Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Autopsy of a Deceased Theater

As Scott Walters (formerly blogging at Theatre Ideas, now blogging at Creative Insubordination) once opined:
What if we thought of theatre not as a product, but as an alliance (a "connection based on kinship, marriage, or common interest; a bond or tie"), a fellowship (a "close association of friends or equals sharing similar interests"), a guild (an "association of persons of the same trade or pursuits, formed to protect mutual interests and maintain standards"). Instead of buying a product (a ticket to a show), you became a member of this alliance/fellowship/guild and could participate in all of the activities associated with that organization. A church can serve as an interesting model.
Indeed, a church is a fantastic model, which is why I sat up in my chair a bit when my dad -- a Methodist minister -- posted a link to this article on Facebook:

The 11 lessons outlined may be of particular interest to folks who find themselves concerned for the health of their theater company. It should be read by all, regardless, as the items listed sketch out a road map for failure that may be avoided. Let's take a look at just three of these items.
2. The church had no community-focused ministries. This part of the autopsy may seem to be stating the obvious, but I wanted to be certain. My friend affirmed my suspicions. There was no attempt to reach the community.
Can you imagine a theater company becoming calcified and insular? Acting -- banish the thought -- cliquish? (Note: you have to focus on the community you actually belong to, not the community you wish you belonged to. This is often a key distinction for companies in Los Angeles.)
7. With few exceptions, pastoral tenure grew shorter and shorter. The church had seven pastors in its final ten years. The last three pastors were bi-vocational. All of the seven pastors left discouraged.
For me the analogy is creative leadership turnover. When a company begins chewing up and spitting out its creative talent, you might want to start warming up the defibrillator.
 9. The church had no clarity as to why it existed. There was no vision, no mission, and no purpose.
And herein lies a clue to the cure. A dying company lacks purpose. Say, I haven't quoted Peter Brook in a while, have I? This seems like a good time to do so. From The Empty Space:
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?
Granted, the cure involves asking tough questions and coming up with challenging answers.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that precisely what theater is good at?

Monday, April 29, 2013

How to Tell When it's Time to Cut Bait

Barring any last minute inspiration, this will be the last post in our "Won't Get Fooled Again" series of posts this month. To celebrate the spirit of April Fools Day, we've taken a look at Meeting Trolls, the importance of knowing your rights, creating sustainable fun, and how to work with a partner or collaborator.  Today we look at the flip side of this last topic:

How to Tell When it's Time to Cut Bait

When a collaboration or partnership clicks, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Some amazing art can be created. Sometimes, things go horribly awry. It is incredibly hard to tell how bad things really are when you are in the middle of things. Before settling down, you should spend some time "dating" to see if a partnership or collaboration is a love connection. Work on a limited project with your potential collaborators, and evaluate the experience from a safe distance before committing further.

Hopefully, this list will help you recognize the signs of a bad creative relationship so that you can move on and find your perfect match. Or, if you have settled down, perhaps it will help you resist doubling down on a partnership that's driving you nuts.

1. SANDBAGGING. Important information is being withheld. One of your collaborators knows something you don't, and in order to gain some advantage over you, he keeps you in the dark. If you are being sandbagged, you are not in a healthy relationship; you are connected to someone who is actively working against you in a passive-aggressive, underhanded way.

This is reason enough to pack it in and hit the road. This is a basic trust issue. If your partner or collaborators are doing this to you, run.

2. STATED MISSION VS. THE ACTUAL ACTIVITIES. This is not the same as making an honest attempt and failing. No, this is saying one thing and doing another. For instance  the stated goal is to develop new material, but the group only seems interested in producing published plays that will showcase the actors.

We all have our wild hares to chase, but when things get wildly out of phase and most of the time, something more serious is at hand.

3. YOUR GOALS VS. THE GOALS OF YOUR COLLABORATORS. This is a big one, yet it's strangely easy to miss. It's really a "no harm, no foul" situation -- you're just not all on the same page. You want to create spontaneous happenings in public, someone else wants to produce Shakespeare in the park, and a third person wants to produce her one-woman show in a North Hollywood storefront theater.

