Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How Theater Failed America

As probably all six people who actually read this blog already know, I'm an ensemble member with a small storefront theatre company in town. I'm also in charge of their marketing and PR (by the way, come see our production of Spring Awakening, the gripping original play by Frank Wedekind, running through May 9! Yeah, I still got it). I've been mulling over several items lately, including Mike Daisey's monologue How Theater Failed America, which I saw this past Monday (better late than never, right? Definitely, in this case). It was delightful, hilarious, thought provoking, and a lot of it seems to be sticking with me, at least for now. One of the reasons that's kind of amazing is that, as he tells us early on, "This is a story you already know." I think the reason it still mattered so much to me to see him do that is that, as he puts it, he's doing an incredibly rare thing on stage these days- telling the truth. To hear him say some of the things he does on the stage of that particular theater (in a studio space at that particular theater, naturally) struck me as pretty ballsy even if it actually wasn't. Not as ballsy as if he were invited to do that show Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare or in the Owen at the Goodman, but still, you can't help but wonder how many of the accusations he levels accurately fit the very institution within which he is performing. The unspoken philosophy that actors are vermin, or that artists are infinitely less important than survival of the institution, and in particular the building, where the art is taking place.
I left the place after a chat with Mr. Daisey himself (which also amazed me; after talking for something like two hours straight, he continued to be very generous with his time and conversation after the show) all fired up, but the main question burning in my mind is this: what can I, personally, do to help with this situation today? It's hard to answer- I'm part of a theater company, but it's a small itinerant operation with very little money. It's true, we're just as guilty as some of these larger institutions of underpaying our artists, but it's not like we have piles of cash being squirreled away for some capital campaign for a building- it's not even as if we're giving it to administrative staff instead: we're poor. We at least are definitely built as an ensemble of artists- and not just artists; most or all of us are actor/staff hybrids like me (i.e., one of our actresses is our Development Director as well; same for our Literary Manager; our Business Manager is also the company's resident Stage Manager, our Artistic and Excutive Directors frequently perform in or direct our plays)...except, all this is minus the money. We all have to cling to day jobs as our life support. Nobody who spends time working for our company is making any kind of real money doing it. Still, I'm doing what I can. I spoke with our Executive Director about How Theater Failed America yesterday and told him flat out that if we ever do a capital campaign I'm adamant that we do one to endow chairs for artists before we ever, ever, raise money to build a building. I'm not sure he agrees with me- he had some things to say about the importance of having a single 'sacred space' in which our community gathers. And I can see that point of view too- in many ways, to me a theater is a temple. This art form plays that significant a role in my life. But that doesn't mean that we need to build a gaudy palace for our god while the high priests and acolytes are starving and begging in the streets. It's like Mr. Daisey says- once the audience is past the pretty lobby, the lights go down and they can't even see the space- it's only the *art* that will matter, finally. (Though if I can offer a quibble, Mr. Daisey, there's something to be said for having comfortable seating at least. I don't know about you, but I've definitely had difficulty enjoying a theater performance because the seat in which I was placed had become viciously, ass-punishingly uncomfortable after about the first forty five minutes!) I'm also going to try to get everyone I can, especially in my company, to see this show. Mr. Daisey is very persuasive- hopefully between the two of us we can convince everyone that, while we're poor now, we need to have our priorities clear in case we actually do wind up raising some serious cash at some point.
But you know what? That's not enough for me either. I'm trying to think of ways that I can help improve the disaster that was described to me Monday night sooner than that. And I'll talk about it in my next blog post. It has to do with another group of people that I feel are too often exploited by this current non-profit arts system, and, as a pretty big clue, it also has to do with how completely pissed off I got when i read this article in the New York Times.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

On Adapting a Novel

A fan of The Last Unicorn who hadn't seen the Promethean production but is a huge fan of the novel wrote me recently- one thing they asked about is what my approach was in adapting it and if I had any advice or pointers for them. I just sent him a pretty lengthy response that I think others might find useful as well, so I'm sharing it here:

"Adapting a novel is a pretty complicated task. The most important first step is to make sure you have permission from the right person to do the adaptation. I know people who have had their productions shut down or even been threatened with legal action because they didn't get the appropriate permission in advance. I can offer additional suggestions on how to go about doing that in another email if you like, but I think the main thing you were asking is about the 'how' of doing the adaptation itself. At the risk of being obvious, here are some basic suggestions- first of all, it helps if you're really enthusiastic about the material- you're going to have to spend a lot of time thinking about and 'living with' this book, so don't choose works that don't really speak to you at all. Also, you should become extremely familiar with the novel. Even if you think you already know it, read it again. Then read it a second time, and take notes- even mark in the book, if you're okay with marking up the copy you have. Make notes of the sections you think are especially important- the scenes that you think are the best, or that are the most important as far as what the book it 'about' to you. While you're going through, some ideas might start popping in to your head- you might start being able to really clearly picture a scene as it would unfold on stage, or an idea as to a really cool way to stage or symbolize something you already know you won't be able to show literally on stage. Also, some sections might stand out to you as "oh, I definitely want to cut this part" for whatever reason. Don't commit yourself to cutting those parts, but definitely make note of it. Once you feel confident that you're very familiar with the novel and have a good idea of what parts work for you and are important to you, it's time to begin actually creating the first draft of the script.
There are two basic ways to create the first draft of the script- the first way is to script the scenes you like best and can see most clearly in your head, no matter where they fall in the play. Then once you have those scenes created, you slowly flesh it out, linking up the scenes until you have the full script. The other way is to just start at the beginning and work your way through the book page by page. I've found that a combination of the two works best- some days you'll be in the mood to plow through the pages in order, and some days you'll want to treat yourself to working on your favorite parts. The key is to be really disciplined- set aside a certain period of time each day (or each week, if you're really busy) to write. Even if you're not feeling really inspired that day, that's okay- there might be parts of the novel that you already know you want to keep verbatim, and days you're feeling less enthusiastic are good days to just type those verbatim scenes in to the script. Set a schedule for yourself and a deadline to finish your first draft- otherwise what you thought would only take a few months can stretch out into a years-long project.
Sometimes it can help to flesh out your adaptation if you write it with specific actors or a specific theatre company and space in mind- as long as you're at peace with the fact that those actors and that space may not be what you wind up getting, it can help fuel your creativity- if you're having to invent dialogue and/or scenes that get glossed over or omitted in the source material, being able to picture the actual actors that would deliver the lines can help fuel your creativity. Also, knowing in advance some of the logistical limitations you'll be facing gives you a structure that can stimulate your imagination. Some of the ideas for the adaptation of "The Last Unicorn" that I'm proudest of came from knowing we were only going to have a limited budget and only so many people that could fit into our venue's dressing room.
In general I'm a big fan of using what I call Performance Art touches in my pieces, as they were taught to me either in class with Paul Edwards, or by viewing pieces by the likes of Mary Zimmerman and Frank Galati. That includes not being shy about narration or direct address to the audience (while still being as economical about it as possible; it's easy to kill the audience's enthusiasm with too much narration), not being afraid to use dance and movement to forward the action of the story, and employing simple symbols for complex or impossible-to-literally-stage moments. For example, using the white rose to symbolize the unicorn's horn.
Once you have a first draft, go through it again before you show it to anyone. You'll be surprised how many typos and other things that don't entirely make sense make it into a first draft. Then, get together a bunch of your actor friends and do a private reading of it. Don't read any parts yourself- not even the stage directions! Instead, listen carefully and take lots of notes- hearing the lines spoken out loud will make it a lot clearer to you what's working and what isn't. Also get their feedback- you're not going to agree with all of it- and you should never feel compelled to follow anyone's advice on changes to your script- but the suggestions you get will reveal to you how others are reacting to the piece- what *they* think it's about, and what parts work for them best, or confuse them. Some of that feedback will make good sense to you, or at least enough sense that you'll want to try it out. Then do rewrites!
Sometimes it can help once you've done a rewrite to just set the script aside (say for a few weeks or even months) before returning to it. That can help freshen your perspective on it, and a few more ideas may occur to you, or you may catch some things you want to fix that you hadn't noticed before. Also, sometimes your friends can get tired of rereading the script too often if you don't space out the readings a bit.
In general, don't be afraid to take chances. It's a lot of work, but there are few things as satisfying as sitting in the audience and feeling the people around you responding to a script you adapted. I hope some of this helps you, and good luck!"

