Monday, April 28, 2014

Killing Juana (Part 1)

- or -

Follow-through, Sunk Costs, and Producing the Best High School Theater in Los Angeles: A Cautionary Tale


On September 30th, 2007, eight months after committing to direct Juana and two months before opening, I sent an email to the assistant artistic directors of [theater company name redacted] and my stage manager:

I feel a bit like Aeschylus.  Only, instead of an eagle dropping a turtle on my bald head and killing me, it's the Fates dropping Cleveland steamers on my beautiful and full head of hair.
I find myself in the position of saying "Juana can still come off, so long as ..." and then listing off a dozen or so things -- a list that grows longer each day.  The more problems I work on solving, the more problems pop up in their place.  It's been a lot like beheading a hydra.  Or to paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson's character in "Jurassic Park," we have all the problems of a major theme park and a major zoo.

Okay.  To recap:  I just this night lost the costume designer.  There's a lighting designer in the works, but I have no set designer or sound designer. 

I still don't have the cast I need (six actors short) after losing [Actress] in a Melrose-Place-like display of drama.  Of the company members who haven't quit or gone on LOA, at least half of them are taking a break -- from [Theater Company], if not from acting.  Our Now Casting responders were mostly females interested in the Toy Theater.  Of the three guys I saw, I was able to cast one.   Planet Juana needs men.

The budget's still up in the air and we really need to start the build, if we hope to build an ass-load of puppets in eight weeks.  This means some of the puppets wouldn't get into the hands of the actors until opening (eight weeks).  67 puppets is a lot.  I've simplified the design down to something doable, and I'm thinking up ways to eliminate extraneous characters, but it's still a shitload of work (see point above about remaining company members who are taking a break).
The breakdown of the characters/puppets."Emphasis on the 'breakdown.'"
[Artistic Director] doesn't like the idea of going dark over Thanksgiving, which means either opening after (and running for three weeks) or somehow casting nineteen people who don't have plans that weekend.  I don't know what the hell this even means.  If we start after Thanksgiving, we run for three weeks.  (Christmas is on a Tuesday this year.  Something tells me a "five day weekend" is going to be a popular choice amongst the cast members I have, let alone the audience.)

Three nights a week are completely shot as far as rehearsals go.  (Even if I was not in Midsummer, most of my cast is.) 

[Deceased Playwright]'s not here to make any needed changes to the script to make it more producible.  There are certain staging problems that I was willing to fix, but given the mounting issues around this production ... well let's just say my optimism is fading (i.e., projectors, for a start) and time is running out.

Ladies and gentleman, I'm finally to the point where I can say with a clear conscience, "This play is fucked."  Another way to say it is, "This project is officially out of my pay range." Another would be "Hold! Or cut bow strings!"  Still another would be "NO MAS!"  (This is me just being funny and softening the blow.  I honestly don't see how we can do the production with the given circumstances, and I'm supposed to be the captain of this ship.)

Let's just do it next year.  Give ourselves some time and space.  Let everyone's batteries recharge so I have a fresh, full company to play with.  Let's give half the Juana dates to the long-suffering Playwright's Labbers.  With some of the press stating that they won't review the same small theatre twice in a row, this will get the new playwrights an opportunity to be reviewed.  With the other half, let's pick back up on something we were working on earlier this year, and push it over the f-ing finish line -- and make some damn money.  I'll happily take the reins of it and see it through.  I even have a new name and face for it.  [Asst. A.D #1] and [Stage Manager] heard the first draft of the title today in the company meeting:

"Uncle [Company Member]'s Dirty Music Hall Review" --  [Company Member]'s dirtiest songs, a couple of crude puppet shows, and a couple of burlesque acts.  I'll direct and write whatever is needed to fill out the show.  Midsummer has proven that we have some great dancers on our hands.  We have the poles to do [Company Member]'s "Pole Dancer" number.  Let's have some fun, raise some money, and start the planning for next season.  (I'll even pay to reprint the outside of our Midsummer programs to reflect the change.)  $20 to $25 admission for a bawdy evening of fun would be within the budget of our audiences. [Ed. Note: We were actually in production on a "gala" show that had these elements in play. It was cancelled by the artistic director.]