This can lead to "No, but ..." brainstorming, as opposed to "Yes, and ...." Every idea thrown out is immediately shot down by someone who's just not on the same page with you. You're planning a garden salad, he's planning to change the oil in his Buick Skylark. "Carrots!" "No, Pennzoil 10W30!" "No, celery!" "No, Fram HM3887A oil filter!" If it feels like you're speaking a different language than your collaborator, you probably are.

4. ALL STICK, NO CARROT. Sometimes we need enforcement to get things done. The enforcement of a deadline, for instance. If you are in a creative relationship that is all enforcement and no positive reinforcement (e.g. rewards, opportunities, a simple "thank you"), you are most likely dealing with someone who gets off on pushing other people around. The world is too vast, and creative opportunities too ample to remain attached to a bruiser who'd rather smack you than pat you on the back.

5. FOCUSING ON BLAME RATHER THAN PRODUCTION. Ever have one of those meetings where you deviate wildly off of the agenda and into finger-pointing territory? Any hope for productivity flies out the window and you spend the next hour rehashing things that went astray -- rehashing without any attempt to actually learn from those mistakes. Nope, it's much more fun to tell a person, "You're wrong!"

This gets really sick when it becomes a proactive attempt to catch you out on something. To actually manipulate you into an unintentional lie or misstep; a game of "GOTCHA!"

6. FREQUENT CLASHES, ESPECIALLY OF A PERSONAL NATURE. This is an extension of the above, and it deserves its own bullet. There's blaming others for things that have gone wrong, and then there's taking personal potshots at them. If it's happening, again, the person you're dealing with is actively working against you. Nothing good can come of that relationship. Run.

7. DRUDGERY. Finally, if you're just plain miserable, cut bait and move on.

It can be tough. There's this thing called "The Sunk Cost Bias." There's a great article about it here. The short version is, it's damned hard to step away from something you've invested in. For some reason it feels "better" to keep doubling down on a bad hand than to simply fold. This is what Buddha meant when he said "The origin of suffering is attachment."

To paraphrase Walt Whitman, you are large; you contain multitudes. Don't let anyone sell you on the idea that leaving a messed-up relationship will in anyway hinder your ability to create. Instead, remember the sage words of Bobcat Goldthwait:
Work with your friends. Avoid chasing fame or money. Just do what you want to do, when and how you want to do it. And if it’s not making you happy, quit. Quit hard, and quit often. Eventually you’ll end up somewhere that you never want to leave.

The Importance of Outlining

As for the story, whether the [writer] takes it ready made or constructs it for himself, he should first sketch its general outline, and then fill in the episodes and amplify in detail.
- Aristotle, The Poetics
The older I get, the more I appreciate the notion that all writing is not simply rewriting (as the old saying goes) but rather all writing is rewriting and pre-writing.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Red Bastard

Sacred Fools Spotlight Presents the Adult Only Show

Review by Andrew Moore
Photo via redbastard.com

There's a nagging little imp inside our minds that is telling us we could do more, accomplish more, be more. We try to shut him up with pills or alcohol or simply being "too busy," but he's there, waiting for an opportunity to rub our pathetic little failures in our face and say, "SEE? YOU WOULDN'T BE STUCK IN A DEAD-END LIFE IF YOU HAD JUST LISTENED TO ME IN THE FIRST PLACE!"

There's a reason why we keep him shut up in a mental broom closet, why we strive to keep his voice out of our heads. It's uncomfortable to be laughed at -- it's worse when it's us doing the laughing.

Red Bastard is that imp. His wild gymnastics and existential challenges are uncomfortable, but sorely needed.

This isn't entertainment; it's an experience. Eric Davis is entertaining -- please don't misunderstand. He is entrancing and vivacious as the eponymous bulbous buffoon. What I mean to say is this is not some mere show that you just go to see.

Brecht said, "Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it." Red Bastard is the mirror and the hammer, and he empowers his audience to join him. He can't force his audience out of their comfort zone; they have to be willing to go on the journey with him. You do not have to be willing to trust him, per se, at least no more than you would trust yourself, but willing to play along. Willing to dance with the devil, as it were.

Does he succeed? It depends upon the audience, I suppose. He certainly gave me pause, and I've been rolling around the Red Bastard experience in my mind since last night's performance. Davis makes a valiant effort at being an agent provocateur and change agent, yet in spite of his monstrous posturing and the maniacal control he exercises over the audience, there is a very human vulnerability just under the surface of the monster. This spark of vulnerability lends a certain ineffable charm to Red Bastard, and provides a sense of safety no matter how risky the dance becomes. His performance hinges on an audience willing to play, and it is a courageous risk on his own part.

