Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Creating vs. Determination

An excerpt from Creating, by Robert Fritz.  This is from chapter 15, "Long-Term Creating," a chapter that deals specifically with goal-setting:
The one ingredient you don’t need is determination.  I am tired of hearing all the motivational speakers attempt to goose their audiences into the ranks of the determined.  If you must muster determination to create what you want, you are going about it all wrong.  Great musicians do not use determination to develop their skills, nor do great athletes, nor do great actors, nor do great inventors, nor do great scientists, nor do great furniture designers.  Determination is for people who are not very good at what they do.  Determination is a short-term motivational manipulation that is designed to overcome inertia, procrastination, and ineptitude.  The power of determination runs out awfully fast.  That’s why those who attempt to instill themselves with determination need to continually bombard themselves with motivational tapes and books.  You cannot build momentum based on determination or through other forms of willpower manipulation.
(Emphasis his.)

Etch that phrase into your shaving mirror so you see it every morning:  "Determination is for people who are not very good at what they do."

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

2010 Year in Review: Torrid Affaire

[My year kicked off with the restaging of my play Torrid Affaire by Theatre Unleashed.  Below is my "Playwright's Statement" from the program of that run.]

Theatre Unleashed presents: Torrid Affaire

Funny story. Torrid Affaire grew out of frustration.

Back in 2005, I had this nutty idea to produce a play. I'd cast some of the wonderful people I had met over the previous year of "getting back into theatre," rent a small hall for a limited run, and see if I still knew what I was doing. After all, I am a college educated artist! (Insert impressed "oohs" and "aahs" here.) I had the play all picked out, a farcical work about five women in the midst of change, each harboring secrets. I cast the show, did a first read-through ... and got word that my request for rights had been declined.

After yelling at the walls and scaring the dogs for the better part of the afternoon, I announced to my very patient and understanding wife, "Fuck it! I'll write a play myself!" I sat down, and two weeks later the first draft of Torrid Affaire was finished. The cast was on board with the change (apparently, I'm very charismatic when I'm angry,) and rehearsals began immediately. I workshopped the play on the fly -- tweaking this line, rewriting those pages -- like a quarterback calling plays on the field. The play opened to a packed house, and closing night was sold out. Not bad for a two night run.

The first cast of Torrid Affaire (L to R):  Jacqueline Valmont, Cassandra Cousineau, Amy Ray, Carrie Spellman, Pamela Moore, and that tall drink of water in the back is Josh Green.

Torrid Affaire became the calling card that got me into a theatre company later that year, that proved my chops to new collaborators, and helped convince them I could write a play about the backstage antics at a 1940s burlesque hall when we broke off and started this company.

The lesson, at least for me, is as follows: When you get pissed-off, do something about it. When the threshhold guardians of life tell you "NO!" find a way to do it anyway. Trust your abilities, trust your friends, and follow the path you've committed to. The longterm pay-off cannot be estimated; positive action has untold repercussions that resonate in ways you may never appreciate.

Enough preaching. I hope you enjoy Torrid Affaire. Although born of frustration, it was crafted to delight.

The Theatre Unleashed cast of Torrid Affaire (clockwise from bottom left):  Taryn Chaifetz, Darci Dixon, Katie Sikkema, Annmarie Migini, Ana Therese Lopez and that slice of man meat in the middle is Josh Morrison.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Merry Filthy Christmas

Produced by Darren T. Mangler and Theatre Unleashed at Sidewalk Studio Theater in Burbank

[DISCLAIMER: I co-founded Theatre Unleashed in 2008 and served as president of the company until October of this year. I have also had the great fortune of working with Darren Mangler a number of times, and consider him a friend. I kind of know Josh Green, as well. :-) ]

Darren Mangler is an animal; a great comic beast who roams unbridled across the vast, untamed wild of Los Angeles comedy. He is incapable of not being funny. Actually, I take that back -- in The Unserious Chekhov earlier this year, I directed Darren in Chekhov's short play "On the Main Road," and he manages dramatic material with the same balls-out committment with which he approaches comedy.  But I digress.

Merry Filthy Christmas is billed as "L.A.'s Longest Running Holidy Sketch Show" -- it certainly predates Theatre Unleashed.  Our company was just a twinkle in our naive little eyes when I first heard of the show, at that time produced at Write/Act Repertory in Hollywood.

Is it offensive?  I suppose so.  To be honest, even the raunchiest jokes are presented with such good humor and purity (yes, purity) of spirit it's easy to laugh in spite of one's self.  There were a few groaners (what comedy show would be complete without them?) But overall the night was -- dare I say? -- good, clean fun.  Good clean fun with ample incest, anal-sex and scatalogical jokes. It is a strange line that Mangler and Co., walk, and they walk it well.

This past Friday night was your last chance to catch the 2010 edition of this show, but you should make plans to catch this naughty and nice show next year. I know I'll be back!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Pin-Up Girls Progress

Pin-Up Girls in process.

[NOTE: I'm cleaning out old drafts again. Here's a brief snippet from 7/16/08, shortly after I held auditions for Pin-Up Girls (and before the final draft was done, 'cause that's how I roll.)  I'm experiencing a similar problem with the new play, Lang.  It's good to remind myself in moments like this that I have been there before.  Pin-Up Girls became a box office and critical hit for Theatre Unleashed.  I had know idea what I was in store for when I wrote these words.]
Trumpet players make good kissers. I know from experience.

How many experiences?

You know, I don't like you any more.
I've been "working on" Pin-Up Girls for a few years now. It has taken on epic stature in my mind, and there was a point a couple of weeks back where I was seriously considering throwing in the towel on it. Because, you see, I was afraid that nothing I could write would be as good as what I had in mind.

There is a term for that kind of thinking. The term is "crazy." Nothing ever measures up to what you imagine, if only because imagination is not tethered to such real-life concerns as "story structure" and "good dialogue."

The trick is to capture the feeling I get when the imaginary Pin-Up Girls unspools before my "mind's eye," to hit the essential story beats, and to create something that measures up to the impossibly high standard I have set for this thing.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

If You're Not a Part of the Solution ...

One of my boyhood idols, a Christian song evangelist named Jeff Steinberg posted the following quote on Facebook today:
"A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities, and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties."
- Harry Truman
Jeff was one of the first entertainers--who made a living as an entertainer--that I met.  I was maybe three or four years-old at the time.  He has an incredible story, and a powerful voice.  If he isn't the picture of optimism as defined above, I don't know who is.

"Don't tell me why it can't be done; help me figure out how it can."  That was a mantra I held onto over the past few years.  Nothing frustrates me more than people saying "No, but ...."  If you're not in the solution business, you should maybe not be in the theatre business.

Which is it to be?  Making difficulties of your opportunities, or making opportunities of your difficulties?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Romeo and Juliet

Produced by Merry War Theatre Group at the American Legion Hollywood

[DISCLOSURE:  Co-founder of MWTG and Assitant Director of this production, Phillip Kelly is a dear friend and collaborator (he's one half of "Mssrs. Snapper & Buddy," a neo-vaudvilian act.  I'm the other half.)  He's also the rare person with whom I can be brutally honest about things of an artistic nature, and vice-versa.  There are no eggshells between us, and we've often disagreed passionately about theatre.]

I enjoyed Merry War Theatre Group's production of Romeo and Juliet.  An earnest, appealing cast brings a scrappy production of a Shakespearean staple, relishing in the humor of it all.  We've all seen this show.  We've read it.  We know it like few other Shakespeare plays.  Merry War ditches the emo-melodrama and mines the humanity of Romeo and Juliet's relationship.  When Romeo kills Tybalt in an act of revenge, things begin spiralling out of control.  The stakes become real for the star-crossed lovers in a way I haven't seen happen before.  The storytelling is from the heart and from the head.

The play begins in the downstairs bar, where improvised business between characters leads to the prologue.  This production of Romeo and Juliet takes place in the Verona Hotel and Casino.  The Montagues are service industry workers, the Capulets are patrons of the hotel and casino.  As seems to be the case all too often with attempts to stage Shakespeare somewhere else, the framing conceit doesn't add much to the storytelling, and doesn't play much further than the prologue in the bar.  It doesn't distract, either -- oftentimes what seems like a clever idea imposes itself too heartily on the text, warping it.  That does not happen here. 

The principle playing space is a cavernous, dark atrium in the center of the American Legion building. The actors are before us and to our right and left on the ground floor. They are also above us, on a second floor balcony that surrounds us. We are in the center of all the action, and director Chase McKenna uses this space to great effect.

McKenna is a lovable Juliet, and her Romeo, Adam Burch, is equally appealing.  Other stand-outs in the ensemble include McKinley Belcher III who imbues Mercutio with a delightful flippancy, and Bobbie Keegan who brings a brogue-ish charm to the Nurse.  I'm happy to say there's not a dull note in the entire cast.

BRING CASH FOR THE BAR!  And keep in mind that you may not bring your drinks with you into the principle performing space.

Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 8:00 pm through December 12th at The Hollywood American Legion, 2035 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles.  Bar opens at 6:00pm.  There is ample parking at the American Legion, but bring $5 CASH.

Tickets via Brown Paper Tickets or Goldstar.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Burlesque is Theatre

"No matter how huge the goal, project or problem, if you diligently continue to chip away at it or take even the tiniest steps forward to correct the situation, you can achieve the results that you desire…”
-- Catherine D'Lish
There is a fantastic interview with burlesque dancer/ravishing beauty Catherine D'Lish at 21st Century Burlesque that brings to mind the concept of a "showperson."  (Note: There are a couple of NSFW pictures embedded in the article.)
I absolutely feel that it is each performer’s responsibility to entertain the audience. That somebody being on stage makes them feel good about themselves, or empowered, or that they are sending an important message to educate someone should take a back seat (in my opinion) to holding the interest of the spectators. I’m not saying that every act should be frivolous fluff, just that the individuals sitting (or standing) out there in the dark must be presented with something that doesn’t leave them feeling left out.
For some time I've meant to publish an essay on burlesque as a perfect theatrical form.  That's a work in progress and will probably turn into one of my ponderously pedantic multi-parters.  In the meantime, I encourage you, the reader to seek out a burlesque show and see what it's all about.  With the new Cher/Christina Aguilara movie dropping soon, you may be inclined to believe the glossy Hollywood take on what is in fact a vibrant, growing artform.

In Los Angeles, I recommend Peepshow Menagerie, Monday Night Tease and Victory Variety Hour.  That's where you'll find me onstage these days.

Monday, November 01, 2010


No job is too small for CAPTAIN HINDSIGHT!  (via South Park Studios)

... things would be very different.  As Pamela is fond of quoting, "You live and learn and then there's Luvs."

How different, you ask?  Try this on for size:
We, the undersigned, agree to work together in creating works of art inspired by passion, under the banner of “The Autonym.”

Our participation in this association is entirely voluntary and at will. We owe no allegiance to The Autonym. We are not members of The Autonym. Rather, we align ourselves with each other, as individual artists and with mutual respect.

The Autonym has no bylaws, no logo, and no fixed location in space. There are no dues and no membership requirements.

To become an Autonymic artist, an artist must be invited to enter into this agreement by an existing Autonymic artist.

Individual artists who wish to produce a work of art inspired by passion under the banner of “The Autonym” must work out individual agreements with other Autonymic artists, as necessary. These agreements exist outside The Autonym, and shall not alter, amend or alloy this agreement.

Individual artists may take it upon themselves to establish activities to facilitate the voluntary association of artists under the banner of “The Autonym,” but such facilitations shall be the sole responsibility of the individuals who chose to pursue them, and shall be pursued respectfully in regard to other Autonymic artists.

It is requested but not required that Autonymic artists acknowledge their participation in this agreement with the words, “Produced in Association with The Autonym.”

As “The Autonym” indicates an agreement to work with other Autonymic artists, it is suggested that a work of art produced under the banner ought to have more than one Autonymic artist involved.

Autonymic artists may withdraw their participation in this association at any time, for any reason by respectfully announcing that decision to the other Autonymic artists.

This agreement will terminate one year after the second signature date below. It may not be renewed. Rather, if the undersigned agree to continue working together in creating works of art inspired by passion, they may choose to revive the banner with a new agreement.

Name Signature Date
(* Literally, "A name by which a people or social group refers to itself.")

"The Autonym" is a purposefully artificial construct. It is little more than a statement of intention to work together, and a banner to signal to the public that a particular group of artists has produced a specific work of art.  (It is also one letter off from "antonym."  Make of that what you will.)

It's either about passion and eagerness to work together, or it's pointless. Why settle for a Sisyphean chore when there are many other mountains to climb?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Attention to Detail

I've spent more of my time in the past two years focused on doing burlesque than on making theatre, but I still write and direct, occasionally act, and I go to plays with Andrew all the time.  In burlesque, the best performers pay great attention to detail in the few minutes they have to tell their stories.  In theatre, attention to detail can make or break the hour or two of action on stage.

Let me clearly define this concept.  A production fully commits to the given circumstances of the play.  Everything contributes to the concept and vision the director wants to communicate with the work.  I call it "going all the way" in burlesque.  It doesn't require a huge budget; it requires a team that understands the piece and cares about making it amazing.

I'll give a few examples of where the production paid attention to detail and where it didn't. 

Production #1 we saw a few weeks ago.  The set was simple and utilitarian.  The play was about the end times where the economy was so bad that the players were engaged in a lottery to become applicants for an undefined job that would provide the winner with food, clothing and shelter.   The players' street clothes were clean and new, not showing any indication that times were tough.  The starved applicants were presented with a continental breakfast upon their arrival at the competition complex and NONE of them raided the food table.  One of the three people who visited the food table over the course of the play actually behaved like a starved person living in uncertain times.  The other two players shredded the croissants and tossed their bits around like confetti, and the remaining three applicants didn't touch the food at all.  For a play about the absolutely destroyed economy and crumbling social structure, the given circumstances that landed these players in this situation were largely absent in the work.

Production #2 we saw last weekend.  The show was about a teenage girl dealing with the death of her mother and the downward spiral of her desperate attempts to be loved.  The playing space was very utilitarian and lighting was used to show what was real and what was imaginary.  The costumes were simple and perfect for the individual characters.  The actors played the reality of the situation for blood.  What delighted me as an audience member was the set dressing that wasn't necessarily used beyond creating an environment.  The show was simple and elegant and had impact because everyone in the production was committed.

Production #3 we also saw this past weekend.  This dark comedy was set in Wisconsin and dealt with the unusual circumstances surrounding a missing person.  The set looked like an actual home from the proscenium arch covered in siding to the window on stage that had snow falling outside.  The actors were fully committed to the reality of the situation.  The cabinets and refrigerator were full, they brewed coffee on stage and used the working sink several times.  The costumes were spot-on, reminding me of my youth living in Wisconsin.  The attention to detail was exquisite.

Whether you have a huge budget or not, you are responsible for the attention to detail in your own part in the production.  Show that you care about what you're doing, because that breeds good reviews and future work.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


From Seth Godin:
Traditional corporations, particularly large-scale service and manufacturing businesses, are organized for efficiency. Or consistency. But not joy.

McDonalds, Hertz, Dell and others crank it out. They show up. They lower costs. They use a stopwatch to measure output.
You don't have to be a Fortune 500 company to fall prey to this mindset.  "That's how the big guys do it," is a self-prescription for an eventual crash.  Particularly in the arts, where remarkable and sensical rarely seem to meet.  I'm not saying "Be inefficient!"  I'm saying, put the focus on the work and on the audience. NOT on stacking a Board of Directors with "grey hairs" (who couldn't give a shit less about reaching that emotional resonance with an audience that only live theatre can create), or taking roll at workcalls to insure all your dues-paying members are fully indentured to their servitude.
Worse, the nature of the work is inherently un-remarkable. If you fear special requests, if you staff with cogs, if you have to put it all in a manual, then the chances of amazing someone are really quite low.

