Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Comment-ary

I had occasion to check back on my year-end wrap-up article in Style online (here’s a link in case you missed it below) and was interested to see several comments posted. I was interested at their existence but somewhat dismayed by their content. Here are a few somewhat disheartening excerpts:

“Most of the shows in Richmond are more like the community theater shows in Washington.”

“The things that Richmond theaters consider cutting edge look like old hat in other cities.”

“[O]ne of the distinguishing features of Richmond's theatre scene from that of other, demographically similar communities, is the lack of professionalism in the industry in Richmond… [A]udiences are to be congratulated for opting not to spend large sums of money to see theatre which is less than fully professional.”

One can go too far in generalizing from a few scattered comments. But I think these are worth attention because they are well-written -- not mean or hysterical rants – and seem to be submitted by people who are actually theater fans (why else would they be going to the article online?)

So what is to be made of these comments? On one hand, I can’t help but feel a little personal gratitude in reading them. I get a fair amount of positive feedback on my reviews but, as would be expected, I also get a fair amount of guff (often second hand) when I am critical of a production. What I tell folks who care enough to ask is that if I notice a problem or are less than enamored with something in a production, you can bet there are at least a dozen others in the audience who are thinking the same thing. I can also assure you that there are plenty of theater fans in the audience who are looking at things WAY more critically than I am.

Beyond that, I would take a couple additional insights from these remarks. One is that theater professionals can only benefit from seeing as much theater as possible. I know this is a challenge for those who are working in theater but it’s clear that audiences make comparisons. Theater folks should know what their competition is (both in town and out) and should continue striving to meet or exceed the best work that they see.

I also would encourage the Artistic Directors out there to push for edgier work. If one thing can be learned from last year in Richmond and the success of “Little Dog Laughed” and “Reefer Madness,” it’s that there are audiences out there for more experimental, controversial or challenging material. Plus, there’s the added buzz factor that comes from pushing the envelope.

Finally, there is this comment: “The symphony and opera and ballet would never dare use non-professionals (except for children in the Nutcracker, of course) why is theatre allowed to get away with doing so?”

It’s a little befuddling to me that in a “free labor” – that is, non-union – state like Virginia that people would consider non-union actors “non-professional.” (Analogously, I spend most of my time working in Information Technology, even though I don’t belong to an IT union. Am I non-professional?) As I tried to touch on in my wrap-up, I think promoting the significant talents of local actors – whether they have their Equity cards or not – can only help to raise the profile of theater in town.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Richmond, VA allowed TheatreVirginia, a 47 year old fully professional regional theatre, to wither and die in 2002 while simultaneously spending nearly $100 million for a performing arts center, that as of 2009 has still not opened. The center will be used for mostly non-professional work. $2 or $3 million could have secured the future of TVA and provided jobs for professional theatre artists that no other organization in Richmond, even now nearly 7 years later, is capable of providing.

joepabst said...

I read this entry and thought, "Wow! Look at all the negative comments about professionalism!" Then I looked at the link. These four quotes actually came from two comments. Call me crazy, but I was sort of relieved to find it was only 2 opinions and not four. It seems like making a big deal over two opinions is kind of like using a survey of less than 3000 people (who may or may not attend theatre regularly) to make wide-spread assumptions about the state of theatre in Richmond.

This discussion has been played out in this forum before, but there is very little correlation between "professional" & "union". There are many professional actors who are not members of a union. There are many union actors who conduct themselves... well... less than professionally... And I've worked with so many wonderful volunteer actors who put so much heart, soul, talent and professionalism in their work - just for the love of the art.

I prefer terms like: "skilled", "passionate", "talented". We are blessed with tremendously skilled performers in Richmond, talented people who put their heart & soul, their passion into their art. Since I get paid for performing (usually...), but have another primary source of income, and have even worked under Equity contract, I'm not sure what my classification is anymore! But I can assure you I am passionate about the art of theatre, and there are those who think I am both skilled and talented. (Thanks, honey!)

