Tuesday, February 05, 2008

And one stinkin last thing

I've got a hectic few days coming up so may be a little silent on the blog front. Y'all talk amongst yourselves, K?


Anonymous said...

I know, how about we talk about theatre...I am going to London in two weeks and will be seeing Major Barbara and The Women of Troy at the National, Speed-the-Plow with Spacey and Goldblum at the Old Vic and I'll probably spend a couple of days in Stratford...I teach every year at a performing arts college in London called Rose Bruford College, I teach in an American Theater Arts program (which is hilarious to me that students from all over England come to this college in London to learn about American theatre practices)...

As I have never been to Stratford, anyone got any advice for me?? Also, since I will be working with these students on being an American theatre practitioner, I ask all of you for help...what does it mean to you to be an American theatre practitioner? I think Mary or Dave asked this a while back, but how do you see the current state of contemporary American theatre? I am especially curious about the professional not-for-profit regional theatre world...Any thoughts, words of advice, ideas for these kids...it is a great school and I love going over there...hit me back with some nuggets of wisdom...


catherine said...

i have no london advice for you, but i do have a request...
please tell kevin spacey that i love him and there are few that come close to his fabulous-ness!
thanks rick and have fun!!!

Scott Wichmann said...

I've always thought that in order to be an American Theatre Practitioner, one needs a damn good English accent.

Tell your students over there to get right to work on that.

A few other ideas:

Show them how to text their pals for in-progress game scores while breaking the land-speed record to the nearest Starbucks, all in one ten-minute break in rehearsal.

Show them how to play 'Star Wars: Battlefronts II' for six hours with their director after rehearsal-- or better yet: 'Justice League' for PS2 using the Flash, who always dies way too quickly and easily. Tell them it is "Part of the process."

Make them all do the text of the 'Different Strokes' theme song as a monologue in the style of Olivier's Richard III. Tell them " guys, I'm deadly serious about this exercise, now do you wanna be an American actor or not?" Be totally serious.

Just for me, would you ask them if they're comfortable with all of the Imperial Officers in the Star Wars Trilogy being British?? That's still a sore spot for them, I Imagine... Part of a past that they are still somewhat reluctant to discuss.

I think you should give them a bunch of David Mamet scenes to work on, then see if you can score some tix to see David Tenant as Hamlet; He's the current 'Doctor Who' and should be performing it really soon...

Oh, and one last thing: Bring me back the Union Jack boxer shorts that drummer Rick Allen wore in the 'Rock of Ages' video back in '83. That would be awesome.

I hope that helps, Baron Von Rick. Holla at your boy!!

Frank Creasy said...

Well Rick, I can't possibly hope to match Scott's sage wisdom, but then, you guys have worked together while I've never had the pleasure of working with you. But, since you asked, I'll give you my humble opinion, for what it's worth.

What does it mean to be an American theatre practitioner? Financially I think this blog has covered that territory. Few can work only in the theatre and make a living; those who make a living in the arts in America act in TV, commercials and movies or, if they're lucky, also get into the world of voice over work. Katie McCall is a great case in point - Katie loves theatre but while I don't know her financial position, she sure does lots of voice over work. Those around Richmond who know her voice well can pick her out in umpteen spots, but she's highly adept at coloring her voice to suit the sponsor's needs, so you could easily miss the fact that all those different ads are just one extremely talented lady.

For my part, speaking from an artistic perspective, I think acting in American theatre means blending both the American approach to acting (a naturalistic approach influenced by the "method" school of acting out of New York by those many masters) with a larger, more presentational approach to acting required for the theatre. Even in small spaces, your whole body is always visible to the audience, so while you must take care not to "saw the air too much" as Hamlet instructs his players, awareness of your body language is, I think, always important.

Finally, since I'm doing more classical work lately than contemporary work (that's just where the roles have been for me lately), I'm trying to do what both American and English actors seem to struggle to achieve: To blend that "naturalistic" approach with the requisite focus on blank verse when doing a Shakespearean or other Elizabethan production. Someone recently turned me on to the amazing John Barton book, "Playing Shakespeare", in which I'm surprised to learn that even luminaries such as Ian McKellan struggled with this issue (I'm sure many readers of this blog are quite familiar with this book, but if not, I highly recommend it). Among other insights in the book, it's suggested that blank verse gives many opportunities for the actor to employ what to Shakespeare's actors WAS a natural approach, but to our ears at first is a bit intimidating. Barton's suggestion is to focus intensely on the verse during rehearsal, then to basically forget about it in performance (beyond enunciation, of course), and allow it to flow organically. I found that advice quite useful, though I'm still working to employ that advice in performance. I've paraphrased liberally from Barton's book, so I might have gone a bit astray of his teachings, but I'd suggest anyone in the theatre read this fascinating work by this incredibly knowledgeable artist.

Those are my thoughts Rick for what they're worth. Hope it helps.

What did Jack say, I wonder???

What do others still in Richmond think? I'd love to read the thoughts of my peers (or, excuse me, from my BETTERS!)