These organizations have people who will try to patch problems over after the fact, instead of motivated people eager to delight on the spot.
This is a deadly way to go about making theatre.  To quote Brook in The Empty Space:
In a living theatre, we would each day approach the rehearsal putting yesterday’s discoveries to the test, ready to believe that the true play has once again escaped us. But the Deadly Theatre approaches the classics from the viewpoint that somewhere, someone has found out and defined how the play should be done.
I would extend that definition of Deadly Theatre to encompass more than just "the classics."  Back to Godin:
The alternative, it seems, is to organize for joy. These are the companies that give their people the freedom (and yes, the expectation) that they will create, connect and surprise. These are the organizations that embrace someone who makes a difference, as opposed to searching for a clause in the employee handbook that was violated.
It comes down to your first principles, your philosophical underpinnings.  God help me, it comes down to discovering for yourself the relevence of theatre, the whys and wherefores of what you're doing. If you don't have the philosophy right, your actions are meaningless, no matter how efficient or consistent the operation. 

You want efficiency and consistency?  I give you Chicken McNuggets:

Chew on that.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Everything Will Be Different: A Brief History of Helen of Troy

[NOTE: This review was originally published at Stage Happenings.]

Liz Fenning as Heather and Alana Dietz as Charlotte.

review by Andrew Moore

Deeply affected by the death of her beautiful mother and unable to connect with a father who is sinking into alcoholic despair, fifteen year-old Charlotte immerses herself in a self-created universe built on her low self-esteem, blossoming sexuality, and deep-seated grief.

It is a compelling universe, authored by playwright Mark Schultz. Notwithstanding emotional flashes that occur here and there, Everything Will Be Different is a slow-burn. The true implications of the given circumstances are not fully realized until after the cathartic climax of the play. In a denouement at once shiveringly creepy and strangely heartwarming, Schultz gives us the tiniest hope that things could work out for this young woman. But he really puts her through Hell on her way to a glimpse of Heaven. (Or at least a glimpse of Purgatory.) In spite of the dark places Charlotte goes, Schultz buoys the tale with a sense of humor. He balances this material brilliantly, never letting it become a burden on the audience, not letting us walk out of the theatre feeling mowed under. It is an elegantly structured and executed piece.

Such demanding material requires a confident hand at the helm, and director John Lawler exercises judicious control over the universe of the play. He does not back down an inch from the more frightful aspects of Charlotte's journey, pushing his actors to deliver an all too real portrayal of rather disturbing actions.

The cast is just as fearless. Christopher Fields delivers a taut performance as Charlotte's emotionally conflicted father, Harry. Wallace Bruce as the sheepish best friend (Franklin) and Bobby Campo as the jock-Adonis (Freddie) imbue their roles with authenticity -- considering where they each go, not an easy task. Threatening to steal the stage every time he steps foot upon it, Bryan T. Donovan nervously and brilliantly dithers around Charlotte's clumsy expressions of sexuality. Liz Fenning is perky and charming with an unnerving streak of darkness as Charlotte's alter-ego, Heather.

Alana Dietz (Charlotte) carries the weight of this universe on her waifish shoulders. A riveting vulnerability flashes through an apathetic teenage facade, and what begins as humorous idiosyncrasy becomes a sad mask hiding an unbearable pain. This transformation is devastating. Everything Will Be Different is a stirring character study of this very specific person and the collaboration of playwright, director and actress makes us care about her.

The design team has done a stellar job. A strikingly consistent color palette and clean lines unify and elevate an otherwise spartan arrangement of playing spaces in Frederica Nascimento's set. Audrey Eisner stays in the same palette with thoughtfully appointed costumes. Jared A. Sayeg frames the action well, giving us subtle indications of fantasy-versus-reality in his lighting plot.

Everything Will Be Different is a challenging piece that darts in and out of the audience's comfort zone, but the moments of discomfort are never gratuitous. Every element aligns in creating a compelling and moving evening. This is tight, engaging theatre. Do not miss this production.

Everything Will Be Different: A Brief History of Helen of Troy is performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 7:00 pm through November 14th, 2010.

The Zephyr Theatre is located at 7456 Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, west of La Brea Avenue.

Ticket prices: $20 on Fridays and Sundays, $25 on Saturdays.  (Check Goldstar for half-priced tickets.)

Reservations online at or by phone at (877) 369-9112.

Monday, October 25, 2010

First Principles

“All human constitutions are subject to corruption, and must perish, unless they are timely renewed, and reduced to their first principles.”
- Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government
It is impossible to chart a new course when you find yourself in the bilges, pumping water out of a sinking vessel.  Nevermind that a new course might take you away from the rocks you keep bashing into -- we have to keep this ship afloat!  In the heat of emergency, attention is fixed on the task at hand.  Little victories give you moments of happiness, but these are fleeting.  A bit like the momentary relief someone sick with the flu feels when he blows his nose; a moment of clear breathing, and then back into the funk.

Sisyphus should be the Patron Saint of Under-99 theatre.  No doubt you remember the myth:
The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.
Locked in the struggle to keep pushing that damned rock up the mountain, we don't take the time to ask ourselves, "Why the fuck are we pushing a rock to the top of this mountain?"

Earlier this year I spent considerable time responding to Steven Leigh Morris' watershed article for the LA Weekly, "Why Theatre Matters."  I revisit this article with alarming (to me at least) regularity, and my respect for Morris and the arguments he makes continues to grow.  Granted, I still think the man is mostly wrong, but I've come to believe that my rejoinder is perhaps a bit lacking.  To wit:
I used to worry about the relevance of theatre -- then I helped start a theatre company.
Sometimes you learn more about the person who criticizes than you do about what they're criticizing. This would be one of those times.

Way back in my college days, my favorite professor tossed me a copy of The Empty Space and said, "If you really care about theatre, read this."  I did, and I've been annoying people by quoting it ever since:
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?
Brook is right.  So is Morris:
 But the larger point is the divide between the commonly held low regard for theater and its actual relevance — far greater than most are willing to acknowledge. From that chasm emerge the questions of why do theater at all, in these times, and what makes a good producer.
I will  tell you this much, from my vantage point of helping start a theatre company and attempting to steer it as president for two and a half years:  A good producer does not do the Sisyphus two-step up the side of a mountain.  A good producer assesses things before acting, and charts the best course possible.  When emergencies (or "opportunities" if you will) arise, a good producer trims the sails, lets them out or drops anchor as the case may be.  A good producer doesn't double-down on stupid.

A good producer, like a good anything operates on first principles.  Whether they realize it or not, there is a basic philosophy behind the choices being made.  I've reviewed enough plays, I can tell when a company is operating from first principles (such as Sacred Fools or The Echo Theatre Company) and when they're not (names omitted pursuant to Thumper's Rule.)  You can tell, even when the shinola is so thick you can barely smell the shit beneath.

You can whitewash all you want, it won't take the rot out of the wood.  If you want to build something that will last, you need to start with first principles.  Now watch me get all Biblical:
24Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:

25And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.

26And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:

27And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
-- Matthew 7:24-27, KJV
Build on first principles.  And Christ would know: His nickname was "The Word." Word.

Are you building and rebuilding on sand, or are you actively seeking out a rock to build upon?  Are you continually pushing the boulder uphill, or are you turning a shrewd eye towards figuring out how to keep it uphill?  Are you pumping out the bilges, or seizing the helm and heading towards safe harbor?

Are you kidding yourself?  I know I was.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

I Believe.

[I'm stepping back from where I was going.  I'm taking my own advice and getting back to basic fundamentals.  I'm grasping the Etch n Sketch firmly with both hands and shaking the Hell out of it.  I'm asking, "Why?"  What follows is a declaration of principles I wrote earlier this year.  This will be my rubric for future theatrical efforts.]

I believe in shoestrings, in raw talent and bruised knuckles.

I believe in not having all the answers, but not letting that get in your way. I believe in opening things up, stripping things down, getting in way over your head and putting it all back together in the end.

I believe in working parts. I believe in functionality and utility, but not at the expense of style, which is just another word for whimsy. I believe that if it isn't beautiful when you're finished, it wasn't the right solution to begin with. I believe in elegance, but I also believe in getting the job done, by hook or by crook.

I believe in leaping before you look, trusting yourself, and reaching for higher ground. I believe in failure, in the power failure holds. I believe in picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting all over again.