As for cutting edge, remember that that does not always translate to "good for the box office". Barksdale has had HUGE success at the Hanover Tavern with "Barefoot in the Park", "Smoke on the Mountain", "The Odd Couple", "Driving Miss Daisy", and other standards. Art is subjective, and not all pieces of theatre will appeal to every member of the community. Producing ONLY cutting edge theatre will most likely alienate those who like to know what they're spending their money on.

A well-developed theatre community will cater to all tastes. I think Richmond does a tremendous job of providing variety in its many venues - from classics to standards to cutting edge to really out there! If one can't find something to suit one's taste, one must not be looking very hard...

Susie said...

I recently looked at how many professional theaters appear to be operating in communities comparable to Richmond--Louisville, Rochester NY, Salt Lake City, Hartford and Raleigh. I found 10 in Louisville, 4 in Rochester, 4 in Salt Lake, 2 in Hartford and 9 in Raleigh. We've got 11 here. Sounds pretty healthy to me. That level of diversity enables a lot of different audiences to be served. And there's a difference between serving the audiences you have--something that seems to be done well here, but perhaps not by TheatreVirginia--and attracting new audience members, which seems to be the huge puzzle that everyone's trying to solve. As for me, having spent most of the years between 1974 and 2002 seeing lots of plays in NYC, I think that theater in Richmond is generally very professional, though I have certainly seen (and written about) some lapses.

Frank Creasy said...

Joe Pabst - eloquent and articulate as always.

I'd agree, a few dissenting voices is no cause for alarm. I would also agree that there are those both onstage and behind the scenes whose professionalism, whether good or bad, has nothing to do with a union card or their primary source of income. As Anon points out, this city cannot possibly provide a range of theatrical productions with only Equity members. We do have a range of offerings at various levels of professionalism and price. Richmond also appears to have audience members who prefer that variety.

Richmond very much needs both local and out of town actors AND directors involved in local productions. This will continue to provide us with diverse perspectives and skills that can make our theatrical environment better.

When we're dealing with the subjec
tivity of art, opinions will always differ. For the chorus of voices proclaiming Meryl Streep is a genius, someone will denounce her as a hack, no doubt. But while I've seen some sub-par performances on stages in Richmond, I've seen the same on Broadway and London too; I've also seen Richmond artists whose work would stand up well on any stage, any where. So ticket prices and performers' paychecks do not always have a positive correlation to quality.

One last thing: I've seen the "DC is so much better" argument before. Hogwash. Sure, some great theatre up there, but come on. The folks inside or hailing from the Beltway often have their blinders on it seems. Must be something in the smoggy air.

Anonymous said...

There are only so many times that the theater professionals, skilled-ionals, passionate-ionals, talented-ionals, or whatever-ionals can brush things like audience feedback under the rug. Whether it's a few people on a blog, a newspaper article, or a cultural survey of 3000, our audience is speaking to us. Plug your ears and ignore it if it makes you uncomfortable, but they're speaking to you. They are saying that they're not interested very much in what you are doing, not like how they used to be. They even tell you through the sluggish ticket sales.

Unlike the first "Anonymous," I do not care at all about the monicer "Professional." (I would use my name but I am not sure what effects this forum could have on my standing in town.) Good is good. Artaud was not what we would now call professional. I bet Aristotle was not either.

I care about the quality of work. Frank Creasy, I am sorry my man. It is not Beltway Blinders. Our wonderful city does not have The Shakespeare Theater, Arena Stage, Ford's Theater, Signature Theater, Studio Theater, Woolly Mammoth Theater, or anything approaching them. They consistently put on top notch theater with the highest production values, and use great actors in almost every roll. I do, however, think comparing us to any other city is useless. We should do the best we can do, and then go higher, and then higher, and then higher.

Professional means nothing. Good means everything. Instead of blogging, why doesn't whoever runs this blog have a gathering to address this question in person with the working theater artists of Richmond, AND ITS AUDIENCE! One blog is not enough. Thank you for letting me air these thoughts in this safe forum!

Randall Jones said...

The most frequent users of the performing arts center will be the Richmond Symphony, whom "Anonymous" denigrates and insults by saying that the center will be used for "mostly non-professional work."

