Theatrical Responsibility

I know I’m not gonna get much feedback on this, and I’m hoping that I can just write out some of my thoughts here and then re-visit this once this blog has reasserted itself into the public conversation. I don’t blame those who aren’t reading this, I don’t write about theater enough for theater people to check it, and I don’t write enough PERIOD for anyone to check it.

Which, I guess, is my way of saying “Hi mom!”

I’ve seen some theater over the course of my life that I felt was irresponsible… I mean, I walked away from the theater feeling genuinely insulted, and I felt myself today wondering why. I mean, I know why, I felt like my time or my good intentions had been abused for one reason or another, but I started wondering if maybe that wasn’t the right reaction on my part.

When a theatrical event is happening, there are a lot of people involved in making it happen, and many of them are working at cross purposes. In a perfect scenario, a person’s time spent in the audience is as rewarded as the person’s time spent writing and the person’s time spent in rehearsal and the person’s time applying gaffer’s tape… but very often one group wants something quite different than what the other groups want, and someone ends up walking away without much reward.

So, who, as a PRODUCER, are we ultimately answering to? I’m framing this question in this context because I think the answers for a lot of the other roles are pretty easy to answer. I’m gonna kind of walk through this from the beginning to the end, as that’s the easiest way to delineate the jobs. If you don’t mind, I’m gonna chose a gender and stick with it to avoid the him/her crap.

Personally, I wish more people would pay more attention to their responsibilities to the writer, more often than not she has created a road map that conforms very closely to what she wants to see on the stage. There are many ways of writing, and almost none of them involve letting someone else create the mood and characters that the writer is ultimately responsible for, so I have an inclination to feel that the writer’s work is sacrosanct.

But I’m wrong about that, in a way. You can almost always tell when you’re watching the first draft of something and, although edits and re-writes can lead to a loss of the individual voice, a critical eye early in the process will only help. If, as a producer, we challenge the writer to look again at a section we think is problematic, then she will either come up with something better, or she will learn why she doesn’t want to change it, and that explanation will make the rest of the piece clearer.

I’m not sure where the line is, I think we find it as we go, but we do want to give voice to A voice, a singular voice. Each production company should have a mission statement, the more theatrically specific the better, and if the play doesn’t match the statement, then the production isn’t gonna work. We owe the playwright a chance to see her work in its entirety, but we also owe her a critical eye that will push her to clarify and specify.

The director really does have to have as much latitude as possible to create his vision, and the producer does need to provide that atmosphere, but… I don’t know. Mac has said that a good director can’t save a bad play (or something to that effect, I can’t find his actual blog) and a bad director can’t be cajoled into being a good director. I agree with this, so I’m not sure why I’m about to say what I’m about to say…

It’s just that I’ve watched good shows sink with a terrible director, and have felt ever since that I, as a producer, should have stepped in and demanded more. The producers owe the director an air of authority in the rehearsal room, but I’m more and more of the opinion that a director’s job has been over-rated in our current theatrical culture. There needs to be a final artistic say, and the director has to have it, but in private, the producer needs to steer the director to make sure the goal of the production is met.

Our company’s mission statement makes it pretty clear what we’re trying to do. We take established genres and use theatrical shorthand to facilitate the stories we’re telling. It asks our audiences to be informed before coming in, and it demands that our directors understand the genres that we’re drawing from. In the end, although we are responsible for making an open and pleasant rehearsal process for the director to lead the show, we’re also responsible to our company to make sure the show fits in to our mission statement.

We have honored the director in every one of our plays, and sometimes that has been to a fault. If it is true that a bad director can’t be cajoled into doing a good job, then the director, in these cases, should have been replaced, even mid-way through the production.

If directors are afforded, in my opinion, too much respect in our theatrical culture, then actors surely aren’t respected enough. The myth about actors is that they are attention whores, unstable people who can’t exist without pretending to be other people and who live for applause. This is almost never true, and even when it’s partly true, it shouldn’t disqualify what each actor has to do in order to do their job well.