I believe in resilience, in the indomitable human spirit, in compassion and self-sacrifice. I believe in tolerance, but I believe in merit. I believe in teaching a man to fish, but giving a man a fish in a pinch. I believe in not being an idiot. I believe in trust but verify.

I believe that the most anyone can ask of you is your best.

I believe nothing gives a person the right to infect your space with their crazy.

I believe in liberty. I believe in the chaos 6.7 billion free individuals could potentially wreak.

I believe in "Soyez rĂ©alistes, demandez l'impossible!", in "Do I contradict myself?/Very well, then, I contradict myself;/(I am large—I contain multitudes.)" and in capax universi. I believe its all been done before, but that's no reason not to do it again.

I believe in time-binding, in standing on the shoulders of genius and reaching higher, in reading a good book or at least a trashy paperback.

I believe in taking the time to figure out what you believe, because if you don't, someone is bound to try and do it for you. And I believe that's pretty fucked.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

EARNING A NAME (part three)

[NOTE: The following is part-three of a write-up I presented to the other administrators of Theatre Unleashed back in July. Part one may be found herePart two may be found here.  I have edited it to make it a more general observation, but this last part is necessarily more personal than the previous two parts. I don’t apologize for talking out of school. There are lessons I have learned that I feel I must share with others, lest they make the same mistakes.]
"There is no map. No map to be a leader, no map to be an artist. I've read hundreds of books about art (in all its forms) and how to do it, and not one has a clue about the map, because there isn't one."

-- Seth Godin, Linchpin

My company went into a more permanent rental arrangement last year, and it almost killed us. It certainly sacrificed our production values (something our landlady warned us would happen, as she attempted to dissuade us from renting from her. We should have listened.) In looking at the financials, it was clear as day: The average amount we spent on our production budgets from month to month in 2008 and the greater part of 2009 equaled the amount we paid in rent each month from late 2009-on.

In December of 2009, we had to run just to keep up. We produced a holiday show—not because we wanted to, but because we HAD to—and still came up short on rent. We threw a last minute “rent party” fundraiser, a humiliating affair that made us less than 10% of what we needed. Bad times. Once 2010 started, and we had shows in the hopper once more, we were able to catch-up the back rent and extricate ourselves from the rental. Whew. That was a close one.

One thing that the rental experience revealed to me is just how dependant my company is on membership dues. Missing even a fraction of the dues owed each month is a huge issue! But the dues situation is only half of the problem.

Recently, our attention has been focused on member involvement. We have approached the problem with the old "carrot and stick" approach, which in all honesty has been more stick than carrot.    We've made emotional appeals to our members to be more actively involved in the company, and yet something as simple as a front of house sign-up sheet goes mostly empty.  Work calls are sparsely attended.  Committees rarely meet.

I argue that being a dues-paying company creates the exact sort of situation that we are faced with: A lack of enthusiastic member involvement, compromised production standards, and membership attrition.

Let's take a look at the fundamental illogic of a dues-paying company:

It troubles me that a non-member will often make out far better than a dues-paying member. For instance, if we cast a 4-A non-member in a production, that cast member will make approximately $84 in stipends. He or she will not be required to attend work calls, work FOH on any other productions, fundraise, etc (in accordance with the Under-99 Seat Plan.)  And of course, that cast member will not be required to pay $40 a month.

A member pays $40 a month, has to be a member of a committee, has to attend work calls, etc. If they hit a financial hardship or are otherwise unable to devote an appropriate amount of time to the company, they go on LOA and pay “pulse payments” to keep their membership active. While on LOA, they are not allowed to participate. If cast in a show, unless they are in one of the 4-A unions, they work for free.

Consider the psychology of the situation: I’m an actor paying $40 a month. In this economy—for an actor especially—that’s not a casual investment. That’s close to $500 a year for the privilege of mandatory work. How likely is it that your average company member will find some scheduling conflict with a work call? How likely is it that they’ll make up an audition or a gig that must tear them away after a couple of hours? How likely is it they just won’t show up at all, trusting that the administrative staff is too busy keeping the show on the road to notice?

And why is the administrative staff running around madly? To provide a continuity of opportunities for our members to practice their craft. We are all too aware of the dues commitment; we pay them ourselves.  The balm for the mandatory work is opportunity to perform.  In 2009, my company produced eleven Core productions and ten Chaos productions (as defined in part two of this series.) Twenty-one unique and separate productions over a fifty-two week period. Believe me when I say we became slaves to the process.

My research into the way similar sized companies produce theatre in New York took me to the Off-Off Broadway Community Dish, “A Community of Independent Theatre Companies.” I conducted an informal survey of the companies linked to The Dish website, and was hard-pressed to locate any Off-Off-Broadway companies that are dues-paying.

I emailed the President of The Dish, who also happens to be the Artistic Director of Boomerang Theatre Company, a small OOB company that produces new works and Shakespeare (not too unlike my own company.) I asked Tim, “Are you aware of any OOB companies that are dues-paying?” His response:
Here in NYC, most companies that I know of are NOT dues based. Most have initial grassroots fundraising (bar nights, single evening One Act nights) to make enough to get things going, then attempt to roll over ticket sales from one show (however meager) into capital for the next production. Along with ticket sales, any number of fundraising ideas get thrown in to cover costs (bowling nights, karaoke nights, scavenger hunts, silent auctions, etc).

In terms of the “pay to play” model, it almost doesn’t exist. If it does, it often tells the actor that they are not dealing with a professional organization, but something slightly below that. Many people who start companies in NYC either come directly from school, or also work in other non-profit orgs at first to cut their teeth (mine was working for Lincoln Center Theater), so often people see how professional orgs are run and try to mirror those models. As such, the dues model is not widely used here.
I turned my focus back to Los Angeles.  Is this a unique situation to our coast?  Are our actors so used to paying out the nose for headshots, casting director workshops and acting classes that pay-for-play theatre actually makes sense to them?  I was a bit surprised.  Yes, dues-paying is common, just not among the companies who consistently do critically-acclaimed and popular work.  The Founder and Artistic Director of Son of Semele, Matthew McCray:
“We have always relied heavily on the participation of our members and worked to created systems that encourage equal participation. It is never perfectly equal, but we never list people as members unless they have earned the title. We have always encouraged quality over quantity where artists are concerned.

“Though we began as a dues-paying ensemble, we cut dues out of our budget entirely. We could have kept requiring our artists to pay monthly fees, but we felt it was philosophically wrong.i
From the Managing Director of City Garage in Santa Monica, Charles A. Duncombe:
“We began to face the fact that while we were a dues-paying company, we would be constantly limited to actors who were willing to pay to belong,” explains Duncombe. “We had to force a change.”ii
If a theatre company cannot fund itself with fundraising and box office receipts alone, perhaps it doesn’t deserve to exist. If a theatre company cannot bring in donations and audience members, something is very wrong. The I.V. drip of monthly dues will serve to keep the body alive, but the soul is fleeting. It is bad for the members, it is bad for the administrators, it is ultimately bad for the audience (how burned-out do you suppose our audience got after we promoted twenty-one events to them over the course of a year?)

I understand why my company started out as dues-paying. We needed some scratch. We had nothing, not so much as two cents to rub together when we started. It was a quick fix that became a permanent feature. Further, we were operating out of a playbook we knew: The founding members broke off from a dues-paying company. For that matter, we're all college educated and used to paying much more than $40 a month for the opportunity to make theatre.  There was an understanding that it was a temporary fix, but any discussion of when to eliminate the dues requirement is pushed off, always swept from the agenda, tabled for another day. Meanwhile, the drudgery continues, members wise-up and leave at a steady pace, and we are no closer to some imagined financial security that will enable us to someday drop the dues requirement.

One argument is “Once we start receiving grants …” but this is nonsense. Success attracts success. If a company is not doing the kind of work that allows them to support themselves on fundraising and box office receipts, they are not doing the kind of work that attracts grant money.  There are more theatre companies than there is grant money, and the grantors need some basis for evaluation.  

A “Pay What You Can” model for dues would help in the transition away from being a dues-paying company and into the production model outlined in part two of this write-up. New companies would be smart to avoid the pitfall altogether, and commit to raising money on a show-by-show basis, and committing themselves to bringing to the public the best possible work they can. Administrators would be wise to focus on the process of bringing theatre to the public, rather than perpetually trying to keep as many plates spinning as possible. They are heading for a crash.


