Search Results

Keyword: ‘Failure of Theater’

Lord of the Burgeoning Lumber

November 24th, 2008 No comments

Well, it’s been a long road for me and this play. It started as an exercise in Mike Geither’s English 612 class sometime in February or March of 2007. The exercise, toward the bottom of this entry:, led to Timothy and Spooky running around a campfire.

As nearly as I can remember the play started off like a normal one for me. Two characters in a rather bland exchange:

Timothy: Hey, Spooky, whachya up to?

Spooky: I don’t like being called ‘Spooky,’ thank you so goddam very much, I thank you.

Timothy: Okay, then Spooky, what is your name?

Spooky: I won’t tell you my name. A name’s power, there’s power in names; power in names over the named thing there is power. That I won’t give you.

Timothy: Spooky, how can I talk to you if I don’t know what to call you by?

Spooky: (Standing quickly and moving toward Timothy. Speaks in a loud voice and stands menacingly close) Ahhh, why doan you fuck off!

It had two male characters interacting and one was violent and domineering and the other somewhat passive and timid. At this point, the play could have gone the same route as an earlier play I wrote, Only Sing for Me. In fact, I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on this comparison and the two are eerily similar, one is simply less imaginative and has less of my “true” voice in it. Although it nearly went the same route as the earlier piece, one exchange popped out that changed things:

Timothy: (Shrinking visibly and stuttering) I…I…m sorry Spp… I’m sorry. Sorry. I didn’t mean to…

Spooky: (Just stands and breathes heavily into Timothy’s face.)

Timothy: (Raises his right hand and taps it on his chest) My, but you have got my heart racing. Simply racing. (He backs up a step and then turns, slowly, and begins circling Spooky) Simply a’goin’ pitter patter, my heart. (In the mock voice of Scarlet O’Hara or Blanche DuBois) Why, whatever is a girl to do with such a… brute as you?

That strategic choice by Timothy to switch to an openly effeminate persona, coupled with the sly strategy of a comedic mockery that challenges the openly violent hostility of the other fundamentally changed how the two would interact. This exchange was followed rapidly by the next exchange:

Spooky: (Sits on the ground again and crosses his legs; he draws idly with his index finger.)

Timothy: (In his normal voice) You know, I don’t often come to the woods anymore. Not like I used to. Not like I used to with Uncle Philly and Brother Gene and Sister Mary May and John the Butcher and Kim the Karate man from down the block. Not like that anymore. I used to come. With them. Used to come out here all the time and lay on my back in the clearing over there and gaze up at the night sky. Orion and Cassiopeia and the Pleiades and Sirius and Ursa Major and Ursa Minor and the Milky Way which was always my favorite way and the vast distance of the immensity that was the greatness that pressed down on my tiny chest and encompassed me fuller than any womb I was ever completely in but not completed in. I used to gaze at that.

This effusion by Timothy is remarkable, for me, in that the character of Timothy now has openly been freed up to allow his innermost thoughts to pour out, uninhibited. It is quite really that by allowing my character (myself) to put on an effeminate voice I freed myself (Timothy) to let an imaginative world pour forth. This is quite naturally followed later by this, not too much later:

Spooky: (Turning) Are you gonna get smart? (Stands) Are ya? (Walks menacingly toward Timothy) Are you gonna get smart. Are ya? Are you gonna get smart, now? (Smacking Timothy on the head) Where’s your dress? Where’s your dress, Timothy? Where is it? (Smacks Timothy on the head) Put it on. Put the dress on. (He turns and stomps back to the backpack and starts rummaging.)

And then…

Timothy steps out of the tent in a pink dress and a blonde wig with braids. He has red lipstick all over his mouth.

So, the course of the play had been set in motion.

Originally, the Ranger was in on it. Later he became a foil against which the other two acted. This is very in keeping with Only Sing for Me, but I do have to speculate what the play would have been like had I kept the Ranger as a part of the other two’s activities.