I hate this.  Believe me, I was roaring about "doing Juana by myself with finger puppets if need be" a couple of weeks ago.  I don't have the energy left at this point to do a one-man Juana production, much less the flailing project I have in my hands right now.  This sucks.  But Midsummer is a high point in our season that could extend if we focus our efforts.  The New Playwrights Series should be easy to tackle with our available talent and will be great for the company.  Making money with dirty songs and half-naked women would be a great, simple and delightful way to cap off the year.

I don't know how to present this to [Artistic Director].  You guys are the experts on that.  I don't want to half-ass a dead man's work.  With Midsummer, I feel the company is rounding a corner.  I'd rather keep going onward and upward.

-- Andrew

And So We Begin

Let's go on a journey, dear reader. A journey into the room without light. A journey into attempting the impossible and failing miserably:

"But director Andrew Moore has made so many unfortunate choices and has been saddled with so many unhelpful circumstances, the story of the betrayal of Juana ... over 30 years by her father, husband, and son feels exhausting."
- from the Backstage West review of Juana

I'm going to take you on a journey through those many unhelpful circumstances and unfortunate choices.

In 2007, I undertook to direct a play about Juana the Mad, a fascinating historical figure, for a local theater company. I approached the process full of enthusiasm, the best of intentions, and a real desire to share Juana's tragic story. The final product was, indeed, a tragedy. A tragedy, it turns out, that could have been quite easily avoided (but you'll have to wait for the punchline, folks.)

The best of intentions: Pre-production art of what one of the puppets would look like.

The final product.

The day after I sent my plea to postpone the production of Juana, after receiving emailed pep-talks from the assistant artistic directors and my stage manager, I sent another email. This one began as follows:
Guys -

Okay, so I got a bit steamed up yesterday.

I took a fresh look at the script today and ... uh, started rewriting it.  

In the end, I have no one to blame but myself. I realized what I had gotten myself into, yet I fooled myself into believing I could somehow muscle Juana to completion. I hope that over the course of this series you will learn from my mistakes.

Workshopping a dead man's script during production. Item one fifty-one on the Juana glitch list.

A Few Notes

Before I dive into the gnarly details, a few notes:
First, I'm redacting all the names involved. This production of Juana is a matter of public record, and a simple Google search could easily turn up the details I'm omitting. I ask that you don't. I am certain the other people involved in this project are happy to have it well in their rearview mirror, and would rather have it forgotten.

I have nothing but lasting respect for my cast and crew. From the lighting designer who most likely wanted to flay me alive as the demands of the production maxed out the capabilities of the light board, to the actors who remained dedicated to the farce despite every reason to run for the hills, to the assistant artistic directors who were basically handed a live grenade as the artistic director ran off to New York -- everyone actively involved in this production came to it with the sort of esprit de corps that draws me to the theater.

Finally, if you were there, too, and wish to take me to task, correct my misconceptions, or contribute to the public dissection of a long-dead production, drop me a line. As always, I'm fascinated to know what other people were thinking.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Tales of Longing and Belonging

UPDATE, 11:00 pm: I would like to acknowledge the artists involved by name. Their spirited performances  really made the evening:

Rona Par (narrator); Deborah Dauda (dancer); Raul Cordona, Shamika Franklin,  Beth Peterson, Ezra Behnen, Alexis, Aida, Vince and Luis (puppeteers); and Severin Behnen, Julio Montero and Najite Agindotan (musicians).
Likewise, I neglected to mention how well organized and run this event was. The festival volunteers in particular were quite attentive, friendly, and on top of things. Kudos!
*     *     *

Child-like wonder conveyed through a loving expression of art and puppetry filled the Elephant Stage's Lillian Theatre last night, as the colorful creations and talented performers of Beth Peterson's  One Grain of Sand Puppet Theater took the audience on a journey of longing and belonging.

The audience entered the theater to live music, courtesy of a trio of musicians: a percussionist playing what looked like clay bongo drums, an accordionist, and a guitarist. This magical musical overture, played in an improvisational style on folk instruments, was the perfect mood setter for what was to come.

The show began with "Traveling Colors: A Suitcase Show," a simply narrated toy theater tale of a grey boy in a grey world, and his journey through all the colors of nature. This dream-like first act was a captivating stream of consciousness, which drew us further into  the magic of the evening.

A brief musical interlude followed, featuring well crafted, large-scale coyote and moon puppets. Accompanied by the vocal talents of Julio Cesar Montero, Jr. (the guitarist in the trio), this segment served as a breather between the major acts of the evening.

