Consider the source

Sabrina’s got a necessary post up today about the startling laziness and ill manners of a certain percentage of our young actors here in Vancouver. Apparently we’ve acquired a reputation for it across the country. Great. So the question becomes: what is the origin of such a poor work ethic? When did it become okay to blow off any appointment, never mind an audition – the brass ring of the acting profession/obsession – without so much as a dog-ate-my-homework text?

A quick twitter query offered some suggestions that it may have something to do with the pervasive emphasis on film/TV work here as potentially more legitimate and/or lucrative work for employment-seeking actors, and that this has lowered their opinion of stage work. It was even suggested that some agencies counsel their charges to steer clear of theatre as a career move. One hopes this bizarro-world scenario is untrue, at the very least. But there is clearly something discouraging about the lack of stage verve in the available young actor stable here. Where is the next generation of theatre-goers coming from if the people invested in the trade themselves are lackadaisical about just showing up for a shot at some work?

I wonder about this a lot. So do other people around here, thankfully. I wish more of us talked about it. Excitement for theatre as a unique arena has to be instilled early, as I was blissfully reminded of in this post on Amanda Palmer‘s blog (h/t Trav, with gratitude. Check out his post on the matter), this is exactly what we’re talking about whenever we talk about where theatre is coming from and going to. I wish that every parent of every histrionic student, every high school drama teacher, every acting coach and every theatre department prof could absorb this post, I can think of no higher career high than this from a former student:

my jaw hit the floor. this was an adult – a teacher – who was treating the teenagers like they were adults. there was no patronizing. there was real art. we were digging into ourselves and finding real things. my heart exploded.
for the first time in my life, i felt art the way i knew it could be, i was watching it happen and i was a part of it. my life was changed.

Seriously, you’ve got to read the full post. You’ll want to take this guy’s class yourself. His enthusiasm for his work and respect for his student’s intelligence resonated so deeply that Amanda was thrilled at the opportunity to come back and make more art with him, and with his current crop of students, who in turn got a huge bump from the success that she brought back with her. You can actually watch the entire product of that reunion here, if you like. Doesn’t look anything like what my high school was doing, I’ll tell you that much. I don’t recall ever being told in my entire scholastic career, not even in passing by a teacher or a counselor, that being a working artist was a career option. Not once. And if I was know for anything back then, it was for being an art nerd. I didn’t even see a play until I was in my twenties. I am left to only imagine where I’d be now if I’d been drenched in enthusiasm that infectious when I was a teenager.

Choosing theatre may never be as cool and romantic and full of potential as it is when you’re in high school. At least offering the choice and doing it with the passion that typifies long-term practitioners seems like a pretty good place to start. And I’m betting these kids show up for work when it’s their turn to jump off.

Palmer, her mentor & the next gen...
Palmer, her mentor & the next gen...

Photo courtesy of amandapalmer.net

This One Goes to Eleven: Ben Ratner

Local actor Ben Ratner also happens to be local writer/director/acting teacher Ben Ratner. His face is well known to Vancouverites from his co-starring role on DaVinci’s City Hall and from the many locally produced indie films he’s been involved with, notably his Leo Award-winning turn in Mount Pleasant and his own Moving Malcolm, which he wrote and directed.

He has appeared on stage in, among many others, his self-penned play Cherished and Forgotten, and received a Jessie nod for American Buffalo in 1995.

Ben’s latest directorial effort opens this week: Dying City by Christopher Shinn at Little Mountain Studios. He talks about the piece on camera here. And about our theatre in general here…

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1. In one word, describe your present condition.

Pudgy.

2. In your own choice of word count, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

As a performer, I’m not part of the mainstream theatre scene, and only make occasional appearances on-stage in the indie theatre scene, so I am ot really entitled to spout off on this. I can only say my experiences as a participant have always been rewarding, and my experiences as an audience member have been hit and miss.

3. Lack of money is usually cited in these interviews as the most common road block for indie theatre. Is there a disconnect here where art and business should meet, and why?

Indie theatre is not a safe business bet, nor is indie film. The money is in the mainstream, and even there they struggle. You gotta do it ’cause you love it, period.

4. What is it about Dying City that our audiences really need to experience?

I have been emailing with the play’s author, Christopher Shinn. He told me that when he wrote Dying City, he “wanted to write a play that would kill the actors”. So…come see if our cast makes it through the run alive!

5. Does stage work have a responsibility to provide us with a sense of hope?

Everything is subjective. You can only do what you believe in and hope it reaches people.

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6. Speaking as an instructor, what is the single most common problem neophyte acting students have to overcome?

Laziness. And it’s not just the neophytes

7. What is the best piece of acting advice you’ve ever received?

While working on a feature called Wrongfully Accused in ’98, I asked the late Richard Crenna, whose career spanned over 50 years, this same question. He told me “sit down whenever possible”. (He meant conserve your energy for when you need it.)

My acting teacher, Ivana Chubbuck, used to always tell us to “Play our scenes to win and make positive choices.” This has become the cornerstone of my teaching ideology and acting style.

8. Given one million dollars to improve our independent theatre scene, how would you spend it?

I’d put together the most talented and ambitious creative and business minds I could find, pay everyone a decent wage, and let them work their magic full-time in order to mount top-notch, well advertised shows in our own little hundred seat theatre, with live jazz in the adjoining bar. Don’t know how long the money would last, but we’d put on some damn fine shows.

9. Given a time machine, what would you like to say to a young Ben Ratner just starting out on his career?

Skip Los Angeles, spend those 3 years in New York instead.

10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?

I’m a meat and potatoes man, play-wise. I’d say almost anything by John Patrick Shanley, A view from the bridge by Arthur Miller, American Buffalo by David Mamet, and now, of curse, Dying City by Christopher Shinn.

11. What’s next?

As a writer, currently developing a one-hour TV series for CTV. As an actor, currently shooting Carl Bessai’s latest film, Fathers and sons. As a director, my short film, Power Lunch, has just been invited to the 2009 Mexico International Film Festival. As a teacher, I continue to offer very demanding scene study classes to some of Vancouver’s least lazy actors. Interested thespians should contact Geoff at geoffgustafson@mac.com to get more info.

Well dear, your father and I met at a play…

Pi Theatre has announced a lovely little promotional night: they have designated the Friday, May 8 performance of John and Beatrice as a Singles Night. Utilizing the cozy lounge and outdoor terrace of the PAL theatre in Coal Harbour, they’re hosting a post-show Mixer for all guests should they choose to hand out and mix. Cute.

They’re also doing some cool guerilla marketing; stapling mock lonely hearts ads to telephone poles around town with pull-tabs that direct you to information on the play. And I only know about this because a friend of mine saw one and totally fell for it, and had to tell me about it. Nice work guys.

Here’s director Del Surjik talking about the work: