Thursday, September 21, 2017

A Venture Into Producing...

No lengthy essay this month. My husband and I welcomed our first child into the world and life has been a bit topsy turvy. I hope to return to my regular, rambling posts soon. In the meantime, here's a photo from our first day together.


Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Question of Risk

I recently received an appointment for an audition. I am currently about 8 months pregnant, so at this point, my pregnancy is evident to anyone who looks at me. The contract for this job would have started a month after my due date and would ended before my husband finished his paternity leave. Meaning it would have been a whirlwind for me and my family, but it would have been possible. When I went in for my audition, the female artistic director immediately reacted by saying "Well, you're not available for this contract. There's no way. Why are you here?" I explained that if they felt like I was a great fit for the role, I thought it was workable (and explained why). If they didn't feel like I was a match for the role, then this audition was just a further opportunity for us to continue to develop our relationship. This explanation did not seem to satisfy her in the least, but I was allowed to continue with my audition. There's nothing like knowing someone is not interested in hiring you to help bring out your best work. (For further irony, the play itself was about the feminist movement that occurred in conjunction with the French Revolution.)

I understand that this was a small theater and its resources are limited. I understand that for something like this there are no understudies - meaning that if someone had to miss a performance or suddenly has to back out of a contract, that creates significant problems for the theater. But the reality is, I am no more of a risk to this production than any other performer would be. It's just that the reason why I MIGHT be a risk, is much more evident than it might be for other candidates. If I had cancer, or a drug addiction, or was a man who was about to be a first time dad, they would never have known that information from just looking at me and there wouldn't have been any question about my ability to fulfill the contract. Additionally, because there is such a stigma about being pregnant in this industry (and being written off because of it) they probably would have earned my undying love and devotion for being an ally rather than an adversary. Nothing short of an act of God would have kept me from missing a performance.

But instead of asking the question about whether or not it was possible for us to figure out a way for it to work, a decision was made that it wasn't feasible. The decision completely excluded half of the conversation (me) and was made before any other possibilities were even considered. Which seems like a shame for both of us. If you thought I was right enough to be given an appointment, isn't it worth considering ways to make it work? If you don't, at the very least, ask the question, you're selling everyone short. What if I was planning to put the child up for adoption? Or what if I was planning to exclusively use formula and could therefore be away from it for the duration of the contract? I wasn't planning on doing either of those things, but I was never even asked. And what I could have done was pump and have my husband there to care for our child for the entire process. Something that would have been easy for the theater to accommodate. But other options were never legitimately considered.



Seth Godin recently wrote a wonderful post about risk. He writes:
The gulf between "risky" and "feels risky" is huge. And it's getting bigger.
It turns out that value creation lives in this gap. The things that most people won't do (because it feels risky) that are in fact not risky at all.
If your compass for forward motion involves avoiding things that feel risky, it pays to get significantly better informed about what actually is risky.
It's my job as artist to take risks. Making your voice heard, saying something new, being honest and vulnerable - these are some of the most valuable take-aways from art and some of the "riskiest" things to do in society. It's why public speaking terrifies us as much as it does. Taking risks as an actor is essential, but it is even more necessary as a director. It's my job as a director to navigate what the actual risks are verses the perceived risks, so that we don't miss the opportunities that are only available among the perceived risks. It's also my job to ask "how can we make this work?" You have to be able to not only take on your own risks, but also encourage everyone else on the team to take the risks that will lead to their best work.

I was listening to an interview a few years ago with someone who was a show runner for a popular TV show at the time. (For the life of me I cannot remember who it was!) The interviewer brought up the fact that one of the writers who had been hired for the writing room had a sizable prior commitment which would make them unable to write for the show for a good portion of the season. And the show runner's response was fantastic. He said "this person is one of the best writers I know. Who cares that I can't have them writing on my show for the entire season? Why wouldn't I bring them in for whatever amount of time I can get them for?" Obviously, this specific solution isn't one that works for well for many theater scenarios, but it's a great example of not being scared off by a perceived risk or a perceived cost. We often have more to offer (which doesn't require a significant out of pocket investment) than we we realize. It could be offering up some office space during a performances so that a sitter can babysit a actor's child at the theater. It could be working to set up a rehearsal schedule that allows someone to care for a sick parent. It could even be as simple as volunteering the use of the performance venue on dark nights for the cast and creatives to work on other projects they might be developing.

