Open up and let them in, continued…

openI am an artist in process. We are an industry in process. I am of the opinion that our particular industry is in its entirety process, and nothing more. And I think I’m starting to get an inkling of what that word means.

My process thus far has gone something like this: discovered theatre at 20, fell in love with theatre, ran away from theatre, theatre hunted me down and forced itself on me, discovered that I was, and always had been, a theatre artist, clumsily mounted a string of theatrical events and, most recently, disappeared into the stunted, confused and beaten-down hound that is the business side of the independent arts. That last one has encompassed the last 3 years of my life, and I have lived it; eaten, breathed, touched, tasted it every single day. This has made me joyful, and it has made me furious, it has made me want to bury theatre in a shallow grave in the backyard and never give it another thought.

It has turned me into a preacher, the guy at the cocktail party that just won’t shut up, and it’s utterly taken my tongue and hidden it from me.

This, I realize now, is the process that all pioneers have gone through. I have sought out and wrapped myself in the voices of independent theatre practitioners and audiences – like a junkie with a farmers market of narcotics at his disposal – both in person and out here on the blogosphere. It’s moved from the background of my personality to the foreground, it has become an essential part of my identity. And the pursuit of answers, of method and of financial viability has – like all good art – cost me, as I know it has cost so many of my peers: time, money, sleep, relationship stress, sanity…and that light at the end of the tunnel is still just a pin prick.

But. Taking a breather right now I realize there are some things that I have come to know as Truth. Ideas that became experiments that became facts, forged in the fire of doing the thing and solidified in the forensics. These are chunks of bedrock that I believe we need to be open and loud about, that we need to share with each other so that we can strengthen our bonds as an industry, and as a community.

The Open Up and Let Them In concept – propounded in a post from early June – is one of those big chunks. Simply stated, it’s a shift in the indie theatrical model from putting up little basement-theatre versions of what the big proscenium-arched houses present – with little card table box offices and little Fisher Price mini-bars and redundant ushers – and instead embracing the opportunities presented us by our size and form – namely accessibility to the artists so that we can celebrate and debate the work together. Doing away with the curtain, as it were, instead of merely lifting it at 8:00. Fearing not the judgment of the punters but rather welcoming them as one half of the equation that makes up the performance. Face to face. Creating an experience that is unique unto itself, as similar to civic theatre as it is to Opera or a hockey game.

This idea has traction. Ottawa theatreist Kris Joseph recently writes:

…I am now more convinced than ever that theatre can and must distinguish itself from film, TV, and new media by being completely porous to its audience.

We owe it to audiences to share what we have learned through our practice; this is not an ‘education’ function but a core function.  We owe it to audiences to provide them with art that they want to see and that is relevant to them; this is not a ’subscription renewal’ or ‘programming’ function, but a core function.

See, inside the heart of all the discussion about why theatre is dying lies a rhythmic beat of “it’s not relevant.  It’s not relevant. It’s not relevant.”  We can all hear it, but the response to the drum-beat is generally wrong-headed because it revolves around a revival through increased ticket sales.  No: we need to revolve it around the body that owns the hand that’s banging the drum.

If this integration of art and audience can be achieved, the life-blood of the theatrical form and, yes, even the ‘funding’, will follow.

We can do this. Easily. It’s already so close to what we do already that to avoid it seems quite silly, actually. The magic of small-house theatre is in its connectivity, not its separation. Allow the audiences the ownership they crave and you will never get rid of them.

New Leaf Theatre in Chicago is inviting audiences into some rehearsals. Cambiare Productions in Austin live-streamed their last show to the world for free. Here in Vancouver, Twenty-Something Theatre Artistic Producer Sabrina Evertt blogs about her process openly and fearlessly. Touchstone Theatre is inviting us into the process of their next production, Demon Voice, by posting behind-the-scenes video blogs hosted by multi-Jessie Award winning playwright Shawn Macdonald. Here’s the first two in the series…

Short. Sweet. Inclusive. Generous. Open. We must share to butterfly. But not all of it.  Just enough to let them take ownership of us, not so much that we deprive them of the surprises that they come for.

How much are our audiences going to care about us? Pretty much exactly as much as we show we care about them.

Fixing theatre, one tweet at a time

Random tweet from Rebecca on Tuesday morning:

Off to have breakfast with @cynnamons. Vancouver theatre publicists unite!

