Thursday, June 23, 2011

Know Thy Audience

On the heels of disagreeing with Seth Godin yesterday, some measure of agreement today. In a post entitled “The Grateful Dead and the Top 40,” Godin writes:
I wonder if Jerry ever got jealous of acts that were able to put songs on the radio. (The Dead had exactly one hit record...)

I hope not. Jerry was in a different business. Sure, he played music. Elton John also plays music. But they were in different businesses, performing for different audiences, generating revenue in different ways, creating different sorts of art.

In a world filled with metrics and bestseller lists, it's easy to decide that everyone is your competitor and easier still to worry about your rank. Worry all you want, but if it gets in the way of your art or starts changing your mission, it's probably a mistake.
I’m fairly certain the Dead were concerned with metrics – their metrics. Their ticket sells, their concert attendance. Hey, all that weed doesn’t buy itself; Jerry Garcia gotta eat. (Or at least he did. RIP, Jerry.)

Consider for a moment what great care goes into casting a show.  Reflect on the hours spent listening to monologues, reviewing resumes, and arranging headshots together to see which actors look best together.  Then you have the callbacks, the additional casting calls when you can't seem to find that one right actor for that one pivotal role.  By the end of the process, you know your actors pretty well, no?

How many of us know our audiences as well?

The Grateful Dead inspired their audience to go on tour with them.  They fostered an active "taping" culture.  They created a sound system (the "wall of sound") that provided their audience with the best possible experience of the music.  They knew what their audience enjoyed, and they did everything within their power to bolster that enjoyment.  They knew their audience, and it informed their choices.

Live performance depends on the audience as an active participant. This is Theatre 101. Once the performance begins, the audience is half of the equation.  Do you really know who's out there in the dark?  Are you doing everything you can to make their experience pure awesomesauce?  Or are your choices geared to stroke your own ego and the egos of your collaborators whilst you hide beneath the aegis, "Art?"

To thine own audience be true.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Seth Godin is Wrong Again

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you may know that I think very highly of marketing guru Seth Godin. He gets a point I’ve argued in the past: Marketing is storytelling. Storytelling is our main business in the theatre, and you can’t successfully divorce the marketing of a play from the production of a play. And so it is I believe the promotional actions that accompany a production should be tightly married to the production itself, so much so that I consider the graphic design of postcards, posters, banners and programs on par with the scenic, lighting, costume and sound design.

The postcard is the first experience your audience has of the show. Why would a director or producer allow for an arbitrary or poorly thought out or stylistically inconsistent first impression?

Every now and then Seth Godin posts something that I vehemently disagree with. (I know what you’re thinking: “Is there any other way in which you disagree with something, dick?” You’re right, you’re right.) Today is one of those days:
An early adopter seeks out new ideas and makes them work.

An adapter, on the other hand, puts up with what he has to, begrudgingly.

One is offense, the other is defense. One requires the spark of curiousity, the other is associated with fear, or at least hassle.
Not always, Seth. Not in the arts, and certainly not in small theatre production.

There is an art in adaption that goes beyond “begrudgingly” putting up with what you have. It is an art of taking stock set pieces, off-the-rack clothes and inadequate lighting equipment and conjuring every ounce of creative and technical skill to create something more. Adaptation is creative change; is evolution. Adaption is the essence of “zooming,” a concept Godin spends well over 250 pages defining in his 2002 book, Survival is Not Enough.

Semantically, I get it. Change one letter and you can spin a pat little comparison. But it’s a false comparison and a blanket statement that rings false.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

REVIEW: How Did I Get Here?


Laura Levites, a charming redhead with a penchant for stepping into bad relationships takes us on a tour of the low-lights of said relationships in this brisk and funny one-woman show. Unfortunate inconsistencies and superficial moments detract from what could otherwise be a very good piece of theatre.

This is such a conversational piece, it requires no artificiality to convey.  The worst moments are the "actor" moments, moments where Levites falls prey to the great sin of acting, indication.  Theatre is about revealing, not showing off, and Levites has written a piece that lends itself to revelation.  Just speak the words, let them move you, and don't feel the need to "sell" anything with superficial actorly gestures.  Plant your feet, face the audience, and speak.  It's a storytelling piece, so she needn't do more than just tell the story; it's interesting enough that the "acting" detracts from her tale.

