Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Haven't I Seen You Somewhere Before?

When you are in community theatre, you run into many of the same people over and over. Whether you are on stage working with them or out in the house watching them, you encounter certain staple individuals, depending on the size of the market. Naturally the smaller the market and the small the company, the more likely you are to get repeat business as it were. I'd love it if this were true less often. In some ways it would behoove community companies to go out of there way to find totally new people on a regular basis. But that's another entry.

So recurring personalities in community theatre are a given, for purposes of my thoughts today. This situation has advantages as well as disadvantages.

Now there are certain companies that have season auditions, and once cast, the same group of people appear in each play for the year. But people know that going in with such places. Now, I mean those that hold open auditions for each play. 

To begin with, you tend to make many like minded friends. Those with whom you appear in several shows over the years tend to be more open to you personally after a time. And not only is a good to make new friends, it makes performing with them better in most cases. You establish trust with the other person, because you know their tendencies and style. What to expect from them backstage. When to joke and not joke with them. As my loyal blog readers no, trust is probably the number one advantage to working within someone in a play.

But on the other side of it, sometimes working with the same people can lead to a performance feeling stale if those involved are not careful. It becomes easier to be complacent, or to rely on tricks and such when we perform. People we have known personally for a while are less likely to keep us on our toes, should we begin to slack a bit. Working with new people regularly can keep things fresh for both the performers and the audience.

Not to mention that sometimes you can know somebody quite well, and loath them. Sad, but true. I have not gone to plays if I know that certain people I detest will appear in them. It may not be fair, but it is one of the side effects of working with the same difficult people over and over again, and then finding yourself in the audience.

And on the subject of audiences, familiar faces have pluses and minuses in their eyes as well. On the one hand, members of the community may find it comforting and entertaining to be able to see their local lawyer, or doctor, or their cousin in the plays a lot. It makes them feel connected to what is going on. That they are some how part of the larger community that the company is trying to reach. But then again, it may be harder to attract and keep new customers if they feel they are only going to see the same actors show after show after show.

And there is also the slightest chance of type casting. Some people don't mind it, but if say they always call on Jane to try out for the goofy romantic comedies because she is "always so good in them", and Jane always gets in, nobody, including Jane, may feel confident that she can play something other than that. True, sometimes recurring personalities at a company play a variety of roles and can escape this problem, but then we get back into the previous disadvantage of seeing the same people over and over no matter what the role.

And of course, no matter how good anybody is, when you have known them, worked with them, and seen them several times, there is always the danger of just seeing "George" up there on stage, without really letting yourself enjoy their performance. It doesn't have to be that way to be sure, but if George has been to your daughters wedding, the last 12 parties you have been to, and been in a play with you the last four times, you may have to work extra hard to forget that it is George. Whereas if you have no idea who the people are, it may be easier to set aside your knowledge of them being an actor. Suspension of disbelief tends to decrease somewhat.

So there you have it. Just a few of the ups and downs of having a list of "usual suspects" within a theatre. At least the theatres around here. I imagine it is similar anywhere. They can all be overcome, however, with a little bit of determination, open mindedness and pride in what you are doing. (If you are in the show yourself.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Acting Alfresco

I have never performed in a play at an outside venue. I have been in the audience for a few outside performances. (All Shakespeare.) And I have at times rehearsed outside, when casts on a nice day whine and beg for the privilege to do so. And while I will concede that an odd rehearsal outside here and there is not the same thing as an entire production taking place outside, what I learned from those experiences has convinced me I wouldn't want to perform outside in most circumstances.

I have often said here on the blog that an actor must always be prepared for any contingency. The lights going out, the sound system not functioning. Last minute costume changes. To be a good actor one must be adaptable to many different situations that may arise during the course of a production. To insist on everything being perfect in order to perform well is just asking for trouble.

That doesn't mean, however, that I welcome an extra dozen or so variables just for the fun of it. I'd like to at least aim for as much control as possible. Performing outside by default puts so many things outside of the actor's control.

To begin with, weather. While with enough focus I could perform in the pouring rain, why would I opt for the risk? What is that proving? I hate being in wet clothes, and if I am that uncomfortable it is putting an undue strain on my to keep said focus. The same with gusting wind. And the idea of canceling a show due to weather is not an enviable option, seeing as how often weather tends to screw around with my plans anyway. All of that work down the tube because on the day we open it rains? No thank you.