Go be a part of Red Bastard; be willing to play. Take the clown at face value and he will return the favor.

Red Bastard is seducing audiences Mondays at 8pm, but THERE ARE ONLY TWO PERFORMANCES LEFT! April 29th and May 13th, at Sacred Fools, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., in Los Angeles; just south of Melrose and a couple of blocks west of Vermont Ave. Street parking is ample, but get there a little early. Tickets are $20 and available at www.sacredfools.org/onlineboxoffice/.

(Side note: Scoops, a groovy little gelato joint just north of Melrose on Heliotrope is open until 10:00 pm. After the show, take a little walk and try their salted caramel or jasmine pistachio. It's a tasty, decadent treat that pairs well with nursing your inner imp.)

Monday, April 15, 2013

How to Work With a Partner or Collaborator

Continuing our little theme this month, a "Won't Get Fooled Again" Guide to How to Work With a Partner or Collaborator.

What do I know about this subject?

I've had my successes:
Photo by Jason Kamimura
I've been married to this wonderful woman for 20 years this August. In addition to marital bliss, we are constantly working on stuff together.

Photo by Jason Kamimura
Phillip and I have been working together in this capacity for five years (I've known him a little longer than that.) We write together, and have been known to produce theater together as well.

I've also had my painful, bitter failures.  (Names omitted pursuant to Thumper's Rule.)


1. MAKE SURE YOU'RE ON THE SAME PAGE.  I cannot emphasize this enough. You could ignore all the rest of this advice and still find incredible success if you just make sure at the outset that you and your potential collaborators are on the same page. Before Pamela and I start a new project, we spend hours talking it over, conducting visual research, sketching ideas, listening to music, etc. Before we start the project, we have a pretty good idea what we're going in on.

Likewise, Phillip and I throw ideas off each other, mull things around, argue a bit, and ultimately come out with an alloyed idea that is stronger than what either one of us could have generated alone. When Phillip and I first embarked upon The Mr. Snapper & Mr. Buddy Rumpus Revue, we went back and forth describing our "sensory and emotional responses" to the idea of the show.  We actually broke it down on a visceral level: What does the show feel like, in a tactile sense? What does it smell like? It helped us forge the finished show conceptually, before the first bad joke was written.

The biggest partnership failures I've had occurred because we weren't all on the same page.  I wanted to zig, they wanted to zag. I had everything worked out in my head, but I didn't take the time to explain -- or, as is more often the case, my ego balked at the notion of "explaining myself." Which brings me to the next point:

"The night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting. That's pride fucking with you. Fuck pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps." 
- Marsellus Wallace
I have been cursed of late with the ability to see myself doing or saying stupid shit as I do or say it. I know when my ego has gotten the better of me. I'm not bragging about some mutant ability here, I'm just saying I'm a dick, and I know it.

The trick is to suck it up and admit you're wrong. Or -- and this is perhaps the most difficult thing of all -- admit your partner is right and you're wrong. My advice is to recognize that, if you are all on the same page, you all have the same goal. In the end, it doesn't really matter if you took a right turn or a left turn, so long as you got to your destination on time. Don't be so married to your own ideas that you miss out on a shortcut.

And it's okay to be unhappy about being wrong. Only channel that unhappiness away from your partner, and towards something more constructive, like punching a wall.

3. WASTE IDEAS. This is a good piece of creative advice in general, but it is so very important in a partnership. It gets to the heart of brainstorming, and it will help alleviate the ego sting mentioned above.

In short, an idea is nothing. We are in the idea business, so reeling off a bunch of different possibilities should come easy. If not, it's a muscle you should exercise. Ideas are not precious, and once you make your peace with that, your ability to work with others will increase by an order of magnitude.

4. "YES, AND" NOT "NO, BUT". When you're in brainstorming mode, cut the brake line and head for the highest hill. Keep notes. Sort the wheat from the chaff after you've harvested everything. If you're truly on the same page, not married to your precious ideas, and willing to get over your bad self, separating the wheat from the chaff should be relatively quick and painless, once you get to that stage.