To which I responded with a flippant:

@rebeccacoleman @cynnamons Hi girls! If you figure out how to fix #theatre today, let me know?

To which Travis responded with a considered:

@thenextstagemag Give a leading indie company in each city a budget half as large as the largest company for three years.

And then is was game on, in < 140 characters.

thenextstagemag: Who’s got some ideas on how to #fixtheatre?

hand

hummingbird604: Create targeted socmed campaign to influence funding organizations 4 theatre

thenextstagemag: Convince each large civic theatre to foster one indie company on a side stage per year, as many productions as they can fit

autoblot: Develop resources to help small companies learn how to reach beyond the ‘family and friends’ audience.

walt828: teach artists entrepreneurial skills. REAL entrepreneurial skills

thenextstagemag: Take one non-theatre friend to a play/month, and stick around afterward to meet the cast

brovermania: Small, affordable venues, cheap tickets, short plays, beer.

performaddict: Integrate video games with theatre and open the shows explicitly to gamers.

IanAMartin: What about free booze during performances? Or even ‘drinking in the seats’ being ok?

miketobias: @DallasTheater: Michael Kaiser says arts orgs need federal policy, not just fed funding: http://bit.ly/10hnfc

theatre_20: foster a new generation of theatre-goer’s by creating theatre that is about them rather than their ancestors

happierman: make it affordable. make it often. make it interactive.

nyneofuturists: be willing to change start times, audience/stage layout, and allow beer

foyee: compromise less. Don’t give up on an idea because someone tells you it can’t be done.

halcyontony: don’t be scared to try something new?

foyee: Longer rehearsal/workshop time. Venue rent subsidies.

performaddict: Figure out how to make it cheaper. I’m all for a living wage, but most theatre is prohibitively expensive

foyee: Be inclusive, not exclusive and stop being pretentious about our art.

lacouvee: non traditional venues, non traditional times, make it relevant, exciting & dangerous also affordable

lacouvee: Talk about everybody who works in theatre, not just the actors & directors

lacouvee: reach out to minorities, help theatre to reflect our diverse cultural mosaic

thenextstagemag: Get loud and blog.

getrealtheatre: Getting them young means teaching drama, stagecraft in schools – this fosters a lifelong love of the art

DaveCharest: Set a regular schedule of emailing subscribers. Show them WHY they should be excited about theatre.

theatre_20: training institutions that make learning the “biz” side of “show biz” as important as the art.

DaveCharest: Enable fans to spread the word.

judithsthoughts: ticket prices are a huge deal, but i also think theatre has to stop being so commercialized.

judithsthoughts: i miss the days when bdwy was full of special shows, and not disney movies made into shows.

christinequinty: recognize that the relationship between large theatre and independent theatre can be one of mutualism, not competition

DaveCharest: Use a combination of text and HTML emails. Start building connections with the audience.

judithsthoughts: when teaching its important to get everyone involved – that way kids that arent “actors’ or “singers” feel included.

DaveCharest: Make it easy for people to get involved

FacesofWayne: build a community, put a quality product on the stage, promote the high quality product within and outside the community.

christinequinty: break down the perception that theatre is, as was described to me by a prof in an academic class at UBC, a ‘bourgeois art form’

travisbedard: Stop whining about what everyone else isn’t doing. It’s not a problem – you just found your niche.

gladyssantiago: Utilize Twitter & other social media platforms for ticket giveaways. Generates buzz, great WOM

DaveCharest: Why should audiences get it? Start educating.

thenextstagemag: Separate indie theatre from classical theatre in the public’s perception. Re-brand as sexy and relevant.

rebeccacoleman: I would love a vibrant online arts hub with photos/video/blog where everyone can promote their stuff.

FilmguyWon: Theatre will never thrive unless you raise a generation of Writers of plays. Otherwise it’s just the same old stuff.

macwrites: Playwrights: write plays that you yourself would honestly set aside an evening to go out & see (even if no friends are in it).

VanMusicals: Incorporate non-traditional (colour-blind) casting whenever possible

TheatreSmart: Have talk-backs after every show!

KurtDaw: If you want to #fixtheatre you have to look at British models that drive down ticket prices and bring in new, younger audiences.

