether the not-for-profit theater is guilty of what we accuse “popular culture” of doing, that is to say, constantly embracing the new and abandoning anything that can be accused of being “so five minutes ago” (as is that particular phrase). Do we lionize only the true hits and consign the vast body of literature engendered by and created for our stages to the dustbin of history? Yes, you can browse for them at the Drama Book Shop in New York or the Samuel French shop in Los Angeles, but beyond that, they require archeological hunts, facilitated by sites both commercial (Amazon) and altruistic (the dizzyingly thorough Doollee.com). But how many never even saw publication, relegating them to permanent anonymity?

I wonder if there is any research on the number of new plays that debut each year?  The number of new shows in Los Angeles is dizzying; I can only imagine that in more "dedicated" theatre towns, the numbers are greater.

There is a huge wealth of material out there, most of which will never be seen again.  It's kind of depressing to think about, particularly if you're one of the playwrights generating that material.  I wonder what is being done -- or could be done -- to facilitate the archeological hunts that Sherman mentions.  Doollee seems to be a step in the right direction.  Perhaps there is something we could do regionally to help producers find underproduced gems?  Something as simple as Bitter Lemons adding a "original work" tag to their LemonMeter would make it easier for producers to search for the best reviewed new plays.

Here's a thought:  We should put together our own version of "The Black List."  Instead of a list of the best, unproduced screenplays, we could generate a list of the best original plays produced in Los Angeles in the previous year.  Such a list might just encourage play producers in other cities to consider producing our homegrown drama.  Perhaps other cities would generate their own lists, and we could exchange and share our wealth.

This list would be specifically for unpublished original plays, the exact sort of work Sherman says are relegated "to permanent anonymity" for lack of publishing.

Where to start?  Digging through the LemonMeter for 100% sweet debuts?  Emailing critics?  Asking Ovation voters?  I wouldn't mind doing the tabulation, but I'm not sure where to start ...

Friday, November 18, 2011

Regarding Neo-Burlesque, Hobbyists, Professionals, and the Illuminati

At BurlyCon 2011, I had the pleasure of attending Kate Valentine's (aka "Miss Astrid") "Neo-Burlesque State of the Union Address."  It was refreshing to be present to a bold and positive statement of observation of an artform I love, and to take part in the passionate yet incredibly civil conversation that followed.  I'm a big fan of asking yourself, "Why?" and seeking out solutions to what may be ailing you.

Valentine's address has been published at 21st Century Burlesque, and it has sparked off an incredible conversation in the burlesque community-at-large.  One of the biggest points of contention seems to be a distinction Valentine draws between "hobbyist" and "professional" burlesque performers.
There are two different arms of the current neo-burlesque world. One is the hobbyists, what I call Stitch n’ Bitch burlesque performers. They are huge fans of the genre and they got involved because they wanted to explore their sexuality, their body issues, or their love of retro clothing. They wanted to find a community of like-minded, fun, supportive party people. Then there are the career professionals. They may come from a background in theatre or dance. Most of them pursue burlesque as their full-time career or in addition to their other artistic work.
Please read the entire thing, and take the time to read through the comments.

I have a few observations on the "hobbyist" vs. "professional" dichotomy:

A hobbyist does it for themselves (i.e., their own gratification) a professional does it for others (i.e., an audience.) Example: A hobbyist may have a basement full of beautifully detailed miniatures hemming in an N-guage model train track. A professional works for Weta and Peter Jackson. Both may be equally passionate, equally skilled, and equally knowledgable about their craft. Only, one does it because it makes him or her happy, and the other does it to make other people happy.

You see this in performance as well: A tribute band that is happy just to get together and jam out in the garage vs. a band that gigs.

A hobby can easily become a career, if the opportunities are there.

I think Valentine makes a good point, even if the semantics are a bit tricky. There is a difference between someone who is just happy to entertain themselves versus someone with the drive to entertain others. Unfortunately, the difference seems to be highly subjective.

With live performance, we need an audience for the art to actualize. The model train enthusiast doesn't have to leave his basement to have a good time. Eventually the garage band will have to venture out of the garage. And so there is a fine line between "professional artist" and "hobbyist." Just ask the IRS.

In the comments, Valentine clarifies what she meant by these terms:
When I personally think of a professional performer I do not really think of someone who only does burlesque. So few people make a living solely on burlesque. (and only one person in the world makes a really good living at it!) So I suppose I think of people for whom burlesque is one arm of their performance career who are also musicians, or actors, or dancers, or whatever. I would *never * define what makes someone a professional artist based on financials. Livings must be made however they do. I would base it on: will you be on stage in 15 years? Do you possess skills which make you desirable to work with and a pleasure to watch on stage? If the word burlesque did not exist would you still be on stage somewhere somehow? At the end, the terms Pro and Hobbyist (or whatever term you don’t despise) are largely self-defined. I do not think Pro=Good and Hobbyist=Bad. I see these as groups with different priorities and expectations.
So why should you, the average theatre person care about this discusion?

First, The hobbyist/professional dichotomy exists in live theatre.  We've all seen and/or been a part of shows that were largely "hobbyist", "professional" or some combination of the two.  Second, what Valentine says about quality is absolutely true of the legit stage, and it's one of many dead horses I beat on a regular basis here:
What you must understand is that if you do a bad show it is wrecking it for everyone, including the people you probably idolize.
An audience is a precious, precious thing.  They have a gazillion entertainment options, most of which don't involve emoting and shitty production values.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this is how you lead a discussion about the state of an artform.  Not by gathering the illuminati together in a room with a whiteboard to spitball the same shit they've been saying in private conversations for years.  You lead a discussion about the state of an artform by making an observation, postulating a cause, and suggesting a solution.  You lead by stating your case, and standing behind your words.  Kate Valentine is my hero.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Last Time I'm Going to Beat this Dead Horse*

Of the thirty-four Ovations awarded last night, only ONE went to a dues-paying company.