Also, people these days tend to have a hard enough time keeping quiet and respectful in a theatre. Put that same group of talking, texting, food munching patrons outside and you might as well send out an invitation to everyone in attendance that says,

"You are cordially invited to make a bunch of noise as often as possible."

And that is just the patrons. If you are outside, you are guaranteed to have people who couldn't care less about theatre laying on their horn for minutes at a time as they drive by, putting their radios on loud in an adjoining area, or just generally going out of their way to screw everything up. If they did that at an indoor venue they could be asked to leave and if needs be, forcibly removed. How do you eject someone from "outside"?

The classics such as Shakespeare and obviously the Greek tragedies can be played well in such venues, if you are into broad, sweeping interpretations. Which sometimes I am. But most outdoor venues deprive one of intimacy. Subtleties in performance, which I both like to see as a patron, and use as an actor, are lost in your standard outdoor venue. Plus many modern plays simply would not work outside, whereas Shakespeare or the Greek tragedies can in fact be adjusted to work inside.

I'm not unaware of some of the positive points made by those who enjoy outdoor theatre. For one, yes, I realize that the very first theatres were outdoor venues, and that to perform outdoors does provide one with a semi-intriguing connection to ancient theatre. But that was two thousand or so years ago. They also killed people for sport and entertainment back then. The age of a practice is not by itself proof of it's prudence.

Also, most outdoor shows are by default minimalist in regards to sets and props. This I like, because as I have often said, I am a theatre minimalist. But minimalism as a concept is not limited to outside venues.

It is said that outdoor venues are less stuffy and more inviting atmospheres than are traditional indoor venues. The casual theatre goer would feel less intimidated about coming to a show outside in a park than inside in a theatre. I give this a maybe, but with the caveat that there is nothing wrong with a little bit of stuffiness and decorum inside of a theatre. Furthermore, an open, relaxed atmosphere can be established inside as well, if desired.

I suppose there could be an outside venue in which I would consider performing, if it met several criteria.

-An enclosed venue, specifically set aside for theatre. This as opposed to an open, available space in a city park somewhere. If I am going to perform outside, I want to be sure that anybody who can see me is at least there with the intention of seeing a show.

-Observant staff that keep the audience respectful. If people in the audience are held just as accountable at an outside theatre as they are in an inside theatre, that would make it more palatable to me.

-A weather proofed performance area. Or at least one that would be shielded from the rain and wind as much a possible. That way the performers could continue, and let the audience decide if it's worth getting rained on.

-Reasonable size. Some outdoor venues actually have seats, while some just have patrons sit on the ground, or bring their own chairs. But either way, I don't want a sprawling, thousand person "house". If it is still limited to a few hundred people that are rather close to the stage, some amount of intimacy might be saved, and make it worth it.

-Secluded location. Or at least semi-secluded. Far enough away fro major highways, public parks, and other such distractions to make it feel as though despite being outside, everyone has arrived at a theatre once they are there.

-Dressing rooms. I think I need them. Not so much for the privacy of changing clothes. An actor gets used to not caring who sees what backstage. But for the sake of having someplace where the actor can be "off" when he needs to be. I know I need that.

-Some lighting. I'd hate for every show to be a matinee...

All and all, I suppose I could be persuaded under those conditions, to be in an outdoor show. Perhaps I still could be persuaded even without all of these safeguards if the chance were a great opportunity. But all things being 100% equal, I will almost always choose to perform inside instead of outside.

Have you ever performed in an outdoor venue? What did you think of it?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

My Latest ShowBiz Radio Post

This week over at Showbiz Radio, I talk a bit about what you should do to put the community into community theatre. As actors, we really shouldn't feel our job ends with our performances. We should keep in mind how much has to happen in order for a show to be the best it can be. And when the show is better, our individual performances are better.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On

I have had several dreams in the last week or two that took place inside a theatre. I suppose every actor, and indeed every person has their share of dreams pertaining to their passion or hobby, and I am of course no exception. Yet the last two weeks or so have seen theatres brought into my dreamscape with a higher frequency than is usual, even for me.

