Thursday, February 24, 2011

Rightsizing on the Margin

A thought-provoking post from Seth Godin today coincides with a subject I am struggling with at present:
This is backwards but here you go: businesses that exist exist because the marketplace allows them to function at the right size. There were a lot of bowling alleys in the 1960s because the number of people you needed to run one plus the rent was just covered by the revenue you could expect. There was a right size, one that people were willing to take on and run.

The next level up from Mom and Pop feels different. Different furnishings, different rent, different payroll. It's not a little bigger, it's a whole quantum level different. And then down the street is the chain store, the one with 40 outlets and regional vice presidents and regional newspaper ads. Those things naturally go together, the scale is right.
Under-99 theatre is theatre on the margins.  The economics of producing a play is whack at the Broadway level, nevermind at the "buying props out of your own pocket" level.  At least the cats on Broadway are getting paid.  (No pun intended.)

There is a problem of scale here that needs to be sorted out.
When in pain, consider your scale. When you're too big or too small for the revenue or the impact you seek, you'll feel it in your bones. Leap.
There must be a way to crack through the "Community Theater" ceiling and make under-99 theatre more of a career and less of a volunteer activity.  Or perhaps doing it because it's a fun thing to do is enough.  Maybe I'd feel better if Sisyphus had a few party balloons and some crepe paper streamers hanging around him.  I'm not sure.  Like I said, I'm struggling with it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

An Oldie but a Goodie

This morning I found myself thinking about theatre on the margins and busywork.  You remember busywork.  It's what school teachers give their kids when they don't have anything productive to do.

Here's the Merriam-Webster definition:
work that usually appears productive or of intrinsic value but actually only keeps one occupied
On a whim, I searched through Godin's blog archive to see if he had ever addressed busywork.

Indeed, he has:
"I get that you were busy. But did you do anything important?"

Busy does not equal important. Measured doesn't mean mattered.

Perhaps it's time for the blank sheet of paper, the cancellation of a long-time money loser, the difficult conversation, the creative breakthrough...
He posted this in February 2010.  I wish I had read it then.

I should note that there's a huge difference between busywork and Miyagi-do karate training.  How do you know the difference?  Self-reflection, baby.  Asking yourself, "Why?"
There is always a new season in hand and we are too busy to ask the only vital question which measures the whole structure. Why theatre at all? What for? Is it an anachronism, a superannuated oddity, surviving like an old monument or a quaint custom? Why do we applaud, and what? Has the stage a real place in our lives? What function can it have? What could it serve? What could it explore? What are its special properties?
(From the Gospel According to Peter Brook, aka The Empty Space.)

There is room for experimentation and exercise.  There is room for development.  But it all must push forward to some goal, some realization of your mission.  Choose a spot on the horizon and work towards it.

As it turns out, choosing a spot on the horizon will enable you to better evaluate your actions and determine if you are spinning your wheels, or if you karate training:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Odds Are ...

Odds are, a play produced in Los Angeles will have far more lean nights than it will sold-out nights.  Odds are, the reviews will be mixed.  At best.  If you can get the press to turn out.  Odds are you'll find yourself playing to the same friends and family who show up for everything.
In other words, your chance of winning is so vanishingly small it's as if, from an investment point of view, there are no winners.
Which means that you should play the game for the thrill of playing it, for the benefits of playing it to a normal conclusion, not because you think you have any shot at all of winning the grand prize.
(from Seth Godin's blog.)

You can try to feather the season with "sure things," or you can go bold.  If you're making theatre on the margins, why the hell wouldn't you go bold?
Why do we sacrifice so much energy to our art? Not in order to teach others but to learn with them what our existence, our organism, our personal and unrepeatable experience have to give us; to learn to break down the barriers which surround us and to free ourselves from the breaks which hold us back, from the lies about ourselves which we manufacture daily for ourselves and for others; to destroy the limitations caused by our ignorance and lack of courage; in short, to fill the emptiness in us: to fulfill ourselves. Art is neither a state of the soul (in the sense of some extraordinary, unpredictable moment of inspiration) nor a state of man (in the sense of a profession or social function). Art is a ripening, an evolution, an uplifting which enables us to emerge from darkness into a blaze of light.
(from Jerzy Grotowski.)