Blame it on the ephemeral nature of theatre, but it often feels as if we are trying to scale the eroding walls of a hole we dug ourselves into. Perhaps not in the moment. Perhaps not when we are in the act of creating. If the experience of making a theatre company work were only those moments … well. I wouldn’t have felt compelled to write this. 

I don't have all the answers.  No one does.  That affords us an amazing amount of freedom.  Just as we approach the blank stage afresh at the beginning of each production, so too can we approach the organization and administration of a struggling Under-99 company.  There is no reason to prop up and perpetuate the activities and attitudes that we have inherited from companies we left.  We're small.  We're spry.  We have the option of opening our hearts and minds, and proceding full-bore in a bold direction.  We are theatre artists, after all.  Go big or go home.

Put our company members through a crucible: Do they really want to be an active part of the company? Make it necessary for our artistic teams to forge their vision for a play well in advance of the execution. Invest our audience in the season well before the first postcards are printed.

We can assume a greater purpose for what we do, a bigger game to play.

No one is going to give us permission to be awesome.  We must be willing to trust ourselves.

i Ashley Steed, “Son of Semele,” LA Theatre Review, 3/6/10, Web.
ii Stephen Leigh Morris, “Company Town: How a big city became America’s small-theater mecca,” LA Weekly, 4/22/04, Web.

Monday, October 11, 2010

EARNING A NAME (part 2a)

Many moons ago, back in Hot Springs, Arkansas, I played John Proctor in a production of The Crucible for a fledgling theatre company.  I met my future wife in that production (she was a deliciously tempting Abagail Williams) and I got my first real taste of the do-or-die attitude one MUST have when staging a show.  We lost a couple of cast-members on the eve of the production, and were forced to double up at the last minute.  You see, the mother of two of our cast-members (who was also in our production) could no longer deal with the pressures of scheduled rehearsal times.  She needed to pull herself and her daughters out of rehearsals in the week leading up to opening for ... I don't recall.  But I'll never forget her yelling at our director:
"It's amateur theatre!"
This was her entire justification for skipping rehearsals and ultimately removing herself and her daughters from our production.
Let's take a look at that word, "amateur" (from Merriam-Webster):
am·a·teur noun  1: devotee, admirer;  2: one who engages in a pursuit, study, science, or sport as a pastime rather than as a profession; 3: one lacking in experience and competence in an art or science
Harsh, especially number three.  The definition is ameliorated a bit by the derivation:
French, from Latin amator lover, from amare to love
That's a little better.  Indeed, we had quite a bit of love for the undertaking, which is why some cast members doubled up on roles the night before, and why the director pulled a bonnet down over his head and played Betty Parris himself for the run of the show.  That's love.
When Lorne Michaels put together the original cast and writers for Saturday Night Live, he went looking for "enlightened amateurs."  Comedy was too important to leave to professionals; he wanted scrappy non-conformists who wouldn't be cowed by an attitude of "That's The Way We Always Do It."  There is an incredible freedom at hand when you do something for love, rather than career advancement.  And in a spooky sort of way best appreciated by the likes of Wayne Dyer, focusing on the "love" actually delivers up the career advancement.  Perhaps the path isn't a straight line, but straight lines are boring and ungodly (hat tip to Friedensreich Hundertwasser).
There is one other advantage to being an amateur:  Not knowing all the answers.  I almost feel that should be in scare quotes, because the danger is the assumption of being right rather than actually being right. 
I guess I come off as a pretty confident guy.  I write with seeming authority and no amount of qualifiers seem to convey that most of the time, I'm just making my best guess.  Sure, my guesses are based on research, much thought, and conversations with others who have unique viewpoints.  I play the Devil's advocate to myself and I'm paranoid over making a priori conclusions and feeding my confirmation bias.  But I'm still guessing.
There's a great quote from Robert A. Heinlein on this subject:
"The hardest part about gaining any new idea is sweeping out the false idea occupying that niche. As long as that niche is occupied, evidence and proof and logical demonstration get nowhere. But once the niche is emptied of the wrong idea that has been filling it — once you can honestly say, 'I don't know', then it becomes possible to get at the truth."
-- Robert A. Heinlein, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls
I think the default position for amateurs is "I don't know."  Further, "I don't know, and I want to find out."
To be fair, let's look at the other side of the verbal coin, the word "professional" (also from Merriam-Websters):
pro·fes·sion·al adj 1a : of, relating to, or characteristic of a profession b : engaged in one of the learned professions c (1) : characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession (2) : exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace; 2a : participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs b : having a particular profession as a permanent career c : engaged in by persons receiving financial return ; 3: following a line of conduct as though it were a profession
In the arts I believe that one should express an amateur spirit and a professional attitude.  Keep your heart and mind open, but keep your feet firmly on the ground.  Put succinctly:
soyez realistes - demandez l'impossible

"Be realstic, demand the impossible."  Be the enlightened amateur.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Position, produced by PianoFight at Asylum Lab
review by Andrew Moore

I went into PianoFight LA's production of The Position with the highest hopes.  Those hopes were deflated, but what went wrong may be fixed.

Six candidates vie for a job in a dystopian, jobless future.  With equal parts Big Brother and The Prisoner, Playwright William Blivins has composed an intriguing, cat and mouse game where it's never really clear who's the cat and who's the mouse.  The Candidates are given Greek letters in place of their names, and are given over to their own devices in a lawless environment where practically anything goes -- and everything is being recorded.

First, the good:

The set design (uncredited) is simple and effective.  Black walls with Jackson Pollack-esque spatter paintings surround a neutral space with spare furniture.  Long banners carrying Orwellian slogans hang from the high ceiling of Asylum Lab, a pleasant use of vertical space and a constant reminder of the reality the characters live in.  The lighting (Kristen Hammack) is effective; realistically framing a cold and clinical room yet shifting into a more expressionistic mode as necessary.  Takashi Morimoto attires the cast with appropriate utility.

Sofie Calderon is a delight, instantly believable as the outgoing, amiable Zeta.  Jeremy Mascia brings a very realistic charm to Delta, walking the line between reality TV show parody and a hopeless Tomorrowland.  Akemi Okamura brings heart and hurt to a very lonely yet ambitious Gamma.  Perhaps the most difficult role in the piece belongs to Eric Delgado, as the inhuman Baylian, a subservient servant eager and willing to please.  What could have become a Twilight Zone-style cardboard cutout is given uncomfortable dimension by Delgado.  If his level of commitment had set the bar for the rest of the production, I would not have to progress to ...

The not so good:

The play never really lives up to its potential.

I don't believe these people want the position.  We are told, through vignettes and dialogue at the top of the show and through the promotional material that this play is set in a dystopian future.  "The Great Down Turn" has plunged us into mass unemployment and destitution.  Only The Concern can possibly save us, and they are only offering one job that hundreds of thousands of people applied for.  Where's the hunger?  The ambition?  The desperation?  The recruits don't behave like a group of people who have to scavenge for sustenance.  Entering a room with food on a nearby table, they hang back, seemingly not interested in something that should be dear to them.  Without a sense of urgency, there is no sense of danger and no sense of risk.

The problems with the play are embodied in a single prop:  The knife that one character pulls on another early in the show is the same generic breakaway knife that joke shops have sold since who knows when.  It is instantly identifiable as a fake; a dull-edged, plastic toy that couldn't possibly hurt anyone.  We in the dark are willing to suspend our disbelief and go on this journey, but the folks taking us for the ride need to meet us halfway.

(The one exception to this curious lack of specificity may be found in Mascia's Delta, who stuffs rolls and fruit in his pockets at a couple of points in the play.  This is a fantastic specific; the show needs more moments like this.)

It also doesn't help that every ten minutes or so, someone in the audience popped open a can of beer or soda.  It doesn't help that late arrivals weren't held in the lobby until the first black out.  When you are staging a thriller, you must maintain a thread of tension between the action onstage and the watchers in the dark.  Lose your audience, and you are sunk.  Any extraneous distraction must be eliminated -- for god's sake, tell your audience to open their cans before the show starts!