Andrew Hamm said...

Tenant's run as Hamlet doesn't start for a few more months. I know this because Karen and I are flying over there to see it in August. Scott: you and Jennie want to join us? What an awesome foursome! [homestar]Patwick Stewawt is playing Claudius...[/homestar]

I'm not sure about American theatre practices, Rick, but you could teach them Richmond theatre practices: yelling a lot and having a dysfunctional childhood. Seriously, teach them to curse, sing and dance, and wait tables. Don't neglect the important lessons of showing up late, staying out drinking, and not memorizing their lines. That's pretty much what you need to be an American theatre artist.

(I kid because I love.)

Along with the Rick Allen boxers, you should bring back the Union Jack blazer Pete Townshend used to wear in 1967. And grab one of those statues from Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum; they've got, like hundreds of those. Who's going to miss one? Oh, and see if you can't pick up one of those Madonna sexually transmitted accents.

Andrew Hamm said...

Ooh! Serious London advice! I almost forgot!

Leicester Square, two blocks west of Piccadilly Circus: half-price ticket booth. That's where I got same-day front-row tickets to see Edward Herrmann and Alec Guinness in A Walk in the Woods. There are some AMAZING seats to be had there.

Also, England has some of the finest Italian restaurants in the world. No joke. I had a chicken dish in 1988 in a little place in Bath that still may be the best meal I've ever eaten.

Anonymous said...

Here is an article I found in a small alternative newspaper in Seattle. It is depressing although I think, at its very nature, it is also true and should generate some discussion. The author could be describing TheatreVirginia from the time I got to Richmond in 1995 to the time it died...any thoughts...??


The Empty Spaces
Or, How Theater Failed America
by Mike Daisey

"Seven years ago, I left Seattle for New York—I abandoned the garage theaters and local arts scene and friends and colleagues—because I was a coward. I'd already tried to sell out once, by working at a shitty Wal-Mart of a tech company, but I knew I would not survive in the theater if I stayed. I fled to New York to bite and claw a living out of the American theater as an independent artist because I was young and stupid enough to think that would actually work. Today, my wife and I are one of a handful of working companies who create original work in theaters across the country. We're a very small ensemble: I am the monologuist; she is the director. We survive because we're nimble, we break rules, and when simple dumb luck happens upon us, we're ready for it.

We return to Seattle maybe once a year. During my first week back this time, I ended up at a friend's party, long after the rest of the guests had gone, in that golden hour when the place is almost cleaned up, but the energy of the night is still hanging in the air. We settled down in the kitchen under the bright light, making 4:00 a.m. conversation and, as all theater artists do, I asked the traditional question: "What are you working on?"

My friend's face fell, for just a moment—she's a fantastic actress, one of the best in the city, with an intelligence and precision that has taken my breath away for years. She corrected a moment later, and told me carefully that she wasn't going out for anything now—that she was giving it up. She has a job-share position at her day job to let her take roles when needed, but now she is going to go permanent for the first time in her entire life. After 15 years of working in theaters all over Seattle, she'd felt the fire go out of her from the relentless grind of two full-time jobs: one during the day in a cubicle, the other at night on a stage.

She said what really finished it for her was getting cast in a big Equity show this fall and seeing how the other Equity actors lived—the man whose work had inspired her all her life, living in a dilapidated hovel he was lucky to afford; the woman who couldn't spare 10 dollars to eat lunch with colleagues without doing some quick math on a scrap of paper to check her weekly budget. These are the success stories, the very best actors in the Northwest, the ones you've seen onstage time and time again. Their reward is years of being paid as close to nothing as possible in a career with no job security whatsoever, performing for overwhelmingly wealthy audiences whose rounding errors exceed the weekly pittance that trickles down to them.

My friend looked at me imploringly—she's close to 40, at the height of her powers, but the sacrifices of this theater ask for raw youth: When she arrived in Seattle, she'd eat white rice flavored with soy sauce for lunch for a month at a time. "Maybe if I was 23 again," she said. "Maybe not even then." She looked down at the table as she said this, and I felt a kind of death in the room.

The institutions that form the backbone of Seattle theater—Seattle Rep, Intiman, ACT—are regional theaters. The movement that gave birth to them tried to establish theaters around the country to house repertory companies of artists, giving them job security, an honorable wage, and health insurance. In return, the theaters would receive the continuity of their work year after year—the building blocks of community. The regional theater movement tried to create great work and make a vibrant American theater tradition flourish.

That dream is dead. The theaters endure, but the repertory companies they stood for have been long disbanded. When regional theaters need artists today, they outsource: They ship the actors, designers, and directors in from New York and slam them together to make the show. To use a sports analogy, theaters have gone from a local league with players you knew intimately to a different lineup for every game, made of players you'll never see again, coached by a stranger, on a field you have no connection to.

