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Follow-through, Sunk Costs, and Producing the Best High School Theater in Los Angeles: A Cautionary Tale
PrologueOn 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.
And So We BeginLet'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:
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 NotesBefore 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.