Tuesday, August 23, 2011

We're Different

I had the pleasure this past weekend of taking in two really good plays for Stage Happenings.  Those reviews will be up shortly, but in the meantime -- something occurred to me.

"What we lack in production values we'll make up for in a commitment to acting."  Sound familiar?  It's a sentiment I've heard batted around at certain unnamed theatre companies.  I've done the batting myself in the past.  It made perfect sense at the time.  Now? Not so much.

Both of the plays I saw this past weekend had TREMENDOUS production values.  Naturalistic sets and costumes, thoughtful lights and sound.  These were rich-looking plays.  But you know what else?  Both plays had some of the best acting I've ever seen -- including film and television. (Ooooooooo ... oh no he didn't!)

So guess what?  Telling yourself, "We're different, we focus on the acting!" that's cheap.  Those are empty words that exist to mask either an ignorance of stagecraft, or an unwillingness to put as much effort as one should into building an onstage world.  Hey -- I'm guilty of this, too, and it's an attitude I've seen in many places, not just at any one company.  To be perfectly fair, it's an attitude that comes and goes with access to designers and resources.  But nevertheless it's a "sour grapes" attitude; a defeatist attitude.

It's a microcosmosis attitude.

The term comes from Hugh MacLeod:
"Microcosmosis": when you confuse your little microcosm with the entire universe.
The implication is that production values don't matter because the play's the thing, and we're the shit.  But when you lift your head out of your own ass and bother to look around at the entire universe, you discover just what small potatoes you really are. There are basically three possible reactions to breaking the illusion of microcosmosis:  1) Quit, 2) Work harder, or 3) Stick your head back up your ass and pretend you didn't see anything.  The truly afflicted manage to do 3) while convincing themselves they are doing 2).

There's no end to what an artist can convince himself of.  Unfortunately, our job is to convince the audience, and that takes good performance and good stagecraft.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Audience Is Always Right

(Originally published on my dancer blog here.)

I recognize that as a performer I wouldn't have a job if it wasn't for the audience.  I get booked because the audience doesn't have a mass exodus when I hit the stage.  I love them and respect them, and I try to keep my skill set sharp and expanding so they continue employing me.  This has always held true for me, even when I was more actor than dancer.  I recognize that they are there to be entertained, and that's the contract I agreed to when I agreed to perform for them.

I'm reading Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers by Henning Nelms.  I can't guarantee that you'll see any prestidigitation from me in the near future, but I am learning more and more about showmanship.  Here's a wonderful selection ripped from the book:

We cannot prevent individuals from jumping to foolish conclusions, nor should we worry much when they do.  However, the audience as a whole is always right.  Once it forms an opinion, the fact that this is completely unfounded is of no consequence whatever.
Let's take a look at this.  "However, the audience as a whole is always right."  There's some talent show on network television where performers get voted off stage within thirty seconds if the audience doesn't like what's being brought to the table.  Sure, a few people may be entertained but the audience as a whole determines the fate of the performer.

And more from the magic man:
 This is a fundamental principle of showmanship.  When we offer to entertain--and convince--an audience and fail to do so, the fault is ours.  If the audience does not like our material, we cannot complain of its taste but must take the blame for choosing unwisely.  If the audience is stupid, we must find ways to be especially clear.  If the audience is inattentive, we must manage to capture and hold attention.  An audience may be difficult, but there is no such thing as a bad audience.  Anyone who performs before an audience has undertaken to please that audience.  If he bores it, he has not lived up to his obligation.
Let me say up front that not every audience is as audibly enthusiastic as a Roman rabble at a bear-baiting show.  Some appreciate things quietly and process internally.  Not every show is a standing ovation show, but that doesn't mean the audience as a whole hated it.

Now that my disclaimer is out of the way, let's look at audiences in the world of live entertainment.  How about the audience protesting what's happening on stage by shifting in their seats?  That creaking is a sort of vote that what's happening on stage is boring.  (The creaking is a horrible and obvious sign of boredom, especially when you're on stage and you hear it happening.)  Unwrapping of candy, texting, shuffling loudly through the program, talking, bathroom breaks by an obvious chunk of your audience -- these are pretty good signs that you're not entertaining them.  I remember seeing Sting in concert in 2000, and a huge chunk of the audience made for the loo when he played his country song.  It wasn't the entire audience, but the amphitheater had obvious patches void of patrons during that song.  If he'd played country the rest of the night, I would've been one of the inevitable mass exodus from the show.  These are signs that the audience isn't being entertained.

I co-directed a show about a year and a half ago when the original director bailed.  I wasn't thrilled to add something non-dance to my schedule, but I'm a decent director and I didn't want the actors to be left in the lurch.  One of the two nights I watched the show with an audience, the entire front row walked out.  In the world of Equity waiver (under 99-seat) theatre, the theaters are so small that it's very noticeable when people leave.  In fact, this group was plotting their escape while the actors were acting their hearts out less than six feet away.  They walked out in the middle of the scene, almost brushing up against the actors as they left.  They also posted a poisonous review on Goldstar.  I can't blame them; the show wasn't amazing and they weren't entertained.  They spent money to see something interesting and we gave them the same low-budget Equity waiver theatre they could get anywhere in LA. (To be honest yet a dick, I wasn't thrilled to go see the show twice and I co-directed. I directed a show the year before and sat in the audience every night I was in town.  While the audience was small, they were always pleased with the show.  There were a few people who saw that show more than once.)

If the audience thinks you're "phoning in" your performance, they're not going to give a shit about how many hours you've rehearsed and how many times you've done it before.  They're not convinced.  If your performance is technically proficient but the audience isn't entertained, you might as well go home and masturbate in your proficiency before a mirror until you're ready to start involving the audience in your performance because right now it's all for yourself.  It's no good blaming your audience.  And here's me being a dick again: it's a real sister baby move to proclaim via social media how your audience sucked and didn't understand how hard you worked.  See my masturbation suggestion if you want to celebrate how hard you worked and not concern yourself with pleasing an audience.

If you're not stuck on masturbating as a performer, look at what Nelms says and consider how you can apply that to your own stage work, whether as an entertainer or an enabler (director, producer, etc.).  If it doesn't cause the reaction you expect from your audience, how can it be modified or improved to get that reaction?

Now get to entertaining the shit out of people!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Cynic’s Guide to Making Under-99 Theatre in 10 EASY Steps!

Back-of-a-business-card artwork by Hugh Macleod.  Buy his stuff, follow him, etc.
[For today, a little levity.]
Making theatre is hard.  That's why I broke it down for you in these 10 easy steps!
1. Do a Shakespeare. His plays are free, and there’s instant name recognition. Conversely, produce a new work from an upcoming playwright. What they lack in name recognition they more than make up for in a willingness to work for free and a potential to bring in an audience (i.e. friends and family.)

2. Broker a deal to rent a theatre for a split of the door. That way you’re not out any cash. If you can’t make the guarantee, don’t sweat it. Burn bridges with theatre managers if you need too. Seriously -- do you know how many theatres there are in this town? There are way more bridges than you could comfortably burn in a lifetime.

If you have to pay something up front, ask your actors to “invest” in the company. Call this investment “membership dues,” so as to avoid violating section 4(E) of the Los Angeles 99-Seat Plan. Another possibility is to kite a check.  You may also consider asking Mommy and Daddy to foot the bill.

3. When on the hunt for a director, willingness is the most important quality to look for. If someone expresses a passing interest, that’s enough. Crown them “Director” and put them in charge. Don’t question their choices, no matter how inexperienced or stupid the director may be. They’re willing, and in Under-99 Theatre, willing is enough.

4. You don’t need a unified design team. You hardly even need designers! Mostly you need people who are good at obtaining the needed set pieces, costume pieces, props, etc. It doesn’t matter if the flag has fifty stars in a play set in 1931, and it doesn’t matter that you’re using the same $2 plastic breakaway knife that everyone else uses. All that matters is the actors. To that end, spare no expense (out of your lighting designer’s pocket) to keep your actors lit.  (Well, keep them lit as best as you can without really breaking a sweat.)

5. Cast large. The bigger your cast, the bigger your potential audience (i.e. friends and family.)

6. Don’t bother to file your 99-Seat Plan. Why draw attention to yourself with Equity? If anyone in the cast cares, you can easily fake the paperwork, lie, etc. But don’t be up front about it – you may scare off the union actors, and everyone knows the only good actors are union actors.

7. To promote the play, you will need postcards. Pick an exciting or intriguing image for the card – it doesn’t matter if it’s relevant to the play, so long as it’s eye-catching – and put a full cast list on the back. If putting the cast list on the back prevents you from putting a summary of the play on the postcard, who cares? No one comes to a play because they know what it’s about. They’re coming based on that eye-catching image. And because they know someone in the cast.

8. It’s never too soon to plan out cast parties. You should have as many of these as you can over the course of the run. A carousing cast is a happy, unquestioning cast. What you lack in substance and artistic challenges you can make up for in social intercourse.

9. Flood the social networks with plugs for your show. This involves little more than linking to the Facebook event and saying “Come see my show!” If possible, have your entire cast and crew bomb Facebook at the same time. Since odds are you all have the same friends, this will really make an impact.

10. When the show fails, don’t hesitate to lay blame -- but don’t blame yourself! You know how hard you had to work to get the show to this point. Instead, pick one or more of the following to blame:
  • The audience
  • The reviewers (or lack thereof)
  • The economy
  • People who may have left the company and/or show
Above all else, don't ask "why?"  Don't worry yourself over reconciling art with commerce.  Don't push yourself past the breaking point as an artist.  Remember it's called "play," and that means zero responsibility to the audience or the artform and 100% self-involvement.  As it should be!  I mean, you're only doing this to get noticed by a casting director or agent, right?

[Did I miss any major points?  Comment below!]

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Chris Ashworth

I'm adding a new blog to the ol' blog roll today, a blog a happened upon after chewing on the thoroughly depressing topic of "How to make theatre pay?" 

And so I took a stroll through the internets to see if any bright soul had found an exploitable crack in the no-to-low-pay theater curse.  And I found Chris Ashworth.  I'm reading and ruminating on his blog, and so far I see a whole lot I agree with (and have observed myself, on this here soapbox that nobody reads.)

His blog post "Toward a New Funding Model for Theater" throws down an awful big gauntlet that I've only hinted around at:
You know what annoys me a little bit? Theaters may fit inside a non-profit structure, but they share a lot of territory with for-profit companies. Any non-profit that fits inside the Beneficiary Builder model shares huge swaths of territory with for-profit companies. Unlike other non-profits, their beneficiaries are their customers. And from where I stand, it can look like an awfully fuzzy line between a great non-profit company providing a service their customers can’t afford…and a crappy for-profit company that can’t make their service affordable.

So you know what? Forget I ever said theaters should be non-profits. I hate that idea. It might be true, but just forget it. For the purposes of this conversation, that idea is a crutch and I am kicking that crutch out from under you RIGHT NOW.
Go read the whole thing, and be inspired.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The "Joie"

"Tomorrow night I want you to have fun.  This play is a party -- literally.  Make it the kind of party that every person in the audience will want to be a part of."  I gave this direction before Torrid Affaire opened for the first time, and it's a bit of direction I've employed ever since.  I have only recently found a word to sum up what I'm promoting with this advice.  The wife and I began studying French with Rosetta Stone (an awesome way to learn a second language, by the way) which has opened me up to really trying to conceptually understand the language.

As we all know, "joie de vivre" means "joy of life," but much is lost in the translation.  "Joie" means more than just "joy."  Joie is "sentiment exaltant ressenti par toute la conscience" or "A feeling of exhilaration that expands across the spirit."  The word "ressenti" is the past participle of "ressentir," and actually means "to feel pain, experience a shock, sensation."  So there is a passionate, visceral aspect to this word, "joie."

That's good for a lexicophile; what does the word mean to me, in the context of "a party on stage"?

It means embodying a fullness of spirit; being fully plugged in to the moment-by-moment; being present and active.  It means effervescing -- including and especially in tragic roles!  It means chasing down the invisible in a tenacious effort to make it visible.*

Note that joie is a term which concerns and involves the audience.  Through the "magical" means of identification, transference and catharsis, if you're doing it right the audience is essentially on stage with you.  Joie is the bright light that draws them in, enraptures them, and makes their investment in the piece a painless transaction.  Joie is the ongoing sensation of life that keeps the audience engaged.

Perfunctory is the enemy of  joie.  Smug, self-congratulatory egosim can be a sick mockery of joieJoie is not "social hour" or being gregarious -- "gregarious" literally means "belonging to a herd."  Baaaaaa.

On the contrary, joie requires intense, earnest openness.  It is a dangerous thing to experience; to manifest.  Yet when a performance has joie, you can feel it resonate in the deepest part of your humanity.  Joie is what brings an audience to its feet in a spontaneous display of gratitude at the end. 

Joie is what we strive for.

* "I am calling it the Holy Theatre for short, but it could be called The Theatre of the Invisible – Made – Visible:  the notion that the stage is a place where the invisible can appear has a deep hold on our thoughts. […] This is what is meant and remembered by those who with feeling and seriousness use big hazy words like nobility, beauty, poetry, which I would like to re-examine for the particular quality they suggest.  The theatre is the last forum where idealism is still an open question:  many audiences all over the world will answer positively from their own experience that they have seen the face of the invisible through an experience on stage that transcended their experience in life." – Peter Brook, The Empty Space, pg. 42