I will also point out that they were not unpleasant. I have a recurring unpleasant theatre oriented dream. I won't get into that here, but suffice to say I prefer not to have that dream. Yet each of these recent ones have not been unpleasant. Each of them has had a few other things in common as well.

It's funny what you can "sense" or just "know" is true within a dreamscape. A level of understanding that may or may not be directly related to the environment, but is true to you nonetheless. I am sure you know what I mean by that. You dream of a group of people and in the dream you know they have been your friends, and are going to miss you when you leave. But they are not actual people from your life, and you have announced in the dream no intention of leaving to go anywhere. But you just know you are leaving.

It's like you are being placed right in the middle of all of the backstory, emotions, and sensory input of a moment, without having lived the entire life that leads up to it. Not all dreams are like this of course, but those are the ones I usually remember best, and these theatre dreams came with similar knowledge.

For example none of them have taken place in actual venues with which I am familiar in waking life. But in the dreams I "knew" I was connected to them in some fashion. A vague sense that any given theatre in my dream was in fact a theatre with which I should be familiar. (And to go along with that, some familiar people from waking life were present.)

All of the theatre dreams of late were during rehearsal periods, as in empty houses. No audience. Nobody is performing. Actually perhaps not even that, because in a few of the dreams, people were milling about in the house, back stage, up in the booth and various other places, going about obvious work, but not directly rehearsing.

Plus, without a doubt all of the dreams took place at night. I got the sense each time in fact that it was later at night than most people would find themselves in a theatre. In the dream it always "feels" like midnight or later. Yet there was an importance to what we, (as in myself and the cast of characters within the dream) were doing. There was no screwing about. This wasn't play time. We were totally immersed in the idea of getting whatever production it was ready to go. Or perhaps getting the venue itself ready to go, I cannot be certain.

But I think it is that sense of 100% purpose, drive, and dedication within these "dream theatres" that made them so memorable. Everybody there was committed to the theatre as a whole, and not just the particular venue in which I appeared in the dream. IN each case I felt a profound sense of belonging and mission. I am no Freud, but I considered what these five or so recent theatre related dreams of the last two weeks may have meant. I've come up with a quasi-analysis.

The sense of familiarity may represent the simple notion that theatre is in me, no matter what the venue. That isn't hard to determine. The fact that others were present, but none of them goofing off would perhaps be a symbol of those with whom I share this total dedication.

The empty house I have come to surmise may in fact point towards how dedication and passion for the theatre cannot begin or end with the actual performances, but must be present throughout. And those that are committed to such an extent will put themselves into it deeply enough to accomplish success whatever it takes. (Which is why, I theorize, all of these dreams took place so late at night; staying that late to get things done, despite everything else going on being an indication of the type of commitment I feel drawn to when it comes to theatre.

The last place in waking life where I consistently felt theatre working that way was in college. Late nights at the theatre. Doing all it took to get things done, whether it be building, painting, doing lights. Setting your day around what you would be doing at the theatre that night, and watching the end result make it all worth it. There have been some experiences that have held touches of that sort of experience since college, to be sure. But college was where it was most concentrated. Probably because college is different, and it was part of what we were all doing. And you could walk to the theatre. (As well as "break" in after hours, if you absolutely needed to do something.) You don't get that much in community theatres.

Jobs, and kids, and houses and commutes and 101 other things in "real" life tend to get in the way of most people at the community level engaging fully in spirit and not just time and physical energy. Not to mention the sacrifice of quality that sometimes results in the corners that are cut in amateur theatre, resulting in a less satisfying experience sometimes.

Actually I should amend that and point out that this is my personal experience. It is me who has not had many chances in community theatre to find myself in "full immersion" mode. And it is not because of commutes and jobs and schedules. It just that it takes a certain confluence of circumstances, personalities and passions to make it happen. And to be fair, in some of my community productions that has in fact happened. Or come very close to happening. I treasure the memories of those times.

And theatre friends I have who are scattered across the country report to me of  productions and companies and such that do seem to attain the "late at night/at all costs/art for art's sake" culture of my recent dreams. So, it is not impossible.

