Tuesday, December 11, 2007

And sometimes? Just Fine Wine

Joshua James asks, I answer. Just the kind of service I run over here.

Over in Isaac Butlers' 'New Play' post, Joshua asks, in response to Isaac's "Why New Plays?","Why Old Plays?"


Why Old Plays?

First, to dodge a hail of gunfire, a given for my argument.

The playwright text.

That said? Sometimes this whole thing isn't about the playwright.
Playwrights will tell you it's never about them, but there's an awful lot of new work going on for that to be the case.

A long time ago now, I told my friend Matt that given finite funds and time, you cannot develop new plays and new companies of young actors at the same time. You have to remove a variable to ensure quality control. You can give a new script to talented, experienced folks, or you can give proven texts to younger inexperienced folks. Otherwise you're really just playing the lottery.

But even with my own personal experimentation math taken out of the equation (see what I did there?) sometimes a company needs to focus on something other than development.

New work presents a different set of challenges for a company than established. Regardless of how well written it is, all new work requires the cast and director to continually be double checking that any difficulties they are having are their own and not the text's. To borrow a phrase from Christianity, they must work out their faith (in the text) through fear and trembling.

Given a text that others have proofed with a reasonable history, they can simply flex their muscles and dig into the role(s) without that annoying 'workshop' mentality that playwrights hate so much, but is honestly required in forging new work.

Which is all leaving aside the question of audience development and fundraising.

For any theatre company, and any theatre community, I approach the question like I approach making a mix-tape CD playlist for someone. You can put as much challenging, underground new music on the CD as you want - to stretch their musical horizons a bit. But if you don't seed that mix with some things you know they like? Hopefully some things they're singing along with? They're not going to have that mix in rotation for long.

And my goal is to be in the rotation for as long as possible... maybe even stuck in some people's car stereo for months at a time.

Probably torturing extended metaphors.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Old Wine, new wineskins

Isaac Butler Asks:

I am a dedicated reader, viewer and director of new plays. And therefore when I talk about New Plays (by which here I mean new scripts by living writers) I tend to assume that new plays have intrinsic value. But if I take away that assumption, I'm left with some questions: Why new plays? Why do new plays have intrinsic value? Or what value do they have? Why should we bother doing new plays? Or dedicating theaters to the artistic mission of bringing them to life? What is different (and differently valuable and important) about new plays as opposed to revisiting or reinterpreting or whatever existing texts?

I want to explore those questions a bit (and any related/better ones we can come up with) in an effort to help articulate what it is that is so exciting and vital about doing this work. Vital beyond and on top of the quality of an individual script itself. Because I believe there's something there, I think we'd all be well served by exploring what that something is and being able to articulate it.

Anyone wanna try?

Why yes Isaac, I would like to try.

Why new plays? Because every voice that is saying something is speaking with the authority of all of their predecessors. Every time you simply remount a text-faithful reproduction of any play you are removing a layer from the accumulated layers of wisdom.

Will every artist and every play add (positively) to the discourse, or to the collected cultural wisdom? No, of course not. Not any more than any given baseball game will have something interesting happen in it. But we play them (or produce them) because they might.

It is worthy to produce Hamlet, or Angels in America, we know what they are going to do for theatre, and for an audience, and those are positive things. But if you commit to doing 1001 Nights it's first time out? The audience experiences something it never has, the artists approach the material without generations worth of expectations and viewed interpretations, and other creators receive a new way to view the work that they are creating. And that is more positive.

And even in the worst case, even for those scripts, performances, and productions that fall flat, there is almost always something in them. Whether it's a moment, or a technical trick, or a performer. Maybe it's something as simple as breaking through to a handful of audience members, convincing them that they can see something other than Jesus Christ Superstar and whatever 'B' tour is coming through town (I do live in Austin afterall).

This rambled more than I thought it would when I started, but let me bring it home like this: I work in an office full of people who couldn't care less about live theatre. It barely exists as an entity on their radar screen. Most of the office has been to see one of my last two productions (Intermission and Elektra). Neither of them were the Odd Couple exactly, Elektra a blend of Greek plays and modern dance, and Intermission incorporating a full live band as a set piece (thanks Jason Craig)... but they went because I hectored them into it, and they found that they enjoyed it.

The state of theatre coverage in this town being borderline they have no way to plug into further small theatre, I remain their only conduit, but they're interested. If it were simply a remount they would consider my work community theatre, the only vocabulary they have for it. But because it's new, because it was created here, they have a different kind of respect for it, and a different kind of kinship with it.

And that's how you keep theatre alive, and keep it from being a museum piece. If your audience has as much ownership of your pieces and your artform as you do. That's never going to happen with Hamlet.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

All I need is a bell and a red kettle

On Thursday I sent out my first fundraising letter ever.

I'm sure that many of you reading this have, in your theatre lives, sent many a "please donate" letter. I have always been called in as a fixer on projects. Even in the companies where I was a member, fundraising was not my problem. The productions themselves were my problem.

And there is a certain level of humiliation in having to send out a "I can't support my art" letter that I was not accustomed to. Indeed my proofreaders could tell you the first version of that letter was twice as long as the (still inappropriately long) version that got sent out. It was full of reassurances that we were doing everything we could to be responsible, and apologies for even asking...

We cut them. They were right. And honestly? If you're asking for strangers money all the assurances in the world don't matter, you are producing beyond your means.

But setting aside your ego to ask family, friends and internet strangers for money is nothing compared to that humbling moment when a donation comes in.

My boss was the first to donate. She bought 4 days of me not smoking. I cried.

I did, and I'm admitting it on the internet.

I expect my Mom to donate. I expect certain of my friends to chip in. But this woman isn't interested in my art at all. She is interested first and foremost in me not smoking, and secondly, she knows that I wouldn't ask if I didn't need it, and that I wouldn't do a project that I didn't really believe was worth it. That was good enough for her.

That level of trust is humbling.

How the hell do I make sure the show is worth that trust?

Friday, December 07, 2007

Corrected - and I think I like it.

So, as you may have noticed, I am in labor with the first show of my very own company, to be delivered at Salvage Vanguard the 1st day of February.

It will surprise none of you that in starting a company (or in my case realizing I already had one in all but name) we need a reason for being, and rules to live by.

Below is what I came up with:

Why Cambiare? Why now?
It seems to me there is a choice. Sit around at Austin Java and talk about the kinds of theatre people should be making or get out and make it yourself. Our answer is Cambiare Productions. A laboratory to create and develop the theatre we wish people were making. Not a repertory company (not yet), not a group of indie artists pretending that they are A.C.T., Berkeley Rep, or Steppenwolf, just a group of people trying to tell stories the way they wish people would tell stories unto them.

Why now? Why not? Can you think of a time in history that didn't need its story tellers? Jesters or Cassandras (or Tiresias' I suppose) we need the voices of our creators to be added to the hue and cry of the marketplace.
In that spirit, I propose the following standards:

  1. 1. Do not make a production solely for the sake of making a production.
  2. Always be open to collaboration and co-production with other groups.
  3. Theatre is not greater than dance is not greater than music is not greater than film is not greater than visual art. All are tools for telling stories. None should be ignored.
  4. Technology is a tool, not the art itself.
  5. Lack of money is not an excuse; it's an opportunity for innovation.
  6. Always ask, "What's in it for an audience?"
  7. Creating theatre is art. Producing theatre is a business; the two should mix as little as possible.
  8. Let them say no, don't do it for them. Always ask.
  9. Reach > Grasp. Take the risk.
  10. Singular Voices. Open Minds.

I thought it was pretty good, and nailed us down to pretty well where we are at as a Triad.
In discussion with David Nunez of 4th Wall ticketing (A+ service by the way if you happen to be producing an event in Austin) for handling ticket sales for us we sent him to the site to check it out. He responded to Will with:

Your site looks awesome and it sounds like an incredible project! One point in your manifesto made me think a bit: "Technology is a tool, not the art itself."
Counter-example: I'm building a robotic marionette (see www.delamaquina.com). The couple times I've shown it off in public, it is fascinating to watch reactions -- first, people notice this creepy puppet moving around... then inevitably, their eyes travel up the strings and see this machine with spinning pulleys and wires.
They stare at this device, mesmerized by the motion and peering all around it to see how it fits together. THEN, after a few minutes,they notice I'm standing off to the side, pushing buttons and working sensors to make the puppet move... that's when the conversation begins, "OH! you're controlling it by that computer! How does it work?" or "What does this mean for puppetry?" or "Who's controlling whom?" So maybe "Technology is just another art medium through which emotion can be expressed?" Indeed, I think that's becoming my own unresolved question: can we coax expressiveness out of technology, itself?

