Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Jack of All Trades

Sorry for the three week absence, folks.  My theater brain has been all over the place lately.  I’ve got a bunch of irons in the fire, which is fantastic for productivity, creativity, and general artistic fulfillment, but has also left me with precious little mindshare for cultivating cohesive thought.  Makes me a bit of a jack of all trades, master of none.  I’m okay with that, generally speaking, since donning these different hats is crucial to me determining what kind of theater professional I want to be going forward.  I just wish my mind felt less like an overtilled tract of dirt at the end of the day.  Still, there’s no way I’m letting another week of this blog lapse, so today I’m taking you on a tour of my scrambled artist brain.  No, hang on, let’s be compassionate with ourselves, shall we?   Let me take you on a tour of my wisely apportioned and highly active artist brain, instead.

Over here, we have Producer-land.

Did you hear?  I’m producing a show in the spring.  Hooray!  After years of hinting and hedging and hoping and hyping, I’m finally getting off my ass and doing it.  The cool thing is that it would not have happened without this blog.  After reading my post about Apothecary Theater Company, in which I dreamed of forming a theater company of my own, a director friend shot me an email suggesting we meet to swap theater company fantasies.  As part of that conversation, he lent me a play he’d been in love with for years, and as luck would have it, I fell in love with it too.  It’s a gorgeous play.  I can’t wait to tell you about it, and once some final details are hammered out, I will.

The strange outcome of this exciting development is that it has actually contributed to my constipation in the blog-writing arena.  Ever since I decided to make a go of this producer thing, my thoughts have been monopolized by this project.  I’m learning so much already and we haven’t even signed a contract on a venue yet.  My natural inclination, of course, is to share what I’m learning with you all.  At the same time, however, I’m hesitant to chart my course as a first-timer so publicly.  How can I debut a theater company from a position of strength, for example, if confessions of my doubts and insecurities are there for the googling?  How can I write about the intimacies of collaboration and still honor the privacy of my collaborators?  How can I talk usefully about budgeting without disclosing more financial information than I’m willing to share?  It’s a fascinating problem, and one I’ll continue thinking on.  There’s just no way I can keep this experience completely to myself for the next six months.  For now, though, let’s turn our eye towards…


Because, oh yeah, I’m acting in this show I’m producing too.  Gulp.  And the last time I was on stage in a scripted production was exactly a year ago.   Double gulp.  So in preparation for my return to the stage, I’ve gone back to class.  I’m working on a scene from Three Sisters and there’s nothing like Chekhov for oiling up those rusty joints.  Yet sadly, I haven’t gotten round to limbering any actual acting muscles  because the first week back (last week) was all about massaging my self-consciousness away.  It’s amazing how quickly self-consciousness that basic human response to speaking lines in front of people returns when you’ve been out of practice.  It was a particularly odd surprise because I’ve been practicing saying unscripted lines in front of people all year…

Here in Improv City.

“Yes, and” continues to be alive and well in Anna World.  I’m just finishing up my level 5 class at the People’s Improv Theatre (a.k.a. the PIT) and my indie team Student Driver continues to do a gig or two a month.  I still find this art form both inspiring and challenging, which engenders in me a deep desire to master it.  That’s no small task.  Similar to writing where, I once heard, the first million words don’t count, improv requires constant practice.  Far more than the five hours a week I’ve been devoting to it so far.  I should be performing nightly just to get those first 10,000 scenes out of the way.  But, as in all things, you do what you can until you can do more.

And finally, the familiar fields of Play-goer Park.

I haven’t forgotten this was a blog about seeing plays.  In the past few weeks I’ve seen Seed – a new play presented in the 10th annual Hip Hop Theatre Festival – and As Is, one of the first plays written about the AIDS crisis when it began in the mid 1980’s.  Yet here again, Producer-land exerts its influence.  Watching these plays, I found myself paying far more attention to non-artistic elements than I ever have before – the merits and limitations of the venue, the cost effectiveness of the design, the marketing strategy, the playbill format, the front of house staff, and on and on.  This isn’t a bad thing, and clearly is a necessary development for my success as a producer, but it made sitting down to write about Seed and As Is another perplexing proposition.  Talking about plays from a producer’s standpoint is a far more dispassionate exercise than reflecting on them from the standpoint of art or human experience.  Producing is business – business in the support of art, but business all the same.  I wasn’t sure how well that type of discourse would blend with the sensibility of this blog thus far.

Back at the ranch.

So there you have it.  That’s the landscape of my artist’s brain, and therefore my stopped-up author’s brain as well.  My boyfriend remarked last night that I’m happier when I’m writing my blog and he was right.  So it seems to me that the focus of my writing here will have to shift somehow to accommodate the changes in my creative life.  It will be yet another adventure figuring out how that will go, and as always I would love if you would come along.  I’ll try my best to keep it worth your while.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Theater Artists are Insane. But in a Good Way.

So I just read back on some of my old posts.  They’re pretty good.  Somebody out there should make me into a book.  Because I’m sure that 52 posts about specific theatrical productions seen by a limited number of people who live chiefly in the New York metro area would SELL LIKE HOT CAKES.  Sign me up, ye literary gods.  Let’s make all those Julie and Julia comments come true.

I mention it only because I am currently reading a book that was made from a theater blog.  It’s called Exit Pursued by a Badger by Nick Asbury.  I found it by my bedside, last time I visited home, with a post-it note atop that read, “Send to Anna” in my mother’s beautiful, thick-markered script.   I suspect it was something she saw in a bookstore, or that dad came across in The Threepenny Review, and thought to send my way.  I have such thoughtful parents.  Such thoughtful, literary parents.

So I don’t know how I missed this, but back in 2008, England’s Royal Shakespeare Company staged a monster octology of Shakespeare’s English histories.  That would be Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V, Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, and finally Richard III.  I know it looks like I just cut and pasted the same words and letters over and over again, but that’s actually eight separate plays from the Shakespeare canon listed in historically chronological order (as opposed to the order in which they were written).

I can barely continue on to describe the scope of the RSC’s project because I’m exhausted just thinking about it.  Thinking about describing it, that is, let alone anyone doing it.  But here goes.  Basically this was a two and half year project that culminated in the performance of the aforementioned eight plays, back to back, over a four day period, using a single ensemble of 34 actors playing a total of 264 parts, for a combined total of 24 hours playing time.  Richard II on a Thursday night, the Henry IV plays on Friday night, three Henry VI plays on Saturday, and Richard III on Sunday.  That in itself is a mind-boggling feat of stamina, for actors, crew, and audience alike.  But now consider that in the thirty-odd months leading up to this so-called Glorious Moment, the company prepared by mounting the productions in two groups of four, each performed in repertory.

Let me spell this out a bit more.  Imagine you’re an actor learning and rehearsing a single Shakespeare play.  When you’re pretty well on your feet with that one, you begin learning a second play.  Once that second play is learned, you brush up the first one and begin performing both plays on alternate nights.  While you’re performing those two plays at night, you begin learning and rehearsing a third play by day.  Then a fourth play.  Soon you’re performing all four plays in repertory.  This includes certain “trilogy” days where you perform three plays in a row on a single day.  Finally the run closes.  But then you start all over again with a second set of plays.  More learning, rehearsing, and performing.  More trilogy days.  Then, when you’re finished with that, when you’ve survived that marathon for a second time, you go back, brush up the first marathon, tack it to the second, and perform all eight plays together.

Now imagine you’re doing all that for the roles you were cast in, and AT THE SAME TIME you’re also doing it for the roles you are understudying.

Now imagine all the sword fights you have to learn, for your own roles and your understudy roles.  Imagine the exits and entrances, the costume changes, the props you keep you track of, the trapeze and flying stunts you have to learn.  For your roles and your understudy roles.  In all eight plays.

Now imagine stage managing this thing.  Imagine sewing costumes for this thing.  Imagine rigging safety harnesses for this thing.  Running light cues for this thing.

Imagine being the director who has to be there for EVERY SINGLE REHEARSAL for two and a half years.

Are you horizontal yet?  I mean, right???  My heart is racing just reading all that over.

And now I’ve taken up this whole post describing the thing without getting back to the book I’m reading.  One of the actors in this project, Nick Asbury, started a weekly blog about half way through the whole experience and eventually it got turned into this book.  I’m only half way through but it’s a great read so far.  Getting a glimpse into the work involved on the project has been fascinating, and his backstage accounts are hugely entertaining.  But chiefly, his writings speak to the gratitude that he and his fellow artists felt for having this opportunity at all.  The gratitude they felt for participating in a double-quadruple marathon (with an octology on top) for two and a half years.  Imagine that.

Well, actually, I hope you find it’s easy to imagine that.  That this Histories Cycle happened at all – and didn’t dissolve into a bloody massacre of clashing egos and exhausted bodies inside of six months – is a testament to the love and passion theater professionals feel for their art, and an example of how hard they are willing to work for it.  It’s pretty amazing.  It’s insane, actually.  And if you can imagine the gratitude these folks felt for the opportunity to exhaust themselves at their passion, it means you’ve got a passion of a similar size.  Or at least the seeds of one inside you.

And if you can’t imagine that gratitude?  Hmm, well, I guess I don’t believe you.  You might not have identified your passion yet, but you’ve got that seed in there somewhere.  I know you do.  If you want to find it, dig deeper.  Some people have to risk more than others to get at their passion, and that's unfair, but I'm pretty sure those seeds were given out to everyone.  So dig deeper.  If you want it, it's there.