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?