The last thing you want to do is clamp down on a free flow of ideas in the moment. You ever notice that "moment" and "momentum" have the same root? Kill the moment, and you kill the momentum.

5. DO UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE THEM DO TO YOU. Yes, the Golden Rule. I like to extend it to also mean, "cut your partner the same breaks you hope they would cut for you."

A partnership is give and take, and I'm not really aware of any reliable way to determine when to give and when to take, other than following the Golden Rule. Granted, it can be a bit of a "grind it 'til you find it" proposition. The important thing is to go into a collaboration knowing it will be a give and take, and honoring that part of the relationship.

6. COMPARTMENTALIZE. This may come as a surprise to you, but I've had arguments with Pamela and Phillip. More often with Phillip than with Pamela, but she's way cuter than he is.

You have to let the argument, the project, etc. exist in its own space, and continue to tend the relationship. Oftentimes, the parts of the partnership that are working will overwhelm and choke out the part that's not working, but you must first focus your energies on the positive.

A corollary to this is a little something I learned from Penn & Teller:

Petty disagreements between artistic partners should never get so out of hand that they threaten your mutual output or potential income. When all else fails, just be professional.

IN CONCLUSION. Not every partnership is going to pan out, no matter how noble your intentions are when you first go in on it. Sometimes people just don't mesh. Sometimes you may be doing everything right, but the other person is incapable of getting past their own ego, getting on the same page with you, wasting ideas, etc. As mentioned in the last installment in this series, there's no shame in cutting bait and walking away.

Next time, we'll take a closer look at partnerships that don't work.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Sustainable Fun

Evie Lovelle, photo by Amanda Brooks

Continuing our "Won't Get Fooled Again" April,  words of wisdom from a striptease artist. One of my performer friends in the Burlesque world, Evie Lovelle recently posted on Facebook:

If it's your livelihood, make sure it's sustainable, if it's an adventure, make sure it's actually fun.

For many of us in the arts, it is our goal to make our adventure our livelihood. Sustainable fun. I believe one possible path to this is an unrelenting pursuit of what I call the joie.  What does it mean in the context of "Won't Get Fooled Again?"

If it hurts, something is wrong. If your pursuit is draining your resources without contributing anything back; if it has become a joyless drudgery, it's time to make a change. At the very least, you owe it to yourself to take a breather and assess your situation. Eat a good meal, take a long walk, and reapproach what you're doing -- including and especially your relationships -- with fresh eyes.  There's no shame in cutting bait and walking away.

Don't let other people suck all the joie out of your life and your art.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Know Your Rights

We've all seen this by now, I trust:

“Firefly” Hat Triggers Corporate Crackdown

Because Firefly fans need more reasons to be mad at 20th Century Fox. After years of satisfied customers, online stores selling hand-knitted replicas of the show's iconic “Jayne hat” are being forced to shut down… and fans are upset.
If you haven't, get thee to BuzzFeed posthaste!

In the "Won't Get Fooled Again" spirit of April, a gentle imploration:


In this particular case, the exact nature of the takedown isn't noted. It is assumed by many that the hat itself is somehow copyrighted or trademarked. Au contraire ... you cannot copyright an article of clothing. You can copyright logos and that sort of thing, which is why you see Louis Vuitton logos plastered all over Louis Vuitton handbags, etc.  (There's some interesting information about this very topic in a Morning Edition story from last September: "Why Knockoffs are Good for the Fashion Industry.")

It may be a trademark issue.  For instance if the Etsy sellers were listing it as "Firefly hat as worn by Jayne Cobb" or the like. In that case, the makers of these hats need to take a page out of Whimsic Alley's book:

... see what they did there?  (If you have never been to Whimsic Alley, you really should attend one of their high teas.  Absolutely delightful, if you're a fan of Harry Potter.) It doesn't take a wizard of the House of Lion to figure out that sort of work-around.

Even still, I understand that under certain circumstances you can use trademarked terms in the description of a good or service. This is how the manufacturers of Apple accessories can refer to something as an "iPad case" without running afoul of Apple. The case itself is called something like "EXXXTREME CONTACT CASE" and "iPad case" is merely description. This is called nominative fair use.

The takeaway from all this is, know your rights. That way, when you receive the C&D notice, you don't have to panic. You can calmly respond (through your attorney) and carry on.  If you don't know your rights, odds are you will infringe without realizing it, and/or panic and wind up shooting yourself in the foot.

