Friday, December 31, 2010

The End of the Year As We Know It

It’s difficult for me to leave loose ends, and yet I’m going to.  Two thousand and ten is coming to a close and there are three shows I saw in December that have not yet made an appearance in A Year of Plays – The Merchant of Venice, Featuring Loretta, and Blind Date.  Provocative productions, all, and they each deserve the attention I’ve given so many other plays over the past fifteen months.  Yet I find my writer’s heart has been yearning for a change.

For me, writing is a process that clarifies thought.  Whatever matters occupy my mind, my thoughts on the subject gain their sharpest resolution only after I’ve shoved them through the churning mill of invention, composition, and revision.  Yet since September, I’ve been occupied by a subject I’ve so far sequestered from this blog – which means for several months, I’ve left those thoughts unsharpened.  I suppose I should have tended to them in a journal all this while, but over the past year I seem to have become monogamous to A Year of Plays.  For better or worse, if I’m writing about theater, here is the lap in which I lay my head.

So what’s got me so occupied?  Well, the play I’m producing, of course.  Clearly.  And yet for some reason, I didn’t allow myself to write about it.  Well not just some reason.  At first it was practical, I was waiting until I had all my ducks in a row before spilling the beans.  But it soon became about perfection.  I dreamed of orchestrating an impeccably coordinated launch of a flawlessly devised and perfectly executed marketing campaign that would blow the socks off the theater world.  Good god, so that’s how you launch a theater company.  But alas, while I have the ambition for perfection, I have not the teeth-gritting, gut-splitting, will of steel that makes perfection come to life.  Not everyone can be the Black Swan.  But it’s just as well.  Life is messy, and first times are messier – just ask all the erstwhile virgins out there (ba-dum-dum).  So now I free myself to gush like a giddy school girl after the prom and tell you all about this show.  Orchestration will be for the masses.  For you, you get the good stuff.

I am so excited about this play.  It’s a lovely, lovely, GORGEOUS play.  It’s hysterical and timely and political, and yet also overflows with soul-stirring, life-affirming beauty.  It’s called…

The Lady’s Not for Burning
by Christopher Fry

… and it’s probably the best play you’ve hardly ever heard of.  Set in an anachronistic fifteenth century (no no no, stay with me, it’s good, seriously),  it’s about a soldier who comes to a town and asks to be hanged.  The mayor and townspeople are toothlessly small-minded folk, unwilling to disturb the precarious order of their lives to handle such a request.  A woman soon arrives to seek asylum from a gathering mob that has named her for a witch.  The solider, the witch, and two others form a quartet of strangers to this seemingly innocuous town, who soon discover they must either escape with their lives, or die.

There is so much I want to write about this show.  More about the play, which pulls of the remarkable feat of choosing optimism without denying cynicism.  More about the playwright Christopher Fry, who in the 1950’s was the hottest thing since sliced bread until John Osborne came to town with his kitchen sink.  About Parenthesis, the theater company I’m founding to present this show.  About the nuts and bolts of producing on a showcase code budget in New York City.  About striving to attach one’s personal goals to something greater than oneself – both to create sustainability and meaningful service, and to avoid drowning in one’s own reflection.   About fear.  And empowerment.  And growing up.  And on and on.

So that’s what I – and hopefully you – will have to look forward to in this next year of plays.  And now would come the time that I wish you a happy new year, except I simply cannot go without at least saying something about The Merchant of Venice, Featuring Loretta, and Blind Date.  So here is incredibly short shrift to three exciting and varied productions:

The Merchant of Venice – Exquisitely acted and Pacino did not disappoint.  I feel it’s a hard play to present to modern audiences.  This production confronts the anti-semitism (and also anti-feminist threads) with incredible smarts, yet those smarts still fight upstream against the prevailing current at the end of the play.  Sometimes Shakespeare’s time and ours just don’t connect cleanly.

Featuring Loretta – One of the three Suburban Motel plays that Bryan Close’s Occam Rep produced earlier this month.  Site-specifically staged in a conference room that felt exactly like a lower-rent motel, this play proved you absolutely DO NOT have to have an enormous budget to create successful theater.  The actors killed with smart, funny, fully-realized performances, and the direction quickly gathered us up in a suspension of disbelief that allowed us to transport elsewhere.  Really well done and I’m ecstatic that Bryan will be directing The Lady’s Not for Burning for Parenthesis.  In fact, without Bryan handing me that play in the first place, there would be no Parenthesis.  I owe him, and will continue to owe him, a debt of gratitude for that.

Blind Date – It was only here for a ten day try-out from Toronto, but mark my words it will be back.  Probably one of the most alive nights I’ve spent in the theater in a long time.  A hilarious, fully improvised show, where Mimi the Clown selects a member of the audience to be her blind date for the evening.  I have never squealed as loud or bit my hands as hard as when I watched our audience member Desmond swoop in to steal a kiss from under Mimi’s adorable, round, red nose.  Classic.