Well Then.
I responded:

Hi, I'm Travis... I wrote the manifesto on the site, and may I just say... you had me at robot marionette. You had me at robot marionette. To clarify the technology line: It was an outgrowth of my thinking here, not a condemnation of technology in general... and a remonstrance, specifically to Will and I who have been known to engage in technolust, to keep our eyes on the prize.
It will require a re-write because you're absolutely right.

See? Sometime I don't totally implode about being wrong...

I read your post about the projections at the magic flute performance. You have a really good point -- I think the world of "interactive art" (ex. kinetic sculptures, video that responds to user interaction, robots that spout political messages) is starting to get really saturated with would-be "artists" since the technology is getting easier and easier to use.
The incentive is there too: People get lots of validation and extra credit for their work solely on the novelty factor of using "technology"... but if you take a step back and critically review the artwork, most of it is really bad. Hacker artists tend to be more infatuated with their technical wizardry than the meaning and emotion they wish to express. I think a big part of that is people engaged in hacking/tinkering art aren't generating the equivalent of sketches easily or cheaply (spending a couple weeks engineering a circuit board kind of gets you "stuck" in the project's path... A painter can work out tons of ideas really quickly, in a couple hours, in her sketchbook before she "commits")
It's like the point you bring up about art groups investing in really expensive technology and then feeling the need to justify their expenditures. You don't throw away technology the same way you'd throw away a pencil sketch. (and recent attempts to make technology more accessible also allow people to use it without _truly_ understanding it... so you get lots of derivative works that don't really inspire new thinking or even breaking technology boundaries.
Can a painter be a master artist w/o knowing how to mix paint colors? Can I create a worthwhile video projection w/o knowing about resolutions and video formats?

So I think that, given David's inherent correctness, that the Fourth Commandment of Cambiare does in fact need a rewrite to be more specific. It needs to be worded in a way that doesn't marginalize the possibility that the technology can be the art and not simply a medium, while still reminding us to not get lost in the process of technology.

I'm still mulling it. But I would like your input. Maybe technology is a pitfall for you too, or maybe it's graphic design, or scenic art...

How do you keep yourself moving towards the prize and not stuck in the fens and eddy's of process?

What is YOUR proposed revision of Commandment 4?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Calling all Angels

It is the donation seeking season.

I am blessed and cursed to be opening a wonderful show the first weekend of February, forcing me to seek single show funds in the midst of everyone else's fund-raising campaigns.

Please pass this link on the friends wherever possible.

For those of you far from Austin who have never met me or seen any of my work, can I suggest a line of thinking that has influenced my own donating patterns in the past?

If I were in town would this show or this group be worth my ticket money?

This is of course in addition to the personal sacrifice I offer to make below.

Please read on. 


As many of you know, in recent months I have set out to form a production company, Cambiare Productions, with my fiancee Megan Reilly and my close friend Will Snider.

We decided to produce an original work, Transformations, for a local festival.

Transformations is a new performance piece, conceived by Megan Reilly, inspired by the poetry of Anne Sexton, that explores the existing and perceived roles of women in society. Emphasizing design as performance, it includes 'Rapunzel', recognized with a Certificate of Excellence in Design as Performance from the United States Institute of Theatre Technology. Fourteen Anne Sexton pieces in total were given to an amazing group of women artists from the Austin area and all over the country, to each make their own, which we would then combine to make a cohesive show.

After work had already begun, fate stepped in. We were not selected to participate in the festival, and instead fell into securing the perfect space for the show, the recently completed home of Salvage Vanguard Theatre.

Unfortunately, as brilliant a stroke of luck as this was, it doubled our projected budget.

So we need your help.

Twenty Dollars.

That's it. We are asking that anyone, who is able, donate $20 toward Transformations.

To help with your decision?

If you donate twenty dollars, I, a pack-a-day smoker these last nine years, will not smoke for one entire day, as guaranteed by my ever vigilant fiancee and my boss.

Even better? For every $10 you donate after that I'll sell you another day of not smoking.

There are a number of ways for you to give:
You can donate via credit card or direct transfer via PayPal on our website.

You can mail cash or a check made out to Travis Bedard at the address below:
3517 North Hills Drive
Austin, TX 78731

If you have a desire to give a larger amount, please contact me. We are in the process of finalizing a non-profit umbrella agreement with the HBMG Foundation Creativity Incubator program, which would make your donation tax deductible.

If you're in the Austin area, please join us for the first two weekends in February.

If you are not, please follow along in our adventure at blog.cambiareproductions.com

We are very excited to be bringing this piece to life, and thank you so much for your support.



Monday, December 03, 2007

Ghosts again...

In reminiscing about my beginnings, and high school theatre for me in general I recalled one of my very favorite things about that experience.

My introduction to the superstition of theatre. Superstition being one of the wonderful traits of all religions that have past their prime.

Of course Macbeth was explained to me almost immediately (Fair thoughts and happy hours attend on thee!). But it was the superstition particular to our school that has stuck with me all this time.

The auditorium at Salem High School was provided by the father of Mr. Seifert, mentioned in my previous post. Charles Seifert was the owner of the local Coca Cola bottling facility.

With his on manning the helm of the auditorium that he paid for the rumor spread that 'Charley' haunted the theatre and bedeviled the shows. He could only be placated by placing a six pack of Coke in the loft prior to dress rehearsal, and leaving it there throughout the run.

As a lover of ritual from way back this tickled me to no end.

As did the secondary ritual of beginning any celebration with a Loft Coke should you rank sufficiently to receive one.

We need more rituals in my theatre life...

Ghosts and Beginnings

Too often blogging is akin to a beer hall, everyone trying to shout the loudest, and prove they're the smartest as they push for their own putsch. It's really Talk Radio 2.0

Many times I've wished that blogging in all its messy glory were more the campfire that the tribe sat around at the end of the day and shared the day's collective earned wisdom. Or their histories. Or simply their stories.

My impotent idealism aside this is one of those entries for me.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that for most of those theatre artists that are slogging it out for too few opportunities at too little pay with too little recognition that we began when we were young.

For my own part I began in the spring of my sophomore year of high school. The rumored show was Robin Hood, and MAN OH MAN did I want to be in Robin Hood. My idol Eric Vendt had just played the dentist in Little Shop that fall, and I desperately wanted to have that much fun on a stage.

They didn't do Robin Hood, and Eric didn't so the show they DID do, which was Alice in Wonderland.

I was the Mock Turtle. In fluorescent green plaid skater pants (oh 1990 is there anything you CAN'T do?).

I would be involved in 19 more shows all told over the next 2 years.

Spending most of my non-class waking life with these two people.

Travis Drama Teachers

Chuck Seifert and Kathleen Dacey changed my life.

Ms. Dacey ran the extra-curricular Actors Guild.
Mr. Seifert was the Drama Teacher.

Ms. Dacey taught me how to break down a show. She taught me the beginnings of Stanislavski. She refused to believe I couldn't sing. She cast me as Bottom, as Fancourt in Charley's Aunt, as Joe in Shadow Box, as Vandergelder in Hello Dolly. She taught me the meaning of commitment to the project.

Mr. Seifert, also my AP Lit teacher, introduced me to Chaucer and Moliere, MacBeth and Hamlet. He introduced me to McCandless and how to troubleshoot lights and a antique patch board. He taught me all the rough points of technical theatre.

And they both expected the world of me.

It was wonderful.

Too much in my educational career I had the standards for other kids placed on me. Almost all of which were too low. I never had to work for it. It made me cocky. It made me complacent. Excelling at school didn't take any effort.

Neither Mr. Seifert nor Ms. Dacey really cared about all of that. They had spent enough time with me to know what I was capable of, and they'd be damned if they were going to settle for anything less than 110% of that effort. I wish every teacher had had the time to do that. I'd be a better person today.

Mr. Seifert passed away this past year, and Ms. Dacey will actually retire one of these years. But they set me on a path that I have followed for more than half my life now. I owe them for every single day.

So what about you?

Who are your ghosts?

What are your beginnings?

Monday, November 26, 2007

A momentary digression

There are developments in my next project that I hope to announce very very shortly, but while we wait for ink to dry and deposits to be handed over I digress...

There is a popular phrase in the New American Lexicon that was created by the bastion of sensibility that my Ultra Conservative Boss himself calls Hate Radio.

"The Hate America Crowd".

This is of course bastardized in any number of ways. The America Lasters, AntiAmericanism, or the second level cousin Cut and Runners.

These phrases are applied to everyone from Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid on down to Jon Stewart, and by extension all the way down to me.

The  Hate America Crowd is of course anyone who thinks that some of the things we do as a collective are crap. We therefore don't stand for anything that America does. This drives me crazy. The whole line of thinking is so ridiculously arrogant it's difficult to muster the energy to respond to something so banal. The very idea that what you think or believe is definitively what America is and believes is as close as this agnostic believes you can get to thumbing your nose at the gods.

But I'm going to respond anyway, because well, the pixels are already paid for.

America is not a country in the way that France and The United Kingdom are countries. Those are political entities that encompass a very few number of cultures that form the greater culture of that place. America is an idea. An experiment.

The people who founded this nation all came for different reasons, freedom from religious persecution, escape from criminal prosecution at home, escape from poverty at home, adventure, or just a fresh start. They came here for an opportunity at something.

Pardon my crassness, but they had the balls to show up.

So we are a nation that has descended from the rebellious, and the adventurous. The bull-headed and argumentative of the world colonized this nation. It wasn't some tidal wave of Puritans that populated America. To quote a great warrior-poet, I have never seen a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. Nor has the world ever seen a greater fighting spirit (for good or for ill).

For any group to state unequivocally that America stands for what they believe in is wrong categorically unless the only thing that group stands for is freedom. Freedom unstained by any other ideology. I have yet to meet that group.

The Hate America Crowd in this iteration of the usage is primarily against the War, and against cultural christian hegemony. They hate that this Presidential Administration is hell bent on ignoring any opposition to its policies, and hate the idea that a small group of men in power can destroy the capacity of this nation to perform good works internationally. They hate that opposition to this Administration and its policies have been labeled defeatism and treason. They hate that for speaking out publicly against the policies of this Administration they end up on Lists.

I am as moderate a moonbat liberal as you can be. I understand that many of my personally held beliefs would make for poor federal policy. I understand that cultural change takes a generation. And I understand that elections work pretty well no matter how hard Diebold tries to swing them.

But if Hate Radio got a hold of any of my writings they would toss me in with the Hate America crowd.

America boosters of the ribbons on my car, flags on my keychain variety are merely purveyors of the New American Isolationism. They don't want to learn a second language. They don't want to think about how their country's actions will impact others around the world, or even how a lower tax bill for themselves would impact their community.

They understand that we WON the Cold War and to the victor goes the spoils.

They don't want to hear about American imperialism in Iraq, because America is the perpetual White Hat and nothing they do can possibly be wrong. And here we are the denizen's of Momma's basement sitting on our purty little internet sites writing about how this thing that America does is wrong, and how our Holy Murkin Emperor has no clothes and they don't want to hear it. Heaven forbid we point out that we didn't WIN the Cold War so much as the USSR lost it (hard by the way).

I have never hated America. Not once. I have been disappointed. I have even been pissed at her, and her leaders. But I love the idea of America, and every negative emotion I have felt politically is borne out of that naive idealism. I want America to be the America we were promised that it was in third grade social studies. And I will hole up in my little corner of the internet and shout that until they unplug it.

If that's hating America I guess I don't understand the definition of hate.

Now Fred Phelps? Fred Phelps I hate.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Live for the Moment

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to see the Vestige Group present Jason Grote's New Jersey Book of the Dead at the Hyde Park Theatre.

It raised a question for me that I I'd like to discuss... after this brief digression.

[Please note that as a critic I tend to blame actors first, technicians second, playwrights third, and directors where applicable]

It was a Thursday night performance after three nights off. It's an odd start to a rundown of my opinion of the show... but I think it bears mention. In small theatre, when you have an intense rehearsal period followed by a short run, that time off can be a killer. The cast and technicians take a breath, but the show isn't in their bones yet, often leaving that first show back with a lost in the desert sort of feel.

I think that was in effect here.

New Jersey Book of the Dead is an intelligent ensemble piece focused on privacy and boundaries. Touching on the walls we put up between our public and private lives and the consequences of that separation being eroded, in this case by technology.

Structurally the play intersperses a linear narrative of the effects of technological surveillance (via a software solution called Omnivore) on the lives of a small group of call center temps with a mystical step out into a more mystical poetic universe where slightly evolving scenes repeat and a deranged man speaks the truth.

And honestly it's hard to say whether the text worked or not.

This is the second performance by the Vestige Group that I have seen, the first being the quiet, detailed Brilliant Traces. The difference in specificity of execution is striking. Where Brilliant Traces allowed for silence and had a deliberately varied pace, New Jersey Book of the Dead  never found it's rhythm.

The actor's energy and focus at several times seemed ready to click into place, but didn't. In a play structured to flow directly from one scene into another there were numerous lighting cue hiccups that either let a scene linger too long or didn't come up quickly enough on the next area. The actors, trying to find the play, were never really sure whether to abandon the (already completed) scene they were stuck in, or to begin without the light in the next.

As an audience member I shared their disjointed lurching. This has read as entirely negative I'm sure and I don't really mean it to be. Which I guess is why I led with the Thursday night disclaimer. It never really seemed that the show was suffering from lack of talent. (Though I think a deeper minority talent base in Austin would have helped some of the relationship dynamics) Nor was it suffering from a lack of understanding of the show and what it required. I think it was just one of those nights.

And let me say this: despite the execution issues on this night the play didn't lose me, which is a point for Mr. Grote.

Which (finally) brings me to my point.

The show hinges on 9/11.

The audience was treated to projected images of the towers burning and of audio of screaming over images of people  running from the dust. (It was remarkable how jarring that was after 6 years and an endless loop of similar images) This moment stopped the action and drove us to the resolution of the play. One half of the resolution finished up the protagonist's story,  while the other half showed us the sales representative for Omnivore pitching her wares to Congress.

Now, as best I can tell this show was written during the lead up to the Iraq conflict and premiered in 2004.

In 2004 we knew that our President was ethically challenged, and was actively engaged in creating a revisionist present, but the terror watchlist for all, Guantanamo Bay,  and warrantless wiretapping were yet to come (man, it's been long three years). Viewed in 2004 this show would have had a very different sense of menace than it does here in the waning days of 2007.

In a world in which we know and expect that the executive branch of our government is monitoring us in any way that it can New Jersey Book of the Dead isn't a warning, it's simply a signpost.

My initial reaction was that this was a missed opportunity.

But as I sat with it a while longer, I no longer think that way. Or rather, I think that the opportunity missed was by producing companies of a political bent in 2004. Mr. Grote wrote a textured play considerably more nuanced than most political theatre, the fact that it  wasn't widely produced when it was prescient isn't his fault.

We often talk out here in the ether about the ephemeral nature of this art form. But it's seems in my experience that everyone is trying to create for the ages instead of this moment.

Would it be gratifying to know that 20 years from now someone felt a pull to pick up something that I had created and recreate it? Of course it would. But my audience is here now, and there's no shame in creating something that is specific to this time and place.

So let me ask you this:

Does your experience match mine? Are theatre artists striving to write/create for eternity?

If it does... why do you think it is so?

Do we serve our audiences better with product more specifically created for here and now, or with more generalized pieces?

Is this only a problem in politically themed pieces or is it more universal?

And as an aside to Mr. Grote: congratulations on the warm reception for 1001 and please excuse my chalk outlines of your themes in New Jersey Book of the Dead.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Remember all, they're being selfish...