Speaking of footbullets, I'm not sure how it is Etsy has avoided any umbrage in all this. ThinkGeek is taking its lumps, but very little has been said about Etsy taking down every store Ripple Junction complained about without bothering to see if any actual infringing was going on.  For shame, Etsy.  You should know your rights as well.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Meeting Trolls

Seth Godin gives us a description of a particularly nasty species, the Meeting Troll.  A couple of choice excerpts:
1. The meeting troll has a neverending list of reasonable objections. It's the length of the list that makes the objections unreasonable.
2. Despite his protestations about how much he hates meetings, the meeting troll actually thrives on them, because, after all, this is the only place he gets to do his best work. The very best way to extinguish the meeting troll is to  extinguish meetings. The second best way is to not invite him.
6. Growth hackers look for a yes at every turn. The meeting troll thinks his job is to find the no.
9. The meeting troll has a perfect memory for previous failures and complete amnesia when it comes to things that have worked.
Well worth a read.  Go over to Seth's blog and check it out.

For the month of April, Mad Theatrics is going to focus a little bit on what should be the true spirit of April Fools Day: learning to be a little more skeptical in our response to the information presented to us. This extends to ferreting out where we've been bamboozled, hoodwinked, and manipulated into accepting someone else's agenda, all the while being diverted off a path that we know is right for us as an artist.

The Meeting Troll is a humbug. Making art is risk-taking, and the Meeting Troll hates risk. His job is to put a damper on things and prevent the sort of risk-taking that can result in artistic triumph but more often than not failure. Like Seth says, he's not evil, he's just afraid, and it's understandable.  No one wants to fail, no matter how essential failure is to growth.

I've been in meetings that were what I term "yes, and ..." meetings, and I've been in meetings that were "no, but ..." meetings. Guess which type actually produces something of value? Hint: the Meeting Troll thrives in the other type.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Whoops ...

Due to an error in email settings, I haven't been receiving email sent to madtheatrics[at]gmail.com.  If you have emailed me in the past few years and I never got back to you, that's why.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Mad Theatrics Presents ...

We're very big on practicing what we preach around here, and so I am pleased to announce Mad Theatrics is filing articles of incorporation today, as a non-profit theater company. Beginning this summer, we won't just be reviewing and commenting on theater -- we'll be making theater the old fashioned way.

Mad Theatrics Presents, Inc. will be holding member auditions in a few weeks. So if you want to be a part of L.A.'s newest, edgiest, most ambitious theater company, start working out those audition monologues! As is traditional with Equity-waiver upstarts in this town, we will be a dues-paying theater company. Running a company is damned expensive, and we'll need our members to help foot the bill.  Besides, investing monetarily is a good way to demonstrate your commitment to our mission statement (at press time, the mission statement is still being refined.)

I am also pleased to announce the line-up for our first season!
  • William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream set on skid row. A group of Beverly Hills brats go on a wild adventure in Downtown L.A.
  • An evening of one act plays inspired by the challenges of producing no-budget, Equity-waiver theater in Los Angeles. Currently untitled and unwritten. The plan is for members of Mad Theatrics Presents to draw upon their own experiences and write the plays together in a free-form, improvisational rehearsal process that depends heavily upon sense memory and Mike Leigh exercises.
  • Your Dinner with Andre, a hilarious, interactive parody of the 1981 classic where one lucky cast member is invited onstage to play Wally Shawn.
Of course we'll be rolling out Kickstarter campaigns for each of these, so watch for those.

There was some discussion among the writing staff of Mad Theatrics as to how we should handle the review process for our own shows. After giving it much thought, we've decided there is no compelling conflict of interest to prevent us from reviewing our own work.  Besides, it works for Randall Gray.

We are very excited to begin this new chapter in our creative lives, and look forward to you joining us, either as dues-paying members or pay-what-you-want audience members!

Happy April Fools

Today is the day when our friends teach us to be a little more skeptical in our response to information presented to us.

It is also an excellent time to look at your life, to see if you've been bamboozled or hoodwinked, to pull back the curtain on people who are manipulating you; a time to evaluate your professional relationships, to determine if someone is getting the better of you; a time to ask questions, to cry "Humbug!" and end exploitation. Happy April Fools!