Not everyone lost out with the removal of artists from the premises. Arts administrators flourished as the increasingly complex corporate infrastructure grew. Literary departments have blossomed over the last few decades, despite massive declines in the production of new work. Marketing and fundraising departments in regional theaters have grown hugely, replacing the artists who once worked there, raising millions of dollars from audiences that are growing smaller, older, and wealthier. It's not such a bad time to start a career in the theater, provided you don't want to actually make any theater.

The biggest reason the artists were removed was because it was best for the institution. I often have to remind myself that "institution" is a nice word for "nonprofit corporation," and the primary goal of any corporation is to grow. The best way to grow a nonprofit corporation is to raise money, use the money to market for more donors, and to build bigger and bigger buildings and fill them with more staff.

Using this lens, it all makes sense. The worst way to let the corporation of the theater grow is to spend too much on actors—why do that, when they're a dime a dozen? Certainly it isn't cost-effective to keep them in the community. Use them and discard them. Better to invest in another "educational" youth program, mashing up Shakespeare until it is a thin, lifeless paste that any reasonable person would reject as disgusting, but garners more grant money.

Every time a regional theater produces Nickel and Dimed, the play based on Barbara Ehrenreich's book about the working poor in America, I keep hoping the irony will reach up and bitch-slap the staff members as they put actors, the working poor they're directly responsible for creating, in an agitprop shuck-and-jive dance about that very problem. I keep hoping it will pierce their mantle of smug invulnerability and their specious whining about how television, iPods, Reagan, the NEA, short attention spans, the folly of youth, and a million other things have destroyed American theater.

The numbers are grim—the audiences are dying off all over the country. I know because every night I'm onstage, I stare out into the dark and can hear the oxygen tanks hissing. When I was 25, the Seattle Rep started offering cheap tickets to everyone under 25. When I turned 30, theaters started offering cheap tickets to everyone under 30. Now that I've turned 35, I see the same thing happening again, as theaters do the math and realize that no one under 35 is coming to their shows—it's a bright line, the terminator between day and night, advancing inexorably upward. A theater I'm working at this year is hosting a promotional event to coax "young people" to see our show. Their definition of young? Under 45.

There are clear steps theaters could take. For example, they could radically reduce ticket prices across the board. Most regional theaters make less than half of their budget from ticket sales—they have the power to make all their tickets 15 or 20 dollars if they were willing to cut staff and transition through a tight season. It would not be easy, but it is absolutely possible. Of course, that would also require making theater less of a "luxury" item—which raises secret fears that the oldest, whitest, richest donors will stop supporting the theater once the uncouth lower classes with less money and manners start coming through the door. These people might even demand different kinds of plays, which would be annoying and troublesome. The current audience, while small and shrinking, demands almost nothing—they're practically comatose, which makes them docile and easy to handle.

Better to revive another August Wilson play and claim to be speaking about race right now. Better to do whatever was off Broadway 18 months ago and pretend that it's relevant to this community at this time. Better to talk and wish for change, but when the rubber hits the road, sit on your hands and think about the security of your office, the pleasure of a small, constant paycheck, the relief of being cared for if you get sick: the things you will lose if you stop working at this corporation.

The truth is, the people in charge like things the way they are—they've made them that way, after all. Sure, they wish things could be better. Who doesn't? They're dyed-in-the-wool liberals, each and every one of them, and they'll tell you so while they mount another Bertolt Brecht play. The revolutionary fire that drew them to the theater has to fight through so much shit, day after day, that even the best of them can barely imagine a different path. They didn't enter the theater to work for a corporation, but now they do, and they more than anyone else know the dire state of things. I've gone drinking with the artistic directors of the biggest theaters in the country and listened to them explain that they know the system is broken and they feel trapped within it, beholden to board members they've made devil's deals with, shackled to the ship as it goes down. I've heard their laughter, heard them call each other dinosaurs, heard them give thanks that they'll be retired in 10 years.

Corporations make shitty theater. This is because theater, the ineffable part of the experience that comes in rare and random bursts, is not a commodity, and corporations suck at understanding the noncommodifiable. Corporations don't understand theater. Only people, real people, understand theater. Audiences, technicians, actors, playwrights, costumers, designers—all of them give their time and energy to this thing for a reason, and that dream is not quantifiable on any spreadsheet.

As I drove home from my friend's house that night, I felt myself filling up with grief. There will be some who read this who will blame her, think she should have sacrificed more, that this is a story of weakness. But I stand by her. I know in my heart she has given full weight, just as so many other artists have given over the years. Much of the best theater of my life I have seen in the garages of Seattle, unseen and forgotten by many. But I remember. Theater failed my friend, as it is failing us all, and I am heartbroken because we will never know the measure of what we've lost."

Mike Daisey is a monologuist, author, and working artist.

oneeyeddog said...

That's about the truest, most depressing thing I've read in a long time. In fact, that woman could be me. I'm going out now to throw myself off the roof.

Andrew Hamm said...

On a lighter note, and since this is a pretty free-form thread, thanks for coming out to the Measure for Measure preview last night.

Hopefully you were less distracted by the slippery carpet than I was... The temporary carpet situation has been improved for tonight's opening, I promise.