A ripening, an evolution, an uplifting which enables us to emerge from darkness into a blaze of light.

I'm not sure you can do that with stunt casting or producing the red-hot play of the moment.  I could be wrong, and I did not always feel this way.  But as the final curtain falls and the boulder rolls back down the hill will you feel challenged or insulated?  Either answer may be fine; at least know the answer!

Graphic by fuoroSome rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Doing the Impossible

Chelsea Sutton, whose play 99 Impossible Things closes this weekend made a bit of a stir with her heartfelt and awesome response to negative criticism:
I’m profoundly grateful.  I’m thankful I have a place to try new things.  I’m thankful to fail and to discover and to succeed past my expectations.  I’m thankful for reviewers who came out and wasted one or two hours of their evening listening to my work.  I’m grateful for fear – and grateful when I can overcome it.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to be hurt, to be mangled, to be exasperated by negative opinions of my work.  And I’m most grateful for the opportunity to stress about it for two months straight and then finally realize that all of it really doesn’t matter.
(The above snippet was featured as the Bitter Lemons "Potable Quotable" for the week)

The problem with theatre is that it requires an audience. A painter can paint 1,000 shitty canvases before showing the one good painting; a writer can waste reams of paper and GBs of memory before revealing the one profound verse. A theatre artist must have an audience in order for the art to be actualized. The people in the dark are part of the equation of an art-in-progress.

Being privy to the seeming impossibility of producing a stage play, I hate writing bad reviews.

In July of last year, I wrote my first pan for Stage Happenings.  After, I posted the following on Facebook:

I've heard some of these things before, but subjective experience is a more effective instructor:

1. Reviewers want a play to be good. It SUCKS having to write a negative review! I know how much hard work goes into putting on a play. It's a labor of love, compensated by applause and the dear memories one makes whilst working with fellow artists in the pursuit of a common goal. The theatre artist taps a vein and pours himself into the process. A negative review thus takes on the color of a personal attack, regardless the intent of the reviewer.

2. If the actor doesn't connect emotionally with the role, the audience will not connect emotionally with the play. Period. (Some day I'll have to write up my theories regarding transference and catharsis. There is a real, psychological process that happens in theatre.)

3. You cannot force a play to do more than the script allows. Listen to the text. Roll the dialogue around in your mouth. Endeavor to understand the words better than the audience ever possibly could. It pays off when producing Shakespeare; it's an equally potent approach for modern works. Mamet says that the job of the players is to simply say the words. That sounds like an oversimplification, but the truth often does.

It can be painful to one's ego, but it is necessary to strip away the preconceived notions you bring to a text. Let the text be the text. Keep your personal prejudices and pet peeves out of it.

4. Reviewers are obligated to speak truth. Just as the production team is obligated to treat the text in front of them, divorced of all superfluous additives, so to is it necessary for a reviewer to review the PLAY THEY ARE ACTUALLY WATCHING, not the prejudices and pet peeves they bring into the house with them.

5. Reviewers are obligated to be specific. If I wrote a bunch of snarky words that added up to "I didn't like it," there would be negative worth to what I do; a net loss for all involved. Not only would I contribute nothing, I would trample on the aforementioned labor of love, needlessly insulting their efforts. That's a dick thing to do.

It was damned difficult, writing this review. It's one thing to be an opinionated ass. It's quite another to parse your opinions in a helpful way.
It is important for a theatre artist to take their lumps and keep moving. Likewise, it is important for critics to do more than riff on how bad a production may be. If our under-99 seat theatres are populated primarily by friends and family members, in all likelihood a critic's most earnest readers are the very people he or she is reviewing. We have an opportunity to help improve the quality of the shows we see; to offer constructive notes, placing our aesthetic judgement on display in a forum as public as the theatre. I believe that is the most worthwhile and helpful thing we can do, for artist and audience alike.

At the very least we need to remember one thing: Snark is not a public service.
You're just Wrong, Godin

See?  I don't always agree with Seth Godin:
Self sufficiency appears to be a worthy goal, but it's now impossible if you want to actually get anything done.

All our productivity, leverage and insight comes from being part of a community, not apart from it.
(From Seth Godin's blog.)