The net result of all this is a laughable climax, lacking the dramatic punch it should have.  I can see the effect they were going for and I am truly sad they didn't hit it.  I don't doubt the sincerity and passion of the folks involved in PianoFight LA.  I believe they have great potential to make their mark on Los Angeles theatre landscape, but their ambition needs to be tendered with specificity.  If they focus on those details, making every choice count, there's no limit to what they will be able to do.

The Position is performed Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm, through October 9th.

Asylum Lab is located at 1078 Lillian Way in Hollywood, California.  Street parking is available on the side streets behind the theatre.

Tickets are $20 at the door or online at

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

EARNING A NAME (part two)

[NOTE: The following is part-two of a write-up I presented to the other administrators of Theatre Unleashed back in July. Part one may be found here.  I have edited it to make it a more general observation on the Under-99 World in Los Angeles, and to add in a few things I've since discovered. This is my "The Things We Think and Do Not Say," and it had about the same effect for me that it had for Jerry Maguire. Enjoy.]


I am going to clearly define two categories of shows, and what it means to be CORE or CHAOS.

“Core” productions are productions that have a more-or-less traditional run in a theatrical performance venue. Call them “Fringe Productions,” “Main Stage,” “Second Stage,” “Late Night,” or whatever, these are shows that could only exist in a theatrical environment. Core production is typically the main business of Under-99s.

We do a great disservice to ourselves by pretending that a Core production is anything other than a Core production. “It’s a ‘Fringe’ show – we don’t have to worry about a budget” is stupid, backwards thinking. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but it is. The audience doesn’t know the difference between an evening of scrappy one-acts and a full-blown production of Shakespeare when they are both performed in the same house. When you sacrifice production values because “it’s not a Main Stage production,” you only succeed in shooting yourself in the foot with the audience (and reviewers, for that matter.)

“Chaos” productions are special projects with irregular runs or irregular performance venues. Sketch comedy, performance art shows, and specialty would fit in this category. These are shows that could conceivably exist outside of a traditional theatrical environment.

In truth, Chaos productions should be performed outside of traditional theatrical environments, if only to avoid the rental fee. You can stage a 24-Hour Play Festival in a bar that has a stage for live music. In such an environment the bar till effectively offsets the cost of the stage.

By defining our activities in this way, a theatre company may more intelligently elect a cap on what we do. For instance, each season we do no more than three Core Productions and two Chaos productions. It’s too easy to lard a season with a bunch of “Fringe” or “Late Night” shows – shows that require the same amount of manpower and resources as a so-called “Main Stage” production.

Under the model I envision, fundraising activities are focused on specific productions; encapsulated with individual shows. For example, the lead up to a Core production that requires a production budget of $5,000 will include fundraising plans to raise that money. The company members involved in that Core production are compelled, as a condition of their continued membership in the company, to assist in fundraising activities.

(It is important to draw a distinction here: Under the 99-Seat Plan, you cannot require a 4-A to participate in fundraising activities. However, participation in fundraising activities can and should be a condition of membership in a company.)

Likewise, any budget money needed for a Chaos production is raised by the members involved in that Chaos Production. (Please note that Chaos productions are the type of shows that require little in the way of production budget.)

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."
-- Buckminster Fuller
By now we should all have at least passing familiarity with Kickstarter. Theatre artists all over the country are taking advantage of it, and it is something about which I have written at some length on this blog.

Theatre is relevant only so long as it serves the audience. Integrating a service such as Kickstarter – or at least the philosophy that informs such a venture – into an end-user-based funding model places the ensemble before that audience at the very beginning of the process. "Fans 'are not buying music,” says Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler, “they’re buying a personalized experience.”i

The term "Suspension of Disbelief" never sat right with me. It feels like a passive action, a disconnection of some sort. "Audience investment," on the other hand, expresses an active role for the audience; a connection between audience and performer that allows for tension (e.g., dramatic tension, comedic tension, emotional tension, etc.) to be applied.

To quote marketing guru Seth Godin, "the act of paying fundamentally changes the dynamics of the relationship." One of the most frustrating things for me in the past has been the attempt to involve the audience in the process of making theatre. "Read the blogs! Watch the videos! Tell us what YOU think!" Involving the audience in direct funding of the project would actually invest them in the project, in fact and in spirit.

Further, I believe it would revitalize any ensemble to be made accountable to the People in the Dark well in advance of "Ladies and gentlemen, the house is now open." Can you imagine determining a season with Kickstarter? If the selections not funded by the deadline, they don't get produced. We would have to engage the audience before they so much as pick up a postcard for the production at their local coffee shop.

Let's say a theatre company has a raft of shows they’d like to do in 2011. The Artistic Directors post six productions online, with “seed” budgets, enough to get pre-production off the ground. Whatever gets funded, that's the season. There is an immediate feedback loop from the community-at-large as to what they want to see on stage.

And that's just one side of the coin. The other side: Competing with other artists. Sure, it's a gentle, friendly competition wherein everyone can get funded. I encourage you to go to Kickstarter and browse through the projects up for funding. Not just the theatre projects; all of them. To have your project listed in that incredible marketplace demands you bring your best.

The funders must be engaged from the very beginning, and that means bringing your “A” game. When placing projects on their site, the Kickstarter people look for three things:
  • Creative Ideas
  • Ambitious Endeavors
  • Specific Goals
Successful projects post blog entries, videos, podcasts – “project updates” that keep the backers who have contributed and potential backers informed on the progress of the project.ii It can’t just be, “We’re putting on a show.” It has to be one HELLUVA show. No laurel-resting is allowed.

Funders become “brand evangelists” who repost the link to our Kickstarter project through their social networks, thus expanding our potential funding base well beyond who we may reach through traditional fundraising. We may just find new fans, new supporters.iii


A French word that evolved from the idea of architect students finishing their work on the cart ride to school:

The word charrette may refer to any collaborative session in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem. While the structure of a charrette varies, depending on the design problem and the individuals in the group, charrettes often take place in multiple sessions in which the group divides into sub-groups. Each sub-group then presents its work to the full group as material for future dialogue. Such charrettes serve as a way of quickly generating a design solution while integrating the aptitudes and interests of a diverse group of people. Compare this term with workshop.iv
The folks at Kickstarter are “looking for projects that offer rewards rather than begging for help. Projects with a history of effort or a path to completion. Projects that fit our focus on creativity.”v Projects presented on Kickstarter have to hit the ground running. This approach to producing will require advance planning: Production and marketing meetings way earlier than we usually schedule.

Back when we first started Theatre Unleashed, I submitted a few documents for consideration regarding the Collaborative Process, including a flowchart of the process adapted from The Scenographic Imagination by Darwin Reid Payne. I have appended that flowchart to this document, as it is germaine to the requirements of this producing model. The steps “Preliminary Discussions: Exchange of ideas, Appropriateness and Practicality,” and “More Detailed Discussions Leading to a Single, Unified Approach” are the activities that will take place during our Charrette. The products of our Charrette—in addition to allowing us to realistically budget for what is needed, coordinate our promotional efforts and produce the best possible show—those products will be the building blocks of our initial fundraising pitch (whether facilitated by Kickstarter or not.)

[I'm not going to post the derivative work referenced above. Instead, here is the original on which the derivative is based, to give you an idea.

["Preliminary Discussions: Exchange of ideas, Appropriateness and Practicality," is roughly equivalent to "Scenographer and Director Confer: They Explore Possibilities ..." on the chart below, and "More Detailed Discussions Leading to a Single, Unified Approach" is roughly equivalent to "Scenographer and Director Confer Again ..."]


It sounds like a lot of work. In reality, it’s not much more than what Under-99 companies already do, just more focused and driven by end-results. What I propose will move a struggling or fledgling Under-99 company to a new level of professionalism. Attendant to this approach is something Under-99 types (in my experience) feel uncomfortable discussing: The Administrative Staff deserves remuneration.