And that wraps up 2010.  Happy New Year, everyone.  May the next year see all your dreams come true.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Suburban Motel - an Interview with Bryan Close

Trying something new this week -- it's an interview!  A first here at A Year of Plays and I'm excited about it.  Bryan Close is the artistic director of Occam Rep, which is presenting three short plays from Suburban Motel by George F. Walker at SLC Center in NYC, now through December 17th.  Seeing as I'm getting more and more interested in the dynamics of producing theater, as well as this phenomenon of artists taking their careers into their own hands, I thought Bryan -- who is actor-director-producer in some combination for each of these three shows -- would be a perfect subject for a little picking of the brain.  And as an increasingly hyphenating theater professional myself, I'm drawn to the idea of hosting a space where fellow theater-preneurs can share their experiences and discuss their projects.  As with all efforts on this blog, it's a experiment.  You'll have to let me know how it turns out.  

I sat down with Bryan virtually.  Presumably in our two respective living rooms.  

Hey, Bryan, congratulations on opening your show! How did the first weekend go? 

Hey Anna. So far so good, thanks! Two of the plays opened last night – including Featuring Loretta, which I directed – and they went great. I’m so happy with my cast. 

The very first scene I ever did in an acting class was from Beautiful City – I think I played a ball-busting lady detective – so when you first mentioned Suburban Motel to me, I had an idea of what to expect. Yet I'd venture to say that most Americans haven't heard of George F. Walker. How would you describe Walker's work, and more specifically, these plays? 

Walker’s work is incredibly funny and dark and ballsy and strange… I’ve been comparing him to early Shanley or early Shepard crossed with Tarantino. But really, he’s sui generis – there’s no one quite like him. I met a Canadian actress at a bar last night who told me Walker drove a cab in Toronto for years, which I totally get. He has such an incredible comfort level with all sorts of dangerous, marginal people that most of us wouldn’t feel comfortable getting too close to. Unless you’re an actor, of course. These characters are actor crack. 

You’re pulling off a bit of a trifecta here – producing all three plays, acting in one, and directing in another. How has that experience been? 

Overwhelming. Humbling. Euphoric. Eviscerating… I don’t know. It’s a little like asking a teenager how adolescence is going. I’m way too immersed in it to see it clearly. Ask me again after it’s been over for a while. 

Do the plays take on different shapes depending on which hat you’re wearing? 

Oh, sure. A director has to see a play in a very different way than an actor does. But the plays are also inherently different from each other. Featuring Loretta (director/producer) and Risk Everything (just producer), the two that have opened are extreme comedies with a lot of dark stuff mixed in. Adult Entertainment (actor/producer) on the other hand is a seriously disturbing drama with comic and noir-ish undertones. Acting in that is another world from directing Loretta

It’s also harder to be a producer when you’re acting than when you’re directing. A director has a big-picture view, which connects pretty directly to getting the thing done, you know? Acting is totally different. You’ve got to be advocating for your character – often at the expense of the other actors’ characters. So it’s less psychologically consistent with producing. Fortunately I have an excellent producing partner, Shawn Rozsa, who is also directing both Adult Entertainment and Risk Everthing. And we have some other great support people as well. 

Considering that these plays presumably exist in a consistent world, did your work as director on one play influence your approach as actor on the other? Or did you find it best to just keep those experiences completely separate? 

They’re consistent but not the same. Suburban Motel is a collection of six fully independent plays (we’re producing three of them) that happen to take place in the same cheap motel room. They are all hilarious, brilliant, psychologically rich and wonderfully theatrical. But no two are any of those things in the same proportions. Directing Loretta has no doubt helped me act in Adult, but not in any conscious, articulateable way.

Okay, this part I’m gonna have trouble articulating, but here goes. When I think of these plays – having only read two of them, once – one theme that comes to mind is what I’ll lamely call “Men and Women.” The men seem to be clearly of a group, and the women of another clearly separate group. It’s not that Walker generalizes the sexes – indeed there are a variety of characters represented in both groups – but that he seems to truly delineate between the two. And the character’s sex seems to be central to who that character feels himself or herself to be. Furthermore, my recollection is that whenever man and woman come into contact in these plays, there’s this … I don’t know, a frisson. A charge. Like playing with the different ends of magnets, attracting and repulsing each other. I suppose I would throw all this in contrast to a playwright who writes a bunch of characters, and some of them happen to be men, some happen to be women, and the charge of their interactions – even their sexual interactions – has more to do with personality or background or point of view. So, does any of this ring true to you? And if so, would you have anything to add, or to contradict? 