And that was a design award.



* Yeah, sure.  I make no promises.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

An Ocean of Starfish

Photo © Dennis Mojado.  Made available under a Creative Commons license. 

NEWSFLASH!  Seth Godin wrote something brilliant:
In a world of endless choice, it's mathematically obvious that something's going to get picked, but you, you the creator, the marketer, the one with something at stake--you're not at all concerned about something. You're concerned about you and your product.
The "Long Tail" only benefits the aggregator.  It has always been thus, and always thus shall be.  When I first started reading web 2.0 stuff, new marketing philosophy, and all that jazz I really came a cropper over two things, both highly touted by the vastly overrated Chris Anderson:  His entire "Free" fantasy and "The Long Tail."  The latter in particular seemed 1) not particularly new or revelatory and 2) of absolutely no use to the individual content creator.

YouTube embodies the "Long Tail."  There are hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of videos that have been seen by a handful of people.  It's fortunate that such a marketplace exists, but you are literally competing with bad webcam videos of people lip-syncing to crappy songs.  Good luck

When we first started shooting "trailers" for our plays at the old theatre company, it seemed incredibly novel.  For Pin-Up Girls, we tried to extend the theatrical experience into the videos by scripting and shooting prequel vignettes (here, here, and here).  A great idea!  Not one of those videos has cracked a thousand views, three years after being uploaded.  I blame Keyboard Cat.

To their credit, Bitter Lemons has featured such video trailers (including this creepy and evocative video for The Woodsman, produced by the old theatre company.)  I hope they keep doing it.  Bitter Lemons embodies the advice Seth Godin leaves off with:
If you're a starfish, then, don't sign up with the long tail guys. Build your own universe, your own permission asset. Find a tribe, lead it, connect with it, become the short head, the one and only, the one that we'd miss if you were gone.
There is little doubt in my mind that Bitter Lemons is the online hub for the Greater Los Angeles theatre tribe (if such a thing could be said to exist).  Yes, they are also an aggregator, but such a tightly focused aggregator, you don't feel like you get lost in the "Long Tail."

Bitter Lemons facilitates dialogue,  provokes thought, and periodically goes through existential moments where they actively evaluate what they are doing.  All of this is healthy, and it's something that I wish more theatre companies would do.

Bitter Lemons is the kid on the beach, tossing starfish back into the ocean, and it does make a difference.  I am proud to be a tiny, virtually insignificant part of what they do, and of the tribe they are factually leading.

Friday, November 04, 2011


A few weeks ago my wife and I flew to Seattle for Burlycon, the "community-oriented professional growth and educational convention for Burlesque performers, fans, and aficionados."  This was my first time to a major, international burlesque event, and I was absolutely blown away.  I’m really impressed by the organization of the event.  It’s  HUGE, yet it feels very laissez-faire.  That has got to be a tough balancing act, and Miss Indigo Blue and company manage it splendidly – and in heels.

I really dig the community spirit in Seattle.  The selfless dedication to burlesque – in short, the number of volunteers!  I’m not sure such a show would work in Los Angeles.  We are awesome and all, but somewhat disconnected.  That’s Los Angeles.  The sprawl is in our bones.  (Also, I like how I just referred to this convention as a “show”.)

I attended classes and panels covering subjects from obscenity law to touring to how to twirl ass tassels.  Here are just a few things I learned:
  • Your marketing should be so good that you could conceivably sell it.  This came up in the touring panel, and they meant "sell your marketing materials" quite literally.  But it got me to thinking about a larger point: Would someone pay for one of your postcards?  Would they line up after the show to have a performer autograph a poster?  (I've seen the latter happen after Peepshow Menagerie shows!)  I've been in shows where people "stole" posters off the telephone poles almost immediately after they were put up.  I've been in plays where stacks of drab postcards gathered dust in a corner.  Which scenerio would you rather have?
  • If you can't entertain in a press release, how the hell do you expect to entertain on stage?  Jonny Porkpie, the Burlesque Mayor of New York blessed us with this tidbit of awesomeness in his Press Release and Branding class.  He's right.  We're entertainers, not your run-of-the-mill company announcing the arrival of the new widget.
  • If your venue isn't excited to have you, find another venue.  Seriously.  Baby Doe, the producer behind Tiki Oasis is a genius, and this was just one of many genius things she conveyed in her producer's class.  You want to be on the same page with your venue.  Better yet, you want them eager to have you and easy to work with!
  • "Perfection is the most useless goal any artist can have."  And that is a direct quote from Miss Astrid, emcee extraordinaire.  You've heard the saying, "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," right?  I believe the point Miss Astrid is making is "don't let the perfect be the enemy of fucking doing something."  Miss Astrid is very audience oriented, and if you know me, I took an instant liking to her.  As an entertainer, we are there to provide the audience with an experience.  The audience owes us nothing; they already bought their ticket.
Scott Ewalt provided an incredible survey of the history of male burlesque.  That hour and a half alone was worth the entire trip!

Knowledge shared, lessons learned, new friends made, sense of community greatly enhanced -- needless

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Marketing the Desirable

It has been almost a month since he posted it, but Jon Keevy's blog entry about marketing keeps bubbling to the surface of my thoughts.  It may be his opening:
Theatre is great. Most anyway. Actually only some. But 90% of everything is crap and people don’t avoid cinemas because 90% of the films suck.
I have a theory on this (surprise, surprise) but I'm not going to rehash that here.  (Read it if you're interested.)

Keevy makes some excellent points that bear thinking about.
Look, I don’t have a degree in marketing or sales or anything other than theatre. But I can see that if you are not giving people reasons to see theatre then they won’t. I go watch shows because I work in theatre, I have a professional interest. So if you see me at your show it’s not because you did anything right. You can only measure that by counting strangers.
I wonder sometimes just how insular the world of theatre is.  "Friends and family" is my usual shorthand for what I see as the broadest cross-section of the theatre-going audience.  At least at the chicken scratch level of Equity waiver. 

