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.

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

New Van theatre blog alert…and an invitation to kick off one of your own

crows_nestWhen Vancouver is recognized as one of the top theatre cities in the world, Sabrina Evertt is going to have to accept her fair share of responsibility. After shooting out the other end of the theatre program of UVic she immediately rolled up her sleeves and went to work, producing and directing the kind of theatre that twenty-something actors and audiences eat up. Aptly, she christened her new company Twenty-Something Theatre and has been feeding us solid work since 2005.

And she ain’t stopping there. Continuing her mission to push theatre further into the city’s conciousness she has started her very own theatre blog, and from the looks of it so far it’s going to be necessary reading.

Sabrina on the future of our theatre:

So, what happens when the blue-rinse crowd that constitutes the majority of the crowds at some of our larger regional theatres (you know the ones) die off? Who will be in the audience? […] It is all well and good to think of all the wacky, crazy, creative, out-there shows that would stimulate and satisfy us as artists BUT if we aren’t connecting with our audiences at a very real & emotional level, that makes them feel like they NEED to come back again, then there really isn’t much point.

Great stuff on fundraising like the big kids:

When I first started out, fundraising was probably my least favourite part of the job but now I actually kind of enjoy it. At first it can seem daunting and awkward asking people to donate their money, time, services, etc to your production but ask you must. In my experience box office revenues account for less than %50 of your total revenue stream. So, where do you get the other 50-75% of the money to put up this beloved project of yours? From the generosity of others.

Sabrina’s also rocking the twitter; engaging with her community, live-blogging shows…I can’t tell you how much I love seeing young theatre embracing new media to get the conversation rolling. It is, simply put, necessary for our success, and will only become more so as the old media shrivels and market-produced content becomes the status quo.

Click here to read and subscribe to Sabrina’s An Unidentified Production blog

On that note, I would like to extend an open invitation to any theatre artists in the Vancouver area. If you’ve been thinking about blogging, about getting your opinions, questions and ideas out into the collective consciousness but aren’t yet sure if it’s something you’d be into, The Next Stage is always open to guest posters looking to get their feet wet. If you’ve got something you’d like to say to your town on the subject of independent theatre, drop me a line at vanstage(at)gmail(dot)com, and we’ll get into a conversation about it.

This site exists solely to promote new theatre, Vancouver, and you’re welcome in any time.

This One Goes to Eleven: Sabrina Evertt

A graduate of the theatre program at UVic, Sabrina has a solid academic footing in both directing and costume design. She is the artistic producer of Twenty-Something Theatre, a new, energetic Vancouver company that is already notable for its excellent taste in established material. Their next production is Wallace Shawn’s The Fever, opening January 29th at the Beaumont Studios.

sabrina_headshot.jpg

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

Driven

2.) In more than one word, describe the condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

The Vancouver theatre scene is a complicated one. I really believe that the issues concerning the Vancouver theatre scene generally reflect the issues that Vancouver is dealing with as a whole. Vancouver is not yet a BIG city in the way we think of New York, London or even Toronto. People resist change, and in much the same way that Vancouverites are resisting the amount of growth that is happening in this city (with condos being built, housing prices going up, fancy new transit systems being built, the 2010 Olympics), the established theatre practitioners in this city resist change as well.

For so long the theatre community and the audiences available to go and see theatre were comparatively small, so for these established theatres and theatre practitioners who have managed to gather a steady following I can understand how they don’t want to let go or risk the chance of losing what they have fought so hard to build. When I lived in London I had the great opportunity to hear Trevor Nunn speak and he said there is nothing worth doing if risk isn’t involved. The higher the risk the bigger the pay-off, consequently: the higher the risk the harder we may fall; however, it is from the great failures that we learn. Status quo takes us nowhere.

And that is sort of how I see the Vancouver theatre scene. It is happy with the status quo. You’ve got your established theatre who cater mainly to an older, loyal audience. Then you’ve got your alternative theatre who do very exciting but very different work. You’ve got a few festivals with the Fringe and PUSH, but where is the theatre for the young, average Joe? These are the audiences of the future so why aren’t we thinking about how we can appeal to them?

