Monday, November 12, 2012

"Art": A Director's Journey Comes to an End.

Well, loyal blog readers, yesterday was the third and final performance of "Art", which I've been working on since the first week in September. As I mentioned here previously, I opted not to do a full scale daily update of the experience here, as this blog is about my acting adventures. As I do more directing and other theatre related activities I may decide to expand the focus of Always Off Book to include more regular updates and thoughts on other things theatrical. In fact I'm leaning in that direction. But in this case for now, I kept my updates about my directorial project broad and infrequent. It being over now though, a post mortem of sorts is in order.

It was an experience with many bumps from the very beginning. Audition turn out was lower than I had hoped. I hadn't hoped for standing room only, but I had hoped there would be more interest than what I got. (Though two of the three roles were cast from those able to show up on the actual day of auditions.

All was well for a week until one of the leads, who for some reason decided not to let me know about his work schedule while auditioning, opted to quit on the very first day. They were "sorry" for nearly running this show into oblivion with one single decision that for whatever reason could not have been made days before. I suppose it's not what happens, but the way it happens that can bother me. The way that happened caused me quite a bit of anger that took me some time to get over. (Truth be told, I will probably always be a little angry about it.)

The next few weeks were a string of disappointments as seven other actors approached to take the role turned it down for various reasons. During those rehearsals I had to read the role myself while also trying to give notes. That essentially doesn't work. I desperately did not want to be in the show myself, as the last time I got to direct, I had to do that. Around this time, I set a deadline for the show. If no actor could be found by Date X, I'd convert the show instead to a dramatic reading on a single weekend, instead of a standard production over two weekends. If that date passed and we still had no replacement, I was considering taking the role myself. It was still not appealing, being in a reading again that I was trying to direct. But a reading made it at least possible (though very difficult) to proceed. Having to be off book was never going to happen.

At last someone emailed me and asked to join the show. I'd met them a few times, but not worked with them directly. Usually in musicals or working backstage, it would be their first experience doing a "straight" show, albeit as a reading. But they took to the role well from day one, and showed fine instincts. At long last, regular rehearsals were underway.

Though not as regular as I had hoped. You see the theatre in which I do most of my acting is small. It has two rooms. The stage, and the green room. When I chose the timing for this play, I operated under the assumption that we would have access to the green room while the show before ours rehearsed on stage. As it turned out, that show needed both the stage AND the green room. Meaning that for a ten day period, we couldn't rehearse, or had to rehearse in a tiny waiting room usually reserved for the medical practice that shares the building. Had I understood that months ago, I probably wouldn't have done the play in November.

When at last, about two weeks before we opened, the stage became ours, things started to improve somewhat. One of the cast member's husbands made for us some perfect podiums to replaces the clunky wooden boxes we had been using for the purpose.(Complete with shelves for some props.) Now the rehearsals began to take on a more solid, consistent feel. We began running the whole show in one night around this time.

Advertising for a stage manager did not bear fruit, (just like so many other things about this experience) so I took on that role myself. For the first time ever, by default, I was a stage manager. A week ago this evening, for the first time ever, I gave a ten minute warning to a cast. After years of thanking stage managers for 10, I received my first ever thank you for ten.

Not that I had time to consider that. For due to lack of interest, I also had to run the lights myself. Luckily there were only about four light cues, all of them requiring only a general wash of the stage. Lights up/lights down kind of thing. That much even I could do on the light board, and I did.

All the while, there was another independent show that would be appearing a week after our show. Not affiliated in any way with the theatre or the venue, they were given permission to use the stage for their performance of some musical. Didn't bother me any...until we could all begin to feel their hot breath on our necks a bit. Many requests to rehearse on our stage when we weren't there came into our producer's office. I allowed one such rehearsal, but finally, in as respectable terms as I could muster, requested to them personally that they not ask for any more time during the run of my show, because I was disinclined to give it to them. I, like anyone else, needed my actors to have a tech week run as smoothly as possible. It did.