Doris Egan (writer - House MD) on the WGA strike:

(She's not making money on a LiveJournal so I have reprinted it here)


There was a time in this world when it seemed that anyone with literary talent could make a living, if they were willing to take the risk. Louisa May Alcott supported herself and her family writing thrillers. A woman could be widowed with children, and rather than throw herself on the mercy of unpleasant relatives, she could say, "I will make my living by my pen!" -- and proceed to do so, maybe with a little sewing on the side. These writers were fulfilling a deep and endless need; the appetite for story is written into our genetic code.

As late as the 1960s and 1970s, this was all still true. Here's one of my favorite photographs, by Berenice Abbott: a newsstand in 1935.


You can't see it on your screen, but the actual photograph is so sharp that you can read the titles of the magazines. (A digital reproduction hangs in my dining room, and allow me to recommend the New York Public Library's archive.) This is the glorious landscape of pulp fiction, all the guilty and not-so-guilty pleasures of story laid out for the hedonist to wander through. Not just one or two magazines of detective stories, oh no -- here are Master Detective, Official Detective, True Detective, Famous Detective, Detective Tales. Here are Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post. Here are Argosy, Doc Savage, Weird Tales. Here is Battle and Flying Aces; Railroad Stories; Western Stories, West, Cowboy Stories, Cowboy Life, Triple-X Western. An endless array of love stories, horror stories, sports stories, all to be devoured and enjoyed by a story-hungry public who would only be back next month for more.

Ah, Thrilling Wonder and Planet Stories, that gave us Leigh Brackett -- a woman who, incidentally, also wrote the screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back, The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and The Long Goodbye. And here we come to the issue at hand, for by the time The Empire Strikes Back came out, the pulps were mostly a memory.

What happened to them? In my opinion, television happened. That voracious appetite for story could be satisfied by clicking on a button. Movies helped, but television could give you a fix every single day. The box couldn't come near to the full world-immersion of a novel -- a reason I think the novel has held on -- but over the years, the novel audience has eroded, too. There've been plenty of theories about this: a decline in literacy, audience fragmentation, too many book choices for a particular market. People unfamiliar with publishing realities will point to Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, as though somehow every writer with a book must be sharing the pie. Well, they aren't. The vast majority can't make a living at all, and have to stuff their writing into the spare hours they divert from their families and their day jobs -- and we all know how much time that comes down to.

They do it for love. But you know what? There's nothing wrong with getting paid. Back when FDR started the WPA and wanted to pay writers to work for the agency, people objected. They were writers, for godsake. That's not real work, like farming or laboring. "They're writers, but they still have to eat," was the reply.

There is one place left in the world where some writers can make a decent living, some of the time. That place is Hollywood, California, and the Hollywoodesque enclaves of film and TV around the world.

It hasn't always been easy. Bob Carroll and Madelyn Pugh wrote the first four seasons of I Love Lucy. As you read this, that show is playing somewhere in the world, but Carroll and Pugh never saw a dime of residuals from the huge amount of money their scripts made. That money still rains down today on a huge conglomerate, where no one in the executive offices has any connection whatsoever with the series, let alone contributed to its success. It's simply free money for them, forever and ever. This is one reason I would go back in a time machine and stop Hollywood writers from giving up copyright, for with copyright went respect and fair treatment; but you can never wrestle from the hands of a corporation that which they now believe is theirs. Carroll kidded an interviewer, before he died at the age of 87: "If I had residuals, would I be here?" But this was a business where Jack Benny didn't give his writers credits on his show, because it was believed the audience thought actors and comedians made everything up on the spot. It was a business where, one ancient director told me, when a movie stopped for the night, the crew could be locked up in a barn till daylight.

A lot of people went through hard times getting the WGA and IATSE and the other unions together, and putting an end to horror stories like that. The horror stories now are coming from a different angle: from the age of giant conglomerates. The AMPTP is often referred to as "the producers," but they are not. They are huge corporations which own many different things. And the executives the Guild is striking against are not the executives we work with on films and TV shows. This all basically comes down to six CEOs and a corporate culture that seeks to maximize profit as though those profits did not emanate from people actually making things. There is a big disconnect between the people doing the making and the ones keeping the books, and there's little incentive to run things reasonably in a world where the salary of a single CEO surpasses the entire amount of DVD residuals paid to the entire Guild. And where none of these companies will open their books so their accounting can be examined.

The companies are both answerable to no one and wildly bloated; it's not unusual, in launching a TV show, to get notes from twelve or more executives, some of which are mutually contradictory, but all of which must be obeyed. (There was a day when notes were few, and left to the discretion of the executive producer. That day is no more.) The result, as I have personally witnessed, is often incoherence. Then too, when twelve or more people read something, anything non-generic will "bump" one of them. This is a simple statistical fact, not a reflection on the executives involved -- give a script to any twelve people, including other writers, and the results will be the same. It won't be the same person bumped each time; but by the time your script is ready to shoot, it will have been smoothed down, like a rock under a waterfall, till all that's left is what's expected. (And yet, it's still incoherent. This is not an easy result to achieve: it takes the work of many people.) I'm lucky in that I work on a show that's up and running, whose executives go out of their way to give us space to create, and trust that our mistakes will mostly be small ones. But after ten years in this business, I can tell you that it's by no means something you can count on. The structure of this contraption is just too unwieldy.

But let's get back to the money. If you've been reading this journal, you know that people in television are among the hardest working I've ever met, with the longest hours. And the rewards, both monetary and creative, will tease you along and then slap you in the face when you least expect it. Writers have fat years and lean years; a great number are unemployed; and of those that are not, the odds on holding a job plummet with every middle-aged birthday and wrinkle (more in comedy than drama, but still). Again, people unfamiliar with the industry can point to Aaron Sorkin and the more successful showrunners, and say they seem to be well-compensated. They are. They are exceptions.

Even I am an exception. I'm not a showrunner, but I'm a writer-producer on a successful show. I'm incredibly fortunate. If you clear away the smoke of the ten percent I pay to an agent, the ten percent to a manager, the occasional five percent to a lawyer, and an amazing number of other fees, I still make a comfortable, upper-middle-class living, vaguely comparable to what an officer of a bank might make. (I can make that comparison because I once worked in a bank.) And to get this for writing. My god. Granted, none of this says I'll have any income at all next year, but this year? I'm blessed. Many, many other writers are not.

Here's something else you should know: writers are not famous for their self-esteem. I'm sure there must be some out there with a sense of entitlement, but I haven't met them. I have never heard a discussion of salary, on any show, that didn't have writers pointing to average compensation across the country and saying we were lucky people, at least this year. (Just as I've never heard writers discuss actors and casting without sympathy for what the actors go through.) Writers are very, very aware of what the world is like -- what's more, we tend to be vaguely grateful to be paid at all, because it's for writing, and we've been beaten down by the world to think that isn't a serious and valuable thing. (By the way, I'm not at all sure this understanding goes up to the CEO's office; how can it, when that CEO can be handed sixty million dollars just for quitting? Someday I must tell you the story of the famous exec who said, "Why not make this character middle-class? Let's say he makes $300,000 a year -- " and the writers all stared at him.)

I wish, frankly, that writers had more self-esteem. We are just not people who stalk into the corporate offices and make demands. That famous deal the Guild took, whereby we agreed to let eighty percent of video sales go with no compensation at all, and only get paid for the remaining twenty? Typical. In a contract negotiation only a few years ago, the Guild got a provision whereby the writer of a movie would be invited to the screening. Yes. I am not making this up. This was a victory. I remember a showrunner I worked with a few years ago joking about our inability to stand up for ourselves: "Uh, we'd like to, maybe, wear clothes and -- " "No." "…Okay."

(Briefly, if you haven't heard by now: back when movies were first sold on video, the AMPTP said, "It's new! It's wicked new! It could cost all kinds of money to make these crazy things! So you guys wouldn't mind taking an 80 percent pay cut while we grow the business and see if there's money to be made, right?" So we did. As one older writer explained it to me, we wanted to give the fledgling market a chance -- "and of course we found it didn't cost anything at all to make the videos." But the 80 percent cut remained; and when DVDs came in, the AMPTP said, "Same as videos, right?" They then stomped all over us with big boots during the strike of '88, and here we are now: DVDs are the same as videos. You may be wondering how this famous "four cents per DVD" shakes down, so let me tell you: for a long, long time I never actually met a writer who'd gotten any money from video or DVD -- that's how ghostly-thin a slice we were served at table.)