Yet in the burlesque world, total strangers make up the majority of any given house.  There are hardcore fans to be sure, and performers will attend each other's shows out of professional interest, as Keevy says.  But somehow this very rough sort of theatre has little problem packing people in.  Perhaps it's the half-naked women?  Well, okay.  But there are far more bikini bars and strip clubs in Los Angeles than there are burlesque shows.  So what gives?

Keevy's point is that successful shows tell people what is being offered, and then deliver that thing.  You can't argue with the simplicity of that assessment, but there is one thing missing from the equation:  Offering something desirable.

Live entertainment depends upon the attendance and active involvement of other people and we must consider what will appeal to them.  "First rule in roadside beet sales: the most attractive beets on top."



"Those are the money beets."

Keevy knows this, of course.  I know he knows this because he's making theatre that people want to see.  For some people, it's second nature.  It's like there's some sort of "entertainer gene" that drives them; a "somnambulistic certainty" such as what filmmaker Fritz Lang said drove him. "Instinct" is another word for it.

First, make desirable theatre.  Second, make people aware of what you're doing.  Third, deliver.

Rinse, repeat.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Another Kind of Green Theatre

Since it's an ephemeral art, it's too easy to make "disposable" theatre; theatre that wastes resources and winds up in the landfill at the end of the day.  If you've ever ended a strike by cramming the final pieces of a set into an overflowing dumpster, you know what I'm talking about.  Also if you've ever had to pay the electric bill. 

Sometimes we repurpose and recycle for economic reasons, not because we are trying to cut back on waste.  Maybe we don't want to use that same bar unit that has been in every play we've produced since we slapped the damn thing together.  We have to use it because it's the piece we have.  Green out of neccesity.

There's another kind of "green" if you will, a kind of conservation that it would behoove us to pay attention to.  The expense of this wastefullness isn't obvious, not at first.  But I guarantee you'll feel it over time:
For many organizations, power and growth come from the idea of having lots of customers and even more potential customers. Lots of eggs, lots of baskets. [...]

For a few organizations, the opposite is true. One basket, cared for and watched carefully. When no one else can focus on and serve that customer as well as you (because you have no choice, it's your only basket) you have a huge obligation but you also have a platform to do great work.
Is your organization wasting audience?  Wasting relationships with other companies, venues, or artists?  Seth Godin makes the pitch that individualized attention opens the door to great work.  Wasting an audience or a business contact or a fellow artist will bite you in the ass.  Eventually you will run out of eggs, and be left holding the basket.  Do great work instead.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Death to Dues

art by Hugh MacLeod, commissioned for C. David Gammel

I've been meaning to tackle this subject for some time, in language hard and unflinching.  A list of references out the wazoo, maybe even an interview with an Actor's Equity rep.  Truth is, I'm too busy doing things (i.e. producing, writing and performing) to write a massive expose on the subject.  Maybe someone with more time on their hands will pull the string on this moth eaten sweater, and make the frontpage of Backstage, LA Weekly, or at least get a bump on Bitter Lemons.

That this is not as big a controversy as casting director workshops once were is a testament to how marginalized theatre is in this town.  You remember casting director workshops, right?  Actors paying for access to casting directors under the auspices of a class?  Some were legit, sure.  Many of them weren't.  There was a pretty big stink made, and now if you want to deliver a casting director workshop, you have to be bonded and licensed.  Even to this libertarian, that sounds like a good idea.  Los Angeles makes actors do stupid things.  Paying people for a chance to be seen is one of those things.

I've ranted about how unconscionable the dues-paying model is (here).  For those of you too lazy to click through, here is the salient point: If a theatre company cannot fund itself with fundraising and box office receipts alone, it doesn’t deserve to exist.  Too harsh?  I co-founded (and since left) a company that started with the dues-paying model as a way of funding ourselves.  We called it our "life blood".  Keep in mind, if it looks like I'm pointing fingers, I'm just as guilty of perpetuating an unethical system as the next guy.

A few things to consider:
  • Per the Los Angeles 99-Seat Plan, "The Producer may not, in order to supplement the production budget, request or require financial contributions or loans; accept kickbacks, tuition, fees, assessments or payments of any kind from cast members or Stage Managers."  (Note:  This language does not specify "4 As members" but rather the more general "cast members.")  A company producing under the 99-Seat Plan that also requires its members to pay dues is in open violation of the plan.
  • 93% of the companies that produce Ovation-worthy theatre in LA are NOT dues paying companies, based on a survey of the 44 companies who were nominated for the 2010/11 season. There are only three companies that charge dues, and two of those companies offer some sort of regular acting class in exchange.  I realize that correlation is not causation, but it is worth it to note that arguably the most professional theatre being produced in Los Angeles doesn't dip its fingers into its actor's pockets.
  • A professional is one who gets paid.  That's the simple, dictionary definition.  I'd say an actor who is serious about her craft, who applies professional standards yet defers payment is still, in essence, a professional.  But what would you call an actor who applies the same professional standards, yet pays to be a part of a theatre company?  Considering how much theatre is produced in this town that doesn't require remuneration from the cast?
  • One of the arguments I've heard in defense of the dues-paying model is "It keeps the flakes at bay." The absolute illogic of this statement is staggering.  If anything, the dues-paying model keeps the flakes in charge.  Think about it:  If your company's life blood comes from the actors and not the audience you may rarely feel the pinch of bad programming, low production values, etc.  Fundraisers can break-even or barely profit, and no one will really notice.  In short, you don't have to try as hard.  The dues-paying model is unethical, amateurish, and ultimately a hindrance to creating better theatre.
If you run a dues-paying company and it seems too scary to go cold turkey and drop the dues requirement all at once, you could take baby steps.  Maybe switch to a "Pay What You Can" model for dues until you have the confidence to get rid of them all together.  People seem to love the PWYC model.  It does great things for audience numbers and box office take, or so we're told.  Maybe extend the same courtesy to your company members that you extend to your audience.

Finally, what's good for casting director workshops is good for dues-paying theatre companies.  Theatre companies dead set on maintaining their dues-paying model ought to be bonded by the State of California.  A $50,000 bond ... now that will keep the flakes at bay.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sketch Comedy Sucks



Never in my wildest dreams did I see myself as part of a sketch comedy troupe. A mime troupe, maybe. Possibly a dance troupe. Like every other young man in America, I had visions of perhaps making it to Saturday Night Live -- as a host if not a regular cast member. This was a vision fuelled by men such as Phil Hartman and Mike Meyers, and far too many lonely Saturday nights spent at home in my teen years.
Flash forward [muffle-muffle] years, and here I am. Hollywood, California. Geographically and culturally removed from "Live! From New York!" by a continent-sized ... well, continent. And what have I learned?
Sketch comedy sucks. It's too often done poorly, with little rehearsal or attention to sound comedy writing. It co-occupies a niche of suck with bad improv (which is to say "most" improv); a lonely cubbyhole of despair full of cheap shots, easy targets, and pandering. My God! The pandering!
To say "I hate sketch comedy" would be too strong, too virulent, and too truthful. But I also love sketch comedy, when done "right." What do I mean by "right?"
  • The moment when Dave Foley realizes he's eating eggs that Chicken Lady laid.
  • Whenever Robert Webb begins singing "Devil's Gallop," whilst manically running around.
  • When Phil Hartman's Anal Retentive Chef discovers a piece of pepper that is bigger than the rest.
  • When the cast of "The Jew, The Italian & The Red Head Gay" and (inexplicably) "Godspell" catch their breath after singing the theme song.
In a word, when it's funny.  To be a part of a sketch comedy troupe and be able to live with myself, it has to be good.  It has to be funny.

Die Grüppe was forged at a theatre company Phillip Kelly and I helped co-found, and is now under the umbrella of Merry War Theatre Group. We (and by "we" I mean a talented group of writers and performers that I consider myself lucky to be counted among) have been hard at work crafting a new show.  The material is written, a director is on board, and we are narrowing in on dates. Die Grüppe is back.


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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

REINVENT


From Hugh MacLeod (author of Ignore Everybody, among other things):
There’re a lot of smart people out there starting and driving businesses focused on changing the way we do things—especially in marketing and technology. Unfortunately, far too many companies still rely on tweaking what exists as opposed to reinventing.
I can personally vouch for the "tweaking what exists" when it comes to theatre.  You do what you know, and you tweak that.  It takes considerable courage and drive to part with preconceptions of How Things Ought To Be and really get down to building a company that really does something that matters.  Worse, it takes no effort to tweak away while convincing yourself you're reinventing.

There's a great quote from my favorite sci-fi author, Robert Heinlein, from his book The Cat Who Walked Through Walls:
The hardest part about gaining any new idea is sweeping out the false idea occupying that niche. As long as that niche is occupied, evidence and proof and logical demonstration get nowhere. But once the niche is emptied of the wrong idea that has been filling it — once you can honestly say, "I don't know", then it becomes possible to get at the truth.
I don't know.  I study, I theorize, I opine, I experiment, but I don't know.  And I hope I never do.  It keeps me flexible.

Hugh again:
So it comes down to knocking out some walls, and encouraging others to do the same. You’ve seen what this old method can do, so get it out of the way to let new ideas work some magic for a little while…
Until, of course, it’s time to trash that for whatever is next.
I've said it before and I'll say it again:  Theatre is the phoenix's art.  If you're not reinventing, what the hell are you doing?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Five Lessons from Cirque du Soleil

Oh, for a muse of fire that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
- Henry V

Oh Patti, Patti, Patti.  You're a doll and we all love you.  But you're just wrong:
Cirque du Soleil - it's the big, bad brother now. Cirque du Soleil taking a five-year lease on Radio City Music Hall is going to suck Broadway dry. ... If you don't know a particular playwright or a particular play and you're facing a huge ticket price, what are you going to do? You're going to go with what you know, and more people know Cirque de - the tourists come and people know Cirque du Soleil. They really are, I think, ridiculous now. Go back to Montreal.
To be fair to Ms. LuPone, her publicist offered a bullshit retraction some days after the above quote was published.  To be honest, although I think she's wrong I admire the fire and passion in Patti LuPone's original statement.  I kind of wish she had stood by it.  Anyway.

Don Shirley asks the question of Cirque du Soleil's new Los Angeles show, Iris, "what's in it for us?"  Actually, I'm not going to pick on Don Shirley.  He has some good ideas for how the folks at Cirque could lend a hand to Los Angeles companies that are struggling, just as Cirque struggled in the very beginning.  You should read the whole thing

I will say that I believe Cirque owes us nothing, and yet provides more than we could ask for.  This is a company that started out as two performers on the streets of Quebec, and has grown into an incredible panoply of exciting live entertainments that folks can't seem to get enough of.  There is much to be learned from Cirque.  Rather than bemoan their success as Ms. LuPone does, or fantasize about the handouts they could give us, I propose we try to learn something we can use to improve what we do.  And so ...

5 lessons from Cirque du Soleil
   
1. Production values are as important as performer quality.

Broadway has this tapped, and certainly the better waiver companies know what they're doing.  But I have seen -- and been party to -- far too many productions that settle for shit production values when just an ounce of cleverness or creativity could have made the proverbial silk purse.  This extends to something as seemingly mundane as postcard and program design.  We humans like pretty things, and Cirque du Soleil fills that need by the truckload.  Don Shirley observes, "I can easily imagine that some LA theatrical designers, in particular, might not like competing with Cirque du Soleil for Ovations."  No kidding.
  
2. Want to make a profit?  Transition away from non-profit. 

Cirque du Soleil was a complete financial failure when it first started.  The turning point?  Re-privatizing the company and hiring people who knew how to run a business.  If you want to make a career out of it, run it like a business.
  