FacesofWayne: http://bit.ly/D0ki8 (Ottawa) The ideas here are applicable everywhere.

FacesofWayne: @TheatreSmart I am not a big fan of talkbacks. Actors are not authorities on the play. They are just performers.

nyneofuturists: here’s something to add to @thenextstagemag’s discussion about theater from yesterday: (via @TDFNYC)

Now that’s a great way to kick start a week. My admiration and thanks to all who dropped a #fixtheatre tweet, commented and re-tweeted.

Don’t hesitate to drop any more thoughts in the comments, or keep the discussion going on twitter with the #fixtheatre hash tag. The revolution will be hashed out…

Image courtesy of Flickr user Max F. Williams

Determining the industry’s blood type

I’m a total Robert Lepage fanboy. Case in point; last year while the rest of the 17-men stag party I was with in Vegas started the night with a UFC fight, I suffered their slings and arrows and tucked myself into a middle seat at Lepage’s Cirque installation Ka, alone with a box of popcorn and a Bourbon Manhattan (Vegas is a trip). Nerdy, yes. Worth it, most definitely. My gushing over the play when I joined up with the squad caused more than a few members of the actor-rich crew to express just a touch of envy. And then we got really drunk. Anyway, I’m tangenting…

I’m turning to Robert Lepage for inspiration more and more these days. The guy’s genious is no secret, but it’s something in his relentlessness of production that keeps pushing me. He’s the founder and AD of the production company Ex Machina, and I’ve been submersed in the content of their web site for a while now. Just don’t call it a theatre company:

In 1993, when Robert Lepage asked his collaborators to help find a name for his new company, he had one condition: the word theatre could not be part of the name.

Ex Machina is thus a multidisciplinary company bringing together actors, writers, set designers, technicians, opera singers, puppeteers, computer graphic designers, video artists, film producers, contortionists and musicians.

Ex Machina’s creative team believes that theatre needs new blood. That the performing arts – dance, opera, music – should be mixed with recorded arts – filmmaking, video art and multimedia. That there must be meetings between scientists and playwrights, between set painters and architects, and between artists from Québec and the rest of the world.

New artistic forms will surely emerge from these gatherings. Ex Machina wants to rise to the challenge and become a laboratory, an incubator for a form of theatre that will reach and touch audiences from this new millennium.

I wanted to share it with you, it’s a content-rich site full of video of their work. I tend to hate theatre on video, but for study/archival purposes it’s great, and most of the stuff here is prepared trailer-style, with a lot of thought given to video production. I have no idea what’s going on throughout most of this video, for example, but I know that it makes me want to make art.

The success behind Lepage and Ex Machina seems predicated on enlarging the scope of what we generally consider collaboration. It requires an unclenching of our usual control over ideas, and seems to require the development of a higher degree of tolerance for chaos. It frightens me and I love it.

How far out of our comfort zone are we willing to journey to propel theatre to where it must go?

ExMac

My thanks to LSP ensemble member Steve Park for the heads up. I should be posting his interview any day now.

“Hey. Actors. Suck it up.”

angry_scroogeThis post has been a long time coming. It’s one I really wanted to write a few weeks ago, but I was so mad, so red-faced incensed at the time that I couldn’t dare sit down at the computer and spit out the vitriol I was gargling with. So I waited to cool down. Which I have, but not much.

My thanks to Ottawa actor/teacher/blogger Kris Joseph for writing the post that the above title is lifted from. I’m very tempted to reprint the post in its entirety here, I believe it’s that important. Instead I will urge you to head over to Kris’ place and check it out, and satisfy myself with pull quotes here.

So this is what I’m asking, Vancouver theatre: please stop mistreating your audiences. This is not by any means directed at all of you, nor even most of you. Most of you are dedicated and lovely allies in the revolution, and I’m proud to fight in the same ranks with you. I’m talking to the few theatre practitioners out there that are possessed by the kind of entitlement that makes you think you can dictate the rules of the theatre-going experience to the people that you feel should be honoured to be assembled in your presence. We’re all in the same boat here, we need to be doing everything in our power to manifest a rabid audience for our product where one does not exist right now. As hosts we need to be impeccable, nurturing, patient and above reproach. If you are working in theatre and you do not share this point of view, please stop hurting the chances of the rest of us.