This year, when I first heard that we were only asking for eight cents per DVD, I was actually disgusted. "It's twice as much," someone pointed out. I thought, yes, but twice zero is still zero. And yet we came in, hat in hand, asking for this, and were not only refused but told the conglomerates would like to remove all residuals of any kind. "Why are we always so damned reasonable?" I asked. "Why aren't we ever the ones to posture and make outrageous demands?" "We're writers," I was told. And then we actually removed that request for four-more-cents, in return (we thought) for opening up a discussion of new media. Because the AMPTP had said, "New media -- it's too new! We might not make any money! Let's study it for three years." "And pay us that lousy four cents, meanwhile?" "No, we were thinking we'd pay you nothing."

And by now, we all know how that turned out. One writer said, more or less, that he'd assumed the AMPTP would offer us another unfair, terrible deal, and we'd fold like the pathetic house of cards we were and take that offer. It hadn't crossed his mind they'd offer nothing.

Goddammit. I'd like a world in which good novelists, short story writers, and scriptwriters could all make a living, and where none of them were apologetic about it. Where writing was a fine, beautiful, and necessary thing, and we didn't assume we're the only ones who can see that. Where we would hold our heads up and say yes, we are not unworthy. We deserve compensation for our work, even if we're not farmers or firefighters.

…I seem to have gotten some of that world. It's a scary place, but I can't be entirely sorry about it.

This strike will not help me that much. By now everyone knows that new media is the point, and I came to Hollywood in middle age; I'm unlikely to see much compensation from new media before my career ends. Why am I doing this? Because other people did it for me. I'm 4F for this war, so they've had me working in Strike HQ, answering phones. (Larry Gelbart was on the phone next to me. Larry Gelbart. Such are the advantages of bad feet -- they put you where you meet legends.)

Anyway. As it happens, Carroll and Pugh weren't the only team to write for I Love Lucy. Schiller and Weiskopf did as well. Weiskopf is dead, but on the first day of the strike, Bob Schiller walked into headquarters -- a little slowly, leaning on his cane -- to ask if there were anything he could do.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

There is No God but Dionysus...

...and Shakespeare is his prophet.

Joshua James 1
Joshua James 2

laura axelrod 1
laura axelrod 2
laura axelrod 3

Ah the religion of the secularists and the glorious, cult-like fanaticism of it's adherents. 

Theatre has always tried to maintain it's mystical roots, even here in this least mystical of ages. Invocations and incarnations to raise the holy theatre above the common consumerist fray. 

I hyperbolize, but there is definitely a remaining hard religious edge to the way many in this community go about this business. This is most evident in the way we react to someone trying to leave 'the church'.

By way of background...

Mine was a Christian upbringing. A good one. My family is a Christian family, and they do it the right way. It was not a house of judgement. It was very much about living life the way god intended and showing by example that God's way was simply better.

And I wasn't just a a Cultural Christian. I (and my friends) meant it. I intended to go into Ministry of some kind through whatever career I eventually chose.

Through a slow degradation that faith dwindled to nothing, which was more sad than some sort of release. (If you're curious, this is all more particularly described by metes and bounds at my personal journal here

"Travis, this is supposed to be a theatre blog, what gives?"

I know, right?

The above is all to say: I am well-versed in the ins and outs of church life, and I am sensitive to the failings of the American Protestant Church as I see them. So when those failings crop up in my theater world they pop in technicolor for me.

That theatre dogma exists isn't surprising. The dislike of Other because they believe differently. The false piety of the true believers. The rampant unassailable persecution complex. The belief that attendance and (of course) tithing will save the country and the world, while improving your soul?

They're all there.

George Hunka even wrote 95 Theses for us!

Whether these reactions exist because it's a human condition or because the culture of American Protestantism is so pervasive in this country as to be unavoidable is really a whole different debate, and I have no experience outside this country to help settle the Americanism portion of the equation. I am here to discuss what happens when people try to leave the First American Church of Dionysus. Or even simply question how business is done.

Which of course why the above five blog posts are linked.

Laura left the Church out of frustration and the need to move on to something more fulfilling. Mr. James simply questions the treatment of playwrights in modern American theatrical culture.

Why aren't both valid responses?

They are both questioned and dismissed and Ms. Axelrod gets the condescending "aw, you'll be back." As though hers was a decision made in haste.

Not to say that arguing isn't valid (or fun), but the stridency of these responses is a little surprising. Or not. I am as guilty of these reactions as anyone.

My friend Ron is something of a technical savant. Of the "walks into a room and machines fix themselves" variety. He was an incredibly valuable theatre technician and by all rights should be the technical director of a theatre somewhere. He isn't because after college he walked away. I (and others) gave him no end of grief over it. His simple response? "I didn't love theatre, I loved doing theatre with you guys." So he created a life he loved, it just wasn't the life WE chose for him.

I have even given my fiance the old chestnut "I don't think you love it enough" as regards her theatre career. Why would I be that stupid? Because of course it is expected that you will make every possible sacrifice on the altar of Dionysus to make theatre happen. And she isn't going to do that. Theatre is a career for her. She won't do it for free.

And really both responses are perfect. Theatre is just another path. There isn't a right way to do it. And we need to stop trying to force people down one.

"Travis, you sound like kind of an ass, why would you treat your friends and loved ones like that?"

I do sound like an ass, and I wouldn't share the fact that I had behaved like that if I wasn't sure that almost everyone in this field has done something equally stupid in their lives, and probably in their theatre lives. 

Examine your interactions with people - online and in everyday life. Look at where you are applying your personal dogma and your expectations of yourself to others, and try to mitigate that behavior.  I don't expect that you will show up an hour and a half early to rehearsal simply because I do. I don't think that Mr. James is exhibiting a martyr complex or sour grapes simply because he's run into some jackasses in his career and isn't afraid to say so, and I wish Ms. Axelrod every success in whatever field she chooses. The theatre world will miss her talent, but it's not as though she took her ball, went home, and became a CPA.

It's time we stop treating people as backslidden, heretics, and apostates for doing it their way.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

from The Trial of the Catonsville Nine - Daniel Berrigan

formatting my own

From those in power, we have met little understanding,
much silence, much scorn and punishment. 
We have been accused of arrogance. 
But what of the fantastic arrogance of our leaders? 
What of their crimes against the people, the poor and powerless? 
Still no court will try them, no jail will receive them. 
They live in righteousness. 
They will die in honor. 

For them we have one message,
for those in whose manicured hands the power of the land lies, 
We say to them: 

Lead us.
Lead us in justice and there will be no need to break the law. 
Let the President do what his predecessors failed to do. 
Let him obey the rich less
and the people more. 
Let him think less of the privileged
and more of the poor. 
Less of America
and more of the world.

Let lawmakers, judges, and lawyers think less of the law
and more of justice;
less of legal ritual,
more of human rights. 

To our bishops and superiors we say:
Learn something about the
gospel and something about illegitimate power.
When you do, you will liquidate your investments,
take a house in the slums,
or even join us in jail. 

To lawyers, we say:
Defend draft resisters, ask no fees, insist on justice,
risk contempt of court, go to jail with your clients.

To the prosecution, we say:
Refuse to indict opponents of the war, prefer to resign, practice in private.

To Federal judges, we say:
Give anti-war people suspended sentences
to work for justice and peace or resign your

You men of power,
I also have a dream: 
You have told us that your system is reformable. 
Reform it then. 
And we will help,
with all our conviction and energy,
in jail or out.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Hey, Teacher! - Addendum

I did have one more question as regards The Children Who Are Our Future...

How do we get the kids plugged into the rest of the theatre world?

Screw the kids... how do we get anyone plugged into the rest of the theatre world?

The Universities aren't producing New Work... but how are they supposed to have any idea what they should be producing? What's worth producing? They wait and let the regionals vet scripts for them... which isn't a bad path given there still only being 24 hours in a day.

Where do YOU go to hear about the fresh and new?
How much money do YOU spend on scripts you've never heard of from playwrights you've never heard of? (My answer is zero. Honestly.)

No snark intended, I have no idea.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Hey. Teacher!

More of you need to download and listen to the songs I linked in my next-to-last post. I'll wait.

Welcome back.

I have been pondering the Education Series that Tom Loughlin (a Yankees fan? feh.) and Scott Walters collaborated on recently. (.pdf compilation here).

