Tuesday, May 24, 2011


A little Peter Brook for you today:
The problem of the Deadly Theatre is like the problem of the deadly bore. Every deadly bore has head, heart, arms, legs: usually, he has family and friends: he even has his admirers. Yet we sigh when we come across him - and in this sigh we are regretting that somehow he is at the bottom instead of the top of his possibilities. When we say deadly, we never mean dead: we mean something depressingly active, but for this very reason incapable of change. . . . In Mexico, before the wheel was invented, gangs of slaves had to carry giant stones through the jungle and up the mountains, while their children pulled their toys on tiny rollers. The slaves made the toys, but for centuries failed to make the connection. When good actors play in bad comedies or second-rate musicals, when audiences applaud indifferent classics because they enjoy just the costumes or just the way the sets change, or just the prettiness of the leading actress there is nothing wrong. But none the less, have they noticed what is underneath the toy they are dragging on a string? It's a wheel.

(From The Empty Space.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

That's Good for the Wheel of Destiny Guy, But ...

On the other hand, for those of us who don't risk life and limb each time we step before an audience:
For the rest of us, though, there's a cushion. Being wrong isn't fatal, it's merely something we'd prefer to avoid. We have the privilege of being wrong. Not being wrong on purpose, of course, but wrong as a cost on the way to being right.
Read the whole thing on Seth Godin's blog.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Autonym Redux

A fascinating article by Diane Ragsdale about a new corporate model that may just be a better fit for Under-99s.  Meet the Low-Profit Limited Liability Company:
How many organizations became nonprofit only to become eligible for gifts and grants? How many, if they might have received investments and grants but maintained partial or total ownership of their entities, might have taken the L3C route? How many feel burdened by the idea of trying to become a “permanent nonprofit institution” and would like to think about closing up shop when the raison d’ĂȘtre has left the building? How many arts organizations struggle to reconcile what they do with the exempt purposes outlined under Internal Revenue Service Section Code 501(c)(3)?
So how does an L3C work?  Per Wikipedia:
The L3C is a low-profit limited liability company (LLC), that functions via a business modality that is a hybrid legal structure combining the financial advantages of the limited liability company, an LLC, with the social advantages of a non-profit entity. An L3C runs like a regular business and is profitable. However, unlike a for-profit business, the primary focus of the L3C is not to make money, but to achieve socially beneficial aims, with profit making as a secondary goal. The L3C thus occupies a niche between the for-profit and charitable sectors.

Sometime ago I posted a thought exercise called "The Autonym." The idea was to somehow codify an arts anti-organization; to describe the working relationships based upon mutual respect and free will that I see between independant artists in "the real world."  Yeah, I know, crazy.  It's sort of a "Bazaar" approach, versus the "Cathedral" approach of the traditional non-profit route.  But what sort of legal structure should an Autonymic artist use?

One problem I have with the traditional non-profit route is that the driving reason behind applying for status seems to be gaining access to that great panacea, grant money.  Another, less obvious reason:  Avoiding corporate taxes.  Let's be honest.  When you are making theatre on the economic margins, the minimum California corporate tax of $500 can mean the difference between having a set or not.
So how to wrangle the legal coverage of incorporation without building a cathedral?  Fiscal sponsorship certainly is one option.  The L3C is a very interesting model as well, and one I will have to look into further.

BY THE WAY ... I found Diane Ragsdale's article courtesy of "You've Cott Mail," an email digest one of my New York compatriots turned me onto.  It's pretty awesome and worth subscribing to.  (HT Sierra Rein!)

Monday, May 16, 2011

"The magic's in you. What we're doing is triggering the response."
- Paul Binder, Big Apple Circus
Approaching the Circus Vargas tent last night, before I saw so much as the general admission line, I laid eyes on something that made me smile: row after row of white trailers and rvs parked a short distance from the big top.

A few weeks ago I tore through Circus, a PBS original series (that you can watch on Netflix or on the PBS site!)  Circus is a six part series that documents a year in the life of Big Apple Circus.  It takes the viewer behind the scenes and into the circus family with all the drama, tragedy, and triumph that suggests.  It is a remarkable piece of work.

Quite instructive to anyone  hoping to make a living in live entertainment.  (Certainly moreso than Slings and Arrows, as entertaining as that glacial-paced series may be.)


I was standing in line for concessions when the show started.  I craned to see what little I could of the opening number through a slit in the curtain.  Futile.  Looking around at the other patrons queueing up for nachos and hot dogs, I wasn't the only one desperate to see what was happening.  One guy ahead of me in line smiled at the rest of us and returned to his seat, his concession chore unfinished.