They won’t be making Pasadena Playhouse money. Company operating expenses—web hosting, phone, insurance, etc.—will come out of box office receipts. (Recall, each show is funded directly by fundraising activities and contributions from individuals.) After the operating expenses are deducted from the box, the remainder will be paid out to the administrators according to a point system. Work has value, and ought to be compensated, even if by a meager amount that doesn’t quite measure up to what 4A’s get paid. However small an amount, it elevates what Under-99s do from “volunteer” and “amateur” to “professional.”

In addition, and recognizing that all the people who bring a production to the public have value and deserve remuneration for their work, I propose an “All or Nothing” policy. If a show is produced under the Under-99 Seat Plan and the 4A’s are guaranteed a per performance stipend, it is only right to extend that same dollar amount to the other principle people involved in the production: non-union actors, stage managers, designers, directors and playwrights. The payroll for each production will be factored into the budget during the Charrette.



i Randall Stross, “You, Too, Can Bankroll a Rock Band,” The New York Times, 4/2/10, Web.
ii Kickstarter FAQ,, 2010, Web
iii Christine Lagorio, “How to Use Kickstarter to Launch a Business,” Inc., 5/19/20, Web.
iv “Charrette,” Wikipedia, accessed 7/09/10, Web.
v Yancey Strickler, “Where Projects Come From,” The Kickstarter Blog, 6/1/10, Web.

Monday, October 04, 2010

EARNING A NAME (part one)

 [NOTE: The following is part-one of a write-up I presented to the other administrators of Theatre Unleashed back in July.  I have edited it to make it a more general observation on the Under-99 World in Los Angeles, and to add in a few things I've since discovered.  This is my "The Things We Think and Do Not Say," and it had about the same effect for me that it had for Jerry Maguire.  Enjoy.]


Focus. Discipline. An enthused membership base that does not have to be cajoled into doing things. Front of House assignments that never go blank. High production values. Critical acclaim. Packed houses. Industry attention.

Professional and personal fulfillment.

Five years from now, will we still be scraping? Producing hand-to-mouth, depending upon the personal outlay of funds for production budgets? It is not difficult to imagine such a future. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” or so a poet once wrote. It’s not enough to dream big; efforts must be coordinated towards a desirable goal. That is the purpose of strategic planning, and it is what I have set out to do in this document.

It is necessary to step outside the day-to-day, and take a longer view on what we are doing and how we are doing it. To begin, let’s step outside of Los Angeles. 


I heard an economist recently who pointed out that a wrong map is worse than no map at all. For instance, if you're lost in New York, depending on a map of Chicago to right yourself is futile, perhaps even destructive. Looking at the information provided by the New York Innovative Theatre Awards and the Broadway League, I can only half agree. If we kept our noses pressed into the statistics out of New York, oblivious to the scene in Los Angeles, that would be cause for alarm.

But Chicago and New York both have grid systems. If we combine our observation on the ground with reference to a similar situation elsewhere--actually look for the similarities and differences--We may in fact better orient ourselves to where we are.

Broadway is theatrical tourism. I had always heard this, but it took actually going to New York for the idea to sink in. Hungry for some concrete facts and figures to either confirm or falsify the observation, a Google search led me to the Broadway League and their research report, "The Demographics of the Broadway Audience 2008-2009."

"In the 2008—2009 season, approximately 63% of all Broadway tickets were purchased by tourists."i That's nearly 8 million of the 12 million tickets sold. By way of comparison, Disneyland had total park attendance of about 15 million in 2008ii. Theatrical tourism: Check.

New York and Los Angeles are very different towns. What drives tourism to Los Angeles is very different from what drives tourism to New York. We don’t have a Times Square, much to the chagrin of the developers behind Hollywood & Highland, LA Live, and other attempts to replicate the magic found at Broadway and Seventh Avenue. Certainly, using Broadway as a similar map would be foolish.
There is, however, a subdivision of New York City theatre from which we may draw inspiration and know-how: Off-Off-Broadway. Off-Off-Broadway shows are produced under the AEA’s “Basic Showcase Code.” This code is comparable to the Los Angeles specific “99-Seat Plan” in one significant way: It applies to houses of 99 seats and less.

Wondering if someone had conducted a demographic survey of the OOB world, a Google search brought me to the New York Innovative Theatre Awards’ Off-Off Broadway Survey Program. Some interesting facts from their reports:
  • 84% of companies rent various locations, rather than find residence in one location (11%) or own their own place (5%).
  • A plurality of companies (22%) have production budgets of under $5,000.
  • A plurality of the companies (33%) produce 2 plays a year. The next highest percentage (29%) produces 3 to 5 plays a year.
  • OOB plays run an average of 14 performances.
  • 56% of the shows produced are new works.iii
This is all very revelatory for me, and confirms both first-hand observation and sinking suspicions.

Under-99 theatre in Los Angeles is capable of fantastic success, if we continue to produce good shows that audiences love. But it seems we often occupy ourselves reinventing the wheel. I wonder how many other producers of Under-99 theatre in LA are in the same boat? It would be wise to avail ourselves of the hard-earned experience others have gained, even in a city as geographically and socially distant as New York. 


One interesting aspect of New York theatre is the way in which Off-Off-Broadway can feed Off-Broadway, and Off-Broadway in turn feeds Broadway. For instance, A.R. Gurney, playwright of Love Letters, frequently premieres his plays with the Off-Off-Broadway company, Flea Theatre.iv Shows such as Avenue Q and Spring Awakening made the jump from Off-Broadway to Broadway.v
In his book Theatre, David Mamet writes:
The currency of any new play depends on its reception in New York. If it is not staged in New York, it will not be published or awaken the interest of the stock and amateur theatres from which a playwright might derive continued income. If it is not well received in New York, it will fare
Steven Leigh Morris offers the following observation in a recent article regarding the importance of the audience:
American behemoths of commercial theater, from Neil Simon to Christopher Durang, have openly expressed the influence that the decidedly noncommercial but fiercely respected Samuel Beckett had on their work, and the works of generations that followed. If our experimental wing is clipped, and we grow to depend only on what is popular in order to define what is relevant, we are actually consigning the art form to inevitable, eventual irrelevance. (Read: abject boredom.) Because it's risk that moves the art form forward; popular theater, and the economic imperatives that create it, have by definition an aversion to such risk.vii
I believe in the importance of the audience, but I don't believe that working for The People in the Dark is necessarily the same as chasing popularity at the expense of relevance. Au contraire, it would be a sad world indeed if Nunsense was the only show going. There is a need for innovators and early adopters in ANY industry. Those are the entrepreneurs, the experimenters who seek out unexplored or under-explored territory. More and more it becomes apparent to me that the Under-99 world MUST serve this purpose in Los Angeles, just as the Off-Off-Broadway world serves the same purpose in New York.

Theatre professionals in Los Angeles need to cultivate an upwardly-mobile meritocracy in Los Angeles Theatre. I believe we (the larger “we” of theatre professionals in Los Angeles) know this, and I believe we are working on this. I know playwrights who have taken their successful Under-99 to Off-Off-Broadway and Off-Broadway. Layon Gray’s Black Angels Over Tuskegee has recently re-opened Off-Broadway after a successful run in New York earlier this year.viii

Locally, the Ford has partnership productions, giving a leg-up to Under-99 companies who do good work.ix Circle X is one such company, who produced Lascivious Something at [Inside] the Ford earlier this year.x Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara made the jump from the stage at Sacred Fools to the Geffen in 2009.xi It can and does happen, and nourishing this meritocracy is as much our responsibility as it is the larger houses. If we do good work, they will take note.

Insofar as advancement based on merit is possible, it is incumbent upon us as a company to pursue it. Otherwise, we are largely wasting our time and efforts. Our productions should have a greater end goal in mind: Participation in Fringe festivals locally and outside of Los Angeles, publication (in the case of new works,) advancement of a play to one of the LORT houses locally or to New York, etc.