As previously mentioned, I am deliberate, and I do deliberate. I wanted to try and clear up the line between what Scott and Tom managed to so clearly outline as their beliefs as to what needs to be done, and what I truly believe for myself.

I am a graduate of the University of New Hampshire with a BA in Theatre, emphasis in Secondary Education (no BFA offered, no grad theatre program) and more recently a grad school widow to a woman attending The University of Texas at Austin for her MFA in lighting design. I think that all of these things color my views of theatre education, as they naturally would.

My experiences as an undergrad were very positive, my proxy experience of grad school less so.

What I want out of theatre education.

  1. Truth.
    We need to eliminate the myth of "pre-professional" training. Labeling any program as 'pre-professional" reinforces the lie that there is a profession to be passed on to once you have your diploma in hand. Theatre isn't law. Or medicine. Or finance. There is no national system in place for scouting and placement. And I've yet to come across the audition that asks you to bring two headshots/resumes and your transcript. There ARE institutions where you will make great contacts that may lead to you being seen by folks who can advance you, but that has nothing whatsoever to do with a pre-professional curriculum.
  2. Programs must kill the idea of the Easy A.
    There are many students in larger (unlimited entry) undergrad programs who are theatre majors because it's easier than being a English major. There's less reading, and many programs don't require any sort of practical application of learned skills, or even require an acting class above Acting 1. Whether this is a return to the concept of scholar-artist or not (I am in favor of the return) our educators must demonstrate to their students that there is an immense amount of work to be done to have a degree in theatre. In my curriculum I would require classes in history or crit for all four years. Talent being equal? Give me the lit major over the theatre major every day, and twice on Saturdays and Sundays.
  3. Collaboration
    This is where I shouted my most hearty amen to Tom and Scott's posts. Theatre programs at universities have considerable resources. They often don't feel that way, but they don't get out much. If those resources were shared in even a small way with their local theatre communities it would be a huge boon. I am aware that there are programs that do this with regionals, but it needs to be widespread and move both up and down the chain.

    Fer'instance: here in Austin, The University of Texas at Austin has immense resources both capital and human. Why not, as part of the curriculum, give over the Lab Theatre to be curated by Salvage Vanguard or the Rude Mechanicals? Participants in the linked classes would then, under the tutelage of the guest artists, create pieces that would be performed in the space. The students get to Create. The company gets access to a space and the University creates ties to the community. [yes I'm aware that both named companies in this case HAVE a space]. It also gives the students some idea of the constraints of not working with full department resources behind a project. Also, with stronger ties to the community both on a personal and institutional level, there may be a better shot of keeper some of that talent you've just developed local.
  4. Production
    Wherein I mostly disagree with my Elders.
    More production not less. Big, small, full, reading. Every member of your program should have almost never ending chances to be in SOMETHING. There is no way to figure out how to use the tools you're being given unless you are being asked to use them in a real world(ish) situation. This would also allow the non-stars of your program to get their feet wet.

    Am I disappointed with many universities seasons? Sure. But  seems to me that we should reform the selections not eliminate the lab portion of students educations. My alma mater has (in my lifetime) selected a classical piece, a modern piece, a childrens' piece, a musical, and a mainstage dance concert. Along with class projects their were a TON of opportunities to take advantage of in our (relatively) small program.
  5. Encourage
    Student work. In all ways, in every way. If there is a student production company mentor it, and nurture it. I figured out a whole myriad of things I never would have otherwise in being involved with Mask and Dagger at the University of New Hampshire. In my time at UNH Mask and Dagger went from doing one show a year to producing a season, and from all reports is now operating on something like 5 times our old per show budget all run by students. Programs shouldn't resent the time that it takes away from the department, it's a vital part of  theatre education. Get MORE involved to make sure that folks aren't picking up bad habits maybe, but leave that playground open. My own partner's entree into theatre post high school was as part of a student production, and I was heavily involved for 4 of my five years so I am most definitely biased on this score.

    There is seemingly little of this at The University of Texas at Austin but biannually they present the Cohen New Works Festival. The provide financially support and provide space for the students to roll their own pieces. It is very well attended and innovation is highly encouraged. By all accounts the faculty hate it. It is a huge logistical nightmare. But students walk away with a workshopped show and a sense that THEY can create, they don't need to wait for the mysterious Other to create something for them to work on. Indeed my next production is the result of a short piece my partner created as part of New Works 2005.
  6. Don't lose sight of the undergrads.
    In programs with strong graduate school it is common to focus on the upper level while using the undergrads as a resource bank to keep funds and cheap labor around. Which I understand. It's always more fun to play with better tools, but in order to keep churning out new tools you need to make them.

I'm sure there are big things I'm missing. It's really a mammoth issue and something that needs to be addressed to keep the incredible talent in this country from being underdeveloped or from quitting due to post-college myth destruction.

All I want is literate performers who understand the realities of the post-millenial theatre world in the US and aren't afraid to get their hands dirty in any part of a production from creation to mopping.


  • In my experience, graduates of small programs are more polished and more pro-active than graduates of large programs, regardless of prestige on either side of the equation. I have no answer as to why. It feels important in the quest to solve the larger training issues to figure that out.
    Is it true in you experience?
    Why do you think it is?
  • Why am I having such a hard time coming up with training issues on the technical/design side of the ball? I don't think I'm blind to it. Is technical/design training simply handled better? Or am I missing some really huge flaws there?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Cutting corners is cutting corners, No matter the intent

On Saturday I had the "privilege" of viewing a "reimagining" of the Magic Flute at the Butler Opera Center at The University of Texas at Austin. In the interest of full disclosure - I only viewed the first act. This isn't a review per se, rather a commentary on lessons learned, but it's better to be safe than screamed at.

The reimagining portion of this particular program was the incorporation of projections as the scenery. Projected scenery isn't particularly innovative, but The University of Texas at Austin affiliated program that developed this piece has recently invested in the Catalyst software and servers, and a high end performance projector, and have a program partnership with High End Systems so they have a vested interest in making the technology work and in getting their kids interested and proficient.

I am very interested in technology in performance. In all facets of my life I am interested in making one capital expenditure rather than perpetual recurring expenses. If I can use technology (even pricey technology) to offset per show aesthetics costs without any sort of compromise in show quality then I'm going to pursue it.

Aye, there's the rub.

Poorly done digital projections make the show look cheap. If you can't do the projections well, you are better off doing a rehearsal furniture set than the projections. No one is giving you special credit for having a laptop, and no one is interested in spending $10-50 to watch a PowerPoint show.

Unfortunately for Mozart and the audience, the Magic Flute ended up looking like a fancy PowerPoint show crossed with a very large game of Doom. I wanted very badly for it to be good. I know the artistic director of the piece, one of the creators of the animations, and the lighting designer; and as I said above I want this technology to be useful. That was not the case.

In the opening scene the Three Spirits kill the threatening serpent. They appeared via live feed on the screen behind an unconscious Tamino and a cowering Papageno. On screen were three layers. One layer was the live feed with a black background and the three slightly washed out Spirits (in Victorian whore makeup). In front of them a second layer of Barren Rocky Desert framing them like a mall photo booth digital frame. In the first layer was a  big ol' serpent. The digital graphics looked like remedial Photoshop work. The scene's in Sarastro's Castle were poorly scaled columns that looked like skinned polygons out of Doom.

Part of the problem is that you can't assume that eliminating meat world scenery from the production eliminates one of the artists, you simply replace the need for a scenic designer and carpenters with a need for a scenic designer and graphic artists  and computer techs. If you try to get by with amateurs in any aspect of your design it is going to look amateurish... projecting it on a 30' - 40' screen isn't going to help hide that at all.

The projections aren't new to your audience, and they have expectations. They expect true blacks. They expect verisimilitude. They expect, well, they expect film quality. The technology simply doesn't support that yet. They expect perfect audio and video synch. And that didn't happen on Saturday either, the Spirits were lagged audio to video by almost a full second. The performance was never simply about the performance.

In the end we all have to remember:

  1. Technology is simply another tool, it's not some sort of savior for your piece.
  2. You don't streamline the tech process by adding technology, you simply change it.
  3. You are doing live performance, not film, no matter how hard you try to disguise it.
  4. Be honest in your evaluation of how well the technology is suiting your production.
  5. Technology does not obviate the need to have Unity, or at the very least a consistent style.