"The Mysterious Case of the Missing Star Episode 3: The Nomad" began with  a prologue of three children looking for a star in Los Angeles. A series of humorous events brought them to Watts, where we were told the story of Sobato Rodia, the artist who created the Watts Towers.

This transitioned to the story of Dominique Moody, the titular nomad, an artist who overcame juvenile macular degeneration to create intricately crafted assemblage art. (Her first solo exhibition was at the Watts Towers Arts Center, thus connecting her story to that of Sobato Rodia.) Episodic, told through toy theater, mask work, shadow and large-scale puppetry, we were taken on an impressionistic survey of her life-story.

At times, the evening's presentation seemed to lake a certain showmanship polish. Little adjustments would make for a more enjoyable audience experience: cleaning up entrances and exits, cleaner movement of pieces on and off stage, consistent attire among the puppeteers. (If you're wearing blacks, wear blacks. Not black tennis shows with white soles or colored t-shirts.) But what these artists lacked in polish they more than made up for in heart.

At the end of the evening, the real life Dominique Moody was brought up on stage. It was an emotional, fourth-wall breaking moment: the recognition of the real, flesh-and-blood artist whose life story just played out before us. Beth Peterson then invited the audience to join the cast onstage and dance. In the end, Tales of Longing and Belonging was a celebration of life; an acknowledgement of our individual longing and universal belonging.

This show is well suited for children, and I encourage parents to seek out One Grain of Sand Puppet Theater.

LA Puppet Fest is going full tilt boogie through this tomorrow afternoon. There's still time to catch a show, panel discussion, or class. It all culminates in a veritable explosion of the puppetry arts at Skirball Cultural Center tomorrow. Visit the LA Puppet Fest website for details.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

LA Puppet Fest: Fringier than Fringe

... and not just because some of the performers actually have fringe.

As mainstream as puppetry can be -- from The Muppets: Most Wanted to Avenue Q to the puppety presence is ads for LendingTree, Jack in the Box, and who knows what else -- as a theatrical artform it remains very much outside the mainstream. Sure, puppetry is used to great effect by companies such as Rogue Artist Ensemble and The Visceral Company, but that rather proves the point. The companies that consistently avail themselves of this uniquely theatrical artform are the iconoclastic companies on the outermost limits of mainstream theatrical production. The outré ones. The fringiest of Los Angeles theater.

For the second year, LA Puppet Fest is celebrating this artform with workshops and performances across the Greater Los Angeles area. The fest began on April 1st, and continues through this weekend, affording the opportunity to take in masterful theatrical puppetry, and learn a thing or two about how to bring the magic of puppetry to your stage.

Here's the press release, so you know what's going on:

LA Puppet Fest 2014 continues with Puppet Theater, Workshops & Skirball Family Puppet Festival 

Friday: Evening of Puppetry and Song 

Saturday: Intro to Puppet Sketch; Wonder of Shadow Puppetry; Future of Puppetry; Minimalism Times Three Plus One Show 

Sunday: Skirball Puppet Festival, a family celebration LA Puppet Fest 2014: City-Wide Celebration of the Art and Creativity of all things Related to Puppetry with Events for Children and Adults through April 13 

LA Puppet Fest 2014, back for its second year, is a city-wide celebration dedicated to sharing and promoting the art of puppetry through performances and workshops. Taking place from April 1 – 13, spanning from Santa Monica, West Los Angeles to West Hollywood and Hollywood, LA Puppet Fest promises to offer entertainment and educational activities with something for everyone. Over 25 events are scheduled, many appropriate for children and families, as well as adult only programs.