3. Let your audience know what they can expect (including surprises!).
Cirque du Soleil is a recognizable brand that conjures up images of lean, muscular performers in tight-fitting body suits leaping through the air.  It also conjures up an air of mystery; of magic.  The audience knows what sort of experience they can expect from Cirque du Soleil.

That doesn't mean there are no surprises -- we know to expect those as well.  As Mr. Shirley puts it, "I won’t go on in greater detail about Iris here, not only because McNulty and others are already doing so, but also because the highlights of it shouldn’t be known in advance, just like plot twists in a more earthbound theatrical production."  Each and every one of Cirque du Soleil's ba-zillion shows has those highlights.  Can we say the same for the average Under-99 play in Los Angeles?
  
4. The only community that matters is the one YOU build.

A Cirque do Soleil (or a Wal-Mart or Starbucks for that matter) doesn't happen overnight.  As much as it pains one to admit, it takes a lot of work to go from one dingy show (or storefront) to world domination.  Part of that work involves cultivating the people you serve.  The People in the Dark -- that's the community we should build. 

The thing that frustrates me most about Patti LuPone's comments is that Cirque is not stealing audience from some unknown playwright or play.  The unknown playwright or play is failing on its own just fine, thank you.  On the contrary, Cirque is motivating people to get off of the couch and see an incredible show.  Maybe, just maybe that public will get a taste for live entertainment and a longing for "a night out."  After Iris, they will cast about for their next fix.  They will find other shows, and their tastes will deepen with experience.  A new community of theatre-goers is born.

(The reverse is true.  The same audience is one lousy play away from throwing up their hands and returning to Dancing with the Stars.  Don't fuck it up.)
  
5. Blow your audience's mind.

The difference between live entertainment and other forms of entertainment is encapsulated in that word, "live."

The performer who runs the Wheel of Destiny can't have an "off night."

So here's a novel thought:  GIVE THE AUDIENCE A REASON TO LEAVE THEIR LIVING ROOMS.  When you're standing in the lobby, wondering if you should hold the curtain another five minutes on the off chance someone else shows up -- or if you find yourself in a situation where your Equity cast members are voting to cancel the evening's performance for lack of audience -- remember this.  The audience owes you NOTHING.  You owe them EVERYTHING.  So give them everything you can muster.

If you're not sweating when you leave the stage, you didn't do enough.
  
There is more -- much more -- to be learned from the unprecedented success of a couple of French Canadian buskers.
  
What have YOU learned from Cirque du Soleil?

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Comedy of Errors

Cylan Brown as Dromio of Syracuse minds the front gate. Photo by Seth Miller

If ever there was an antidote for the malaise of too many* staid, stilted or just plain awful Shakespearean productions, the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble’s spirited production of The Comedy of Errors is surely it. But when you go and see it (and you should most definitely go and see it), don’t scrimp. Use that ticket money you save on this free admission show for a beer and a hot dog -- assuming the Ensemble keeps the grill going over the run of the show. I hope they do. This is beer and a hot dog Shakespeare; theatre for the groundlings, and we are, if anything, a nation of groundlings.

The play is the Bard’s shortest, most whimsical romp. Mistaken identity forms the core of the plot -- or rather is the set-up for a number of comical bits.

The Ensemble creates a festive atmosphere outdoors, on the back patio at Powerhouse Theater, with a set cobbled together from leftover platforms and crates.

Director Drew Shirley’s cast is lively, engaging in inspired physical comedy; well-orchestrated chaos. The flurry of activity is an absolute delight, and every performer commits 100% to the tale. Particularly delightful is Greyson Lewis, who does double duty as a comically inept Officer and a gratuitously “sexy” Courtesan.

The hysterics are not pointless. The physical jokes grow out of the material, and jokes written in the material play very well on their own. Nothing in the staging is out of place. For instance, an extended dance sequence towards the end of the first act is appropriate to the story, erupting deliciously out of the moment.

This is a show full of belly laughs. It truly is popular theatre, just as the Bard's works were intended. The Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble is having fun, and they invite the audience to join the party. I’d RSVP if I were you.

The Comedy of Errors is performed Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 7:00 pm through September 24th at The Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd Street in Santa Monica (one block east of Main, between Rose & Marine).

Admission is free, but they will accept donations. Reservations are recommended. To reserve your seats, visit Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble online at http://www.latensemble.com/ or http://www.powerhousetheatre.com/.

The Ensemble invites their Audiences to bring picnics or purchase food and drinks at the performance.

*Arises the question, how many bad Shakespeare plays are too many? You can count the answer on one finger.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

[Inside] the Ford Announces their Next ...

A huge congratulations to Circle X Theatre Co., Furious Theatre Company and PAE Live!  The [Inside] the Ford program is a fantastic opportunity for local theatre companies, and I hope to get out to see all three of these productions.

(Commence press release.)

[Inside] the Ford announces 2011-12 season
New plays from PAE Live!, Furious Theatre Company
and Circle X Theatre Co. push the envelope

LOS ANGELES, CA – September 14, 2011 – PAE Live!, Furious Theatre Company and Circle X Theatre Co. have been selected through a competitive application process to present three new plays at [Inside] the Ford in 2011-12.

“These three terrific companies have committed to put on technically challenging and emotionally difficult material,” comments season producer Adam Davis. “The season is ambitious; these are the kinds of productions that challenge the audience to think. We hope to provide an opportunity for these theater companies to push their artistic boundaries, and we are confident they will pull it off and do it well. That’s what I’m most excited about.”

The season opens on November 4 and 5 when PAE Live! presents The Romance of Magno Rubio in English – as well as the world premiere of Ang Romansa ni Magno Rubio, a new translation into Tagalog of Lonnie Carter’s OBIE award-winning play. A high-energy stage adaptation of Carlos Bulosan's seminal short story about a love struck Filipino migrant worker in 1930s California, The Romance of Magno Rubio uses clever word play, rhymes, rhythms and Philippine love songs (“kundimans”) to reveal the lives of migrant workers, their struggles and dreams, and their longings for home and a better life. PAE Live! presents five performances each week, three in English and two in Tagalog. The new translation is by renowned Filipino actor Bernardo Bernardo, who also directs. (November 4-December 11)

On January 21, Furious Theatre Company presents the world premiere of No Good Deed, a gritty and savagely humorous live-on-stage action adventure that is part theater and part graphic novel. Dámaso Rodriguez directs resident playwright Matt Pelfrey’s bold exploration of the way junk news and media hype thwart the best efforts of real life heroes. No good deed goes unpunished when teen illustrator Josh Jackson transforms into a superhero – only to face mortal consequences for his actions in an epic battle of good vs. evil. (January 21-February 26)

Circle X Theatre Co. returns to [Inside] the Ford on March 24 with the world premiere of a wild and crazy comedy that examines the stretch marks in the American dream. In Naked Before God by Leo Geter, former adult B-movie queen Kristen Burrows may have hit upon a business plan with potential: she's going to combine her adult film past with a born again future. Meanwhile, Kristin's son Duncan is set to launch an entrepreneurial scheme of his own. When a Christian radio talk show host interested in Kristen's book idea comes to dinner, twisted hilarity ensues. (March 24-April 28)

The winter play series at [Inside] the Ford, supported by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and the Ford Theatre Foundation, has presented Los Angeles, West Coast, and world premiere productions from companies including Moving Arts, Ensemble Studio Theatre-LA, Circle X Theatre Co., TheSpyAnts, Ghost Road Company, Rogue Artists Ensemble, Neo Theatre Ensemble and Vs. Theatre Company since 2008. Plays produced as part of the series have garnered awards and recognition from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, LA Weekly and Back Stage. “A big plus for the decade came from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, whose funding of various companies at [Inside] the Ford has given us some of the richest programming of the seasons,” wrote Steven Leigh Morris in the LA Weekly.
[Inside] the Ford is located in the Ford Theatres complex at 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood, CA 90068, just off the 101 Hollywood Freeway across from the Hollywood Bowl and south of Universal Studios. On-site, non-stacked parking is free. Tickets are $25 with a special price of $12 for full-time students and senior citizens. A season subscription for all three plays is $54. Discounts are available for groups of 8 or more. For information and to purchase tickets go to the Ford Theatres Web site at www.FordTheatres.org or call 323-461-3673. The Ford is also on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter @FordTheatres.

###

About [Inside] the Ford:

Embedded within a 1929 historic structure, [Inside] the Ford is an 87-seat indoor theater space at the Ford Theatres complex that boasts modern lights and sound, comfortable seats, and a decades-long history of nurturing new theater. For many years it was rented by numerous groups, most notably the Mark Taper Forum which made it the home of its second stage Taper, Too from 1972 to 1997. In 1998 the space was extensively renovated and renamed [Inside] the Ford, following which a season of three productions was presented under the Los Angeles County Art Commission's subsidized rental program designed to help theater companies without permanent facilities. From 2000-01 through 2003-04, [Inside] the Ford hosted "Hot Properties," seasons of new plays and musicals produced by County-based theater companies and supported by A.S.K. Theater Projects and the James Irvine Foundation. From 2005-06 to 2007-08, [Inside] the Ford was the home of the Ensemble Theatre Collective, known as ETC@ITF, a collaboration of five L.A.-based theater companies that was supported in part by the Flintridge Foundation.
About the Los Angeles County Arts Commission:

The Los Angeles County Arts Commission, Laura Zucker, Executive Director, provides leadership in cultural services of all disciplines for the largest county in the United States, encompassing 88 municipalities. In addition to programming the John Anson Ford Theatres, the Arts Commission provides leadership and staffing to support the regional blueprint for arts education, Arts for All; administers a grants program that funds more than 300 nonprofit arts organizations annually; oversees the County's Civic Art Program for capital projects, funds the largest arts internship program in the country in conjunction with the Getty Foundation, and supports the Los Angeles County Cultural Calendar on ExperienceLA.com. The Arts Commission also produces free community programs, including the L.A. Holiday Celebration broadcast nationally, and a year-round music program that funds free concerts each year in public sites. The 2011-12 President of the Arts Commission is Ollie Blanning. For more information please consult the Arts Commission online press kit: http://lacountyarts.org/page/pubnewspress.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Theatre is the Ctrl+F of Life


According to one of the brains at Google, 90% of the population doesn’t know the Ctrl (or “Command” for you Apple devotees) + F trick to locate an exact word or phrase on a web page or in a document:
Do they just scroll? And scroll, and scroll, and scroll, reading every single word until they find the one they're looking for? Do they just give up? Think how many papers go unwritten, how many gifts go un-given—all because 90% of humans can't find what they're looking for.
I don’t think this is limited to web pages and documents. I believe that humankind is constantly scrolling; looking for some sort of meaning in life, tending to settle on whatever fits our own personal prejudices. Enter the artist. Our craft enables us to narrow on the exact issues that trouble us most, to shine a light in those dark recesses, and help our audience find meaning.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

No Results Found in this Book for Dues


This looks like a pretty good read!  Over at the New York Times, the author conducted a bit of a Q & A on the topic of his book.  Check it out.  It's so inspiring, it got me to thinking even I could start a theatre company!

Oh, wait ...

UPDATE: 

Something Mr. Nelson wrote in the Q & A caught my eye:
I wouldn't go LLC (limited liability company) because you're basically competing with non-profits. If they don't sell their shows, they can simply raise money from people looking for tax write-offs. If you don't sell your shows? Good night, and check please!
This is the best argument for going non-profit that I've seen in a long time.  (This is a topic I've blogged/hand-wringed about here, here, and here.)  Not that I'm convinced, mind you, but it is a compelling argument nonetheless.

