This One Goes to Eleven: David Benedict Brown

David finished theatre studies at Douglas College and kept his education rolling by forming Enlightenment Theatre, which launched with Collage: Homage to Kurt Schwitters at Studio 16 in December 2006. Their second effort, Zastrozzi, The Master of Discipline, just wrapped at the waterfront theatre, which David produced, acted in, and provided lighting design. He was also seen on stage recently in Fighting Chance Production‘s Autobahn at the Beaumont.

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1.) In one word, describe your present condition.

No Comment.

2.) What is your view of the current state of Vancouver theatre?

Great in arithmetic, poor in grammer [sic], decent in gym. There are a lot of great SHOW-BIZ acts without the backing of an indigenous theatre feel but we are being exercised and I believe we will mature into a great and diverse theatre community.

3.) What has been your biggest challenge in starting your own theatre company?

Finding an intention of our own amoung our numbers, and sticking with it.

4.) How well did your college training prepare you for producing theatre professionally?

It didn’t! Aside from hinting at its level of difficulty with sceptical remarks.

5.) Zastrozzi is a proudly Canadian play, how important is nationalism in your choice of material?

I don’t believe it is of any monumental importance.

6.) Who are your main influences?

Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, Terry Gilliam.

7.) What do you know about theatre now that you didn’t before you created Enlightenment?

No Comment.

8.) We as theatre artists rely on the critics for box office. Discuss.

Unfortunately critics seem to be one of the best prescriptions for putting bums in seats. We are forced to rely on this because the general public is not capable on a wide scale of researching theatre on their own. If then people do wish to see theatre with this layman attitude then they must consult the reverent entertainment rags. My only request as an individual at the mercy of critics is that they at least provide an informed opinion. To me there is nothing worse than: “…this person did well…” as per our Zastrozzi Globe and Mail review, or on the flip side “…this person did not so well…”

9.) Where do you see Enlightenment in ten years?

I hope for us to have a steady funding base, a following and perhaps our own theatre.

10.) What are your top three must-reads for the aspiring theatre artist?

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles – Steven Pressfield
Mis-Directing the play: An Argument Against Contemporary Theatre – Terry McCabe
An Acrobat of the Heart: A Physical Approach to Acting Inspired by the Work of Jerzy Grotowski – Stephen Wangh

11.) What’s next?

We hope to regroup, hunker out of the madness of producing such a large show so early.

This One Goes to Eleven: Ryan Crocker

Ryan has the distinction of being the first theatre artist I ever met in Vancouver, back when we were both toiling away in the same crappy hotel, except that he would start the graveyard shift just as I was leaving my bar shift, and he’d finish as the sun was coming up, to spend the rest of the day on his theatrical passions. He never slept, as far as I could tell, and I still harbour suspicions that he may be a vampire. He remains one of the rare individuals who truly keeps the faith and just keeps on making theatre, no matter what. He is an inspiration. Ryan is an actor, director and photographer, he trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and is a former member of their Repertory Company. He has directed and acted in over 30 plays. TV credits include the series John Doe, Just Cause, Peacemakers, Da Vinci’s Inquest, and The Masters Of Horror. Commercials include Nintendo Brain Age, Ensure, and BCAA. He is a resident director of First Impressions Theatre, operating out of the Deep Cove Shaw Theatre.

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1.) In one word, describe your present condition.

Searching (or starving, depending on the day…)

2.) Give us your view on the current state of Vancouver theatre.

The independent scene in film and theatre is flourishing, and (as usual) generally impoverished. The main stages I find are sporadically interesting, but perhaps catering to the middle of the road too heavily. The riskier and most interesting work I find is in the independents and small theatres, and because they usually have the lower budgets, they have to rely on the commitment of the artists involved. And because there’s not a lot of money there, the actors, directors, and entire staff are there for the sheer love of it, which as a rule reads loud and clear on stage, and is one of the greatest joys of live theatre. A friend and mentor once described the Church as a place to be one with God, and the theatre as a place to be one with being human. That’s what I truly love to see, the audience and performers meeting in the middle, and glorying in the messy and beautiful business of being human.

3.) What are the positives of putting up theatre out in Deep Cove? The Negatives?

The Deep Cove area is perhaps one of the most picturesque and peaceful areas in the Lower Mainland, and I find it a very conducive area to create. Inspiration is all around. And we have a fairly small, but incredibly supportive audience base. The negative is trying to build appreciation and excitement for a theatre that, although its located only 8 minutes by car from the Second Narrows bridge, is viewed as being “too far away”. I’ve spent longer looking for parking around the Stanley!

