Thursday, August 12, 2010

In God's Hat

Performance Date: 08.04.10
Apothecary Theater Company, The Peter Jay Sharp Theater

When I think about Apothecary Theater Company's recent production, In God's Hat, I get that street-wise mug on my face that says... Respect.  You know, eyebrows up, pursed mouth with the corners turned down, nodding head slowly.  Usually this look is reserved for appraising the impressive work of a rival peer, but to consider these artists my peers, let alone my rivals, is perhaps a mite ambitious.  Having mounted this show in an Off-Broadway house, Apothecary seems to have been around the block a few times.  My theater company has a total of zero productions to it's name.  In fact my theater company only has a name.  And some interested parties.  And big dreams.  But you can understand why I see my dreams mirrored in this company; they are a group of alums from a respected theater program finding power in their collective talents, which is what my company would look like.  So I see Apothecary and think, There is no reason I can't be doing this too.  I guess in reality I feel like a good JV player watching the Varsity team bring home another victory.  Happy that they'd won, impressed by their feat, but wishing I'd been out there.  So what is it about these guys that has me so green eyed?  And what can I learn from them that will get me off the bench?

For starters, they picked a really good play.  Really good.  A tense, character-driven thriller set in an Oklahoma motel room where two estranged brothers (one a freshly paroled pedophile) have stopped for the night.  It brought to mind a Coen brothers film by way of Sam Shepard - filled with suspense, pathos, clear but complex relationships, and a dark sense of humor.  The dialogue, which was entertaining and tight, seemed to grow organically just from having these men in a room together, and yet it simultaneously revealed the evolution of an enticing plot.  Not only do you wonder what is going to happen in this play, you care about what happens too.  A new play with all of this going for it amounts to an enormous leg up for an emergent theater company.  New York is teeming with young companies and one excellent way to set yourself apart is to have a brilliant new play to help garner attention.  Finding worthy new plays takes time, which is hard when the impulse is to get out there and just do something already, but Apothecary appears to have demonstrated patience.  They found this play through their Development Series, where it received a staged reading last year.  Duly noted.

Next up - and it's kinda crass for me to talk about this in my oh so sophisticated let's contribute to the public discourse about arts blog - but Apothecary looked like they had money.  And I was impressed.  I'm sorry, but it's true.  And what is also true, no matter how much it sucks, is that if you look like you have money in this world, people will treat you better.  Theater is no exception.  If your show looks expensive, audiences and critics will take you more seriously.  Of course, looking expensive is no substitute for substance, and killer performances and direction will stand out no matter how poor the surroundings.  But if you can demonstrate substance and look good doing it?  That's a much better recipe for success.

So how'd they do it?  And can you replicate that look without money?  Well let's see.  The first spendy item on display was their venue - a beautiful 128 seat house on Theater Row.  Venue rental is usually the largest expense on a production budget and it's kind of hard to land a great venue at a cheap price.  But a good deal is possible, especially if you have connections or are simply a great negotiator.  The second high-price indicator was set design.  Here there is definitely room to fake it.  My brother, who is a sickly talented scenic designer, spent most of his early career making shows look phenomenal on absolutely zero budget.  In Apothecary's case, it seems that smart allocation of funds was also part of their strategy.  From the looks of it, most of their design dollars went wisely into a believable replication of the run-down motel room where the majority of the action takes place.  This left the remaining scenes to fare for themselves downstage in front of a closed curtain with audience imagination filling in the rest, but that didn't detract from the impression the other set left.  Third and lastly, cool graphic design put an extra polish on Apothecary's moneyed impression.  Their professionally designed playbill cover made them look particularly hip and together.  Sounds small, but it's the little details that make a difference.

Finally, I have to talk about Apothecary's ensemble.  These actors had the unmistakeable connection that comes from a long history of working closely together.  I'm not envious of that in itself because I have the same thing going with my own graduate school cohorts.  But what I am envious of is the satisfaction Apothecary must feel in the fact that they are doing it.  Actor dreams usually come in two stripes - fame and fortune a la Oscars and Tonys, or making your own success in a tight, ensemble company a la Steppenwolf or Wooster or the Group.  Over the past five years, I've worked toward both dreams, but I suspect true happiness lies in the latter.  There is something special about the relationships one forms in graduate school - or I suppose any place where artists gather to study intensely and at length - and as you venture forth to seek your success, sometimes it's watching your friends struggle that hurts the most.  Why?  Because you know, without a doubt, how insanely talented they all are.  And you know without a doubt, that when you get on a stage with them, something special happens.  So to do what Apothecary has done - to go from dream to reality, to form a company that allows you and your talented friends to work, to organize and fundraise effectively enough to persist over time, and to gain recognition together, as Apothecary has with In God's Hat - whew!  I can only imagine how good that must feel. 

Only imagine, that is, until I take action and do it too.

Update and addendum:  After publishing this post, I took a closer look into Apothecary's website, thinking I should get in touch with these fine folks and see if I can pick somebody's brain.  In so doing I found the following quote, as if in answer to my last line above:

“Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: That the moment one definitely commits oneself then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issue from the decision raising in one’s favour all manner of unforseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no one could have dreamt would have come their way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”

— Johan Wolfgang von Goethe

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