We do theater. It's a place for community and creativity. The time, the money, the resources will always be in short supply. Being a responsible director puts you at the crossroads of the logistical requirements and the emotional dreams. But those things don't have to be mutually exclusive. Asking what's possible and tapping into the resources that are available to us are how we make our productions the best that they can be. Why wouldn't we use those same questions to make our working conditions as generous as they can be? I always tell myself "my job is to ask". I might not get the answer that I want, but at least I've asked the question. It's possible that the perceived risk of asking the question has far fewer consequences than not asking the question. When we assume there is no solution, we are sure not to find one.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Midsummer Night's Dream

This post is inspired by the production of A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Lear deBessonet that's currently playing at The Delacorte. Like any of any of Shakespeare’s works it has elements that are challenging to pull together. And some of the most successful moments occur where the expression of the text has been hyper personalized. My specific reflections are as follows:



Theseus and Hippolyta
- Every time I see this show, I have the same reaction to these characters, which is "why are these people here?!" To a certain extent, they seem like an odd layer of middle management - presiding over the lovers and mechanicals but not quite as powerful as the Fairy lords. The fact that their lines open and very nearly close the play makes them feel structurally important. But from a storytelling perspective, there is nothing of interest for the audience to track. As such, I wonder if you could start the play with Egeus' grievance regarding Hermia and shift the Theseus/Hippolyta lines about their upcoming nuptials to later in the scene. It might not be possible, but if you could make that shift, it would introduce to them as serving a function in the story rather than being characters to pay attention to. I saw a bit of commentary about how Hippolyta standing up to Theseus would have been unusual for the time. I would love to see more made of this, especially given that Theseus offers Hermia the option of becoming a nun (rather than being put to death for not marrying her father's choice of suitor). Presenting this dynamic is also interesting to me given that Theseus and Hippolyta are of higher social stature than the Lovers, meaning their behavior presumably becomes the standard to some extent.

The Lovers
- I absolutely loved what Annaleigh Ashford did with her interpretation of Helena. It's easy for Helena to come off as desperate and clingy. But that comes from a place of weakness and isn't terribly likable. Additionally, I don't think it makes a whole lot of sense in the context of her actions. She actions strike me as plucky not desperate. In this production, Helena was portrayed as being determined and incredibly turned-on, and it was fantastic. What made this even better was that her determination then had to escalate to absurd levels, allowing for authentic, need-based comedy. I would have loved to see the other three lovers rise to this level of need. Part of the comedy to be had with regard to the Lovers is in watching the fluctuations in absurdity and the attempts to temper that absurdity. But you only get that payoff if their absurdities are solidly based in need AND their absurdities reach extreme proportions.
- That being said, you have to be careful with how that absurdity is expressed for the gents. You want to avoid the absurdity tipping over into something that might be read as dangerous. Danger is not funny. Perhaps their determination to win Helena could be channeled towards trying to look sexier than each other, or out dance each other or something like that. The important thing is to steer clear of anything that relies on force. When it finally escalates to them fighting with each other, I would try to make their battle as ridiculous as possible. Maybe one of them tries to rip up a whole tree (but can't do it), then a whole tree limb (but still can't do it) and finally goes to battle with a tiny twig (or droopy flower). While the other one tries to use his shoe as a weapon. Something that clearly highlights that they've completely lost their minds and aren't even thinking coherently enough to do any harm. After all, when it comes to the gentlemen, their absurdity is result of a faire prank. An accident prank, but a prank nonetheless. The resulting action should be tonally on par with Titania falling in love with an ass.

The Mechanicals
- Strangely, with the Mechanicals, I feel like the challenge is try to find a unique presentation of these characters for your production. Because they are so well written, as long as the actors commit to their character's personality and needs it's rare for these guys to fall flat. So, while I usually enjoy these characters, I'm rarely surprised by anything in their interpretation. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but that would be my question during the design, casting and rehearsal process - to see if something different could be found in these characters and the journey they take (without taking anything away from what makes them wonderful).
An exercise I find helpful with regard to thinking in a new direction is to take the essence of what you're looking at and consider where else in life you encounter that same essence. With regard to the Mechanicals, two qualities came immediately to mind. The first is that they are completely earnest. The second is that they are largely incompetent. With regard to the earnestness, other places where I have encountered that quality include children and people who are learning English as a second language. These are populations where the desire to understand and be clearly understood is of the utmost importance. If they can work in a joke, that is a huge accomplishment. But typically, the ability to be duplicitous or evasive is beyond them. With regard to the incompetence, the two examples that come to mind include the current administration down in Washington and the MTA. (Sorry MTA, but we both know things haven't been great for you recently.) Neither of those options seem like they would be a good idea to pursue. They feel like things that could quickly devolve into bashing organizations that are not functioning optimally. And frankly, I don't know that going in the direction of children or foreign speakers would be any better. But all four of those concepts are different from each other and are not the way the Mechanicals are typically conceived of. And while none seem like the answer, they might help generate an idea that would be terrific.
- Another thing I would mention about the Mechanicals is that it is tremendously important to keep the pace up throughout their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. The ideal would be to keep it as funny as possible but also as tight as possible. Given that it takes place after virtually all of the other plot lines have been resolved makes it the "11 o'clock number" - something to thrill the audience and be done. Which is difficult to achieve, especially given all the asides by Theseus, Hippolyta and the Lovers. I would try to trim these down as much as possible and for the remaining interjections, make sure that there was always some business simultaneously going on with Pyramus and Thisbe - set change, costume change, dance number, something - as way to try to maintain momentum. 