According to the TD and all the billboards, the center is scheduled to open in September, with full performances starting later that month and into October.

By the way, Anonymous, where were you when Theatre Virginia was asking for money? Did you write a check? Or just expect one?

Thought so.

not ionesco said...

Nice idea to have a forum on this subject, but why leave it at that? Why not open it up to the whole range of related Richmond Theatre issues that have been discussed on this blog?

Maybe the RT-D would throw theatre a bone and make it one of their "Public Square" topics, assuming they will continue to do them in this economy. Or, maybe Style Weekly could host it. It seems it would be easier to have open dialog if an "outside" party hosted it. Sad, isn't it, that some feel expessing their opinions openly might harm their standing in the theatre.

I'm all for perfectionist theatrical productions, but at the end of the day, it is the person on stage, regardless of the sets, props, and lighting, that defines great theatre for me. I've found great theatre at the mighty Arena Stage and at the lowly Pine Camp.

Frank Creasy said...

One more thought and then I'll leave this thread to others: Regarding comments by second Anon and Not Ionseco, I do believe facilities is the main thing lacking in Richmond. Visit the Barter in little Abingdon and get a tour of their facilities and your mouth will water. Compare Richmond to other cities in terms of facilites, and yes - we're not on par. That is capital, and the capital investment outside of Center Stage just isn't there. Talk to the folks who do fundraising at local theatres and you'll find it's not for lack of trying.

Barksdale/Theatre IV's wonderful tech pros do great things with sets and lighting and costumes given a budget about 10 times more than anyone else in Richmond, but Bruce and Phil will quickly point out their budget is well below comparable companies in DC and other cities - and they're getting pinched badly these days. So you can imagine how Firehouse and Swift Creek and Henley Street, etc. must be managing with threadbare shoestring budgets.

But Not Inonesco is right on target. If you want to be dazzled by sets and lights and costumes, you might want to jump in the car or wait for the next lavish Theatre IV production. If you want to see terrific performances, go buy a Richmond theatre ticket. Your odds are pretty darn good on that accounting of quality.

Finally Dave - I did see Young Frankenstein (it was the wife's choice, what can I tell you). A fun show and great effects and such but largely a rehash of the movie. Really, really not worth the ticket price. But The 39 Steps at the Cort (about to move I hear) was fantastic, with four actors and a bare set and actors running basic props and set pieces on and off. Big budget does not always equal big entertainment even on Broadway.

Anonymous said...

I think Frank hit the nail on the head. I think that the level of "professionalism" is in direct correlation with funding. We can all agree that here in Richmond we have some great stage talent. So what is holding us back must be venues or the production qualities such as set, lights, costumes, pyro, fights, etc. I do not believe that these things are from lack of talent or ability in Richmond. What I do think is that budgets are tight so "we can do this without a fight choreographer. (or with one builder, or no costume changes, etc.) Then when your fight doesnt look right, or your set has to be cut down to get it finished, or people where the same thing for six months during the course of the show, it translates as someone not either being professional or not knowing what they are doing. Again I just want to reiterate that budget can fool an audience into seeing "professionalism".

Anonymous said...

There are two different levels of conversation that always come to this: People IN the industry talk about acting and people OUTSIDE of the industry talk about "production values" IE the spectacle. Do things fly in and out? Is everyone mic'd? Do the costumes sparkle and glitter? Let's be real here. Most folks don't know good acting from bad, but they do know what looks good. Is it our job as artists to make what we do LOOK good? If so, the answer IS money. Does this kind of thinking lead to a sad, sad destruction of the soul? I don't know. Ask Peter Brook. Or Maybe Jerzy Grotowski. Where are our priorities? How do we balance meeting the "ooh and ahh" needs of our audience as well as the "hmm" ones?

Anonymous said...

I think the audiences (in general) lately are played down to. Audiences are much smarter than they are given credit for. "Most audiences don't know good acting from bad" is why questionable acting (lazy casting?) or maybe even iffy writing is often covered up with spectacle. It is assumed the audience will be too wow'd to notice.