Rather than a straight review of the show, a few observations and lessons learned:
  • So much of what you see is about trust. When the catcher releases the flyer, and the flyer turns to grab the trapeze, he or she must trust the trapeze will be there. These people trust each other with their lives. Twice nightly, plus matinees on Saturdays and Sundays.
  • Circus clowns are more effective at directing large numbers of people than anyone else. FEMA should hire guys like Matti Esqueda and Jon Weiss to run relief efforts on the ground. Things would run much smoother.
  • If you look close enough, you can see the moment to moment adjustments these artists make. They are fully in the moment, fully responsive to the audience and their environment.  When something unexpected (for them) happens, they adjust and keep going.
  • Step back and the performances are seamless, as if these moment to moment adjustments never happened or were planned from the beginning.  Consummate performers.
  • Watch the audience. If you’re in the business of entertaining people and you find yourself at a show (of any stripe) take the time to look around.  Remeber what it is all about.
  • Gestures aren’t wasted. Feet are pointed, fingers extended, posture straight. Even when standing to the side, waiting for the next trick to happen the performers are ON.
  • The circus is Expectation + Uncertainty x Stakes. Or something like that. Or put another way, dramatic tension is the play between expectation and uncertainty. The stakes elevate the dramatic tension to ... to what? I could do graduate work on this one point and be a happy man.
  • Circus kids are incredible. Natural show people, capable of the most amazing feats; unpretentious and humble offstage.
  • The performer who runs the Wheel of Fortune can’t have an "off night."
Note:  This is not the Wheel of Destiny performer from Circus Vargas. Rather, it is the only photo I could find that I could use under a limted Creative Commons license.

In my college theatre program, there was an internship requirement. I hated it then, but I see the wisdom of it now. I think it would be beneficial to a young student of theatre to see how it’s down at the level of pure entertainment, to see the nuts and bolts of a practical, workaday troupe of performers. I believe an internship requirement is a good thing, provided it’s an internship working for the circus. (Or as a stand-up comedian, magician, burlesque dancer, variety artist, etc.)

I highly recommend Circus Vargas. If you haven’t been to the circus in a while – or ever – go. Just go.

Check them out at their website, and "like" them on Facebook!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Ron Lynch's "Tomorrow!"

As I rolled out of bed at 8:00 am this morning -- what passes for "sleeping in" around my house -- something occurred to me:  Of course the Steve Allen Theater at the Center for Inquiry has a show that runs until 2:00-something am.  Where do they have to be on a Sunday morning that they can't sleep in?  It was a late night for me, and I'm used to rolling in at 1:30 - 2:00 am on weekdays.  Exhausted as I was, I was just as exhilarated over this exceptional show.

Tomorrow! ran two hours without an intermission, and it flew by.  Don't Stop or We'll Die opened with a short set of manic, comic nonsense.  Imagine what the offspring of Flight of the Conchords and Ben Folds Five would sound like, and you will be a fraction of the way to understanding what this band is like.  Better yet, track them down stalker-like and catch them live.  They deserve your ticket money.  This trio of bass, drums and keyboards are over-the-top yet pitch-perfect at exploiting the tropes of alt/pop music.

Our hosts for the evening, Ron Lynch and Frank Conniff took the stage.  These guys had a casual, easy-going rapport and never missed a joke.  Even when straying into anti-humor and the awkward stillness that is the hallmark of such comic absurdity, they were captivating.  If the show had just been two hours of Ron and Frank ... well, it probably would have grown tiresome after an hour or so.  But that first hour would be heaven

The bulk of the evening was stand-up.  Jimmy Dore, Josh Fadem, Ed Greer, Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn, each solid performers.  I am unaccustomed to seeing that much good stand-up in a row.  I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop!  It never did.  Baron Vaughn in particular was uproarious, doing a bit about a homeless guy -- you know, descriptions of stand-up acts suck.  Just kick yourself in the ass for missing "smoke pellet."  Seriously, if you love stand-up, go see this show.  Lynch obviously attracts top-notch talent.

The sketch comedy by Knuckles and Tits was surprisingly good, as well.  Let's face it, we live in a town full of shitty comedy.  I don't know about you, but bad improv and bad sketch turn my thoughts to suicide.  When the word "sketch" is uttered onstage as part of an intro, I impulsively clench my jaw and brace for the worst.  Knuckles and Tits were funny, and it's not like they were breaking new comedy ground!  What they brought to the show was smartly written and fully committed to in performance.

We had a bit of MST3K-style awesomeness in the form of a scene from Stone Cold, an overblown piece of adrenaline and testosterone-drenched shit starring Brian Bosworth.  Ron and Frank stood on either side of the screen providing the comic commentary.

And it ended with the Walsh Brothers.  And Moon Pies.  My God, the Moon Pies.

The main takeaway from the night is that everyone was having fun. Every performer, every audience member. With a ticket price of $8 and ample free parking in the lot behind the Center, why the hell wouldn't you go?

I'm mean, c'mon.  Where do you have to be on a Sunday morning that you can't sleep in?