The set looked great, thanks to some help from my mother in painting everything black. (Some of the walls had been a beige-like color from a previous production.) Black and minimalist, just as I like it. That is how it would have been had it turned out by my original plan to do the show off book. Just in this case, I had nicely built podiums for the actors.

All three shows had tiny, but receptive audiences. Especially yesterday, when only seven people showed up, but nonetheless laughed heartily and many parts of the play. The previous night was ten people and the first night about 13. (The house seats 100.) I had hoped for the actors' sake that the turn out would be better. But with few exceptions that is the average attendance rate at this particular theatre these days. Other than a reporter who interviewed me about the show (but never ended up running the story, much to me irritation), our show was advertised in the exact same way as the other shows on that stage are advertised. We weren't stuffed in that department, and lord knows I put in as much extra effort to spread the word on Twitter and Facebook as I could. But very little came of it. (10 people out of 400 invited on the Facebook page showed up.)

On the whole, I'm satisfied with the production, despite its bumpy ride almost from start to finish. I am proud of the cast, and grateful to them. They worked the hardest in all of this through some less than ideal circumstances.

Here are a few things I took away from the experience personally:

-I have had less influence, respect, and esteem in the local theatre community than I previously thought. The lack of interest in various stages of this production taught me that. The cult of personality has a large impact on one's numbers, both in auditions and in audience for productions in communities like this, and I lack charisma enough to build one around myself. I accept this in me, for the most part, and knew I was not especially popular on a personal level. But the idea that I command that little attention did come as somewhat of a hurtful surprise to me.

-I am more resourceful than I thought. I've always been proud of my ability as an actor to "take a sad song and make it better" if you will. But until I was forced to do so many things by myself in one show, I hadn't realized what i could make happen by myself in a non-acting position within theatre. The knowledge and perceptions I have built up during my participation in some 30 or so productions over my life has served me better than I would have imagined.

Granted, it is a specific brand of product I had to bring about as a result of all the complications and lack of on the ground help. There are things I did, and left undone that I am sure other directors would have driven themselves crazy trying to avoid. And perhaps they would have succeeded. However, I made a decision early on that my approach was be actor-oriented, no matter how battered the rest of the production would be. If I had to do almost everything backstage, then I was willing to sacrifice the smoothness of some things in order to bring more attention, thought and inspiration to the actors. I simply wasn't going to fall too much in love with some "big picture" perfect scenario that wasn't going to happen. If my lighting was less smooth because I spent less time experimenting with it, and more time getting the actors to think about scenes, so be it. I'd do it that way again.

We all have a specific theatre-style that is inside of us, on which we will fall back if other things don't go right. Mine is a simple, visceral, actor-based and audience-tuned style. When all else fails, explore the humanity. That is what a discerning audience will remember long after the awkward fade is forgotten.

-I've gotten better over the years at not getting outwardly upset. It happens still, and it did with this show's outside forces that continually seemed to throw bumps in front of me and my cast. But had I been doing this five years ago, I would have been angrier, I think, and each obstacle than I was now. Or at least more outwardly angry at them.

-Community theatre on the whole, in my region, is suffering. Stories of 5-10 people showing up for a show are apparently not limited to the tiny theatre in which I do most of my work. Another theatre in the general area seats maybe 500 people. Aside from big name and old fashioned Broadway shows, their plays, it would seem, do not attract the attention they used to. 10 people in that place is far more depressing than ten people where I did "Art". This makes me feel somewhat better about the turnout for my own show, but rather depressed about the prospects of community theatre around here in general.

-George S. Patton was right. "Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." 

-I may need to talk endlessly about my next project for months in advance, as opposed to weeks in advance. Maybe.

-Those few that do believe in me and what I do, are invaluable to these experiences.

There are more things I learned, about myself, theatre, this community, and other people. I don't need to get into them all. I think the above list covers the major lessons. I hope to direct again, either there or somewhere else. If i do I will take these lessons with me, and temper my approach accordingly. I'll never be personally popular are esteemed enough to command a great deal of interest in my projects around here. But perhaps, with these lessons in mind, I can have a smoother run operation, for both myself, and my actors, the next time I take the helm.