3.) What is the long-term vision for Twenty-Something?

Long term I would like to be able to produce a full-season of shows to continue giving more and more opportunities to young artists.

4.) What criteria do you use for choosing material?

Firstly, it must be a great play, and I understand that what makes a play great is subjective, but it must be, in my opinion, solid writing. Secondly, the majority of roles must be in our target demographic (approx 18-35). Thirdly, it must have issues that reflect the lives of this demographic and then society as a whole.

Then for me personally if I am to direct the production it must have some new element that interests me, that I haven’t done before or that I will learn from.

5.) What can we be doing better to popularize theatre for a twenty-something demographic?

This is “THE QUESTION” isn’t it?! Truthfully, I don’t know if I have anymore insight into this one than anybody else, but I will give it go.

The easy answer is to make going to the theatre an “it” thing to do for your average twenty-something demographic. Let me just clarify what I mean by average. I am talking about the everyone and anyone in the twenty-something demographic: the ones who listen to The Beat, who shop at places like Aritizia or Lululemon, who eat at Earls or Cactus Club, who go to the clubs on Granville, who go to see the big blockbuster movies, etc. These average twenty-somethings are looking for fun, but to them a night at the theatre does not equal fun. I’m not saying we need to pander to our instant gratification generation but I do think we can find a balance between commercialism and artistic integrity. I think we can make theatre fun and thought-provoking. How do we do this? By putting on high-quality productions that appeal to their lives, and most importantly market the theatre in the same way we market movies, or restaurants, or nightclubs. Somehow we need to make it hot, exciting, and the place to be. That could be a start.

6.) How well did your academic theatre training prepare you for running a company?

No training program is perfect but I feel that I developed a lot of skills that have become indispensable, especially discipline. Often when we think of artists we don’t think of discipline as an immediate tool, but it is necessary because in order to ever get things done (and done well) an artist must be disciplined.

7.) Costume design is often one of the last things considered in indie productions. Any thoughts on how to approach this component?

Well, first of all, costume design wouldn’t be one of the last things to be considered. Costume design is important because it immediately supports the characters in the story being told. It helps an actor find his/her character. And when it comes right down to it if the actors are not believable as their characters then the audience won’t suspend their disbelief. No matter the production, I personally believe design, all design, should be one of the first things to be considered. The design of a production supports the story and the visual story should mold seamlessly together with the action. This overall vision for the piece, in my opinion, should be the very first thing to be considered.

8.) Who are your major influences?

You would think this would be an easy one to answer, but for me not so much, because I am influenced by so many things. I try to read and go to see as many plays/productions as possible. I travel as much as I can and am often highly influenced by the places I travel, too. The people I meet. The plays and productions I see while I am there. I am influenced by my friends & family. I’m definitely influenced by other theatre practitioners whether it be old professors/instructors & mentors and/or other directors, actors and designers, etc. In many ways I am a like a giant sponge and I just soak up as much as possible from wherever I can. That probably sounded cheesy but, oh well, its true.

9.) What would you like to see more of on Vancouver stages?

I would like to see the Vancouver stages take bigger risks and do something that is daring and new and contemporary and relevant. I would like to see something that reflects the fact that we live in a cosmopolitan city. I would like to see some Canadian theatre that isn’t just about the prairies or the backwater experience or the Yukon goldmine. We aren’t just a bunch of hicks & outsiders. Why can’t we write plays and/or produce plays that reflect this?

10.) What are your top 3 theatre reads?

Oh gosh…this is a tough one to narrow down. Ok I’m just going to attack this one from a purely directing standpoint.

1) True & False by David Mamet
2) A Sense of Direction by William Ball
3) The Empty Space by Peter Brook

11.) What’s next?

Up next for Twenty-Something is the summer show and at the moment I am pretty sure, it is not 100% definite quite yet, that we are going to be doing SubUrbia by Eric Bogosian.