Mr. Nelson also unabashedly hits another nail on the head elsewhere in this Q & A:
Execution simply means you must consistently put up a superior production/product. Theater is a competitive game, so you might as well embrace it. If your shows are hot, trust me, audiences will find you.

There has been a big move toward community building in the LA scene, as if being part of a larger, tighter-knit clique held the cure to low attendance, a lack of relevance, and possibly cancer.  I wonder what would happen if companies declared outright war on each other?  At the very least, it would be interesting.  (More interesting than pretending we don't compete for audience.)

[A clarification: I'm not advocating "outright war" between companies.  It's just a thought experiment.]

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Practicing What I Preach


Wait ... you actually make theatre?
  
Well, yes, I do.  Most of what I do these days is burlesque (I get paid and get to hang around with half-naked women) which includes the curious partnership that exists between me and Phillip Kelly in the form of Mr. Snapper and Mr. Buddy.
  
I don't believe I've blogged much about our neo-vaudevillian alter-egos here on Mad Theatrics.  But yes, we're kind of a big deal.  At least in our own minds.  And that's all that really matters in the Los Angeles theatre scene, right?
 
Seriously, though, we're awesome:


Our act combines music with slapstick comedy. 


We typically host burlesque shows, but we have performed long sets since 2009's "Peepshow Menagerie presents: Burlesqueland!"  We combine free-wheeling improvisational gag comedy with scripted, tightly rehearsed comic bits -- often in the same show.

Photo by Markus Alias
It's sawdust-on-the-floor theatre.  The immediate feedback loop from the "groundlings" (if you will) shapes how we progress through our set.  Oftentimes the audience becomes a part of the act.

Photo by Markus Alias
Everything I write on this blog about taking care of the audience manifests in what Mr. Buddy and Mr. Snapper do.  We're not in this to stroke our own egos -- we're in this to delight an audience.  And to that end ...


We're producing a show! A madcap romp of a show, filled with talented variety artists, musicians, dancers -- the works!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

We're Different



I had the pleasure this past weekend of taking in two really good plays for Stage Happenings.  Those reviews will be up shortly, but in the meantime -- something occurred to me.

"What we lack in production values we'll make up for in a commitment to acting."  Sound familiar?  It's a sentiment I've heard batted around at certain unnamed theatre companies.  I've done the batting myself in the past.  It made perfect sense at the time.  Now? Not so much.

Both of the plays I saw this past weekend had TREMENDOUS production values.  Naturalistic sets and costumes, thoughtful lights and sound.  These were rich-looking plays.  But you know what else?  Both plays had some of the best acting I've ever seen -- including film and television. (Ooooooooo ... oh no he didn't!)

So guess what?  Telling yourself, "We're different, we focus on the acting!" that's cheap.  Those are empty words that exist to mask either an ignorance of stagecraft, or an unwillingness to put as much effort as one should into building an onstage world.  Hey -- I'm guilty of this, too, and it's an attitude I've seen in many places, not just at any one company.  To be perfectly fair, it's an attitude that comes and goes with access to designers and resources.  But nevertheless it's a "sour grapes" attitude; a defeatist attitude.

It's a microcosmosis attitude.

The term comes from Hugh MacLeod:
"Microcosmosis": when you confuse your little microcosm with the entire universe.
The implication is that production values don't matter because the play's the thing, and we're the shit.  But when you lift your head out of your own ass and bother to look around at the entire universe, you discover just what small potatoes you really are. There are basically three possible reactions to breaking the illusion of microcosmosis:  1) Quit, 2) Work harder, or 3) Stick your head back up your ass and pretend you didn't see anything.  The truly afflicted manage to do 3) while convincing themselves they are doing 2).

There's no end to what an artist can convince himself of.  Unfortunately, our job is to convince the audience, and that takes good performance and good stagecraft.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Audience Is Always Right

(Originally published on my dancer blog here.)

I recognize that as a performer I wouldn't have a job if it wasn't for the audience.  I get booked because the audience doesn't have a mass exodus when I hit the stage.  I love them and respect them, and I try to keep my skill set sharp and expanding so they continue employing me.  This has always held true for me, even when I was more actor than dancer.  I recognize that they are there to be entertained, and that's the contract I agreed to when I agreed to perform for them.

I'm reading Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers by Henning Nelms.  I can't guarantee that you'll see any prestidigitation from me in the near future, but I am learning more and more about showmanship.  Here's a wonderful selection ripped from the book:

We cannot prevent individuals from jumping to foolish conclusions, nor should we worry much when they do.  However, the audience as a whole is always right.  Once it forms an opinion, the fact that this is completely unfounded is of no consequence whatever.
Let's take a look at this.  "However, the audience as a whole is always right."  There's some talent show on network television where performers get voted off stage within thirty seconds if the audience doesn't like what's being brought to the table.  Sure, a few people may be entertained but the audience as a whole determines the fate of the performer.

And more from the magic man:
 This is a fundamental principle of showmanship.  When we offer to entertain--and convince--an audience and fail to do so, the fault is ours.  If the audience does not like our material, we cannot complain of its taste but must take the blame for choosing unwisely.  If the audience is stupid, we must find ways to be especially clear.  If the audience is inattentive, we must manage to capture and hold attention.  An audience may be difficult, but there is no such thing as a bad audience.  Anyone who performs before an audience has undertaken to please that audience.  If he bores it, he has not lived up to his obligation.
Let me say up front that not every audience is as audibly enthusiastic as a Roman rabble at a bear-baiting show.  Some appreciate things quietly and process internally.  Not every show is a standing ovation show, but that doesn't mean the audience as a whole hated it.