While not every show has to create deep discussion afterward - gosh, wouldn't that be a downer? - audiences aren't always looking to simply see pretty costumes and dazzling sets (just like not all movie going audiences aren't always looking for yet another movie with Will Ferrell running around with his shirt off and people laughing at themselves while under the influence of something). Raise the bar, and the audience will meet it.

Anonymous said...

TO THE THEATER PRACTITIONERS OF RICHMOND:

What, if anything, would you change about the way theatre operates in town?

If you had no budgets, no constraints and no limitations, what would theatre look like? How would it operate? Who would run it? Would would come to see it?

Or is it perfect, and we should stay the course?

Anonymous said...

I think the last post was a bit of a strange idea and as such is hard to answer. My answer would be to stay the course, BUT, that means finding the best actors for roles regardless of equity status. That means having proper staffing to accomplish the tasks laid out. That also mean not just making things work, and in effect using the things and doing it the right way.
But I think saying "stay the course" does not necessarily mean that I would change nothing, it means that we could actually carry out the ideas that are simply too expensive to do now.
I am still hard pressed to say that Richmond is lacking the talent or ideas, it is the budget that it takes to make those ideas come to life.

Anonymous said...

Fun question!

I would pay every actor in town a good wage to work full-time as an actor. I would hire one or two of the nation's hot directors to work here. I don't think we have ever had a big time director work here. I would do workshops with my actors and local playwrights, to create new plays dedicated to issues that VA. audiences can identify with. I would have full orchestras for every musical.

And i know that good production values are much maligned on this blog, but i would build beautiful scenery and costumes for the shows. Not to "fool" the people but to give them something beautiful to look at.

Angelika HausFrauSki said...

Someone should take all the wigs in all the Richmond theatres in set fire to them. My biggest grief about working in Richmond theatre is the lack of professional hairpieces.

You think I'm kidding, but I'm totally not. Once you've worn a $2000 lace-fronted wig that was professionally styled nightly and that people think is your real hair, it's hard to go back.

And I can tell you that there is little more disheartening to an actor than to work your ass off to craft a character and create something beautiful and tell a story to people, but you can't because your audience is too distracted by your ugly and/or cheap-looking wigs and/or costumes.

OR when you have to find your own damn costumes 'cause the theatre you're working for doesn't even have a budget to provide you with them.

It really is a lack of money. Talent is easy to come by with or without the cash...kick a garbage can and about 100 starving actors come crawling out...but high production value...not spectacle, but just not laughable and cheap, either...there are levels of gray here, people...that takes money, and money for theatre...this town ain't got.

People do the best with what they can, and there are gems in the rough, but all in all...

Anonymous said...

Okay, I've been following this thread, and there is much to say, but AH raises a point that struck a nerve with me. I am an audience member, not a member of the theatre community. Last year I sat in a show in a theatre I loved watching a show I wanted to love with actors who (mostly) were wonderful. And I struggled through the whole production to not be distracted by the horrid wigs. They were a huge distraction.
Good production values do not have to translate to spectacle. It does need to translate into something that enhances rather than distracts......so if your sound system is bad, your lighting is off, your costumes seem poor or inappropriate, or your wigs are ugly it's a problem. It pulls the audience out of the willing suspension of disbelief, and keeps them from buying your moments. It also gives the feel of "unprofessional" even though I as an audience member am fully aware of the professional nature of your actors and your theatre. IMHO, better to go minimal without sets than to put something substandard up - because then we can concentrate more on the story.

Anonymous said...

In the AEA Annual Report it states that the Median Member Earnings for 2007-2008 was $7,340. The Average Weekly Totals for Members Working was 14.8% so every week 85.2% of Equity Actors were unemployed.

What is the great motivation for joining AEA again?

Anonymous said...

Audience perception. If you have that star by your name, most audience members will assume you are better than those that don't. It's just the way it is.

Mark said...

Most of the commentary on this thread has been intelligent and sincere, but these last two anonymous posts are just silly. Saying that audiences get fooled into thinking they enjoyed an actor's performance simply because of their AEA status is pure condescension. Audiences can tell if they enjoyed a performance without first consulting the program. Say what you will about theater practitioners, but please, let us stop insulting the audience.

As for our anonymous statistician, there are plenty of good reasons for joining AEA. I would venture to assume that the percentage of non-AEA actors who are unemployed in any given week is about equal to, or maybe even greater than, their AEA counterparts. Bottom line: at any given point, more actors (of any kind) are unemployed than are employed. That goes for film, voice-over, TV, commercial, and especially theater. It is a freelance industry. That's how it works.

Fortunately, when they are employed, AEA actors enjoy certain protections: a clean and safe workplace, a minimum previously-agreed upon salary, and on and on. The non-AEA actors working the same number of weeks as their AEA counterparts make much less money, and enjoy no other such protections.

If the point that you are trying to make is that AEA actors are quite frequently unemployed, I hate to break your bubble, but you are not telling the world anything we did not already know. AEA does not guarantee work, it just guarantees a certain kind of working environment.

Can we all at least agree that there should be better wigs in the world?

Anonymous said...

There was a time in American history when Unions were essential to having basic human rights in the workplace! When the railroad barons and steel giants had 10 yr olds working 12 hour shifts, and people where dying daily at work. However it seems that over the last 50 years the Federal Government (with the help of Unions) has passed laws that have corrected most of these injustices for every working American, union or non. Businesses now have basic laws to follow to ensure people have a safe, respectful workplace with a minimum wage. Do injustices still occur, of course. But the role of the Union has focused over the years to one topic, money.

Why does a sub-standard American made car cost $30,000? Ask the United Auto Workers. Why does a nose bleed seat at a ball game cost $50 and a soda $6, talk to the MLB Players Association, who have fought for decades against a salary cap and even fought against steroid testing. Why does a Broadway show, even a crappy one, cost over $100? Talk to the 13 different Unions & Guilds (and a few movie stars) a producer has to deal with to mount a show!

If Barksdale, Firehouse, & Swift Creek became full blow “Professional” Theatres with LORT contracts they would all go belly up within a year. Why? Because in order to meet the requirement the Unions demand and meet payroll, a ticket to last summers Guys & Dolls would have cost $75 instead of $40. With no notable increase in quality, just a few more asterisks in the program. Guys & Dolls was a fantastic $40 show, it would be a mediocre or even bad $75 show. Audiences would dry up and so would the Theatres, ending the income for all artists in Richmond who now make a few extra bucks a year doing what they love.

Unions have had their place in the development of our society & economy. The changes they have helped to bring about we should all be eternally grateful for. However there are times when they can do more harm than good, even have a direct role in destroying the industry they are supposed to help maintain. The United Auto Workers got their bail out, but I think we can all agree that a Cultural bail out will never happen in this country.

AEA has helped, and continues to help, many blue collar artists raise families and enjoy health benefits (even if they are crappy benefits), but in Richmond AEA could be a detriment to the humble group of artists who believe deeply in creating art for the love of it, not for the paycheck.

Now if AEA had a “Performer will not be made to wear hideous wigs on stage” clause in their contract I would sing a totally different tune!

Mark said...

Barksdale Theater as it functions today would go bankrupt, were it to become LORT, but it's easy to assume that they would operate differently if they were a LORT theater. For example, instead of running a play for six weeks (like their next production will run), they might do a three or four week run. The public might also be more inclined to pay more money for tickets, and a larger audience might be attracted, if they thought they would get more bang for their buck. Maybe they would increase their subscriber base. Who knows. Plenty of theaters have made it work. Surely Barksdale could, too.

Also, I just looked up tickets at The Shakespeare Theater in Washington, and their tickets range from $35 to $80. And they sell out. When theaters offer a good product, people will pay to see it.

The bothersome idea is that theaters cannot afford to pay actors. That sounds crazy to me. Theater used to be about actors, playwrights, and the audience. Now it is about making sure that institutions that produce theater can make enough money to continue making plays. It is like a football team paying all the coaches, the marketing people, the merchandise people, the guy who tends the grass...and forgetting to leave money left over to hire football players. The game is about the players, right? Theater, likewise, is about the actors.