4.) To what extent do the tastes of your regular audience factor into your choice of material?

I’ve been incredibly fortunate in that the producers, Eileen and Michael Smith of First Impressions Theatre, have been willing to take some interesting chances with me. Their main concern is that it be watchable! They even OK’d a show I directed where the first half hour is (apparently) a silent dismemberment of a murder victim in a bathtub, done to Beethovens “Ode To Joy” (“Murderer” by Peter Shaeffer) The blood budget on THAT show was high, and I managed to gather a complaint letter and more than a few walkouts. On the whole we try to balance a season out with risks and safer audience pleasers.

5.) What changes need to be made within the Vancouver theatre community to increase its viability?

There are challenges in Vancouver that we can’t do anything about. For example, in an area as beautiful and vibrant as Vancouver can be, we are frequently competing with God. Tough to get someone to sit in a chair when they’ve just spent the morning skiing, the afternoon kayaking in the sun, and the evening having dinner on a patio somewhere. Another is the emphasis on film and television in Vancouver, which seems to lead to theatre occasionally being seen as the poor cousin. So to combat that, in my opinion, greater co-operation between the smaller companies in promoting the work would help. Creating excitement about what we all do and what we all offer should be paramount. Frequently, there’s a “us vs. them” attitude which only serves to fracture us apart, when we should be doing everything possible to help each other. A hit for one small company means that that audience is willing to gamble their hard earned free time and money on another show by a small company. When one wins, we all win. Also in my opinion, more small theatre spaces would be an asset. Not every show requires the wing space of the Playhouse. I find Boca Del Lupo’s use of spaces in public very interesting for example.

6.) How important is formal training in actor development, and where should the emphasis lie?

Up until the middle 1800’s, there was no such thing as formal training, you apprenticed. So the entire “formal training” question still nags at me, even though I went off and got some! One of my dreams is to open and run a training theatre someday.
On the whole, any training is better than none, as long as it gives you the tools to attack a role. Acting techniques, movement techniques, and (surprisingly frequently ignored) vocal techniques. And as well, it should push you to a greater understanding of yourself. After all, that’s what you build the characters you play out of, so hadn’t one best make the most of what one has?
The positive of formal training is that it creates a very focused environment to begin developing a personal discipline, and that the above techniques are generally covered during it. That’s something that workshop training can’t deliver by its very definition.

7.) What do you wish you could tell yourself when you first started in professional theatre here?

Breathe deep, and don’t worry about the small stuff. And never, ever believe that because you work in small theatres, the work is small. I never realized that until I did a show at the Edinburgh Fringe, and practically lived in London’s West End afterwards, and saw that we have nothing to apologize for here.

8.) Weigh the theatre artist’s responsibility to develop new work against his/her responsibility to re-produce great established plays?

They actually go hand in hand. An appreciation of the traditional rules gives an appreciation of when to break them. Learning from the greats allows one to use that knowledge to help build NEW greatness. Which is truly a heck of a lot of fun.

9.) What is the critic’s role in the business of a theatre company?

An educated critic is a great benefit. True greatness in criticism is a goad to push the artists farther. When the critic can go further into the work, and analyze the play from the outside of the production, the view from the audience can be very educational. Finding that level in criticism is difficult. I’ve always believed that criticism is necessary, I just don’t read them until closing night :)

10.) What are your top three reads for the aspiring theatre artist?

1. “A Treasury Of The Art Of Living” by Rabbi Sidney Goldberg. – A collection of sayings and quotes from the great people in history, on a ton of subjects. You’re going to have days in this industry where you’re raw, and bloody. Reading the thoughts of others who’ve been whacked around by life can be very heartening at those times. This is my personal “band aid” book.
2. “Standing Naked In The Wings” or “Exit Through The Fireplace” – Both of these (1 Canadian and 1 English) tell stories of frequent hilarity of life in the theatre. When they drop the lights on you at the top of your big monologue, going home and reading the stories can soothe the pain.
3. The play “Noises Off” by Michael Frayn. We laugh because its funny, and we laugh because its true….
4. (Yes, I know you asked for 3) “Charles Jehlinger In Rehearsal” by Eleanor Cody Gould. If you know anyone who went to the American Academy Of Dramatic Arts, one of the books they gave me when I attended was a collection of the catchphrases of Charles Jehlinger, the first great acting teacher there. Steal it from them ;) The quotes range from the 20’s till the 50’s, and are still relevant to those working on the stage today. Its tough to top the advice “Listen, and it will all handle itself”.

11.) What’s next?

I’ll be workshopping a play in the fall for a young playwright who’s just finished some rewrites called “The Sign At The End Of The World” Then, looking to get out on stage again.

Gone to the Dark Side, Please Leave a Message

Damn. It finally happened. I’ve become what I beheld. I am now (SFX: Darth Vader theme plays), a Theatre Reviewer! ‘Zwounds, can it be true, yours truly, consorting with the enemy, nay, wearing their colours? What’s up with that?

Times have changed for me, it seems. I used to hate theatre critics. Actually, I used to hate Vancouver theatre critics, even before I stopped talking and started doing. My mode of thought went something like this: theatre art in this city is just a babe in swaddling clouts, it must be gently nurtured and supported so that it may one day grow big and strong , and be a force to be reckoned with, at last a theatre city that the world would sit up and take notice of. New York in the sixties, that kind of thing. It seemed unconscionable to review young theatre here like it was a grown-up, I saw any harsh reviews as a tearing down of the fragile foundation that was trying to find its shape and structure, and that pissed me off. A play could receive bad notices, sure, but they had to be handed out gently and with constructive criticism, so that the company wouldn’t be so disheartened or wounded as to not want to do another one…that was the way I felt back then.

I do not feel that way anymore.

Love, war, you can add theatre criticism to the list of all’s fair as far as I’m concerned. I now believe that (good) critics have real value and even a certain art when they apply themselves to their candlelit quills with due diligence, and I want to see both barrels blazing when I read an opinion piece on a new play. The crux of this is, of course, that the reviewer in question be both a talented writer and an educated theatreist. We have very few in town, and I wish we had more. Lemme ‘splain whereupon I came by this change of viewpoint…

There are a few factors that have moved the theatre critic over onto the plus side of my opinion index. All of these factors have come out of producing independent theatre over the past several years. First and foremost, we need them. We invite them to watch our shows for free and pray like hell they’ll show, and then sweat like we’re down there until the article comes out. They’re an essential part of our marketing plan from the git go, and we need to develop a very healthy attitude about this. Which means we need to prepare for the worst thing an actor or director can possibly imagine: the harrowing negative review. And by prepare I mean grow a thicker skin, and some perspective. It takes real courage to swallow a unfavorable review of your work and find value in it, to file away the stuff that you can use for later reference and bin the nonsense that you can’t. I would hope that you only invite reviewers to your show whose opinions and talent you respect, as well. If the hacks come of their own accord, well, at least they had to pay.

Also, I read them. Always have. They’re out there supporting independent theatre in an unsupportive town. And they affect the choices I make. (This applies to film even more for me, I have a resigned EW review addiction, reading Owen and Lisa is my porn.) So this relates to my first point by raising the question: does a good review really have a direct effect on box office, and conversely, does a negative review have an adverse effect? To be honest I’m still not sure , that’s a tough one to quantify. I brought this up with Lori a while back while we were doing Miss Julie, she’s the artistic director of the Beaumont and has been doing theatre forever, and she reports that she routinely sees a spike in ticket sales after every published review, no matter what the given grade. I guess there really isn’t such thing as bad publicity.

But what it really came down to, what really put me in the corner of the hard-nosed critic and prompted me to don that mantle myself was this: accountability. I no longer feel that it’s enough to just clean out the ol’ barn and say “let’s put on a show!”. It’s important that the shows be mounted competently and professionally and passionately, because we are charging people money for it. I’ve got a lot of plays under my belt now, theatre’s moved from the dream to the reality for me, and I have hands-on knowledge of just exactly how hard it is. How laborious and sleep-depriving working in indie theatre really is. And if you’re not prepared to put in that much work, If you’re doing it for a reason other than love, you probably shouldn’t be doing it at all, because it’s gonna show, glaringly, under your lights. It’s a disservice to theatre itself. Competent criticism is quality control. I say this now: I would rather Vancouver be known as “the city with no theatre” than as “the city of crappy theatre”. You can guage the level the bar is set at here by the reaction of the crowds after a poor or a mediocre performance. Standing ovations are given here for stuff that would get pelted with beer bottles in other cities, or at the very least, met with mute disapproval. That bar must be raised. We must show our audiences the true power of the theatre and earn the applause.

And so, I’m a critic in print. It feels weird, my first critique turned out to be a negative one, and I so wanted it to be a good one. I’m sticking to my guns, however, and the two things that I can promise as I wade into this new experience are these: I will be supportive wherever I can, and I will always be honest. Please let me know what else I should be, and while you’re at it, what you think the role of the critic is in our world. I would love to hear your opinions on this.