Yes and no… I mean, in a way, yes, definitely: there’s a lot of sex and violence and it’s all right out there. But the sex and violence are just two parts of the cocktail of extreme circumstances he puts these complex human beings into to push them past their normal limits.

And again, it’s so different from play to play. Featuring Loretta (which I know is one of the ones you read), is really fundamentally about a woman being objectified by the men in her life (in hilarious and disturbing ways), who is forced to grow up and take control of the decisions she’s going to make about her own body. It’s about the way these predatory men interact with this smart but troubled young woman, and the way she behaves in response or opposition to that. So it’s overtly sexual in that way. But there is also a wonderful relationship between the two female characters, and that’s actually the central relationship of the play. Ultimately, even though it’s a comedy about making porn, it’s very much feminist work. I would argue that with anybody. 

Adult Entertainment has two extraordinary male-female relationships, one of which is dangerous to the point of being psychotic. But the other one, which I would argue is the central story, is a true love relationship. Complex and flawed, sure, but deep and real all the same. Adult Entertainment also has a male/male relationship straight out of Shepard. Or even Pinter. 

Finally, Risk Everything. It’s central relationship is generational, between a gambling-addicted mother and her daughter, a former junkie prostitute. Also, there’s the daughter’s husband – another uniquely rich relationship – and the cheesy dude mom’s banging, and stolen money, murderous gangsters and dynamite… But at the core is a troubled young woman who’s forced to take care of her even more troubled mother. 

What was the most challenging aspect of presenting these plays, from either an artistic or practical point of view? 

Practically, everything. Every single thing has been tougher than I imagined. 

Artistically, though, it’s been mostly great. The toughest thing artistically was probably casting. Nearly 1400 actors submitted for our little project. That’s just an overwhelming amount of human energy and talent to try to deal with. In the end though, we wound up with some truly wonderful actors – speaking as the director of Featuring Loretta, I’ve never worked with a better a cast: the gorgeous Jennifer McPherson, the brilliant Brian Lafontaine (who I first acted with 16 years ago in Charlotte, NC), and Scott Kerns and Merissa Morin, both of whom are on their way to being big stars – all professionals who make their living acting, but who were willing to work their asses off for me for nothing. I’m a little in awe of their collective talent. And the phenomenal actors I get to work with in Adult Entertainment – Paul Michael Valley, Jennifer McCabe and Marguerite Stimpson – it’s a dream to work on material this rich with actors of this caliber. I am very, very grateful. 

What was the most motivating aspect? 

Let me play the Lion too! 

Ha!  Nice.  These plays are the debut productions of your new theater company, Occam Rep. What’s your vision for Occam Rep’s future? 

There’s been talk about doing the other three plays in the series: Problem Child, Criminal Genius and The End of Civilization. Whatever it is, though, it’s going to be repertory. I’m committed to that. 

Thanks for letting me babble about all this stuff… It’s always fun - and, as you know – challenging - to try to write coherently about an artform that’s so inherently visceral and ephemeral. A play is something you can only learn so much about but writing or reading or talking or listening. You’ve got to be in the room with it. And these three plays, and this great writer, have given me such a great room to be in. Can’t wait for you to see them! 

Me neither!  I’m going next weekend.  It's gonna be great to see this project come full circle.  Thanks for your time, Bryan -- and for being the interview guinea pig at A Year of Plays!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Reefer Madness and Wonder of the World

Performance Date: 11.13.10
The Gallery Players (Reefer)
The CHILDREN's Theatre Company, Triskelion Arts (Wonder)

So as you may recall, I had a walloping weekend of theater a couple weeks ago which included a Saturday matinee of Reefer Madness at The Gallery Players in Park Slope, followed by an evening performance of Wonder of the World from The CHILDREN’s Theatre Company in Williamsburg. It was a Brooklyn affair.

The two productions underscored for me that there are just floods of talented actors in our burgeoning Metropolis. Just floods and floods. They’re pouring out of subways stations, clutching scripts. They’re milling about the bars near 29th and 7th Avenue, nerding out about improv. They’re sitting on their couches blogging about theater. Okay these are just all the things I do about town, but I’m a talented actor so it counts. And more and more, it seems these actors are gravitating to great “off-off” houses like Gallery, and forming hot little companies of their own, like CHILDREN’s.

It's an old story: theater is in trouble, its economic model is broken, jobs that used to go to stage veterans now go to Hollywood stars, which trickles down and leaves the majority of us competing for no-budget gigs staged in crappy digs for no pay and little respect. Old story, but feels like true story. And after a while, that truth hurts. So what do we do? We turn to places like The Gallery Players, an oasis of stability and creativity now in its 44th season, or we group together to create our own “off-off” productions with no budget, no pay, but TONS of respect, because dammit that’s OUR show that WE made happen OURSELVES. Do not confuse my capital letters with irony.