And perhaps that is the final impetus to my dreams of late. A projection of my desire to not only dedicate myself deeply to the art of acting, but to the nature of theatre as whole, whenever I can. As soon as I can. And to seek out those who are of the same mind. Those that understand they have day jobs and lives outside of the theatre, but love to make the sacrifice for it anyway. Not because they are paid to do it, but exactly because they are not paid. Art for arts sake. A spiritual form of making love to the theatrical. And when I find such people, my desire to hold on to them, tightly. (I know a few, as I said, already.)

But if that is the message of my recent dreams, what has changed? Why am I being reminded of these desires? Have I somehow forgotten them? Have I, without even knowing it, softened somewhat in my expectations with theatre? Or has the potential of the theatre to be life changing slipped from my attention lately while I have been too busy worrying about it's minutia?

Perhaps the dreams are just friendly reminders of what I am inside? Projections of what moves me.

Or maybe they were all just dreams, and mean nothing.

Yeah, I don't believe that either.

Monday, March 07, 2011

It's NOT the Economy, Stupid

I came across this post which summarizes quite well my own views in regards to arts advocacy.

It should come as no surprise to any of my loyal blog readers that I support the arts, on the national/professional level as well as the local/amateur level. Certainly I support them in our schools. Which is why I have been troubled, as many have been, with the dwindling monetary support for the arts from both public and private sources over the last few decades.

Enter arts advocacy groups.

Their job of course is to reverse this trend, and there are many ways to go about it. One of the most popular these days, however, is also one that I think is the least effective. As the post states, there is a great deal of attention put into educating policy makers on the economic impact of the arts. How many jobs they create. How much money they put into the economy. The types of businesses that indirectly profit from an arts presence in a neighborhood. While I don't dispute the truth of the numbers, this position has always bothered me because it fails to advocate for arts as an end unto themselves.

We have already lost the fight for the arts if we cannot come up with reasons why they are the life blood of a civilized, cultured society. If people still view them as elitist, removed institutions with which they cannot identify, than our job is to share why arts of all kinds are so vital in their own right. Not to try to be clever and work around the apathy by making the, "look how much money the arts can make" argument. Because if that is the best we have, the arts get crushed in a rather simple comparison to other institutions.

Make the arts important because they are the arts, and not because they provide X number of jobs, (almost none of which would be accessible to a struggling community's citizens anyway, let's face it.)

As you can see from the article, yours truly left a similar comment in the comments section of the piece.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

"The Play's The Thing", (And Not the Text?)

Here in this article, Helen Mirren takes exception to having school children read Shakespeare, as opposed to being introduced to it via a live performance, or at least a film.

I agree in principle. Certainly introducing Shakespeare strictly as text has its advantages. I'll never deny that. And once students get to high school, it can and probably should be a large part of studying the Bard.

Even then, if one's only goal is to introduce textual analysis and iambic pentameter and other linguistic subjects to a student. And while there is nothing wrong with that approach, (I study such things myself informally, I think as an introductory approach, it misses a great deal of the point.

Shakespeare's plays are scripts. Intended from the very beginning to be performed. They existed for the benefit of actors, and not readers. That is not to say that English scholars have no business dissecting them,  but if one's ultimate goal is to introduce Shakespeare itself to young people, as opposed to merely introducing the literary devices he may (or may not) have employed in his story telling, there is a great advantage to having a performance be one of the first exposures to the Bard a student experiences.

I say "one of" because I wouldn't rely 100% on a "cold viewing" in order to introduce students to Shakespeare. A primer on his language and vocabulary would be in order before exposing them to an actual production. A brief discussion of how we believe his plays were staged originally would not hurt either. For I do not, as many do, believe that a "perfect" performance of a Shakespeare play will make all of the unfamiliar language suddenly clear to the totally uninitiated. The Bard was brilliant, but he was not magical. Those four centuries between his time and ours cannot simply be ignored. (Though many companies believe Shakespeare is only ever confusing because it is not performed properly, and that's bogus.)

Still, I favor de-emphasizing textual analysis in favor of viewing of performance for the earliest of Shakespeare exposure. I am, after all, an actor, and Romeo and Juliet first and foremost is in fact a script, not a novel.

And if Helen said it, it can't be that off the wall of a concept, can it?