Pushing ourselves to reach beyond a four-week run will invigorate our membership and give much needed focus to our overall mission as a company. The status quo has us running in place. What I propose will give us a goal to run towards.


iThe Broadway League, The Demographics of the Broadway Audience 2008-2009, September 2009, Web.
iiThemed Entertainment Association/Economics Research Associates, 2008 Attraction Attendance Report, April 2009, Web.
iiiNew York Innovative Theatre Foundation, Statistical Analysis of Off-Off-Broadway Budgets, April 2008, Web.
ivErnio Hernandez, “Cast Announced for World Premiere of Gurney's A Light Lunch at Flea Theater,” Playbill, 11/12/08, Web.
v “What’s Off-Broadway?”, 2009, Web.
vi David Mamet, Theatre, 2010, pg. 15.
viiSteven Leigh Morris, “What About the Audience?” LA Weekly, 5/27/10, Web.
viiiAndrew Gans, “Off-Broadway's Black Angels Over Tuskegee Re-Opens at Actors Temple Theater June 5,” Playbill, 6/5/10, Web.
ixKaren Wada, “[Inside] the Ford helps troupes without homes,” Los Angeles Times, 1/24/10, Web.
xCharlotte Stoudt, “’ Lascivious Something' at the Ford,” 4/1/210, Los Angeles Times, Web.
xi Lawrence Vittes, “Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara -- Theater Review,” The Hollywood Reporter, 3/20/09, Web.

Friday, October 01, 2010


[What follows is an email I sent out to the leadership team at that theatre company I'm affiliated with.  I edited it slightly so it would make more sense to more people.  There is a conversation that is NOT happening that NEEDS to happen.]

Mulling it all over, giving it some deep thought, I recalled the following quote from my write-up of two months ago*.  From Tim Errickson, Artistic Director of The Boomerang Theatre in New York:
Many people who start companies in NYC either come directly from school, or also working other non-profit orgs at first to cut their teeth (mine was working for Lincoln Center Theater), so often people see how professional orgs are run and try to mirror those models.
I believe to some degree we are mirroring theatre companies we used to belong to in the structure of our company because that's what we know.  There was a lot of talk about how other Artistic Directors at those companies managed to get people to work calls, company meetings, etc.  But we need to recall the environments we left and why we left.  There is no need to emulate a model that we were ultimately repulsed by.  Indeed, why not dissolve this company and return to those other companies?  We know why.

I don't know if these links ever get followed when I include them, so I included a brief summary.  Watch this:

"Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation"
Length: 18:40
Description:  "Career analyst Dan Pink examines the puzzle of motivation, starting with a fact that social scientists know but most managers don't: Traditional rewards aren't always as effective as we think. Listen for illuminating stories -- and maybe, a way forward."
Takeaway:  The solution is not to do more of the wrong things, i.e. the "carrot and the stick."  We need to focus on intrinsic motivation:  Autonomy, mastery and purpose. 
Autonomy:  The urge to direct our own lives
Mastery:  The desire to get better and better at something that matters
Purpose:  The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

We were intrinsically motivated to start this company.  Autonomy was the big draw--no longer looking to an artistic director who had moved to New York for permission on the tiniest details.  A new company allowed us the chance to prove we could run a better company, which is mastery.  Finally, we were driven to create something larger than ourselves.  We sweated over a mission statement that is often maligned, but which contains a most potent charge:
"[T]o work to together as one, passionately and professionally, in creating truly remarkable theatre."
We talked a lot about recommitting last night, but we failed to agree on what we are recommitting to.  Rededicating to front of house and workcalls?  We will have the same success we've enjoyed so far this year.  Ultimately, the enthusiasm will die off and we'll be right back where we started.  A drudgery.

I like words.  I try to use the exact right word for the situation, and "drudgery" is it.  From Merriam-Webster:
drudg·ery noun: dull, irksome, and fatiguing work : uninspiring or menial labor
Look, we're all volunteers.  If we need to have our asses kicked to care about the company, ultimately no amount of ass-kicking is going to do any good.  It's only going to build up more and more resentment -- the very kind of resentment that propelled us away from those companies we left.

I believe we need to retreat, regroup and re-approach.  I believe we need to take a good, hard look at why we are making theatre, and what contribution we believe we can make to the art.  We need to get back to the intrinsic reasons people make theatre in the first place, and move forward from there.

From The Empty Space, by Peter Brook:

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?
Can we do this?  Can we spend some time asking ourselves "Why?" between now and our next meeting?  That is the conversation we need to have.  What's it going to be?  Drudgery or passion?  And what are we passionate about?  Passion is attractive.  Drudgery is repulsive.  Consider it this way:  If you were to quit this company tomorrow and start a new theatre company, what would you do different?  Why?  There is no reason we can't wipe the slate clean and start anew.  We just have to want it, and we have to communicate it with each other.

Bonus link (a podcast, not a video):

Length:  29:28
Description:  Director Kiff Scholl, actor Kimberly Atkinson, writer/director Jaime Robledo, and managing director Padraic Duffy join Off-Ramp host for a romp through the current season of The Sacred Fools Theatre Company, which has done more than 100 productions in its 14 years in Hollywood.
Takeaway:  Passion = success, and passion does not equate with "carrot and stick."

* I will post this write-up here in the near future, in a slightly edited form.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

[NOTE:  This review was originally published at Stage Happenings.]

Waiting for Lefty at Theatre West

by Andrew Moore

The "storm birds of the working class" have landed onstage at Theatre West, and they have brought a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theatre.

Director Charlie Mount has done a masterful job. Young directors would do well to attend this play and take notes: Mount owns his stage. No bit of blocking is wasted on trifles or dead-end conceits. Each player is exactly where he or she needs to be at all times. Yet there is a looseness about it all; an engineered chaos that doesn't seem engineered. It is the stamp of a professional that the strings never show, and so it is we know that a master is at work.

There is an effortless congruity in the design work. It is rather difficult to comment upon an environment so thoughtfully and elegantly rendered. It simply exists, an understated presence that lends authenticity to the actors efforts. The set by Jeff Beck encompasses the audience ever-so subtly. The attention to detail (a historically accurate, 48-star flag adorns the stage, no doubt to the delight of many a stickler) and utility elevate what could have easily been a perfunctory box set. The scene shifts from meeting hall to "various locations around New York City" is accomplished by Yancey Dunham's lighting and the director's sound design. The costume designer is not credited, which is unfortunate. Such attention to detail should be acknowledged.

The ensemble delivers to the hilt. There is not an ounce of dramatic potential that goes untapped, and the level of commitment is at times overwhelming -- particularly in the heat of the union meeting, when voices pierce the darkness of the back of the house, heckling the corrupt union leader who is trying to steer his constituents away from a strike. Stand-out performances (from a host of stand-out performances) include Paul Gunning and Kristin Wiegand as a pathetic couple past the brink of poverty, barely holding on to what little they have. Anthony Gruppuso, in the thankless role of racketeer and company stooge Harry Fatt, gives dimension to an otherwise two-dimensional baddie. Elizabeth Bradshaw brings earnest, white-hot frustration to the role of Dr. Benjamin, in an inspired bit of gender-blind casting.

Clifford Odet's stark morality play still packs considerable punch, even if the propaganda value has worn thin over the decades. He drops us in the thick of a union meeting as it turns ugly, the narrative repeatedly shifts away to vignettes that reveal the harsh reality these cab drivers inhabit. The pacing is economical, pushing the audience toward the inevitable climax. It is an effort any playwright should be envious of, but it is not without its problems.

Waiting for Lefty is a production of Theatre West's "Chestnuts" program, an aptly named effort "dedicated to quality revivals of great plays." Indeed, Lefty is a quality revival. What does this mean for a seventy-five year-old polemic written in the midst of the Great Depression? The production is largely a museum piece. Dramatic moments that must have seemed startling and bold when first performed seem simplistic and hackneyed in today's ever changing, increasingly complex world. Odet's play at times has the narrative depth of a "Shock SuspensStory" comic book or "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln." Theatre West ably presents a living piece of theatre, despite the drawbacks of the material. The ensemble deserves high praise for breathing life into such stale lines. (Preaches one character: "One dollar buys ten loaves of bread, mister. Or one dollar buys nine loaves of bread and one copy of The Communist Manifesto. Learn while you eat!")

Waiting for Lefty is performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm through October 10th, 2010.

Theatre West is located at 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West in Los Angeles (Just over the hill, north of the Hollywood Bowl.)

General admission is $22. Theatre West has a range of prices depending on your age, military affiliation, and various and sundry other factors. Visit the company at for the whole ticket price smorgasbord, as well as online ticketing.