Either have props or don't.  Either interact with prerecorded voices or don't.  Pick a direction and deal with the complications that ensue from making a specific choice.  It will make for a more powerful piece.

The frustrating thing about How Did I Get Here? are the moments where Levites shines through. Levites is a vibrant, funny woman; charming and powerful on stage when she drops the artifice and just talks to us. It is frustrating to know that the piece could be that much better, if only. Levites needs a director or collaborator who will force her into the dark corners that she otherwise peeks into. Maybe "force her into" isn't the right expression -- "gently take her hand and help her explore."  There are genuine moments of laugh-out-loud funny in this piece. There is very little genuine pathos, and that is a great shame.

There are a couple of missing story beats, and the first is a doozy: Why does she need a loving relationship? What are the stakes? As it stands, the piece is merely items in a series; a string of funny anecdotes that don't really add up to anything. This is emphasized by a grating refrain after each vignette:  "And again, I'm having a moment. How did I get here?"  The line needs to be earned -- or scrapped.

The other story beat concerns her dog, Pagan. Not to go too much into it -- there is a potential spoiler here -- but we need more with the dog. We should see the dog, really get the dog before she heads into the end of the play.  It would make for a bigger emotional pay-off.

The writing could be tightened up.  There are scenes in the play where Levites interacts with invisible characters from her past, either in person or via cell phone.  We see the entire conversation in some of these scenes, including the non-informative "hey whatcha doin'" parts.  In other conversations she cuts to the chase.  Economy of words would make the piece stronger.  These scenes where she acts out her past seem like they were written as an afterthought; maybe the thought was that the show needed more opportunity for acting.

Watching this piece is not an unpleasant experience.  If you're doing the Fringe rounds and you have the hour to take in Levites' show, you should.  But given a little more time and effort, How Did I Get Here? could be a good piece of theatre, one that we could recommend without reservations.  We hope that Levites continues to work on the piece, to shape it and refine it.

How Did I Get Here? plays at The Complex Theatre, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., in Hollywood on June 20th, at 9:30 pm. Tickets are $10, and may be purchased at the box office. For more information, visit the Hollywood Fringe project page for this production.

Reviewed by Andrew and Pamela Moore.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Oxpecker Update

Thoughtful and stimulating comments on Tony Frankel's Bitter Lemons piece, including this from Jay McAdams, Executive Director of 24th Street Theatre:
It takes REAL money, and real organizations to consistently create theatre. And the fact that you are dedicated to your art is noble, but if you have no resources to get the work seen, then it’s all for not. This is not a popular notion with small theatres and is too often left unsaid, but they/we need to invest in the business of theatre.
That's just a snippet.  Go back to Bitter Lemons to read the whole thing!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Project Oxpecker

The LA Times-sponsored theatre round-table took place a couple days ago, and judging by the coverage on Culture Monster, it largely missed the mark when not mashing the same, tired buttons.  More on that in the not too-distant, after I've had a chance to watch the videos and form a fuller opinion.  In the meantime, Tony Frankel's response on Bitter Lemons really struck a chord:
Here is the role of Los Angeles in the National Theatre Scene: Because of our limitless talent pool and relatively inexpensive production costs, this city could be the Petri dish in which we nurture theatre artists and productions which we can then send out into the nation. Period.
The Under-99 set is good at creating an enormous amount of theatre on the shoestringiest of budgets.  Every now and then, one of those shows turns out to be jaw-droppingly amazing.  A few weeks later, the run ends, the set is torn down, and that's it.  Maybe it's brought back later, maybe it's produced by another company, but rare it seems is the show that, incubated in the Under-99s, makes the leap to a bigger stage.

Take Forbidden Zone: Live in the 6th Dimension.  Tremendous piece of theatre, sold-out shows, extended run, and the most fun I've had in a theatre in a long time.  (My almost embarrassingly glowing review may be found here.)  There was some talk of the show coming back, but Sacred Fools has announced their 15th season and it's not on the list.  So what happens to this incredible theatrical experience?  If this were New York, odds are it would hop to Broadway by way of Off-Broadway, à la Urinetown or Avenue Q.