Also, I'm amazed at how altruistic the last Anonymous' view of owners and management is. I'm sure Dan Snyder and George Steinbrenner would love charge just a few dollars for nice families to come see their games. They might even play every fourth game for charity, or open games to the public for free. No. For better or worse, those owners will charge that much money regardless of player salaries. Some players are very greedy, like the owners, but most players are just trying to get a slice of a large pie.

The problem is that artists do not own theaters, and do not produce plays. Producers and institutions make a product called "plays", and hire actors for almost no pay, because they can. It is not about the art anymore. It is about theater-institutions making sure the people who work in their offices will have a job the next year. It's a good thing that equity sticks up for actors.

I agree, though, that more Equity contracts is not what the people within Richmond's theater might want. It would mean less people could work in the theaters as actors. Now this might sound painful, but that might not be a bad idea. The choice is, are we trying to offer the best actors on stage, or let everyone who wants to participate do so. I agree, the more intense competition would weed some people out. That is normally what makes a better product. It seems like it would make theater better to have even more competition among performers. If theaters are forced to pay actors actual paychecks, they will be more careful about who they hire.

But theaters can't afford to pay actors? Please...

Anonymous said...

Mark, I actually take a bit of offense to your comments. I have worked with several of the theatres around this great town and I do not think that your analogy is fitting at all. Richmond has companies that produce and farm their own shows, which is great. That means we give actors an opportunity for work instead of bringing them in with a prebuilt show and prebuilt set, etc. The benefit of presenting is that it is very cheap, in comparison to producing. When The National brings in an $80/ticket band and sells out who do you think the greedy ones are? Having worked that side of things, I know that typically those groups have a set fee and the additional revenue is bank for the presenter... On the flip side, theaters have to pay actors for (usually) about 4 weeks of rehearsal and then 4-8 weeks of performance, while at the same time managing to run the box office and take care of managerial duties. To carry it just a bit further, the theatre company typically has less seats than the average presenter, and tickets prices are lower, do the math. Sure the runs are longer but the fee would have to be per performance and theatres could never compete. Have you seen the books of any of the theatre companies in town? I do know what the costs are to run a company. We have to have a box office manager, as well as artistic and managing directors, and in some cases assistants. (I am looking at Bruce and Phil, who are running two of the best companies in town.) I am not arguing for less money for actors, they deserve every dime and more, but the alternative is losing theatre in Richmond, is that the answer? Should we just say "we can't pay well enough, lets close the doors"?

Anonymous said...

As harsh as it may sound, actors are at the bottom of the money food chain. Unfortunately, 95% of the time, that is exactly as it should be.

Believe it or not people, it’s really not that hard to do what we do. Why do you think there are so many? To continue the blogs growing sports analogies, acting is a lot like golf, anyone can do it, but only those happy few can do it on a grand level. The problem with a LORT contract is that a producer has to hire an AEA actor (plus all benefit payments) to perform a 5 line role that any hard working grad student, or waiter could perform.

If I had a tight budget in which to mount a show, I would rather take my chances with a well trained chimpanzee than an AEA actor for the “2nd soldier from the right” roles. I too love & respect Bruce & Phil, but I have seen them spend AEA contracts on roles that any moron could perform, and apparently from what I read they still are not doing enough!

I agree that AEA scale is absolutely worth a small group of actors in vital roles, but when contractual stipulations cause you to spend $5000 + on the ensemble roles, it’s crazy!!!

Mark, if I were a 28 year old young professional in the metro DC area, I would be making 60K / year & paying $2000 / month rent in some Georgetown Apt and could afford to drop $80 (x2) for a date night at The Shakespeare Theatre. However, I’m a 28 year old professional in Richmond, making 31K a year and paying $925 / month in The Fan, so the $40 show is a great treat for me here. Anything more and I’ll volunteer to Usher so I can catch a free show (NOT a good date night).