This one goes to eleven: Paul Armstrong

Ladies and gentlemen, a man who needs no introduction to a very large hunk of Vancouver: Mr. Paul Armstrong, Producer-at-large. An omnipresent entity throughout our independent arts scene, Paul glides between the worlds of film, music and theatre with seemingly no friction. His indie-film showcase The Celluloid Social Club has been running monthly since 1997, which provides an opportunity to see brand new film here and to discuss it with the filmmakers.

Paul produces local music video, commercials and theatre as well, and is the resident producer for Lyric Stage Project.

1. In one word, describe your present condition.

Relatively content: mid summer – how could I not be? (Despite the weather.)

2. In your own number of words, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

The Vancouver theatre scene is at a cross-roads. It is the most innovative and dynamic that I’ve seen it for the past ten years but I find that we need to go just one more step to create truly great theatre. Perhaps because we are geographically isolated, we are not as in touch with innovative theatre as we think we are. Often we reinvent new theatrical forms that have already been developed in the recent past or a different part of the world. I think we need to be better educated about what is already out there so that our productions can advance the form of theatre on the international stage and not just locally. We also need to better develop our story telling skills; I often find that the innovation in form that we do have doesn’t serve the higher purpose of the play itself.

3. What does your role as a theatre producer entail?

The producer’s role is twofold: to ensure that the artistic work is as great as it can be and to ensure that the artistic work is as great as it can be given the resources we are working with. Basically producing is finding that balance between the ideal presentation and the as-close-as-we-can-get to that ideal presentation in the actual world. More specifically, the producer (at least on indie productions) offers an objective point of view on the script (if an original work), helps hire cast and crew, fundraises, finds sponsors, deals with the venue, oversees marketing and publicity, keeps the production on budget, among many other things.  In a word, a glorified manager.

4. What is the function of theatre within its community?

I have a probably overly-exaggerated belief in the potential power of theatre to change people by allowing them to see alternative realities to the existing status quo, by a powerful combination of inspiring thought (something other mediums such as film often shy away from) and feeling, with the end goal of inspiring change in oneself and society (but not in a didactic or overtly political or issue-driven way). I am sometimes drawn to the origins of theatre in the mystery religions of ancient Greece and think we perhaps have to return to these roots for inspiration and to see how far we have strayed. I think proscenium arch style theatre has a place but there needs to be an alternative theatre that takes advantage of the physicality of theatre – the fact that actors, audience and story are able to occupy the same physical space. This, I think, allows for the POV of the play to be experienced more directly by the spectator who then is forced to confront some of same decisions the characters are facing. The ideas and feelings expressed in the play then become real and felt and not just theoretical.

5. What do you see as the biggest challenge facing independent theatre start-ups here?

The biggest challenge is finding an audience. Vancouver is more of a film, sports and outdoors town so theatre start-ups often find it difficult finding an audience (besides fellow indie scene attendees). For the larger theatres it isn’t as much of an issue because of the built-in audience, subscription and higher budget marketing. Other challenges include finding an appropriate and affordable venue and raising the budget. Another issue is that under the local union rules here, a start-up can only use the same theatre company name, I think, three times if they are doing a co-op, making it difficult to build up brand recognition for your theatre company.  That all said, the challenges are almost always surmountable, as evidenced by the number of independent theatre start-ups in Vancouver- during the high seasons, there are more productions than one has the time or money to see.

Paul and his interviewer.
Paul and his interviewer.

6. What is indie theatre’s greatest asset in Vancouver?

Vancouver’s greatest asset is the flipside of some of the problems in local theatre: Being geographically isolated, we are perhaps a little culturally isolated. This can result in original, innovative theatre due to a lack of preconceptions and influences. Add to this a sense of physicality and this can allow for a unique experimentation with the form of theatre, including site specific and interactive works. I think Hive at Magnetic North shows off these assets very well as do some of the events and plays we are developing at the Lyric Stage Project.

7. What should we be doing more of towards converting a new audience of theatregoers?

We need to eliminate their preconceived notions of what theatre is and find new marketing angles. Basically the form of theatre needs to be more in tune with people’s sensibilities without dumbing things down, such as the need for more site specific and immersive theatre as discussed above. Nomenclature plays a big part – if you construct and market the play more as an experience I think that will intrigue, draw and hook non-theatregoers. This will also force a stronger impact on regular attendees by breaking their preconceived notions which tend to act as a defense against new ideas; if there is a pre-existing box for something, it is already labeled and its impact rationalized away.

8. What kind of material would you like to see more of on our stages?

I find that in the past there was great content in plays and then since the 1960s great experiments in form. It is now time to marry the two, which can only result in better theatre, by being intrinsically great as well as speaking to our current sensibility. Speaking of stages, I would like to see less stages and more site specific, immersive theatre that better enables an audience to not only see and hear and play but EXPERIENCE it as well. I would also like to see contemporary theatre sooner, ideally within a year of its world premiere, rather than waiting several years after it premieres in a major Eastern city.

9. What are your thoughts on our current model of theatre criticism?

I find that sometimes too much of the plot is revealed at the expense of true criticism. I also think that in Vancouver people don’t look at enough theatre reviews as newspapers are cutting down on these theatre reviews, and hence there isn’t enough of a variety of viewpoints. People should be reading more reviews on-line as well. I also find that reviews pay too much attention to the production rather than the underlying work which the production serves.

10. What are your top 3 business of theatre reads?

I don’t read business of theatre reads except for plays themselves or classic works of theatre criticism. I am currently re-reading The Theatre of Revolt by Robert Brustein.

11. What’s next?

The next play I will be producing, through the Lyric Stage Project, is the original production The 21st Floor to be staged at PAL in November. I continue to produce independent film screening events at the Celluloid Social Club and First Weekend Club’s Canada Screens. I am also co-directing and producing a documentary on the 1960s and developing several dramatic feature films.

The Art of the Business Part 7: Welcome to the Blogosphere

To listen to the interview in its entirety, click here. (27 minutes)

If you are reading this, you already have at least a handshake acquaintance with blogging (given that it’s published on a blog and all). This month, I delve into the basics of blogging, with the help of the authors of Blogging for Dummies, Second Edition, Shane Birley and Susannah Gardner. Shane is a partner in Left Right Minds, a web development, arts management, business blogging and on line marketing content consultant company, here in Vancouver. He also writes a bunch of blogs. Susannah is the owner of Hop Studios, a web design company, and author of, among others, Buzz Marketing with Blogs. Oh, and she also writes blogs. Enough introductions, on with the show!!

Shane Birley, Susannah Gardner and Rebecca Coleman at the Left Right Minds Studio.
Shane Birley, Susannah Gardner and Rebecca Coleman at the Left Right Minds Studio.

What is a blog?
According to Blogging for Dummies, the word blog is an amalgam of two words: “web” and “log.” Another term you may have heard being bandied about is “blogosphere.” Shane says the blogosphere is simply, “everyone on their soapbox.” Basically, if you have something you feel like writing about, and are willing to put the time in, you can have a blog. And because the internet is so wide, you will probably get an audience, even if that audience is only your family and friends. But more about garnering an audience later.

As an artist, how can having a blog help me?
A blog can be a very powerful marketing tool, albeit an informal one, for several reasons.
Technical stuff: The more often you blog, the more often you will be indexed by search engines, and the higher you will come up in a search. “Search engines love fresh content,” says Susannah, “and blogs feed right into that. The more you put yourself out there, them more you make yourself a possible search result, the better the chances are, you will be able to increase your profile. In a fairly painless, non-traditional way.”
Get to know the person behind the product/service: “People respond to people,” says Susannah. “It is incredibly powerful to be able to speak to the artist directly—you don’t always have access to that. Blogs help to create a dialogue between the audience and the writer.”

What do I need to start a blog?
First, you need to decide if you are going to sign up for web-based blogging software, or use software that will post your blog under your own, dedicated domain name.
I am going to talk about how to start a blog using web-based software, as I think this is the most popular, and easiest route to go for a beginning blogger.
The two most popular blog software programs out there are Blogger and Word Press (this blog is done on Word Press). Signing up for either one is a very simple, three-step process.

Now, here’s some stuff you might like to add on:
About Me/Profile:
“If you are wanting to use your blog as a marketing tool, and you don’t have a bio, don’t bother having a blog,” says Shane. “You’re talking about yourself, but there is nowhere they can go to get a background on who you are.”
Comment section: Blogs that elicit comments from their readers are considered to be successful. That doesn’t mean you should write stuff that it controversial just to elicit comments, but blogging is all about creating dialogue. So ask your readers for their opinions and comments.
Archives/Categories: This helps people to find similar posts to the ones that they like and enjoy. Most blog software programs have this built in.
Blogroll: Shane describes a blogroll as being, “a listing of blogs that you recommend to other people.” This is similar to a links section on a webpage, and all about cross-promotion.
Photos: add visual interest to your blog posting.
Widgets: third party pieces of software, which are embedded in your blog, and are little add-ons, like Flikr, which show your latest photos in your sidebar, polls, or ETSY, which allow you to show your latest products right on your blog.

What the heck is RSS?
Shane and Susannah both agree that RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. RSS is code, written in a language called XML. Every time you update your blog, the RSS feed goes out, and lets all the search engines on the web know that you have a new posting. Also, if you read blogs using a program like Google Reader, it lets people who subscribe to your blog that there is a new posting. Shane recommends that everyone “go to Google Reader and sign up for an account and take the tutorial.”
Most blog software has an RSS feed built in, so once you activate your blog, you don’t need to worry about it again, it updates automatically.

How many times a week should I blog? What’s the magic number?

This is a controversial question. The more often you blog, the more often you will be indexed by the search engines, which drives up your profile. However, you also have to be able to be inspired enough, and be able to sustain, writing 3-4 blog posts per day, if that is what you want to do. That can lead to burn out, or some pretty lousy blog posts. Or worse, you can overwhelm your audience, and you may lose them completely. Shane and Susannah agree the magic number is “ a couple times a week.” Shane recommends, if you are thinking of starting a blog, to “do it once a day for an entire month, and if you can, then you will probably be a successful blogger. If you do it for a couple of days, and can’t maintain it, maybe you should think about another medium, like audio or video blogging.”

How do I garner a readership for my blog?
Here are some suggestions from Susannah and Shane:

  • Make it searchable by search engines. Most blogging software will do this for you automatically, but you may also want to register your blog with sites like Technorati or Feedburner.
  • Put your blog address in the signature line of all your outgoing email.
  • Make a business card with the address on it.
  • Put your blog address on anything that gets handed out.
  • Let your friends and family know, send out a mass email, inviting people to read.
  • Buy advertising, such as Google Ad Sense.
  • Post comments on other people’s blogs, and include your blog address.
  • Make your blog posts related to something that is current and newsworthy, be topical.

Final comments?

Susannah: “In general, try to think about who you’re blogging for, and what they’re interested in. Don’t get fixated on traffic numbers. You want an audience that is interested in you–you don’t need 5 million readers, just the 50 who are actually interested in you.”

Shane: “Blogging is writing. Read blogs, comment on blogs, get involved in the community. Get out and talk to people. Nothing spreads like word of mouth, it’s faster than the internet and any RSS feed.”

Special thanks to Shane Birley and Susanah Gardner. Blogging for Dummies, the Second Edition, is available widely in bookstores, and I highly recommend it as an informative, but easy read.

Special Thanks also to Dave “the sound guy” Rankin.

Rebecca Coleman

Rebecca is a contributing columnist and founder of Titania Productions, a Vancouver Marketing and Public Relations Company.

Loving the hate: seeing the benefit in backlash

While we’re on the topic of backlash, there’s a play that has made the ‘best of fest‘ at the just-wrapped Winnipeg Fringe (click here for reviews) that’s got people talking about how we as artists handle negative response to our work.

Keir Cutler is a seasoned Fringe writer and performer, whose last work Teaching As You Like It was met with almost universal praise. Almost. One persnickity audience member objected to the show’s subject matter: the distasteful practice of teachers who seduce their teenage students. The play featured Cutler portraying one such teacher as he addresses his class while waiting for the police to arrive to pick him up for his most recent offense. One long-term Fringe-goer apparently didn’t quite get the inherent satire of the piece, and in response wrote a scathingly accusatory 3-page letter to both the Winnipeg Fringe administration and Child Find Manitoba, an organization that notifies community members about high-risk sexual offenders. The letter asserted that the play “could be used as a textbook for the luring and seduction of young girls” and that it “promotes the idea that sexual predation of underage girls is acceptable.”

Well, what’s an artist to do? Cutler responded by creating an entirely new work entitled Teaching the Fringe (directed by home-town hero TJ Dawe) which contains excerpts from the letter and is marketed with this copy: “In his first autobiographical show, Keir Cutler takes a comic look at the menace of rogue audience members and the wacky encounters that can happen at the Fringe, including being reported to the authorities for one of his plays.” The new play was a smash hit and received resounding critical acclaim, but there has been some question as to whether or not such a reactive statement to an obviously misconstrued reception was even necessary. From the CBC review:

There’s no denying the quality of the craft: the writing, direction, and performance are of the highest quality. But watching, I couldn’t help but feel saddened Cutler felt it necessary to bring to bear the full weight of his considerable wit and intellect to demolish an argument so asinine it needn’t have been dignified with a response.

It’s the best show that didn’t need to be made you’ll see.

In a way, such a vitriolic outburst in response to this kind of play is a huge compliment, if you can muster up that sort of perspective on it. I would much rather have an audience member come up to me mad as hell after one of my shows because it pushed some buttons for them (this has actually happened to me, more than once), than for them to be utterly indifferent to the work. It strikes me as unrealistic to think that everyone is going to luv your piece and come away from it all happiness and sunshine, and instantly improved. The possibility of backlash permeates any work that addresses the unseemly or provocative. We invite any member of the public with the price of admission to be affected by our work, there’s no way that we can affect them all in the same way.

When it comes to subject matter, is any passionate reaction, whether gushy or seething, a worthy objective? How do you measure success in your work?

Muxin’ things up a bit

Just wanted to point out that The Next Stage now features a soundtrack that you can activate from the sidebar. Through the wonders of Muxtape we bring you a fresh new selection every week of the tunes we’re listening to for inspiration, carefully engineered to perfectly accompany each section of the blog that you’re reading at any given time.

If you’d like to load up a Muxtape of your own to be featured as our weekly soundtrack, please send it on over to us at vanstage(at)gmail(dot)com, and we’d be proud to share it with our loyal readers.

The Next Stage has no professional affiliation with at all, we just like making and sharing mixtapes and have since, like, 1982.