For the most part the play developed in a natural course flowing out of me quite easily. Toward the end, though, the magic fizzled and my conscious mind started getting in the way. I’ve written about this on several occasions, but my entry on Wallace Shawn certainly foregrounds the problem:

The unconscious mind is the realm of dreams. It is mythological and powerful, spontaneous and frightening. The conscious mind is dull and predictable. Beware you let your conscious mind write (or edit your unconscious material). Of course, you have to do this (allow it) so, as Shawn points out, this is where a talented writer shows up (the ability to edit). I have yet to fully acquire this talent. I read Christine Howey’s review of my play and admired her eye, as she directly caught the problem of my play of which I was acutely aware.

In revising the play, which I had named A Howl in the Woods, I comment elsewhere about the change in name which I admit is much more interesting than my original. The original name, however, reflects the direction I went with the play: there is something in the unconscious tangle that transforms the main character—empowers him to slough off his mutable identity and become the self-defined person he was meant to be.

There was a fundamental failure on my part to instantiate this vision for this play and that left it open to many interpretations. And truth be told, the direction that it went was too much a conscious decision and left it open to the failures I mention above. I think very much that Clyde revived the comedic heart of the play as it was originated—the playful spontaneity that made it special—and helped it to come to something worthwhile. I know that I am fortunate to have him as the director.

Ultimately, there were mistakes made in the writing of this play and I have learned valuable lessons from them—so, I will go on to new mistakes. Hopefully my plays will get better as I move forward, too—the mistakes less obvious and bumbling. In reflection, I had opportunities; including the aftermath of the staged reading at CPT.

Lord of the Burgeoning Lumber is going well and has been very well received (see Tony Brown’s review). I admit that I’m somewhat surprised, but I guess that is because I know its warts and focus on what could have been rather than what is, making it difficult to see that there is good in it yet. Certainly, I have no regrets about placing the play in the hands of convergence-continuum. I cannot say enough about all who have given so much of their time to it: Clyde Simon, Lucy Bredeson-Smith (tireless and omnipotent wielder of the immortal stage manager lash), Geoffrey Hoffman (whose talent as an actor and director shows in his acute perception of and critical inquiry about the flaws in this play), Tom Kondilas, Tyson Rand, Mark K (who should have two more arms to manage the musical gymnastics he accomplishes for this performance), Megan DePetro as the Butterfly Queen, and Sarah Kunchik as Helga. Then there is Terrii Zernechel who put in long evenings working on lights and lighting effects, Tom Kondilas (again) who stop-motioned the video and brought the shadows to life, and Sade Wolfkitten who is always present to make the sound go off without a hitch.

I am grateful to convergence for making this play a success; to Mike Geither for his guidance, and for the input of the 612 class who helped shape it. The play has yet to reach its final resting place, perhaps, as it has been entered in the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival (ACTF) and will be reviewed by a judge from Wooster very soon. Some recommendation will be made at that point.

State of the Theatre

February 21st, 2008 1 comment

Recently, on the Neohiopal listserve, an article was circulating, which, I’m sure, has made its way around everywhere else as well. The article, by Mike Daisey, is about “How Theater Failed America.”

First, I thought I would comment on it just because the language, the passion, the intensity of the article was so powerful and convincing that I was just impressed…overcome by it. Then, of course, the diatribe against the failure of regional theatres to serve the artists in the theatres, a reality with which I’m not so familiar (in terms of personal investment and time) but am seeing now first hand has convinced me to throw my own two cents into the mix.

First, as I mentioned, there is the writing: “I abandoned the garage theaters and local arts scene and friends and colleagues—because I was a coward;” or “We survive because we’re nimble, we break rules, and when simple dumb luck happens upon us, we’re ready for it.” There is no hedging in this piece. There is no tip-toeing around the subject. Daisey is angry, and so brutal. Blunt. “Their [actor–Equity, no less] 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.”

Ouch. This is a pissed off fellow. And after reading his article a few times, I agree: he should be.

I guess the reason that this article moved me so much has to do with where I’m at now: working with a young, small theatre driven by a visionary artistic director who flatly wishes to have two things: a successful theatre; a troupe of actors, technicians, and playwrights who can make a living doing what they love. This is what regional theatres were supposed to do. According to Daisey “The movement that gave birth to [the theatres in Seattle] 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.” But, as Daisey continues, “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.”