Now that my disclaimer is out of the way, let's look at audiences in the world of live entertainment.  How about the audience protesting what's happening on stage by shifting in their seats?  That creaking is a sort of vote that what's happening on stage is boring.  (The creaking is a horrible and obvious sign of boredom, especially when you're on stage and you hear it happening.)  Unwrapping of candy, texting, shuffling loudly through the program, talking, bathroom breaks by an obvious chunk of your audience -- these are pretty good signs that you're not entertaining them.  I remember seeing Sting in concert in 2000, and a huge chunk of the audience made for the loo when he played his country song.  It wasn't the entire audience, but the amphitheater had obvious patches void of patrons during that song.  If he'd played country the rest of the night, I would've been one of the inevitable mass exodus from the show.  These are signs that the audience isn't being entertained.

I co-directed a show about a year and a half ago when the original director bailed.  I wasn't thrilled to add something non-dance to my schedule, but I'm a decent director and I didn't want the actors to be left in the lurch.  One of the two nights I watched the show with an audience, the entire front row walked out.  In the world of Equity waiver (under 99-seat) theatre, the theaters are so small that it's very noticeable when people leave.  In fact, this group was plotting their escape while the actors were acting their hearts out less than six feet away.  They walked out in the middle of the scene, almost brushing up against the actors as they left.  They also posted a poisonous review on Goldstar.  I can't blame them; the show wasn't amazing and they weren't entertained.  They spent money to see something interesting and we gave them the same low-budget Equity waiver theatre they could get anywhere in LA. (To be honest yet a dick, I wasn't thrilled to go see the show twice and I co-directed. I directed a show the year before and sat in the audience every night I was in town.  While the audience was small, they were always pleased with the show.  There were a few people who saw that show more than once.)

If the audience thinks you're "phoning in" your performance, they're not going to give a shit about how many hours you've rehearsed and how many times you've done it before.  They're not convinced.  If your performance is technically proficient but the audience isn't entertained, you might as well go home and masturbate in your proficiency before a mirror until you're ready to start involving the audience in your performance because right now it's all for yourself.  It's no good blaming your audience.  And here's me being a dick again: it's a real sister baby move to proclaim via social media how your audience sucked and didn't understand how hard you worked.  See my masturbation suggestion if you want to celebrate how hard you worked and not concern yourself with pleasing an audience.

If you're not stuck on masturbating as a performer, look at what Nelms says and consider how you can apply that to your own stage work, whether as an entertainer or an enabler (director, producer, etc.).  If it doesn't cause the reaction you expect from your audience, how can it be modified or improved to get that reaction?

Now get to entertaining the shit out of people!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Cynic’s Guide to Making Under-99 Theatre in 10 EASY Steps!


Back-of-a-business-card artwork by Hugh Macleod.  Buy his stuff, follow him, etc.
[For today, a little levity.]
 
Making theatre is hard.  That's why I broke it down for you in these 10 easy steps!
 
1. Do a Shakespeare. His plays are free, and there’s instant name recognition. Conversely, produce a new work from an upcoming playwright. What they lack in name recognition they more than make up for in a willingness to work for free and a potential to bring in an audience (i.e. friends and family.)

2. Broker a deal to rent a theatre for a split of the door. That way you’re not out any cash. If you can’t make the guarantee, don’t sweat it. Burn bridges with theatre managers if you need too. Seriously -- do you know how many theatres there are in this town? There are way more bridges than you could comfortably burn in a lifetime.

If you have to pay something up front, ask your actors to “invest” in the company. Call this investment “membership dues,” so as to avoid violating section 4(E) of the Los Angeles 99-Seat Plan. Another possibility is to kite a check.  You may also consider asking Mommy and Daddy to foot the bill.

3. When on the hunt for a director, willingness is the most important quality to look for. If someone expresses a passing interest, that’s enough. Crown them “Director” and put them in charge. Don’t question their choices, no matter how inexperienced or stupid the director may be. They’re willing, and in Under-99 Theatre, willing is enough.

4. You don’t need a unified design team. You hardly even need designers! Mostly you need people who are good at obtaining the needed set pieces, costume pieces, props, etc. It doesn’t matter if the flag has fifty stars in a play set in 1931, and it doesn’t matter that you’re using the same $2 plastic breakaway knife that everyone else uses. All that matters is the actors. To that end, spare no expense (out of your lighting designer’s pocket) to keep your actors lit.  (Well, keep them lit as best as you can without really breaking a sweat.)

5. Cast large. The bigger your cast, the bigger your potential audience (i.e. friends and family.)

6. Don’t bother to file your 99-Seat Plan. Why draw attention to yourself with Equity? If anyone in the cast cares, you can easily fake the paperwork, lie, etc. But don’t be up front about it – you may scare off the union actors, and everyone knows the only good actors are union actors.

7. To promote the play, you will need postcards. Pick an exciting or intriguing image for the card – it doesn’t matter if it’s relevant to the play, so long as it’s eye-catching – and put a full cast list on the back. If putting the cast list on the back prevents you from putting a summary of the play on the postcard, who cares? No one comes to a play because they know what it’s about. They’re coming based on that eye-catching image. And because they know someone in the cast.

8. It’s never too soon to plan out cast parties. You should have as many of these as you can over the course of the run. A carousing cast is a happy, unquestioning cast. What you lack in substance and artistic challenges you can make up for in social intercourse.

9. Flood the social networks with plugs for your show. This involves little more than linking to the Facebook event and saying “Come see my show!” If possible, have your entire cast and crew bomb Facebook at the same time. Since odds are you all have the same friends, this will really make an impact.

10. When the show fails, don’t hesitate to lay blame -- but don’t blame yourself! You know how hard you had to work to get the show to this point. Instead, pick one or more of the following to blame:
  • The audience
  • The reviewers (or lack thereof)
  • The economy
  • People who may have left the company and/or show
Above all else, don't ask "why?"  Don't worry yourself over reconciling art with commerce.  Don't push yourself past the breaking point as an artist.  Remember it's called "play," and that means zero responsibility to the audience or the artform and 100% self-involvement.  As it should be!  I mean, you're only doing this to get noticed by a casting director or agent, right?

[Did I miss any major points?  Comment below!]