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

First preview of HEPHAESTUS

I've already seen this show before, but all of the publicity for it was all about "we're in a bigger space with a higher ceiling. That means we will make it MORE AWESOME" so I decided to check it out again. Well, for the most part there's not an appreciable difference- and there are some things they had the last time I saw it that were missing this time that was pretty disappointing. If you've never seen it before, you should see it at some point- that's a given. Since it was first preview, I spent a lot of time noticing the odd little things that go wrong at a first previews- and let me tell you, that's a LOT more interesting/terrifying for this show because if something goes wrong someone can get hurt. Examples of things I noticed (sorry, this is just how my brain works. it's a curse):

-During the sea nymph scene, one of the nymphs was having a LOT of trouble with her fabric. I don't know enough about that type of circus (is that Spanish Web? Maybe?) to know what exactly was up, but she had to drop out of unison with the other nymphs while she was staring at and repeatedly working the fabric, like she was looking for a particular spot on it, or trying to get it in the right position. I was kind of worried for her (this all happens pretty high off the ground!), but she managed to sort it out and rejoin the rest of them by the end of the number.
-For the first drum sequence, one of the drummers was late for his entrance, and they had to wait for him.
-For some reason it took FOREVER for them to bring the second Silver Man out of the pit. Maybe there was a problem with the rigging?
-The sunglasses worn by the guy who rolls around in the giant metal ring fell off. He had to kick them under the audience risers before he could keep going.
-Later in the show, two of the ladies dressed as Silver Girls bounce down on bungie cords from trapezes, handing off pieces of the chair used for the final feat. One of them had trouble getting enough rebound to get back up to her trapeze- she whiffed it several times while the other girl was already back on her perch.
-The final feat- will they always talk to each other that much? Don't get me wrong- if they need to, they need to, and it's still damn amazing even if they talk.

Things I miss from the last time:
-The last time I saw it, one of the Silver Men gets 'electrocuted' or something during his creation, and he becomes the sort of broken, crazy one who does all these kickass break dancing moves. He wasn't in this version- the corresponding Silver Man in this production is played by an actress, who does some pretty neat flips but I found the previous version to be more impressive.
-The Aphrodite in this version is a contortionist and a pretty good en pointe ballerina. But the lady from the last time did this jaw-dropping stuff with hula hoops as well as being absurdly flexible. I miss the hula hoops, dammit!

However, there is one thing they do that is jaw droppingly more awesome than the last time I saw it- the final high wire feat has a whole new layer of people added, so it's even more thrilling. It's very impressive and on its own might justify seeing this again to someone who's already seen it.

The lights and sound, while still being tinkered with, remain extremely impressive (sorry, that's a word I use a lot in referring to this show, even when critiquing it). My favorite two light effects:
-During the Iris (the goddess of the Rainbow) scene, many of the gelled lighting instruments are actually arranged in ROYGBIV order.
-When Hera is playing with her new throne, they use her body as a canvas for this incredible light display- it looks as if she's made of light, or filled with a bunch of large fireflies or something. I thought that was awesome.

Last, I guess I can talk about the story. They're pretty faithful to the original myth (and trust me, that matters to me a whole lot- see my rant about Clash of the titans). But the myth is, of course, just a justification for the circus feats on display. None of the main characters even have dialogue. That said, one moment I always find supremely moving is when Hephaestus first falls in to the ocean and crawls onto land. His desolation at being so completely abandoned by his mother is really affecting. So hooray for emotional truthfulness in a circus show!

Anyway, thanks Lookingglass for continuing to tell stories and do shows that matter to me. I criticize because I love. Now just get Mary Zimmerman to do a new adaptation once she's done with Candide, darn it!

P.S.- the Owen seating chart they have online is a vicious LIE. I made a point of trying to get what the seating chart says is an aisle seat (AAA 54, if you must know) but when I actually went to take my seat it was smack in the middle of a row! Grrr. At least the house had enough empty seats that I could move.

My thoughts on CLASH OF THE TITANS

Wow did this movie piss me off. Why the hell does Perseus have a buzz cut? Is this new version an allegory for promoting the armed forces. "I want to do this as a man"= the new "army of one?" Am I just being a paranoid liberal? Maybe. But I have to admit that the new version of Clash of the Titans fills me with rage. How is it that these "stunning" CGI effects are more boring and less convincing than the claymation and stop motion creations from the original? Why are they letting Fiennes reprise his turn as Voldemort in this movie? Why is Zeus wearing medieval armor when this is set in Ancient Greece? Are the djinns this movie's annoying, insulting version of the jive-talking Transformers? Seriously, what focus group decided to add those jerks? How could they possible have made this movie more witless than the original? I grant you, that takes some doing. Neither of them care particularly about faithfulness to the original myth, but the back story of the original still seemed much richer somehow. And the new love interest, "Io" (turned into a cow, right? Ha! NOT IN THIS VERSION!)- man she couldn't act. Bland, bland, bland. I devoted my childhood to studying Greek mythology and other folklore, and apparently the only reward I get for that in contemporary culture is this piece of crap. Don't waste your money on this like I did! Stay far away. >:-(

Saturday, April 3, 2010

My thoughts on A TRUE HISTORY OF THE JONESTOWN FLOOD at the Goodman

I'm always a little confused when everyone seems to absolutely despise a piece that I think is okay. I found the Goodman's production of Ruhl's Passion Play to be tolerable, for example, and in general seem to enjoy a lot of Ruhl's work more than many of my theatre netizen compatriots. I think in general it's because I have a strong affinity for whimsy and the fantastical in theatre. While I can have a decent time at a contemporary realistic piece, it's not the kind of thing I most enjoy seeing. Give me some breaking of the fourth wall, or a dream sequence, or yes, even an inexplicable school of giant fish heads processing majestically across the stage. I'm willing to be beguiled by spectacle, and I would maintain there's nothing wrong with that. I've read a lot on the blogosphere lately crapping on this play, and since I'm between jobs and poor I figured I'd let it pass me by- until the Goodman offered a pretty sweet discount to see it this weekend (thanks, Christianity!) and I saw today's 2 p.m. matinee.

This is going to be pretty scattershot, but that's okay since I'm not trying to be a serious theater reviewer here. I'm just conveying my impressions of it. First, I didn't think it was as dire as I was worried it might be. For one thing, I got to enjoy some Chicago acting peeps that usually aren't allowed on to the Goodman stage in major roles- Cliff Chamberlain (oh Cliff, you'll always be the Tin Man to me), Stephen Louis Grush (hi Stephen! Remember when I ushered for Bernice Bobs Her Mullet? Uh, me neither) and Janet Ulrich Brooks (shining in several supporting roles, and making her Goodman debut? After how many years of kicking ass in the storefront scene? Really? I feel a bit better about never having worked there then).

Also, the scenery was pretty impressive. I think too often those of us who frequent the shoestring-budget storefront scene forget that spectacle is part of Aristotle's Poetics. A piece that employs spectacle to effective ends shouldn't be shunned just because they had money. I sometimes forget that seeing theater is a Pleasure, a leisure activity, and part of that experience can sometimes be the sensual enjoyment of pleasing or impressive sights and sounds. Especially the scenes of devastation near the end of act one and during act 2 were pretty impressive. And kudos to the sound designer for what was a truly awesome sound when the flood waters come crashing down in the darkness near the end of the first act. It reminded me very clearly of a few nightmares I've had about drowning. But enough about me.

That said, I think the play itself has problems. What is it about, exactly? Because to me it seemed like the playwright, Rebecca Gilman, was trying to draw too many themes into her embrace when crafting this piece. To an extent it's kind of about theater itself, and the perpetual tension between the theater that exists solely to entertain and theater that spits on entertainment value and only cares about inciting social change. In some ways I thought it was a daring piece to show at the Goodman, because of the very nature of the Goodman- i.e., when the socialite comes out in the world of the play and thanks all the rich folk who made the theater performance within the play possible, it's hard not to think about the typical demographics of the Goodman subscription audience. A lot of wealthy names are on plaques and listed in programs there. Are all of those same people as generous when it comes to their social responsibilities? Am I as an audience member complicit in similar suffering to the suffering shown in this piece? Which brings me to another 'it's about:' it's also about class warfare, examining the social stratification that literally brought about a situation where the wealthy enjoyed their leisures on high at the (eventually fatal) expense of the toiling masses below. Part of act 2 also seemed like a kind of mini-commercial for the American Red Cross. Some of the pacing is weird- either draggy or too abrupt. For example, near the end of the first act, two characters decide to screw on stage with an abruptness that had several people around me giggling. And then the final scene before the curtain comes down was soooooo drawn out. Almost pointlessly so. And my personal reaction as the curtain fell was "Really? That's how you're ending this play?" It was unsatisfying. Other thoughts:

-So Richard died? I guess?
-Filling the stage with waves as part of that big budget production in Act 2 was cool, but why? What was the point of that scene? It was obscure to me, which is frustrating because I consider myself a fairly discerning individual usually when I see a play. It's kind of about redemption? Maybe? Except to tart up what really happened to these people for the delectation of a paying audience was kind of offensive. Except this play itself for all its pretensions to compassion and really unfolding these events, also tarts up real human suffering for the delectation of a paying audience, of which I was part. Hmm.
-Playwrights, showing us intentionally bad melodrama/acting as plays-within-a-play is not as funny to us as it is to you. Knock it off. Or use it more sparingly.
-"I'm not one of the villains in your plays, Fanny." Except that in my opinion, the son of privilege who won't do the right thing despite his feelings IS a stock character now.

I'm still mulling it over. It wasn't terrible. But I also don't see why Chris Jones saw it as so major that it got its own apologia on his blog after he gave it a lukewarm review.