The Fairies
- One thing this production did that I particularly enjoyed was to have all of the Faires be older actors. As in, people who could have believably played grandparents. I appreciated this for several reasons. As a society, we tend to look through our senior citizens (which in this play, intersected well with the Faires being invisible to the humans). It also made sense to me that these characters were spirits of the earth who are responsible for the changing of the seasons and have been around for thousands of years. If they've been around for thousands of years, of course they're old. And of course they might be bored and find it fun to toy with the human. Plus there's something incredibly fun about a mischievous old person. So taking this approach to the casting made a lot of symbolic sense to me, but from a purely logistical standpoint, it made a clear visual distinction between the Faires and everyone else. Often I feel like productions try to establish this visual distinction purely with costuming. A sort of "that person is dressed in a glittery unitard, so I guess they must be of another world" kind of thing, which annoys me to no end. Dealing with "magical beings" is always challenging on stage. But I find that it is most effective when 1) you've defined what the rules are for these magical beings, 2) don't try to do what you can't (or don't have the budget for), and 3) trust that your audience will suspend their disbelief for you if you let them. For this play, the degree to which the Faires influence the humans is pretty clearly laid out in the script. The only thing that really needs to be created for the audience's benefit is that they exist in a different world. And by going in this direction with regard to casting, this production created that effect almost effortlessly.
- On the subject of age, I also appreciated that this production had the child who Titania and Oberon are fighting over present on stage. Because it's only talked about in the script (and because it can be hard to cast a young child) many productions do not have this character appear. Which I totally understand. But it was really satisfying to see their bone of contention be made manifest.
- With regard Titania and Oberon, I don't feel like they should be waging all out war over the boy. They are certainly squabbling over him, but they have made up by the end of the play, despite the fact that "ownership" of the boy has changed hands. To me this only makes sense if they are having a Cliff and Clair Huxtable type of disagreement. Meaning they are sincere about their differing positions and are going to be very active in trying to get their point across to the other party, but at no point do we as the audience ever think that they don't love each other or that they will not find a way to resolve this dispute. This production (and most other productions that I've seen) didn't go so far as to make it seem like Titania and Oberon were at war, but it also didn't make it seem like this was a small matter in the scope of their relationship. I think the distinction that I'm looking for here is that it be established when we initially meet these characters that they do truly love each other and this disagreement is not going to be the end of everything. This is difficult given their initial lines to each other, but if the lines were played as teasing (coming from a place where both of them feel secure within the relationship) rather than launching an offensive (where the underlying current is "I'm ready to end this thing right now") it might be possible. And it would make their eventual reunion make more sense to me. If that can be established, it also makes sense to me that Oberon finally calls for Puck to reverse the enchantment on Titania, because the prank has gone too far. If it's not a solid and loving relationship to start with then I don't know why Titania would amiably return to Oberon immediately after he took the child AND reveals to her that he made her fall in love with an ass.

Dreaming...while onstage
- The play seems to have an extremely high rate of people falling asleep on stage. Which is always kind of hard to make seem believable. I find the longer the window is that you can give actors to be falling asleep the easier it is to sell. I would want to look at the earliest point in the scene where I could have characters start to get drowsy and/or to see if there are moments where they can overhear or be drifting off during during the following scene.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Can's and the Should's

Just because you can, does that mean you should?

Periodically, an opportunity falls into your lap that seems like an absolute godsend. The prop that you had no idea how you would possibly find or create is suddenly being given to you for your production. The actor you were initially hoping to get for a specific role suddenly becomes available. A backer materializes for the project you've been dying to do. While all of these things sound like they would be nothing but a boon, it's worth taking a quick time-out to gauge their true impact. As is generally the case in life, even things that seem to be heavily weighted towards being beneficial have their downsides.

In the book The Millionaire Next Door, the authors illustrate how "free" gifts can often mask additional costs. For example, say you were given a free car. If you were previously without a car, this changes your situation in a number of ways. If you plan to drive the car, you will need to pay for the gas and maintenance (having it inspected, any necessary repairs, routine upkeep such as oil changes, etc.) for the duration of the time you have the car. You may also incur traffic or parking tickets. Even if you only plan to drive the car occasionally, you will have to pay to insure it. Additionally, you will need to have a place to store the car which (if you have not had a car up until this point and live somewhere without a garage or driveway) will mean finding a parking spot. All of which is to say that the "free" car actually comes with several obligations, both with regard to your time and money. Now, if that free car is replacing an existing car, then the degree of change is significantly less. But as a new element, the car creates quite a lot of change, some of which will be beneficial and some of which will be detrimental.