And the technical aspects of your show, from black box to spectacle should never EVER upstage the production as a whole. 

As a producer who is shepherding a piece that will rely heavily on projections for this year's Frontera Fest, I think the above 6 lines are good rules to live by, along with remembering to prefer abstraction over verisimilitude...the projectors are another light source with a bit more specificity.

So what about you?

What is your experience with incorporating new technology into your productions?

What are your rules for using technology in the future?

What have you seen that's blown your mind?

What have you seen that has scared you off from ever using anything stronger than 60W bulbs in a coffee can?

Friday, September 21, 2007

I'm so vain, I know this post is about me (Sort of)

Yesterday the Austin Circle of Theatres announced their nominations for the 2006-7 B. Iden Payne Awards.

Intermission, my show from August was nominated for two awards.
In the  Music Theatre category.


April Perez was nominated as Outstanding Lead Actress in Music Theatre for her portrayal of Miranda Swain. I've included a song from the show.

(Note to New Yorkers: April is in the City. Cast her. True triple threat.)


Hang on Tight (Right Click Save As)


And Adam Hilton and Boone Graham are nominated for Outstanding Original Score. A demo version of 'Make it Ours' with Adam on vocals rather than April follows the picture (I have NO pictures of the reclusive Boone).


Make it Ours (Right Click Save As)

 [Buy The Album!]

I am well pleased. The nominators assiduously avoided the portions of the show that I was most involved with, but as previously discussed I know where the trainwreckiness of that lies, and as my partner pointed out, there's no part of this show that I wasn't involved with. And most of the the backstory for Miranda is taken from a show I'd been hoping to do with my partner and Bora Yoon. So despite not being specifically honored, I'm taking it anyway. And I am proud beyond your mortal reckoning of the work April, Adam, and Boone did on this show.

So maybe Will and I will live to fight another day.

 I would also like to congratulate some friends who also got nominated:

illy herrin (ex- Aram Chaos) nominated for as Outstanding Lead Actress for Puck

Roz Mandola (ex-Elektra) as part of the cast of the Best Music Theatre nominated The Assumption

Autumn Casey (UT) for her lighting design for Marat/Sade

Ron Weisberg (ex-Elektra) as part of the Outstanding Ensemble for Wireless-less

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Gap in the Gap

On another note, I'd be interested in reading your "What's Wrong With Theater" post. If there's something that we're all whining about but not changing, I'd definitely want to know what that is.

And I'll admit some hostility toward your "War on the audience" concept, even though you haven't articulated it yet - hostility connected to baggage. I've just been through a binge of seeing theater because of the Fringe Fest here in NYC. I saw a lot of different styles and genres of shows, rendered with different degrees of skill, but all presented with joy of performance and a desire to connect. I couldn't detect a shred of hostility toward the audience.

Maybe that's not what you mean by the term. I'm just saying that as a fairly regular theatergoer, if there really is a rampant breed of plays getting produced at any level that are designed to attack the audience, I still haven't seen one. I see this type of theater referred to by bloggers from time to time, and I'd like someone to properly explain to me what it is.

- Mac Rogers

This is actually part of the reason I wasn't going to go into it. In the stereotyping discussion I mentioned that we shouldn't care about the plays exhibiting the worst of these stereotypes, because it generally meant they weren't good, so it is true of most of the things that are "wrong" in theatre. The folks who care enough to be doing something about it aren't generally the one's who are perpetrating the harm.

By the War On the Audience I mean Deadly Theatre. Specifically, theatre created without that joy of performance and desire to connect that Mac mentions. Theatre that is so rooted in concept and conceit that it is only accessible to other members of the club. This sort of production is honestly most often the domain of the evangelical university student and the recently graduated.

I don't think that it is an active hostility, to my thinking it's the passive aggression of "fuck'em if they don't get it".

I strongly believe that in pursuing this particular art form you cannot ignore the experience of the audience no matter how high your concept. By all means challenge them (and no, they don't have to like it), but allow them in on some level, it's not their fault they didn't choose to also pursue this art form, don't punish them for it. 

As Mr. Rogers and Mr. Walters both expressed interest in a "What is wrong with theatre" post, I went back to work on it. It was 1300 words without being fleshed out before I abandoned it as a flawed concept.

Everything that is "wrong with theatre" is wrong with theatre as I intend to do it in Austin in 2007 with my level of funding. It's not relevant to a playwright in NY, or a professor in NC. Those are things for me to work out on my own as applies to my own practice.

There are of course the universal 'wrongs' of lack capital and space, but we all know what those are, and all I was going to say about that was "quit whining", which no one wants to hear.

But let me ask this, because my fiancee asked me:

What good does that discussion do?
Aside from the "all theatre problems are local problems" truism, what benefit is there to being an echo chamber for whining? It's just adding negativity to negativity about hypothetical hypotheticals.

Look at the defensiveness and hostility in this community when anyone tries to criticize anything. Look at the response to George Hunka and 100 Saints,  or Isaac and dramaturgy. The theatrosphere isn't interested in honest discussion of this stuff, they are interested in tuning their war drums and having at it with people they've (largely) never met.

For myself, I think that we need to focus on what we love about this art, what we want to do with it, what we want to do next, and how we can improve our methods on that path.

See: Hal Brooks

If you are in Austin and want to talk about what I think needs doing here in my own theatrical house, and how we can go about getting that done? Drop me an email... we'll get coffee.

Also? In RE: Walking out of a show...

I never have. But unless you have a position on the show or some other obligation to the production I have no problem with it, even my own. [though for my part I'd prefer you stayed for the whole thing and gave me notes over a beverage afterward].  I can't do it. I'm not advanced enough a theatre artist to be able to pass up a chance to see someone else's take on anything. I can't improve my craft if I'm not learning and I learn at a much lower rate on my couch at home than sitting in an audience being engaged, however deeply engaged that is.


  1. What project of your own are you most looking forward to in the next six months?
  2. What is the worst thing you've ever sat all the way through (feel free not to use names)
  3. What did you learn from it? What was your takeaway?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Mind The Gap

 We're going to cover a little bit of ground, so bear with me.

 I promised my salvo into the late lamented "What is Wrong with Theatre" barrage, but that battle has cooled for this cycle, and honestly? We all know what is wrong with theatre, we all whine about it, and then we keep on at it anyway. The gist of my post was that the primary problem is the attitude of theatre artists in general (viv-a-vis wanting the moon for free) and the War on the Audience in particular. But we know, the theatre world doesn't need me repeating it. So I won't. Yet. That battle will come around again if I get all ornery about it later.

I am in heavy information acquisition mode. Reading every blog under the sun, movie after movie and 4 shows in the last two weeks. I now have a better understanding of the theatrosphere's reticence to review shows. For my (non-renumerated) purposes, if you can't do it honestly and really gain something from the analysis why do it? And in a community this small how can you do it honestly without stubbing toes?

Yeah I don't know.

Isaac's Question earlier this week leads into what I was going to post about anyway, so let's turn two shall we?:

In what ways is collaboration valuable
(or: how come we take it as a given that it is, if it is not)?

Collaboration is valuable (to my thinking) in three primary ways:

  1. It helps any given artist paper over their gaps.
  2. It allows artists who don't have a singular vision the ability to make art.
  3. It allows for synthesis of ideas outside of the vacuum of one mind.

I am a cerebral person. Well, that gives me rather more credit than I deserve, but I haven't found a word that fits that doesn't give more credit than I'm trying to claim (intellectual, academic, they give more of a sense of focus than I'm really talking about - maybe analytical is what I'm looking for). When I begin a project I jump in headfirst. Generally It's also head last.

This is useful in that the show gets a thorough going over and I take care of the themes and subtleties of the show quite well. But it means that I tend to be hamfisted about the physicality of a given show, and my productions lack sex almost as a rule.

I'm not really sure how this blind spot opened up. But it's there and it's something that I need to stay aware of while working any given show. It's something I forgot about in the run up to my last show, and it suffered for it.

