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. D├ímaso 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 ...


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!