Similarly, it's worth trying to consider the various ramifications new opportunities can have. The bigger the opportunity (with regard to how much it costs or how much of a commitment it requires), the more seriously it should be weighed. One technique for doing this is something called a premortem. If you're working within a theater company, it's not uncommon to have a postmortem discussion, where you discuss how the process went - what worked, what didn't, etc. In a premortem you're having part of that discussion beforehand - imagining, in advance, that you took this "great opportunity" but it ended up being a terrible choice. So, with the example of the prop that you never thought you would find, perhaps agreeing to use it meant that the entire design had to become much more realistic in order to match. In "retrospect", you realize you would have been much better going in an absurd or abstract direction. Perhaps it ended up being impractical to use it (it was too heavy, too fragile, too small, etc.) but you felt obligated because you went to great lengths to get it. Which made the moments where it was being used look ridiculous and you had to scrap it at the last minute and scramble to replace it in the time and budget remaining. Which was stressful for your prop master (because they had to do a last minute search to find something else), your producer (because this wasn't in the budget), and your actors (because they then didn't have enough time to get comfortable with the prop before starting performances). This isn't meant to be an exercise in doom and gloom or to give you analysis paralysis. It's meant to help us consider other possible outcomes that could result from an impulsive decision, so that we're not completely blindsided if/when everything doesn't go perfectly. It's entirely possible that something that seems like a great opportunity actually IS a great opportunity. But it's also possible that it's not. And the act of considering the alternative can help us make a more measured decision.

Another way to re-contextualize this kind of decision is to push yourself to consider a handful of other solutions. Put another way, what if the opportunity that just became available to you, just as suddenly disappeared? If this option had never come along, what are some other ways that this problem could have been remedied? Try to come up with avenues that are distinct from each other, not just different shades of the same color. For example, with regard to the situation where the actor you were dreaming of became available to you, this would not mean having one or two other actors in mind who could do a decent impression of your first choice. This is about having completely different concepts around how the role could be played. Could the actor for this role be significantly older? Younger? Heavier? A different gender entirely? Could the role be approached from a more comedic lens? Could the role be played as more of an underdog? Maybe this role could be a puppet? Obviously, some roles have less flexibility baked into them than others. But what if (for reasons beyond your control) you had to go in a different direction with your casting? How can you make it work? I once heard about a production of Midsummer where the actor playing Oberon broke his ankle during the run, so they had him sit in a wheelchair upstage of everyone and recite his lines while another actor performed all of his physical business. (I'm not sure that was the best answer, but it was certainly another way to solve the problem.) Don't be afraid to consider options that seem completely off the wall. Sometimes crazy ideas have kernels of truth that can be turned into valid solutions you might not have thought of otherwise. Don't be discouraged if nothing comes immediately to mind. Often these are questions that your brain may need to think on. 

Which brings us one last bit of advice with regard to this kind of situation - determine how much time you can take before committing one way or the other. Being able to pause for a moment can provide you with the time needed to think about other solutions, but it can also help you get some emotional distance from a solution that might be too good to be true. When a solution suddenly presents itself, the rush of euphoria can feel like winning the lottery. But in the same way that we might not make the best decision when we're in a fit of rage, so too might our judgement be clouded in a rush of excitement (or our desire to make the problem go away). With the example of having a potential backer suddenly come into the picture, taking a little time can help you determine whether this is indeed a match made in heaven...or just someone who seemed appealing when you were at a low point. A relationship is a commitment calling for a significant investment of time and energy (and in this case, money). If you slow down long enough to the do the due diligence up front, you can save yourself a lot of heartache down the line. If it's at all possible for you to sleep on the decision before committing to it, do that. The mere act of waiting allows the mix of chemicals floating around in your body to return to a more neutral state, helping you can make a decision based on rational and emotional input - you're giving yourself the time to do further research about the opportunity, but also giving yourself the emotional space to think about what research needs to be done. Has this person been a backer before? Are they familiar with how the industry works? Can you talk to people who have worked with them in this context? How much creative input do they want to have? Why do they want to be involved in the project? (If it's so that their boyfriend can be the leading man, that might be a deal breaker for you. Then again, maybe their boyfriend is Idris Elba. In which case, game on.) If you can, talk to someone else who's had this kind of relationship before. What did they learn? What should you look out for? If that's not an option, talk to some of your more cautious friends or co-workers to ask what information they would want to know. You just want to be sure that you're able clearly evaluate what's at hand and not being led astray by rose colored glasses.

To do this for every decision would be exhausting and you would never get anything done. But for the big decisions, especially the ones where you can't easily change course if they turn out poorly, it's worth spending a little extra time thinking through them. It can't guarantee that whatever decision you make will work out for the best, but it can greatly improve your chances.