In the space of that one week, I personally witnessed or heard reported a ridiculous amount of incidents involving artists vs. audience members here that just knocked the wind out of me. Offhand and flippant derogatory comments on social media sites. Actors onstage yelling insults at audience members who were talking back to them in a play constructed to have planted actors in the audience talk back to them. One actor called an audience member who was struggling to turn off an errant cell phone ringer a ‘bitch’ from the stage. And no, he didn’t do it ‘in character’. I’ve read the play, and that line isn’t in it, for his or anybody else’s character.

The cell phone complaint drives me crazy. Yes, it’s annoying. Yes, if a member of your audience pulls out a phone in the middle of the play and calls someone, they should be removed, as discreetly as possible, and made to write lines on the chalkboard. But here in 2009, small personal electronic communication devices are ubiquitous. And sometimes, they’re going to make a bit of noise. And people are going to have to sneeze and cough. And sometimes they just might be compelled into an emotional outburst. Why has this molehill turned into our biggest mountain to get over? Where did this pervasive prissy attitude about the audience being neither seen nor heard so as not to disturb the delicate geniuses on the stage originate? Isn’t the live audience integral to the very definition of the form? And should that not be glorified in? Are you sure you don’t really rather want to be acting in a movie right now? To quote Kris:

I get incensed at actors who scoff or rail against that behaviour as being unconscionable. Are you annoyed that the audience isn’t paying attention to you? Work harder. Your job is to make them pay attention. It is hard for me, sometimes, to keep from getting annoyed at audience distractions, but I am training myself to think that such occurrences represent the behaviour of someone I want to see again in the audience.  For the umpteenth time on this blog, I reiterate: our job is to serve the audience… NOT the other way around.

It never seems to bother anyone when a member of the audience is laughing so hard they can’t continue for a beat.

Most of our audience, if we’re doing our job as marketers, don’t know the pre-set rules of behaviour for good little audiences. They just know that they’re at a hip live event, in a room with some electricity running through it, and they’re excited. So when you call an audience member a bitch for making the crucifiable mistake of forgetting to push a small button, it’s not just her that you’ve embarrassed. It’s everyone else in the theatre that had to squirm through not only her shame at this – let’s just face it – inevitable faux pas, but also at her being subjected to a misogynistic sniper attack. And as for all the other people in attendance that thought that was funny, and that she got hers, karma is going to guarantee that the same thing happens to them one day. And believe me, it will.

More KJ:

When a production is doing well, and has good word-of-mouth (which is forever and always the best form of publicity), it attracts patrons of immense, incalculable value: those who do not normally attend the theatre. These are the only people, by definition, that can grow the theatrical audience.  And these patrons, in large part, are unaware of theatrical etiquette.  How dare we expect them to know all the rules?  If these patrons behave ‘badly’ in the theatre, they do it out of naivete, not malice.  To respond to this innocence with punishment is to drive them away again, in the same way that one bad experience in a retail store is enough to make a customer vow to never return.

We wonder endlessly why theatre is struggling and why people aren’t flocking to our fabulously intense and uniquely visceral smorgasbord of cultural insight. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this that do not go to the theatre. Constantly, actually, as it’s my job to convince them otherwise. And most of them are united by one glaring commonality: they don’t look for us because they think we’re stuffy and no fun.

My entire mission statement is based around proving them utterly wrong. And if they take a chance on your production, please, I’m begging you, be nice to them. Because I want them to love the experience that you offer so much that the next show that they pay money to see is mine.

Family bonding at the Jessies

I know there’s an argument that some make about awards shows like the Jessies. They hold that it’s wrong to pit artists against one another, that saying this actor ‘beat’ that actor, and that this company is ‘better’ than that company etc, etc diminishes us all. They say that competition has no place in the world of art. And you know, I don’t altogether disagree.

But I went to the Jessies at the Commodore last night, and I can honestly say that I didn’t feel any of that. From where I sat all I could see was a room full of artists happy to be in a room full of people that feel excitement at the same things that they do, without having to explain that excitement to anyone. I saw people basking in the glow of community. I saw a room full of people who don’t make very much money off of the thing that they love, and celebrating it anyway. I saw revered community members proud of the industry they have created, and young professionals proud of the industry they are creating. We need to share space like this more often. We need more occasions to commune like the Jessies.