An independant outlier being snatched up and distributed to larger audiences is not a foreign concept in Hollywood.  Small, low budget movies get scooped up and distributed (or remade) all the time.  I thought the problem with LA theatre was our industry-obsession.  So why haven't we aped this aspect of the movie business?

I once gave a glib outline for how this relationship could work.  Here it is again, slightly trimmed:
The average annual LORT budget is just under $7 million. What if a LORT company were to break off $200,000, and fund ten Under-99 productions of new works to the tune of $20K each?

In addition to that $20,000, the LORT company provides access to rehearsal space, stock set and costume pieces, the expert advice of dramaturges, etc. All of it to help those ten companies produce the best possible show with the best possible production values that an Under-99 company can produce.

In exchange, the LORT company reserves the right of first refusal to restage the seeded productions. They can take the shows that hit and graduate them to union houses, reaping the benefits.

This would be a mutually beneficial arrangement, a way for LORT companies to use the Under-99s as laboratories, farm-leagues, etc; a way for Under-99s to budget a show without begging friends and family for more nickels and dimes.
I call this "Project Oxpecker."

"It's okay, big guy.  You rest.  We got this."

First things first, we find a better name.

Friday, June 10, 2011

REVOKED



A couple of days ago over 275,000 non-profit organizations had their status revoked.  Over 33,000 of those organizations are in California. 

A little background from ARTSblog:
In 2006, Congress asked the IRS to keep better track of the nation’s 1.5 million nonprofit organizations. Yesterday, the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of 275,000 of them for not filing legally required documents for three consecutive years (2007-2009). Our early estimates are that well over 20,000 are nonprofit ARTS organizations.
Here's the list of 60 Los Angeles companies with "theatre" or "theater" in their name who had their status revoked (did I miss anyone?  Follow the link in the article above and check the list.):

A RENEGADE THEATRE ENSEMBLE
AEOLIAN BALLET THEATRE-LA
ALS NATIONAL THEATRE
AMERICAN THEATER DEVELOPMENT
AMERICAN THEATRE OF THE OPERA
BALLET OF THE BOLSHOT THEATRE
BEVERLY HILLS COMMUNITY THEATRE
BLACK WOMEN IN THEATRE WEST INC
BLUE LINE THEATRE COMPANY
BOLDER VISION GROUP, FOUNTAINHEAD THEATRE COMPANY [DBA]
BURBANK THEATRE GUILD
CHAUTAUQUA THEATRE ALLIANCE
DEN OF ENTROPY THEATRE COMPANY INC
DRYLAND THEATRE COMPANY
EPIPHANY THEATRE CO
FRIENDS AND ARTISTS THEATRE, ENSEMBLE FRIENDS AND ARTIST [DBA]
GATEWAY THEATER
GOLDEN WEST OPERA THEATER
GOOD NEIGHBOR THEATER INC
HOLLYWOOD BALLET THEATER FOUNDATION
HOLLYWOOD OPERA THEATER
HUMAN ZOO THEATRE
ILLUSTRIOUS THEATRE ORCHESTRA
INCLINE THE THEATRE GROUP
L A BRIDGES THEATRE CO OF THE DEAF
L A THEATRE ARTISTS
LA MAMA HOLLYWOOD/THEATRE IN
LESTER HORTON DANCE THEATER INC
LOS ANGELES ARTS REPERTORY THEATRE
LOS ANGELES BALLET THEATRE INC
LOS ANGELES DANCE THEATRE
LOS ANGELES FEMINIST THEATER
METROPOLE THEATRE WORKS
METROPOLITAN THEATRES CORPORATION
NAKED TRUTH THEATRE COMPANY
NEW THEATRE INC
ORPHAN PLAYERS THEATRE
OXFORD THEATRE
QUIXOTIC THEATRE
RAGS & PATCHES THEATER
SANDBOX THEATRE COMPANY
SANTA BARBARA ACTORS THEATRE INC
SPOLIN THEATER GAME CENTER
STUDIO THEATRE FOUNDATION DBA LOFT
THE CHAPLIN-ONEILL THEATRE INC
THE COUNCIL FOR MUSICAL THEATRE
THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING THEATRE
THE EXTRAORDINARY THEATRE
THE J MICHAEL BLOOM THEATRE
THE@SPOTLIGHT THEATRE COMPANY
THEATER GALLERY A CALIFORNIA
THEATRE FOR AIDS RESEARCH
THEATRE NEW ORIGINAL WORK INC
TWENTY FIRST STREET THEATRE CO
UNKNOWN THEATER
VENTURE WEST THEATER COMPANY
VINTAGE VARIETY THEATRE
WEST COAST THEATRE COMPANY INC
WEST SIDE THEATRE SOCIETY
WORLD THEATER FOUNDATION

Note: Aside from the humorous illustration at the top of this entry, I'm not editorializing on this. I'm just reporting what little I know about it. The ARTSblog article is very informative on the subject.


It is likely that a few of these companies are essentially defunct. For those that aren't, there is an appeals process. It is notable that so many non-profits are now non-non-profits.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Listen to this Podcast

"Advice to the Players" is a Shakespeare-centric podcast from Jonathan Redding and Phillip Kelly.  Over the course of an hour they delve deep into the themes, subtext and potential to be found the The Bard's great works.  The podcast is only three episodes old, but it appears to be bi-weekly, and they bring in guests who have recently produced a Shakespearean play in the Los Angeles area.

Phillip Kelly is a name you no doubt have seen if you follow this blog.  He's a frequent collaborator and good friend.  I value his aesthetic judgement immensely, and was proud to have him as our founding Artistic Director at Theatre Unleashed.

Jonathan Redding I don't know personally, although I was wowed by his turn as Iago in the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble's production of Othello (directed by Phillip Kelly) earlier this year.  Redding is jaw-droppingly schooled in all things Shakespeare, yet his encyclopedic knowledge is tempered by the practical mind of a working actor, director and producer.  Things never get too occult, even as he touches upon more esoteric things.

Together Redding and Kelly engage in insightful dialogue -- "insightful" also spelled "inciteful," as the conversations frequently inspire me to consider possible Shakespearean excursions of my own.  (I do have an idea for Hamlet that would be quite fun.)

Subscribe to this podcast and enjoy!

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Outrunning Youself

Godin on legacies:

Either you're focused on maintaining the legacy features or you're focused on figuring out how to replace them. Driving with your eyes on the rearview mirror is difficult indeed.
In a world of little competition, legacy features are something worth keeping. No sense alienating loyal customers.
But we don't live in a world of little competition. The faster your industry moves, the more likely others are willing to live without the legacy stuff and create a solution that's going to eclipse what you've got, legacies and all.
When you're making theatre on the margins, whether that's producing a play in an under-99 or telling jokes in front of a brick wall, odds are you don't have a legacy.  Not yet, anyway.  A legacy is not a destination, it's not a spot on a map you can chart a course towards.  A legacy is the accumulation of accomplishments, it's conquered territory.

My wife and I went to see Prince at The Forum this past weekend, one of his final "21 Night Stands" concerts.  He opened with a montage of some of his hits, prerecorded on some kind of sample bay built into a baby grand piano.  In the opening moments he took us on a quick review of thirty some odd years of his musical history.  He sang along, he made us sing along.  And then a familiar opening passage filled the arena.



The audience went nuts.  Prince just smiled and shook his head.

"I'm in rehab!" he exlcaimed, and moved on to the next song. The crowd erupted again, this time in laughter and applause. It was a brilliant moment that acknowledged his past and his present; the fact that we were all wondering if he would give us a taste of "Darling Nikki," despite his relatively newfound faith.

The point is, a legacy -- a real legacy -- is not something you have to assert or defend or apologize for. Sure, it may define you in the way that any person is defined by the choices they make and the actions they take. But you are not beholden to your legacy.

You are especially not beholden if you are just starting out. If Prince can acknowledge his dirtiest song with a wink to the audience and move on to the next hit, there's no reason for an artist or a company with a few years at their back to get all self-important and arrogant about their "legacy." We'll check in on you in a few decades and see what that legacy is. In the meantime, have fun, follow your passion and keep your focus where it belongs: entertaining your audience. Let your legacy sort itself out. It will anyway, whether you like it or not.

Here's a better challange:  Try to outrun your legacy.  That's how you become immortal.