Intermission (said last show) was a collaboration between myself and my current partner in crime Will Snider. We had three months from go to curtain to create and stage a show. Will and I pieced together the concepts and Intermission became a relationship anthology set in a bar/club with a live band playing music original to the show. The cast improvised their dialogue, and they fine tuned details of their relationships.


And the show was just okay. It was mushy. (It lacked specificity as Peggy Rae would have chastised me). It suffered in the way George Hunka would have told me before hand that it would suffer. It lacked a singular declarative voice. (please note: the preceding is a paraphrase)

Further, due to the aforementioned blind spot, it lacked sex. A relationship anthology that lacked sex. Not that we didn't talk about it. It just wasn't the underlying tension. We missed it because it's my blind spot, and unfortunately one that my collaborator shared. Given the nominal writer and director both not thinking about the sex of it, and a largely young cast... the sex was dodged when it wasn't ignored.

I was also in the show. (This process was just chock FULL of great ideas). My scene was a five-year-later meetup between two people who had only known each other briefly in passing and now were meeting again under changed circumstance for both. Would they connect for real this time? Were they meant to be together? Is there any such thing as "meant to be together"?

It's been done, sure, but it comes up again and again because it's a real situation, and Will and I were (and are) very interested in Fate as a concept. But because Will and I sat in my living room for two months and hashed out faith versus free will the scene became the most talky go-nowhere scene you can imagine. There was never the "Will They?"/"Should They?" tension that should have suffused the scene. (That's what rewrites and remounts are for....)

In the best of all possible worlds one of Will or I wouldn't have the sex blind spot. It would make our collaboration stronger, because we would be covering a hole in the other's approach. Instead the similarities in approach meant that our flanks weren't covered.

What are your gaps?

How do you combat them?

What do you find beneficial in generative collaboration?
(i.e. not when you're telling a designer how to do their job, but in REALLY collaborating)


Tuesday, August 14, 2007


I have my requisite 'what I think is wrong with theatre' post underway (and only two weeks after that virus came and went again) but I have a subissue in my head that needs some sussing out.

Before I get into that, a hearty welcome to Mr. Grady Burnett Walsh, and congratulations to the happy healthy Mom (and Malachy I suppose).   

I have a running fascination with the way the Right Wing in this country control the language of any issue up for debate. It raises the question of why the Left has ceded that ground when so much of that population is obsessed with words, but that's a question for a different day, and a different blog.

While in my freshman and sophomore years at the very underrated University of New Hampshire, I (along with my class and cast mates) was hammered by Professor Peggy Rae Johnson with one word.


Along with Acting 1 and 2 she also taught the Voice and Diction and Oral Interp classes so you can just imaging how that particular word sounding coming out of her mouth.


Some things just stick.

But it also strikes me that specificity is what is missing in our discussion of the theatre universe on a meta level. The discussion is mushy because blogging as a form is mushy, and because we share an artform, but no history together. But the majority of theatre bloggers try to stay 'folksy' and off-the-cuff with assumed familiarity.

The vocabulary of theatre, theatre theory, and theatre criticism is bathed in subjectivity and experiential meaning.

What does post-modern mean?
(when used in a promotional slug, not a text book) 

Performance Piece?
Avant Garde?

Blogging is a short-form medium generally, but when we are trying to communicate larger issues (like say a blogger trying to piece together what they think is Wrong With Theatre) you can't cut corners. You can't shorthand the language, and you can't assume shared experience.

Rather - You can, but not without pissing a lot of folks off.

We (read: I) need to remember to fully flesh out ideas and turns of phrase. Right down to what we think those 'short cut' words mean. Are there more specific words and phrases to communicate with?

This is true with all audiences real and virtual.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Each of you is God's special little snowflake.

Well that right there was a fun little week in the theatrosphere.

You got your bile in my vitriol!


Scott Walters got back on his horse named Provocation, or, as Nick over at Rat Sass aptly metaphored, strapped his guns back on. Six weeks of the New Civility Code imploded over a seemingly slight infraction, Iowa 08 pokes some (alleged) lazy fun at the Midwest. And Scott rode down that fun and trampled it to death.

Mac Rogers called bullshit on Scott calling bullshit, and then everyone piled on. It was pretty stunning all in all.

There's nothing quite like a glove-slap charge of cultural hegemony to wake up the Persecuted.

The always civil, mild-mannered Joshua James posits that because he (Mr. James) from Iowa, and lives in New York that Scott has no idea what he's talking about, with a wonderful highlight  being the absolutely unbiased:  

I’m not going to link to the Blogger, simply because I don’t want to send anymore traffic his way. He’s not in New York, he’s neither a writer, director, actor or producer. He’s a theatre professor.

After a brief respite (happy anniversary Scott) Mr. Walters returned to a flaming inbox and tried to retrench his argument, and answer for his return to provocateur.

And then everyone said they didn't understand and didn't want to talk about it anymore. Except Scott. Who despite some unfortunate language choices, really does want a solution, not a war.

Everyone comes out looking pretty bad, except for Australia and Freeman.

So what are we talking about really?

Are we really so upset that Mr. Walters pointed out again that New York is biased towards New York?  Is that news? I was unaware that this was an open question. of course New York is biased towards New York. Isaac sums it up pretty well: the history of America is at least in part a history of outright antipathy between The City and The Country.

So why isn't the response from The New York chapter simply he same as Scott's response to Allison Croggon's charge of Scott's US-centrism?

"I write what I know".

Theatre is local. Theatre is for a local audience. It isn't New York's responsibility to be writing for a southern audience, or writing about issues germane to Southern culture. North Carolina isn't under the gun to write trenchant commentary about the gentrification of Park Slope.

We all use stereotypes as shorthand, why do we have to lie about it? All a writer can do (on either side) is be honest about the caricature, or try harder to write true depictions of those from other subcultures.  That's it. That's all you can do. If a playwright isn't writing honest characters into being with why do we care that they're writing cultural stereotypes?

So we honestly need to let NYC off the hook a little bit. New York isn't a national theatre. It is New York theatre. The single biggest flaw in the repeated shotgun blasts from Mr. Walters is that he lumps the broader media in with theatre, and frankly they have different scopes and different responsibilities and it's muddying the picture.

Los Angeles on the other hand is squarely on the hook. L.A. is national media. L.A. sets the tone for our national dialogue in a way we only wish that live performance could. And they are just as lazy about cultural stereotyping as Mr. Walters says. Again I am surprised that this is an open question. Are we all watching different mainstream media?

As to the rancor over bias:

I am biased.

All I can do is be aware of my biases and not let them destroy my work.

  • I am am biased against musical theatre
  • I am biased against children's theatre
  • I am biased against community theatre
  • I am biased towards word plays
  • I am biased toward political themes
  • I am biased toward didacticism
  • I am biased toward cleverness (text or performance)
  • I am biased toward over-exposition
  • I am biased against "issue" plays
    (no this is not in conflict with above)
  • I am biased toward new work
  • I am biased against mature actors
  • I am biased against cultural conservatism

I'll add on as more come to me. This of course will feel different than, say, being biased against the Country (to borrow Isaac's construct), but they are just as destructive to the work, and towards building community (which I take as part of my responsibility as an artist). Besides I'm not sure where I fall on the City/Country scale with my 24 years in New Hampshire, 5 in San Francisco, and 3 in Austin.

I have more raw years in New Hampshire, but the large percentage of my adult life in urban and semi-urban environs.

Follow up sins:

  • "I am not biased therefore New York is not biased" is fallacious.
  • Claiming to rep your old hood while in New York is disingenuous.
  • Trying to use lack of specific data backing up an editorial as a terminal point is weak, especially on such a broad topic. Argue the premise. It's not a journal article.
  • The New York theatre scene is not [any more] persecuted [than theatre anywhere else]. Not matter how many times Scott Walters calls you out. It's just different persecution. The criticism comes with being in first place. (Ask the Yankees)

Go see:

In New York?

Madagascar, by New World Theatre; written by Wry Lachlan, Directed by Meghan Dickerson, featuring members of my former tribe all over the place.

In Austin?

The King and I by Forklift Danceworks.

Brilliant Traces by the Vestige Group featuring the always good Andrew Varenhorst.

A Midsummer Night's Dream - over at Scottish Rite - featuring old ArtSpark mate Illy herrin as Puck.

and last but not least: The 2007 ArtSpark Festival is here! Check it out.