Friday, April 11, 8 p.m.: Tales of Longing and Belonging: The Losing, Finding and Making of Place, an Evening of Puppetry and Song – $15 or $20 VIP; All ages Elephant Stage’s Lillian Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles 90038 - "Tales of Longing and Belonging" is an evening of giant and tiny puppetry and live music for all ages. "Hue - the suitcase show" is a young boy's colorful search to find a place where he belongs; songs of Cuñao explore the journey of history, loss and search for new place, and "The Nomad" features episodes from the life of Dominique Moody who creates beautiful assemblage from the shards of the past. Shadow puppets, Toy Theater, a giant puppet or two, and storytelling combined with live music to bring these tales to life. A One Grain of Sand Puppet Production.
Grain of Sand Puppet Theater, Tales of Longing and Belonging
Cast Includes: Gina Fields, Beth Peterson, Jamie Kim, Jonathan Alvarez, and Ezra, Vince, Luis, Aida and friends

Music: Cuñao - Julio Cesar Montero, Jr.; Severin Behnen

Beth Peterson created puppet shows, pageants and parades for over a decade and a half at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre in Minneapolis, MN and for the last ten years with One Grain of Sand Puppet Theater in Los Angeles in venues ranging from the lobby of Walt Disney Concert Hall and opening of Grand Park, to South Coast Repertory Theater, Inner City Arts, Skirball Center and LA neighborhoods including Highland Park, Koreatown and Leimert Park.

Saturday, April 12: Workshops, Roundtable & Show

Asylum Lab, 1078 Lillian Way, Hollywood 90038
12:00 p.m.: Introduction to Puppet Sketch with Erik Kuska - $25; All Ages
Love puppets but having a hard time coming up with new ideas? Love sketch comedy but not really sure how its done? Need help finding the ‘funny’ in your work, or just need some motivation to get some writing done? Well this is the workshop for YOU.
Erik Kuska and friend, "Introduction to Puppet Sketch"

These sketch writing techniques apply to ALL writing, whether its a feature length script or writing a monologue to start your show. The idea is, better writing gives you better puppetry. So bring a pen, paper, and get ready take the next step toward being a better writer. We'll examine sketch formats, discuss how to play to your puppetry strengths, and learn how to develop ideas more efficiently.

Elephant Stage’s Lillian Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles 90038
2:30 p.m.: Exploring the Wonder of Shadow Puppetry with Leslie K.Gray - $25; Ages 10+
Shadow puppets are an integral part of rituals and arts all over the world, but not so prevalent in Western culture. Come join theater artist Leslie K. Gray for a hands on workshop that explores the techniques of shadow puppetry, ancient and modern. Create your own shadow puppet presentations using light to create images from reflected darkness! This two hour workshop is designed to be an intensive for ages 10 and up. If you are able to bring a pair of scissors, a pencil, ordinary sheets of paper (office recycled is fine), and any items you think might cast interesting shadows, you will be onestep ahead in creating your own shadow puppet show!

5 p.m.: Future of Puppetry Round Table; guests to be announced. Moderator: Eric Lynxwiler - $15 or $20 VIP; All Ages
Young puppetry professionals share their perspective about where the art form is going and what they are doing to help it advance their way.

8 p.m.: Minimalism Times Three Plus One - $15 or $20 VIP; Ages 12+
The show opens with a preview of “206 - The Church of Bones” written and created by Sean T. Cawelti and Morgan Rebane. An original multidisciplinary puppet and media performance exploring the relationship between death and consumerism based on true events spanning a 700 year history at a single church in the Czech Republic.
Minimalism Times Three Plus One

Following that are three pieces in the Minimalist style. Each one tells a different story with a single object. The goal of this limitation is to foster a high degree of creative thinking while at the same time unearthing the emotional potential of the most common of objects. The thoughts and imagination of the audience are directed towards the formation of new associations for everyday objects and materials. It is these associations that give birth to the fun and entirely original puppetry images typical of a Minimalist Puppetry show. A MUST see. VIP tickets include priority seating and meet and greet with the cast.

Sunday, April 13, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.: Skirball Puppet Festival: A Family Celebration of the Wonders of Puppet Theater

Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 North Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles 90049 $10 general; $7 Seniors/Students; $5 Children 2-12; Free to Skirball Members; all ages Limited advance tickets: Available on site at the Skirball, online at, or by phone at (877) SCC-4TIX or (877) 722-4849. Walk up tickets subject to availability. Advance tickets recommended. Free passes and discount coupons are not valid on festival day. 

Join the Skirball for its third annual celebration of the art of puppetry, featuring interactive puppet performances, shadow puppetry, live music, art making, spectacular strolling puppets, an interactive display from the Los Angles Guild of Puppetry, and more. This campus-wide, daylong festival brings together some of Southern California’s most talented puppeteers and artists, working in a range of cultural and artistic styles. A day of imaginative storytelling and innovation sure to amaze visitors ages 2 to 102!