An actor’s life is horrible. Not only do they have no control over what shows they are doing (unless one counts turning down unsavory roles, a bit like beggars being choosers…) and once they are cast in a show, every moment of their performance is pushed and shaped and molded by the director, the costume designer, the tech designer, the stage manager and the other actors in rehearsal. They are expected to strip down, cry on command, execute choreography and stage combat, and match the pitch and tone of every other actor on stage, all of which can change and shift based on the mood and timbre of the audience that night… or even just the weather.

So what is the producer’s responsibility? First and foremost, the actor’s work must be honored, and it has to be honored with MONEY. Actor’s should be reimbursed for their time, and if you don’t do it then the actors have every right to ask why not. If tickets are being purchased and money is being spent, the actors should be paid. Secondly, rehearsals should be set up to be a safe and effective environment, and that means scheduling rehearsals in a time and place where the actors aren’t killing themselves just to make it there.

Most importantly, the actors have to be allowed to be a part of the storytelling. The actor you hired did something in the auditions that led you to believe they were the right person for the job, you have to let them do what they do in the role they’ve been given. You can’t hire a method actor to do broad comedy, you can’t hire an evangelical to play a rapist, and you can’t hire an opera singer to do improv comedy. The production has a responsibility to match the right artists with the right roles, and then allow them to feel like they are bringing their own training and skills to the roles they are doing.

This is the tricky bit. Many people believe that a producer’s sole responsibility is to the investors. These people are called “investors”.

Look, we do owe our investors, but to say we owe them everything is a mistake. The shows would not exist without money, but they also wouldn’t exist without writers or actors or directors, etc., and they most CERTAINLY wouldn’t exist without the producers making all of the decisions.

One has to assume that the investors have put money into the producers hands because they feel that money will be used well, and the producers have a responsibility to use the money well. We have an ethos with our production company that basically boils down to “you can either spend a lot of money, or spend a lot of time”, and it translates t
o everything (an example in just a minute…)

The truth is, the investors are owed the cleanest and truest expression of theater possible, even if it initially feels fiscally cumbersome or unlikely to draw a crowd. It’s a cliche, but nobody would believe that a plot-free musical based on a book of poems by T.S. Eliot, which requires every cast member to both dance and sing brilliantly, would be a sure-fire way of making money. To this end, the producers owe no explanation to the investors when money isn’t made, no even apology. We owe our investors the greater possibility of money lost, it’s the only way that a new and inventive story can be told, and the only possibility, in this utterly shameful investment, that the money people have a chance to see a return.

I just didn’t know how to delineate this section, it’s not exactly a summation. But let me give you an example of one step in the production process.

Let’s say you are setting up rehearsal space. It’s an easy fix to rehears in the cheapest possible place you can find, living rooms and garages fill this pretty easily. But if you do this, you’re shirking your responsibility to the writer, because every moment will feel like a reading in someone’s living room, to the director, because he won’t have a semblance of the actual space with marked entrances and exits, and to the actors, who will perform only enough for those six to eight feet in front of them to hear and read, instead of the forty to fifty feet they might be asked to fill.

So you call five places and find good quotes on rehearsal space. In order to save money, you can set up the initial book work in a living room or office, but once the actors get on their feet, you want them in a big enough space. However, you don’t want to shirk your financial responsibility to the actors, and you only have so much money, so what do you do? You call five more places. And then twelve more. And then fifteen more places. You find out when the basketball court at the grade school in midtown is available. You call seven more places…

I know this much. I know how it’s better if we go to people and hand them postcards than it is to hire a publicist. I know we can spend more time and less money on every step. But I don’t know who has the final say, who, ultimately, we have to answer to.

I suppose the one group I haven’t considered is THE AUDIENCE, and maybe, in the end, it is to them that we owe everything. And maybe that’s why, as insulted as I occasionally get when I’m asked for more and given less as an artist, I only every feel like a production has been irresponsible when I’m an audience member. If only there was an audience that wasn’t made up almost entirely of people from these other categories, maybe I could be convinced that they were worth investing in.