Au contraire, chauve monsieur ... 

You have to do both.  You must be self-sufficient within the community to get anything done.  Rely on the community, sure, but rely on yourself first.  That's what makes you of value to the community: the ability to originate an idea, take action, and produce something without the permission, oversight or approval of others.  Having value to the community greatly enriches your ability to exchange leverage and insight with others.

If autarky were truly dead, that would mean all possible trails had been blazed.  Do you believe there are no further innovations to be had?  Tribes need leaders, n'est-ce pas?

The goal is to strike the right balance of self-sufficiency and community, stubbornness and generosity.  (That's also a problem we face in theatre.)

Friday, February 04, 2011

GOOMH, Godin (part three)

If you make a big deal about not trying to please everyone, and still run yourself ragged pandering to your members, you may be a part of an under-99 seat (dues-paying) theatre company:
A motto for those doing work that matters:

"We can't please everyone, in fact, we're not even going to try."


The math here is simple. As soon as you work hard to please everyone, you have no choice but to sand off the edges, pleasing some people less in order to please others a bit more. And it drives you crazy at the same time.
Emphasis his.  (From Seth Godin's blog.)

Layers of Failure

A thought occurred to me this morning, a theory that I hope to come back to with more depth, after I've stewed on it a bit.  Here's the theory:

I've noticed ripple effects in bad shows. Bad dialogue leads to odd directorial choices which leads to square-peg acting.  At some point in the production of a play, something may go wrong.  The resultant problems for that production will extend from that initial error.  Since traditional play production is a linear affair, you can chart out a hierarchy of problem areas.

Play script
Director's take on the material
Rehearsal (Actor's take on the material)
Technical demands

(I know I'm missing steps.  This is only a cursory essay of this theory.)

When troubleshooting (or criticizing) a play, one could go through this list step by step to 1) see what each person may have contributed to the final product and 2) discover where things went fundamentally wrong.  The deeper the flaw, the less likely you will be able to fix it, but at least you can stop hounding your actors if the script is shit.  (I guess if you know the script is bad, you can make the most of it and come out the other end with a pretty entertaining product.  I've seen that happen.)

For some productions, the problems will be holistic.  For the vast majority of shows, this may be a handy evaluator's tool.  It will require further cogitation.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

RE: Bad Plays vs. Bad Movies

This past weekend, I took in a bad play and a bad movie. No one intends to make a bad play or bad movie, and I should say at the outset that I don't begrudge the theatre or movie artists one bit. I understand how impossible it is to make a play or movie, and I am certain the folks involved in both were very earnest in their attempts to entertain.

My experience coming out of the play was very different from my experience coming out of the movie, and it raised the question for me: why are bad plays so much worse then bad movies?

For starters, you can't fix a stage play in post. You can't ADR or do reshoots. If you eff up on stage, it's done.

Granted, in the theatre you do have multiple "takes" to get it right, to explore other subtle possibilities, and to react directly off the audience feedback loop. If you're the master of what you're doing, you can make the micro-adjustments necessary to hook an audience and reel them in. Friday night's "dead kitten speech" may require more vehemence than Saturday night's version of the same monologue, based on how awake the audience is. The actor with that uncanny third-eye fixed on the audience can make the adjustment whilst in the moment. Film actors can't do that.

This moment-to-moment connection with the audience is the problem, and what makes a bad play worse than a bad movie.

In live theatre, there is no physical barrier between audience and actor.  And so the audience develops a stronger identification with the actors (or at least they can).  A dropped line or messed up cue transfers a tremendous amount of stress to the audience in the theatre.  There is physical detachment in the cinema, and I would argue that although the connection between audience and actor suffers as a result, that relationship is far more forgiving of gaffes. 

These two aspects taken together -- the technical and the psychological -- is what makes a bad play worse than a bad movie.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

GOOMH, Godin
part two

If you find yourself spending hours discussing a five-year plan, yet wind up doing basically the same old thing in the new season, you may be part of an under-99 seat theatre company:
Strategy is worth thinking about if it causes you to make difficult or non-intuitive decisions. And so you have to test your commitment. "Are you saying that we have to cancel this product line?" is the sort of reaction your strategy statements ought to generate.