*For a great reference on how to navigate the decision making process, I highly recommend Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. 

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Realized or Conceptual?

When you set out to produce a show, one of the first things you will need to decide is whether or not the design for your production will be conceptual or fully realized. There are conditions that often lend themselves to one path or the other. Choosing an option that doesn't fit your script may result in you having to fight against the design in order to get your story across.

For our purposes we will be thinking of these elements primarily with regard to set and costumes. Lighting and sound can also be more or less realistic, but sets and costumes are often the areas where a conceptual design is most apparent. In a realistic design, everything is rendered in as much detail as possible, exactly as it would be in the world of the play. In a conceptual design the location and time period are suggested - so instead of the entire castle, you might see a throne and some suspended tapestries, enough to indicate where the scene is taking place.


As a general rule, I tend to be a fan of more conceptual designs. I feel like it gives me more room to play. I feel like it gives the designers more room to play. It can also add another layer with regard to how the play is interpreted. When well thought out and well utilized, conceptual sets and costumes can be incredibly imaginative and fluid. That being said it has to be a good fit for the way your script is structured. Script structure should be the main factor when you're deciding on the design direction. The structure dictates how the story should be told. If a script is laid out in a linear, continuous timeline, you may need to go with a traditional, realistic design. If it uses elements of heightened theatricality, they you may be able to think more outside the box.

For example with a classic comedy, especially farce, you are probably going to be better served by more traditional sets and costumes. Part of the fun in comedy is watching the train wreck. The events are strategically laid out to create a misunderstanding (which is then resolved). Comedy relies on the characters having no awareness of how the plot lines are being tangled while the audience remains completely aware. These plot points usually unfold chronologically in order to make sure that the audience can clearly follow what's going on at all times. (Note: Here we're referring to scripts that are structural comedies, not scripts that are comedic. The Importance of Being Earnest is a structural comedy. Whereas Peter and the Starcatcher is a play with comedic elements.)

Another example of when you might need to go with a more realistic design is when the set (or costumes) functions as an additional character. In these scripts, the design becomes central to the plot. The story is specific to that one location. It's possible that all of the scenes may even take place there. Steel Magnolias, for example, has to happen in a beauty shop. With Clybourne Park, the house is pivotal to the story - you have to see the house as it is in Act I and how it changes in Act II. For Phantom of the Opera, you have to have a mask for the Phantom, otherwise the character (and thus the show) doesn't make sense. These design elements are fundamental to being able to tell the story as it is written. On the flip side, Shakespearean plays, since they tend to be about more general themes and were written to have minimal technical constraints, often do very well with a conceptual design.

If the script is structured in a less linear way, that may allow you to go in a conceptual direction. Perhaps it jumps back and forth between different time periods or it has simultaneous scenes. Perhaps there's a dream sequence. Perhaps you're doing a lot a of double casting and for the overall flow of the piece your actors need to be able to transition instantly on stage from one character to the next. Sometimes the demands of the script necessitates a more conceptual approach. Perhaps there's an element of the script that you're unable to create realistically in a way that's satisfying. War Horse comes to mind as an example where the imaginative integration of puppetry (and other conceptual devices) gave the production substantially more leeway than they would have had had they tried to do a strictly realistic approach.

Plays with numerous locations can work well with conceptual sets because a conceptual set can allow you to quickly transition between those different areas. When you're going from one fully realized location to another, you have to wait for one group of physical objects is taken off and another is brought on. If you're able to simply suggest the location that can be a much less demanding physical change, and thus a faster transition. Come From Away does an exceptional job of this, using a bunch of chairs and small costume pieces to quickly shift between locations and characters - going from bus, to plane, to barroom simply by changing the orientation of the chairs and the way the actors interacted with them.

Going in a conceptual direction may allow you the freedom to create a greater variety of stage pictures. I remember sitting through a production which had chosen to go the more realistic route for a play that took place in two different time periods. The set for the scenes taking place in the present lived stage left, the set for the scenes in the past lived stage right. As a result, the staging became incredibly dull after the first half a dozen scenes because the set pieces severely limited where the actors could be staged.

Often productions end up somewhere in between, with some locations being fully realized and others being suggested. This approach can be a great compromise if it's executed strategically. If you're mixing these two options, you want to be sure either a) the conceptual elements are used often enough to feel like a regular part of the world (not something you defaulted to because you didn't have any other ideas) or b) the conceptual element is used only once, for dramatic effect, in a moment that is meant to be magical.

Depending on the concept, going in a less realistic direction could potentially be a means of staying within your budget. Obviously, if your concept becomes pyrotechnics and Armani suits, that's going to be more expensive, not less. But if the concept allows you to do something significantly simpler or use materials that you already have (or materials someone else is getting rid of) that can be a huge money saver. Again, this won't always be the case, but sometimes it's an option worth considering. The key is to make it look like you chose to design the show the way you did, and avoid making it look like you ran out of money.

The solution that fits your show has to balance what needed and what can be achieved. Embrace the limitations as your unique puzzle and see what the options are.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Head True North

Creating a new play can be a challenging process for any number of reasons. The first and most fundamental challenge revolves around shaping the script to tell the story that you want to tell. In my experience there are three key issues that can quickly derail this process - when a writer refuses to do any rewrites, when the writer is constantly rewriting, when the writer and the director are not on the same page with regard to what the story is or where it should go. 

With the first of these, there can several valid reasons why a writer may be opposed to doing rewrites. They may have had experiences where someone bullied them into making changes that they didn't agree with or where listening to someone's feedback just made the script worse. They may not know how to fix what they don’t like about what they've written and so it's easier to pass off "making it work" to someone else. They may not have objectively investigated if what's on the page is actually telling the story they think it is. They may just believe what they've written is perfect. (This is NOT to imply that writers are arrogant. It is merely to acknowledge that some people - writers, directors, zookeepers, etc. - are arrogant and believe they can do no wrong.) Regardless, of why they are opposed to doing rewrites, I think the best results happen when the development of a new play is thought of as a collaborative process, where various interpretations, qualities, and insights may be discovered. If you've assembled a team that really works well together, the combined brain power of the group can yield ideas that greatly enhance the final product.

The other extreme, where the writer is making rewrites all over the place, can be equally frustrating. Again, this can happen for any number of reasons. There maybe an avalanche of chaotic feedback coming at them from the actors, designers, and director. There maybe seasoned industry people telling the writer the show can be a huge commercial success IF certain changes are made to the script. They may terrified that nothing they've written is working and trying to fix it by spraying "rewrite bullets" at anything that blinks. Writing a play is hard. Having it be put through the gauntlet of a reading or a production is even harder. If you're erring to this side of things, it can be particularly helpful to clarify for yourself what story you want to be telling. What are the basic plot points? What is the journey? What are the important relationships? What is the world like? If you have a clear understanding of what you want these elements to be, it will help you sort through the responses that you get.



A note about feedback: some degree of feedback will find you regardless of whether you are seeking it or not. It may be vague (seeing or hearing the audience laugh or cry) or specific (overhearing a pointed comment as the audience leaves the theater). My feeling is, since you're bound to get some degree of feedback anyway, why not actively participate in the interest of filtering that feedback towards the things that you want to know. (What happened in this play? How would you describe this character? What relationships seemed to be the strongest?) If you ask specific but open-ended questions you stand a better chance of being able to figure out whether you've written what you wanted to write. Sometimes when you've got your nose buried in the keyboard, it's hard to accurately tell what you've got. The things that are apparent to you may not be apparent to everyone else. If you find out what you think you wrote is not actually what’s being received, you may want to do some rewrites. Remember that one audience member's comment (good or bad) does not necessarily represent the experience of the entire audience. They remain just one person. As with any data set, before you draw conclusions (and make any changes) you want to collect a decent sample size. Likewise, the person who "loved everything about it" and the person who "hated everything about it" are statistic anomalies - their response are too far outside of the mean to be useful.

Perhaps most importantly, the writer and the director need to be on the same page with regard to what they hope to accomplish. Their agendas don't have to be identical, but they need to agree on the things that are most important. At the very least, they should agree on what story they are trying to tell. The same set of words and events can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. King Lear could be the story of how a man's favoritism ultimately destroys his family. Or it could be the story of one daughter's unconditional love. Or it could be the story of how unchecked jealousy destroys everything in its path. It's the same text and events, but leading to three different takeways. Once your play is published and out in the world for everyone to produce, you will likely need to come to terms with no longer being able to dictate how it takes shape. But in the stages leading up to that point, you have to be able to communicate to your director what this version is about. Ideally this would be the very first conversation you and your director have about the piece - hopefully while you're both still sussing out whether to move forward with the partnership. If the writer feels comfortable with the director, it then becomes the director's responsibility to decide whether writer's vision for the piece is one that they can be completely on board with. When the writer and the director can function as a united leadership team, it facilitates a clear and cohesive process for everyone else. One where the conversations in rehearsal are geared toward sharpening and clarifying the important elements. And where the choices that move forward with regard to performance and design continue to build on what was discovered in rehearsal. But in order for that to happen, the director has to have that in mind from the outset and writer has to continue to be available throughout the process. 

The play is the point from which everything else springs. Find what true north means for this story. There will things that feel like they are pulling you off course. That is what happens when you leave the safety of the shore to embark on a voyage. Keep that as your reference point and make your adjustments according. Trust in the crew that you've assembled to get you safely to your destination. Godspeed.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Detours

As I write this, I am currently 16 weeks into my first pregnancy. And as excited as I am to start this next chapter of my personal life, I am equally terrified about what feels like the death of my creative life. Because here in the city that never sleeps, the mentality is if you're not constantly making yourself known, if you're not constantly working on your next career move, you might as well start over. (Which is not that far, psychologically, from "maybe it's time to just quit".)

But if we extrapolate this kind of thinking, what it ultimately says is that life should never come before our art. We should never take a step back to start a family, or care for a sick family member (or be sick ourselves), or work a desk job so we can make the payments on our student loans. And if that's truly the case, we are eliminating a whole crop of artists (and a variety of different voices) purely on the basis of circumstances. Obviously, the system is not set up to be a very nurturing one. Given that, we can wait and hope for the system to change or we can decide to believe in our own value and continue to find ways to be heard. Waiting has never been my strong suit.

In light of that, I keep focusing on two concepts.

The first is that the richer your life experiences are, the richer your storytelling will become. Ages ago, when I was in college studying theater, a fantastic actor by the name of Michael Milligan came in to speak to us about life in the business. One of the things he said which has stuck with me through the years was "you can't play these legendary, three dimensional Shakespearean characters if you haven't lived a three dimensional life". It's important to study and have solid technique, But it's also important to participate fully in the human experience. That's not to say you should devote yourself to method-acting or unhealthy life choices. Please don't. However, our job as theater artists is to create representations of real life. So why would we regard those real life experiences as a detriment to our careers? Life is going to do what life will do. Embrace it as fodder for better future works.



The second idea that I'm trying to keep in mind is that every "no" is a detour saying "not this way - you need to go a different route". This is an idea that I've been encountering in some of the books I've been reading about Stoicism. But it really hit home for me when I was listening to this podcast with Srini Pillay. In it he talks about how, before you ever set out in pursuit of your goals, you should resolve to change course (instead give up) when things don't work out the way you hope they will (as they inevitably do). Which is what we do in any number of situations where the stakes are not nearly as high. If I'm at home and I want to have spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, but discover that I don't have any pasta, I don't give up and take that as a sign that I'm not meant to eat dinner. I adjust. Maybe I run out to the store. Maybe I make a peanut butter sandwich. Maybe I order something or go out somewhere. Just because the traditional path (or the most obvious path) ceases to be an option doesn't make the goal impossible. It just means you need to expand your thinking about the different ways you could achieve your goals - and perhaps clarify why you want those goals. If my goal of spaghetti and meatballs is just about eating something for dinner, than any old dinner option will do. If I am craving that and ONLY that will do, then success becomes a much narrower target and there may need to be some negotiating. Surely if we can adjust our dinner aspirations with such dexterity, then our life goals deserve just as much flexibility.

I don't mean for that to be trite. It's easy to adjust something like dinner for several reasons. For starters dinner is a fairly simple process - it's four or five steps from start to finish that you've done (and adjusted around) hundreds of times. Additionally, if dinner doesn't turn out as planned, life goes on without too much heartbreak. It's a significantly smaller scale. Whereas, a career often spans decades with numerous twists, turns, successes, and failures. Often, they become closely tied to our identity, making them seem even more urgent and precious, and leading us to feel like the prescribed path is the surest was to achievement. It might make us more anxious to adjust our thinking around the things that matter more in our life, but it's clearly possible (given that we do it without a second thought in millions of other smaller scenarios) and it's worth it.

Your stories are valuable and needed. Your perspectives are valuable and needed. You will not hear that message from this industry. You will not hear that message from this society. You will have to be the one to tell yourself that - over and over and over again. Stepping back from the nitty-gritty details of the business to life your life doesn't make you "rusty" at telling stories. If anything, it reconnects you to your humanity. As artists, we preach the value of creativity. Creativity is not just a luxury item to be let loose when conditions are perfect. Creativity is what gets us over, around, and through the difficulties and limitations that life throws at us. Onward.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Always Be Storytelling

As the director, you are responsible for guiding the audience through your story. That includes anything and everything about their experience that you can possibly be involved with. If you can be involved in with the discussions around marketing, do it. That's likely to be the very first point of contact your audience has with your show. If you can effect the atmosphere in the lobby or the house - with music, displays, decorations - do it. This is all part of your canvas. But at the very least, you must be an active participant in shaping everything happening on stage from "lights up" through to "end of play". 

That seems like overly obvious statement, but many of the shows I go to see don't do this. Sure, the director has been involved with how the actors say their lines and where they move when, but they've abdicated their responsibility with regard to other elements. Every element of the production process is an opportunity for you to hone and clarify your story. The lighting design, the sound design, the costume design, the scenic design, the songs, the choreography (both for dance and fights) all need to contribute to the story you telling. This is not about being a dictation or a micro-manager. This is about leading the experience.



I have worked on musicals where the director did not direct any of the songs, saying that "was the music director's job". My guess is that this director felt like he didn't know anything about music and therefore wasn't qualified to weigh in on the process. I would argue that it doesn't matter what he knows about music, that his job is to have a constant eye on what story is being told. What does the text of the lyrics say? What emotional state is evoked by the music? Structurally, why is there a song at this point in the show? How is this moment supposed to inform the audience about the character that's singing it or what's going on in the story? Those are the questions that need to be answered in order to continue telling the story. The notes and the rhythms are for the music director to worry about. The storytelling is for the director to worry about. For the record, I am all for the music director weighing in on the storytelling. I know lots of brilliant music directors who bring tremendous perspective to the table. What I'm saying is that a director is shirking their responsibility if they skip over something because they don't feel comfortable with the details of it. 

The same goes for choreography. If the choreography is not serving the story - regardless of how fabulous it is - you've got to work with your choreographer about changing it. It's great that your ensemble can do triple pirouettes and kick themselves in the head. If they're supposed to be working class laborers or dorky high school kids the physical vocabularies of those characters need to be maintained in the choreography. Meaning, it's unrealistic to me, from a storytelling perspective, that they would suddenly transform into superstar, Rockette-style dancers. Not only should the choreography fit within the reality of your world, you should be fully exploiting it to reveal and distinguish who these characters are. Is the character rigid and uptight or loose and cool? What they communicate through their movement should be as clear as (and aligned with) what they say with their lines and lyrics. If it's fight choreography, what kind of a fighter are they? Do they rely on their speed? Or their strength? Or their smarts? Is this their first fight or their ten thousandth? There's so much more we can communicate than just "they were happy, so they danced" or "they fought and this side won".

Malcolm Gladwell, in Tools of the Titans, had a wonderful reflection about his father. He noted that one of his father's greatest strengths was that he had no intellectual insecurity whatsoever, and so he always felt completely comfortable asking these questions that other people might shy away from for fear of looking ignorant. I think in the arts, where quality can be hugely subjective, it's easy to get caught up in worrying about what people think of you. Instead, find security in knowing that you are well versed in storytelling, expand your perception of the canvas that's available to you, and embrace your questions. And Always Be Closing Storytelling.

Thoughts? Comments ? Questions? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Slice and Dice

If there's ever any issue around time (eg. being part of a larger evening and needing to fit within a certain amount of time, trying to run without an intermission, just being too darn long, etc.) do your cuts before you get into the room.

I didn't think I would need to remind myself of this, but I recently made this exact mistake. It fell into the category of "I thought it wouldn't be an issue, so I didn't worry about it." Admittedly, you can't worry about everything. There are only so many hours in the day. But this particular instance wasn't about a lack of time. It was laziness (and perhaps false security).

Script cuts are not something I feel comfortable doing on the fly. They can be emotional for the playwright, who worked very hard to make the lines sound just so, as well as the actors, who are working hard to memorize and shape them. When working on a new piece, my ideal scenario is that I think through the cuts by myself, then discuss with the playwright, then let the actors know what the new landscape is (and allow them to petition for anything that they feel strongly about). For an established script, any cuts should be done before the actors ever see the production version of the script.

It's my responsibility to be smart about what I think should be cut and why. It's also my responsibility to avoid wasting our time in the room (if at all possible) while I suss that out. And ultimately, it's my responsibility to make the piece work within all of its confines. Limits are limits. You're welcome to be creative within those limits. But if you refuse to accept reality, it's only going to come back and bite you in the end. Nobody wins a Tony for the potential of their idea. They win a Tony for how their idea is executed.

Make the cuts that should get you where you need to be. Then take a second pass and make the cuts that will get you well beyond where you need to be. If you can make it work with the more severe version, go with that. This applies to any cuts you need to make regarding time or money. Cut early and cut hard. It's significantly easier to add things back. And once you've tried the lean route you'll have a better sense of what would be most beneficial to add back in.

Only taking action will get you the information you need. If you make the cuts, you'll learn whether they are too much. You'll learn what's crucial to this story. You'll learn what’s crucial to this production. Giving yourself the opportunity to think through those choices beforehand will help you make a decision about a direction to take. (Alternatively, being forced to make a choice in the moment forces you into guessing. Sometimes you make the right guess, but that's definitely not the lane I like to travel in.)

I will repeat. If there’s a possibility that time might be an issue, plan your cuts. If there’s a possibility that you might not be able to afford the production that you’re hoping for, plan your cuts. Maybe you won't need them. But if you do need them, you won't be guessing. You'll have a plan. Part of your job as the capital of the ship, is to anticipate and plan for what could go wrong. And time and money are reliably sparse in this business.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more, the merrier.