In Cleveland, I know from general conversations that the above matches what was happening at the Cleveland Play House. Conversations among actors always turned to the fact that they had post-office boxes in New York to handle their resumes because they got a response from auditions that way–that is to say, they got no response as actors from Cleveland: despite a mission statement dedicated to “our community.” I think this is less true of Cleveland Public Theatre–which is truly the theatre of Cleveland. The Play House may as well be on another planet. But the facts that Daisey outlines remain, the theatres stand, but the people (who make the theatres work) are constantly changing–and not out of choice.

I am also more acutely aware of the problem as I am switching from an MBA program to an MNO program (Master of Nonprofit Organization). This educational emphasis places me directly in line with the practices of modern regional theatres: namely, the professionalization of things unrelated to the activities of theatre itself: that is, putting up plays by company actors. Perhaps Daisey’s article is just this, a bemoaning of the professionalization of how theatres are run. Afterall, virtually all organizations today have undergone something similar to this: colleges and universities can’t run in old models, they’ve had to hire marketing departments and development departments and masses of people dedicated solely to making the school succeed in the community financially and socially. The same is true of hospitals, sports organizations, museums, and other non-profits. But does this make it right? Daisey writes, “Not everyone lost out with the removal of artists from the premises. Arts administrators flourished as the increasingly complex corporate infrastructure grew.” And this is precisely what I have described, and what I fear about my own role in modern theatre is–that is, beyond the playwriting I hope to do.’

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.

One of the more troubling things that Daisey brings up (as if the whole thing isn’t troubling enough to begin with) for playwrights is the following: “Literary departments have blossomed over the last few decades, despite massive declines in the production of new work.” It is almost an off-hand comment. But the implication for playwrights is this: more workshops, more staged readings, less real productions. Further, works like “On Golden Pond” find “revivals” at the Play House, while new, vital work relevant to our time and our psyche right now (by vital new playwrights) is left out. As Daisey drolly points out, “It’s not such a bad time to start a career in the theater, provided you don’t want to actually make any theater.”

Daisey’s cynicism hits rock bottom when he writes, “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.” For me, there is a big NO SHIT here. How many “educational” and “youth programs” do you see now? But really, who is to blame for this? The arts organizations or the funders? My bitterness on this subject is acute, as a relatively new technology award program for which my university program just applied was rejected in favor of dozens of awards for “educational” and “youth programs.” What a sham. It’s hard to tell nowadays whether the organization’s started the programs to make money or made money because of the programs; but I think the reality is the former. And where does the cycle end?

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 solutions are somewhat obvious, though not easy: if a regional theatre appeals to and raises a good portion of its budget from “grey hairs” and appeals to and raises the rest of its money from children, the overtly apparent question is “what happens to all the people in the middle?” After all, a bell curve is a bell curve for a reason: the middle is where it’s at, not the ends. Strange that theatres uniformally run against logic. But, as Daisey points out, moving toward this middle means several things, the most daunting of which is change. No more hobknobbing with wealthy white greys or controllable drooling puppet-lovers. Further, you’ll actually have to work and think about what you put up: no more standard musicals, or “on golden ponds,” or “midsummer night dreaming.” Now you’ll have to move toward interactivity, multimedia, content that is aggressive and that challenges the audience. Theatres will have to enter the uncomfortable realm of questioning their communities, their society, their culture–and not just leeching off it. You’ll have to ditch the old standards and take risks, something that artistic directors beholden to boards and ticket sales are afraid to do–after all, look what happens in modern sports. Two bad seasons and you’re done.

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.

So what does this mean? It means that you need to support what is new, what is original, what is alive: not the lumbering death that is the proscenium stage and tired old plays. Don’t settle for what the corporate theatres dish out for you–seek out what is new, what is alive, vital. Find theatres like convergence-continuum and support them. Hold on to them for dear life. For as Daisey writes:

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.

%d bloggers like this: