Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fury that Signifies Something

Over at Bitter Lemons, a powerful piece by dramaturg Dylan Southard, their newest contributor.  It builds to a beauty of a final statement:  "We can do these plays. We shouldn’t be casting them down into developmental hell. We should be pulling them out."

Dylan warns the reader that he is about to unleash the "Fury of the Dramaturg."  I would call it common sense. 

On the low-end of theatre production, resources can be so tight that any public performance is dear -- be it a workshop, a fundraiser, or Miss Julie set on skid row.  Yet with that poverty comes incredible richness.  Small companies have the freedom to rapidly prototype, to create shows that respond to a moment in time and a specific community.  Those plays can then go on to new heights. 

Look at Theatre Unleashed's production of The Spidey Project.  What started out as a scrappy response to bloated Broadway excess is getting a proper West Coast debut with a budget most assuredly well north of the original production's $0 price tag.  A rapidly prototyped production that ran for two performances for free in New York has found legs (and a six-week run and runaway ticket sales) in Los Angeles.

The lesson here?  It doesn't take two years to create a killer show.  It takes the nerve to try new things, trusting and working with your fellow artists (i.e. playwright), and above all not taking it all so damn seriously.  To quote the great Peter Brook:
"... for by nature the popular theatre is anti-authoritarian, anti-traditional, anti-pomp, anti-pretence.  This is the theatre of noise, and the theatre of noise is the theatre of applause."
Make 'em roar, TU.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mad Respect


A press release just hit the inbox at Mad Theatrics HQ:

CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED, AWARD-WINNING ELEPHANT THEATRE COMPANY ANNOUNCES PLANNING INITIATIVE FOR 2012 SEASON

Elephant Theatre Company Artistic Directors David Fofi and Lindsay Allbaugh have announced that the company will be taking one year off (the 2012 season) from mounting productions, with the intention of using the year to strengthen the company, and restructure the management and membership, as well as the Board of Directors. The Elephant also plans to hire a Managing Director, and to focus on the development of sustainable fundraising initiatives.

Said Allbaugh, "Although this is a very difficult decision, it is a necessary one for the future and health of our company. There is no doubt that we can produce a high quality show with our ensemble of award-winning actors, designers, and playwrights. However, it has become very clear to us that over the past couple of seasons that in order to achieve greater stability in this economy, and to rise to the next level, it takes more than ‘putting on a great show.’ Our administrative capacity, our fundraising initiatives, and even our developmental programming is often neglected due to the immediate production needs and deadlines. In this upcoming year we will strengthen the core of our company and our mission, we will focus on creating a strategic plan which will support our artistic endeavors, and we will continue to develop new work with our ensemble."

The Elephant Theatre Company, now entering its 16th season, is a staple of the Los Angeles theatre community. Known for developing and producing new work, the company has been named three years in a row by Back Stage as ‘Favorite Theatre Company to See and Work With,’ as well as receiving multiple Ovation, LADCC, and LA Weekly award nominations and wins. Last season's west coast premiere of Kate Fodor's 100 Saints You Should Know is currently nominated for four LA Weekly Awards, and one LADCC Award. The Elephant concluded its very successful 15th season with the world premiere play Love Sick by Kristina Poe, and the rarely produced Baby Doll by Tennessee Williams, both of which had extended, sold out runs.

Hollywood’s Elephant Theatre Company will return in early 2013 with an exciting new season of plays. A job description for the position of Managing Director will be posted in March. For more information, visit www.elephanttheatrecompany.com. Visit the Elephant on Facebook, and follow us on twitter @elephanttheatre.
"Our administrative capacity, our fundraising initiatives, and even our developmental programming is often neglected due to the immediate production needs and deadlines."  It takes courage to face up to this, and I think Elephant Theatre is making the absolute right decision.

Theatre is ephemeral.  It's easy to neglect the tomorrow and focus on the now -- especially if you seem to be winning in the moment.  For companies or individual artists interested in longevity and growth, sometimes you have to take a breather and sort your life out.  It's the mature, responsible thing to do.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Friday, February 24, 2012

Unplug Grandma

I love the tagline for this new political satire by Jeremy Kehoe: "If you don't want to die, don't get old." It's a nice witticism from a show that's still searching for solid ground to stand on. As the director Amy Tofte, who is also a founder of the producing company Fierce Backbone and also its President, told the audience before the house lights went down, this is a workshop - somewhere between 99-seat theatre and Broadway, which she made of point of noting is the reason for the minimalist set. My first thought is, never apologize for a minimalist set before a show. Embrace it. I happened to like it. Since this was a workshop "so the writer could hear his words", and no doubt the reaction from the audience, most of the remainder of my thoughts will be directed at the script itself in hopes to help along his creative process with some of my own observations.

It's the future, a few Presidential elections down the line, Palin...Bristol Palin has become president, and a new law, "Fahrenheit 451" style, has been put into place. If you are too old to be of use, a member of a death unit gets your name and puts you out of everyone elses misery. It saves the country money and everyone else the hassle. Writing this brief synopsis, I imagine loads of opportunities for witty, biting and dark comedy, which the script in it's current form doesn't take full advantage of. Yes, the country saves money on Medicare, etc, but in what other ways are the elderly a pain? Much of this humor can come directly from Chase, as he has some major issues with those older than he is and for good reason. It's an absurd idea, so allow it to become a little more absurd; like a political cartoon.

Instead the tone of the show leans more towards a very austere, apathetic future, which could also be great, but this route makes the subject matter far too serious to call it a comedy. It currently feels more like a bedroom drama with an allegorical slant, in which the two sides of the coin are argued back and forth for most of the show (the writer preferring the side of not killing old people). It mainly takes place in one location, the apartment of a married couple MUFFY and CHASE. Muffy is the wife who has become disenchanted with the country and her marriage with Chase, as he has found employment as one of the death squad members. He claims this is so he can provide for Muffy, but he has deep seated parental issues of his own and a power trip from all the killing. A lot of the turmoil comes from Muffy having to take care of her two elderly parents Poppy and Mommy while Chase carries around a long, thin baton for beating people of their age to death with.

Muffy gets the idea that if she can bring Chase's long lost Mother into the picture, she can change his mind about the elderly and turn him back into the man she was once in love with. Love this idea. However, the entirety of the first act is a lead up to this, which is a problem. Not much happens in the first act. It takes a very long time to even begin to figure out the premise of the show. I'm all for building a little mystery into a story, but the sooner we get this out, the sooner we can play with the idea with the audience, as opposed to keeping them at arms length...it's one of the few helpful things I learned going through The Groundlings school of Improv. So, the first half is all mainly set up. There's a strange opening scene in which Muffy is taking notes from a taped recording, which makes a little more sense later, but is too oblique and strange especially since the device is never used again. We meet her parents. We meet Chase. We learn that while Chase does truly love Muffy, Muffy is unhappy. We circle this unhappy marriage for awhile, the back and forth doesn't dig too deep for the length of time spent on it; it can be made more concise. Or I'd love to see Muffy appear to actually still love Chase. I never understood why she ever did. This is something else to take note of, since the characters begin the show already firmly planted in their ideals, there's no inner conflict with any of the characters. There's no chance that they will change. There's nothing pushing them during the show towards who they decide to become. This deflates some of the potential for drama. Let us perhaps see doubt, on both sides. Let us see why she loves him in the beginning. This will also help balance out the arguments - right now it's very one-sided. I'd love as an audience member to really be put in a place to think that killing the elderly could be good for our society. But those arguments have to be really keen observations.

In the first act, there's a nice visit from Chase's sleazy boss ANDERSON, which, aside from the premise, provides the only real palpable bit of satire we see in the show. Then a mysterious woman arrives.

The second act opens with more of the same, only we get to see Chase interact with Muffy's parents. Poppy and Mommy provide light touches of humor, but nowhere near where the writer could take the satire and comedy. There's a nice moment between Mommy and Chase before Poppy drags her out. Then the mysterious woman arrives and the script elevates. The characters are drawn out of their selves and forced to face who they are and why they might be who they are. Or at least Chase is; outside of being depressed, Muffy is perfect. Yes, that was a little snarky. Thsi sequence with Chase's Mother, Ruth, was for me the best part of the script. Secrets are uncovered, a plot twist that bordered on the very convenient occurred. Does Ruth have to be the Mother Sarah of the elderly - it was a little too out of left field for me, but if we got to spend a little more time with Muffy and Ruth in the first act...well, maybe there are ways to make this work better.

The biggest problem for me with the script was the final scene, which seemed unnecessary from a storytelling stand point and a dramatic one as well. Everything that needed to be said, was already said - and sometimes repeated from argument to argument. It was quite literally like watching the first 3/4 of Act 2 repeated, just with a set change and a lack of heightened conflict. It's 10 minutes that can be excised and nothing will be lost. You don't need to put a bow on everything. And with that, I'm going to put a bow on this rather informal review. I wish the writer good luck with this project, I see lots of potential and I hope he's able to get good enough notes to help him continue in the right direction.

As a final thought, if we look this far into the future, acronyms like LOL and OMG probably won't be at the cutting edge of how youths communicate. I'm 33 and there are already acronyms that I don't understand that people 5 years younger than me are using. It makes me feel old and out of the loop. These are areas the writer can have a little more fun in.

Unplug Grandma. February 17th-26th at Studio Stage. 520 North Western Ave, LA, CA 90004.
Fri and Sat 8pm, Sun at 7pm.
For tickets go to: www.fiercebackbone.com

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Why the Bee?

As you can see, there's a new title image.  We have some big changes in store for Mad Theatrics, and I thought I'd give a little taste of what's to come. 

To start, Mad Theatrics is adopting the honey bee as its emblem.  There are a few reasons why:
  • The honey bee is task oriented.  It delves into the rough stuff of nature and from the raw material it gathers, produces honey.  Honey is the rare food that never spoils, perennially providing sustenance.
  • To "have a bee in one's bonnet" is to obsess over an idea.  (Something I do with frequency.)
  • In heraldry, the bee is a symbol of tenacity and, particularly for the French, resurrection.  Those are two traits no doubt significant to theatre makers.
  • Bees don't sting unless disturbed.
Plus, those yellow and black stripes are simply dashing.

Friday, February 17, 2012

RE: Professional vs. Amateur

Here's a proposal:  Let's drop the whole Professional vs. Amateur thing.

Instead, let's talk about novices, journeymen, gatekeepers, and contenders.

While we're at it, let's stop talking about Equity waiver, LORT, and Broadway.  Let's talk about flyweights, welterweights, and heavyweights.

"Invite the people to the circus! And here they are allowed to sit in shirtsleeves and place bets. And they don’t have to watch out for emotional shakeups and agree with the newspapers, but they watch how a man succeeds or fails, how he is oppressed or how he triumphs, and they remember their own struggle from this morning."
- Brecht
It's all entertainment.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Build the Piano

Over on the Mr. Snapper & Mr. Buddy Facebook page we have an album called "Inspirado", dedicated to the entertainers who inspire Phillip Kelly and I in our neo-vaudevillian madness.  Since his birthday was yesterday, Teller of Penn & Teller was digitally enshrined with the following quote:
"To compose a new tune in magic, you don’t just write the notes, you build the piano."
- Teller
This is true for all the lively arts, not just magic!

One of the defining aspects of an "amateur" (or a hack) is the use of off-the-shelf costumes and props.  In the world of burlesque, there is general disdain for unembellished Leg Avenue costumes and leaving the tags in store-bought lingerie.  The fact is, there is no such thing as a "turn-key" entertainer package.  You can't just buy a bunch of fancy looking stuff and expect to be taken serously; you have to put a little blood, sweat, and tears into your gear.  If you use off-the-shelf costume pieces or props, you have to give it a tweak, add some rhinestones -- something.  You have to customize it for your purposes.

The lively arts are truly bespoke.  Performers spend considerable time custom-making their gear with one goal in mind:  Entertaining an audience.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Game of Debasement

My good friend and college chum Andrew Rhodes (of Makeshift Theatre Co. in Boston) shared a fantastic article by Brendan Kiley today.  The article is a couple of years old, but certainly not a couple of years stale.

The title of the piece is "Ten Things Theaters Need to Do Right Now to Save Themselves":
1. Enough with the goddamned Shakespeare already. The greatest playwright in history has become your enabler and your crutch, the man you call when you're timid and out of ideas. It's time for a five-year moratorium—no more high schoolers pecking at Romeo and Juliet, no more NEA funding for Shakespeare in the heartland, and no more fringe companies trying to ennoble themselves with Hamlet. (Or with anything. Fringe theater shouldn't be in the game of ennobling, it should be in the game of debasement.) Stretch yourself. Live a little. Find new, good, weird plays nobody has heard of. Teach your audiences to want surprises, not pacifiers.
Go forth and read the whole damn thing.

There's something to be said for debasement.  Or abasement, for that matter.  As George Seldes, author of The Seven Lively Arts once wrote, "For in America the fear of vulgarity is the beginning of deadness.  Abase!"