By the way, I put “off-off” in quotes because it seems like an increasingly irrelevant term. With so many artists finding creative fulfillment elsewhere, and often on their own terms, it doesn’t feel right to keep orienting the industry toward Broadway. I mean, yes it will always be the holy grail of stage actors, and yes as consumers we will always partake of and celebrate the Great White Way – but as far as defining one’s creative life and career? For most I know, Broadway dreams hardly enter into it. In this way, New York theater is becoming thoroughly decentralized, which frankly feels like a good thing. And would indeed be really great if we could only fix that economic model.

At any rate, both The Gallery Players and The CHILDREN’s Theatre Company hold cherished places in my heart. The first New York theater gig I ever booked was playing Rosalind at The Gallery Players, and CHILDREN’s is a company comprised entirely of American Conservatory Theater alums. But objectively speaking, each of their productions from the other weekend were really quite special. Reefer Madness, a smartly funny musical parodying an anti-marijuana propaganda film of the same name, sported top notch voices, keen comic timing, and clean design. And Wonder of the World, a wacky comedy by Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsey-Abaire, benefited from the nuanced emotion and genuine charm of its romantic leads, and the bold, playful character choices of its supporting cast. Bravo on all counts, Brooklyn homies. Next time I'll try harder to pimp your shows when they are still running.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

All About Audience

It’s still Thanksgiving Day as I’m writing this, though just barely. I’ve got the last thirty-three minutes of Thanksgiving before me which means I’m just going to get this under the wire: Thank you for reading. Thank you for caring about theater, whether it’s because it’s your passion, or because you’re curious, or because you’re my friend and you’re the type of person who cares about what your friends care about. Thank you for giving me your time, and for the indulgence of your audience. It is an incredible gift. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about audience lately. I’m at the point with this show I’m producing – oh, wait, please hold. I’m sorry, I hate that I keep mentioning this show and still haven’t officially announced it to you guys. I’m just waiting until I get the application to Equity submitted before I start blowin’ that horn is all. Dotted I’s and crossed T’s and all that. Okay, where was I? Oh yes – I’m getting to the point where I’m wondering how the heck am I going to get people to this show? How am I going build an audience? Solving this problem all depends on marketing, of course, but before I start strategizing I feel compelled to consider what it even means to have an audience. What does having an audience do for a show? I mean, besides fill seats and create revenue – which is the economic relationship at play but can’t possibly be, to my way of thinking, an audience’s most essential function.

So what could that function be?  Well, I suppose it’s right there in the word audience, from the Latin audire, ‘to hear.’ The audience is there to hear you, to listen to what you have to say. And that’s another thing – the audience is actually there to hear you, as in right there in the very same room, changing the alchemy of all that happens with their presence. So they are there, and they are there to hear what you have to say. Which to my mind means: 1) You better acknowledge their presence somehow, and 2) You better have something to say.

That falls pretty in line with my own experience as an audience member. For example, nothing drives me crazier than a production that is too self-involved or too timid to reach out to where I’m sitting and connect with me. And this has nothing to do with direct address, broken fourth walls, or other types of meta-theatricality, and has everything to do with awareness and intention. Furthermore, while I’m not necessarily conscious of it, determining what a production might have to say is exactly how I decide what shows to see. When I scan reviews, read articles, listen to word of mouth, or peruse show postcards, I’m trying to size up what a play might be saying – about its subject, about the world, about theater – and if I I think I'd like to hear more, I buy a ticket.

Which leads me another piece of the puzzle that keeps coming to mind: you can’t beg an audience to come, or to listen. You can’t demand it of them. You can’t even really ask it of them. Whether it’s on stage in performance, or on the page in your marketing materials, if you beg, demand, or even ask, you’re putting the obligation on the audience to deliver. They have to acquiesce, they have to give over to you their presence and attention. And that can put an audience in a rather resentful frame of mind. However, if you invite an audience, if you welcome them, maybe even lure or entice them, then the burden is on the show to deliver. The show must then bear out its promise – or not – but either way the audience is obligation free. Which is a much lighter frame of mind, one in which an audience might feel downright generous with their presence and attention.

So I think that makes sense, but so what? What does this mean for my show? What does this mean for you? Well I’m not sure yet for the show, although I do feel a bit more grounded in how I want to speak to an audience in these coming months. As for what it means to you? Well you’re my audience here in this blog. And I hope I’ve made you feel acknowledged. I hope you feel that your presence, though virtual, is important to me. Because it is. Your presence is the very thing that drives me to discover what I have to say. Without the belief that you were listening, I wouldn’t dig as diligently or explore as deeply, and I certainly wouldn’t have as much fun. So once again, thank you. I am very grateful. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving.

Oh and I haven't forgotten.  Reefer Madness and Wonder of the World are still coming your way.  This week!  A multiple post week!