It is only by recognizing that we have power both in numbers and in passion that we are going to flourish. It is only by joining our voices together that we are going to be heard by our next audience. And then, once we’ve got their attention, we can listen to them, hear what it is that they want, and give it to them. And then we can be the greatest, most profitable theatre city in North America.

Tonight I felt a part of something. And I think that’s what theatre is supposed to be about.

For those of you who weren’t there, click here for the Jessie Night live tweetcast from the field reportage dream-team of yours truly and @kenjimaeda, and the full list of winners is here.

Open up and let them in

door open

Do you know why theatre rocks?

Of course you do, you’ve found your way to a theatre blog on the overwhelmingly crowded internet. Whatever that answer is to you is the greatest marketing tool you’ve got. All you’ve got to do is spread that reason all over town.

Why do I think theatre rocks?

Accessibility.

We’re accessible by nature. Our art is drenched in the image of accessibility. It is, in fact, the single most accessible art form. That is its great strength. Out of all the art out there, we let our audience into the thing, invite them to be part of the thing. This is, I’m becoming more and more convinced every day, the greatest weapon in our marketing arsenal. I believe we must nurture this image, encourage it, let it become the product. We, consumers that we are, want to connect directly to that which moves us, to the things and experiences that elicit an emotional reaction. It’s why our society worships at the church of Celebrity, and movie stars feel compelled to invent fake names to stay at hotels. Kooks included, we want to express ourselves to our artists, to connect to their art directly, to say thank you. And within the theatre they’re right there in our midst. Fortunately, independent theatre doesn’t attract the kooky stalker set. Yet.

During the run of our last production I hosted a small reception for the audience every night, to which they were always invited. I set out a table of cheese and deli meat and crackers, veggies, that kind of thing (I love you, Costco), and tended a full bar. The company had agreed going in that they would make themselves available to their audience for a certain amount of time post show, and to my neverending amazement and wonder, all 12 of them did. Every night. Shook hands and answered questions and had drinks bought for them…we were all humbled and amazed by it. And our audiences seemed to be too. It gave them all shared ownership of the experience, and it was absolutely stunning to watch.

All participants, together in a room, celebrating the event. This is what theatre offers. This is why it rocks.

I’ve seen other examples of this philosophy lately that’s made my heart jump. Consider this post from the blog of the ever-inspiring Chicago-based New Leaf Theatre. It details their decision to continue the rehearsal process for a play they had developed as a company after opening and invite the public in to watch.

We started rehearsals, as we always do, with the ensemble performing their opening ritual – a simple exercise in a circle. We revisited one of the building blocks we’d used over the course of rehearsals when Jess led the group in a Viewpoints exercise. (Some of the audience had never seen or heard of Viewpoints before, and they were kind of amazed.) About half of the audience hadn’t seen the full production yet, but since the story is so episodic, we decided that didn’t matter. We chose two scenes to focus on, and ran them with lights and sound to give our newbies a reference point. And then we got to work.

We picked apart moments, cleared up some traffic patterns, strengthened some choices, made some new discoveries. We made actual changes to blocking, to interpretation, and those changes showed up on Friday and Saturday nights.

We invited the audience to join us in our closing exercise, and they all did.

This is utterly mind-blowing to me. The generosity and fearlessness and inclusivity to their community of this idea is brilliant, what better way to make your audience, or potential audience, feel like a part of the company, to feel invested in your future? Note that they kept the process closed during the development of the piece, inviting civilians into the early process of creation would be a fly in the ointment, no doubt. But the show was up and running, it was deemed a saleable product, and they were allowing witnesses into the maintenance of the piece. It was an honest declaration of the opinion that theatre is always in process. Lovely.

And how’s this for theatre nerd porn? The New York Times ran a behind-the-scenes piece on Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests, which includes slide shows and short audio clips from all aspects of the production, from actors to props master to costumer to carpenter to usher to audience members…how cool and compelling and easy is this to put together?

This is one of the ideas that inspired me to buy a Flip Camera. And, I suppose, it’s this idea that compels us to blog. I believe this is how we need to brand ourselves: as the accessible emotional experience. It’s going to require some ego-killing, but it could pave the way to making Independent Stage the most talked about experience in town.

What do you think? Can we trade in the old tropes of ‘theatre magic’ for a new paradigm of honest human communion?

Image courtesty of Flickr user joewhk

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