Archive for March, 2010

New Media Investment

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

There are a lot of people out there who know a lot more about this than I do. Or maybe not, it’s the wild west right now, and everyone is trying to figure out the best way to use the tools at our disposal in order to get what we want.

It’s interesting, because in no other part of our social interactions do we dare be quite so brazen. As much as we might talk about “working a room”, we don’t ever stand up in the middle of a party and holler, “Listen, if you want this room full of people to do what you want, come talk to me, and I’ll explain the con!” and then wait for people to check you out. There’s something unsettling about facebook fan invites and twitter-pimping and blog-slobbing that makes one feel as if the entire environment is filled with narcissism and snake oil.

The loveliest thing about new media for me is that it has helped me overcome whatever latent shyness I might have. I know, for those of you who know me well, it seems absurd to talk about my shyness, but the fact is that I have no problem talking to anybody about anything, but I have a lot of shame attached to the idea of selling stuff to whomever I’m engaging. It’s really easy for me to sit at a party and make jokes, but it’s really hard for me to turn that into an investment opportunity, or a ticket sale.

Now, I know, this is true of everyone, but it’s really important to use that knowledge when you’re engaging in the new social media. Nobody knows how to use their friendship with you to sell a ticket to their show, or pick up a $20 investment. They need you as much as you need them, and I’m not just talking about cross-pollenation within a small subset, I’m talking about a much larger sense of investment.

A lot of people don’t care about theater. In the same way… in the same way that I don’t really care about the environment. I know, I know, it’s insane to say you don’t care about the environment, it’s the only world we’ve got, I’ve got children, blah, blah, blah, but… I just don’t. I *understand* why people are passionate about it, I’m pissed off that my kid has asthma because our neighborhood is historically polluted, but in that secret chamber inside my heart where I keep my real feelings, I just never, ever think about pollution or animal rights or whatever.

But I have a lot of friends who do care about the environment. And I’m friends with these people because I joined our local CSA, and became a core member. I have a connection, now, with a couple of local farms and 200 families in my neighborhood because I’ve chosen to invest some of my time and energy into caring about something that isn’t necessarily all that organic for me.  Interestingly, a lot of the people in the CSA are also somewhat passionate about the arts. One thing can lead to the other.

Instead of looking at cashing in on your social media investment, it’s more important that you look at how much you’re paying in. How flexible are you being, when it comes to community building? Look, I’m not saying that I’m gonna join the NRA, I’m not gonna try to be something that I’m not in order to sell more tickets to my shows, but I think it’s genuinely important to be giving BACK to the community. From a place of genuine generosity.

Is someone on facebook putting together a book club? Is someone tweeting about architecture in your town? Do you like crosswords or scrabble, because I’m pretty sure there are people doing this stuff online. Do you have a cat? Do you love small planes? Are you fascinated by the civil war? Whatever it is, there’s a community of people out there, and you can invest in that community. It’s possible to find something that isn’t your life’s passion, but which you find really fun, or really entertaining, and you can invest your time in it, even if it’s only via online media tools.

Let me assure you, there’s a huge mistake you can make, and it’s very easy to see if you’re making it. Go to your twitter feed or your facebook update page or whatever tool it is that you’re using and take a look at your posts. How many of them feel like an investment, and how many of them feel like a withdrawal? If this page was a bank, and every time you reached out to help, or to inform, or to crack up your readers was money in, and every time you asked people to help you, or to buy your stuff, is money out, what would your balance be?

Find the communities you can honestly invest in, and then do it. It’s really the best use for our social lives. If you were at a party, do you want to be known as the guy who showed up with no snacks or drinks, and then spent the whole time getting drunk and telling everyone to come see your show? Or do you want to be the guy who shows up with a hollowed out loaf of bread full of dip and a case of beer? Not only is it better to be the second guy, it’s actually a hell of a lot more fun.

Daffydills Who Entertain

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

I walk up to the subway, passing all the local Astoria haunts. The converted garage that’s now a coffee shop, the high-end consignment stores tucked in between cheap Chinese food and even cheaper Chinese backrubs, the dentist who’s awning is all in Cyrillic shelved next to a double-size fashion store that seems to sell only purses and belts. When I round the corner to the train, I finally have Starbucks and McDonald’s and CVS, but nussled between them are the Gaza Strip of competing glasses stores with Cohen’s Optical eyeing Odyssey Optical from across the street.

I’m riding in at 6:30, for a 7:30 reading, so everyone on the train with me is heading back into the city. Astoria, for all its multiculturalism, is mostly split into three groups – Older first generations immigrants from the countries circling the Mediterranean, parents of young kids who work in the city and mid-twenties transplants from all over the country. It’s this last group that I’m on the train with, going in to Manhattan for dinner and an 8 o’clock curtain, or a long dinner and an even longer night.

I get off at the 49th st. station right at 7 and start walking West. As I work my way through the crowd, I see all the gypsies heading into stage doors, and all the tourists taking pictures of the buildings. It’s amazing, because in an hour, the tourists will be utterly transported by the skinny boys and girls into rapturous applause, but right now, they’re staring at the jumbotron. The gypsies are walking among them, but they don’t know who they are, you can only recognize them if you’ve been among them. The area around Times Square at 7 PM is an incredible jumble, part backstage at an Abercrombie and Fitch ad shoot, and part waiting line at a Long Island Chinese Buffet.

I make my way through them, over to 52nd between 10th and 11th, where the yuppies are all in shorts, despite the weather, because they are headed to the gym. Always in couples. Probably so nobody has to deal with the homeless. I don’t deal with the homeless either.

When I get to the reading, the playwright is at the door. And when he sees me, he smiles and says “SEAN! I’m so glad you could make it!” I always get way more credit than I deserve because everyone knows I’m leaving a kid at home…

I talk to some people and then grab a seat. Behind me is a gay guy and his friend talking to two young women.

“Not MEN, honey. BOYS. None of us have problems with *MEN*, but we ALL have problems with BOYS. As soon as they’re *men*, they aren’t a problem any more… Listen, honey, let me tell you. *YEARS* ago, in the DARK AGES, I was dating the bartender at the best gay bar in Columbus, Ohio, and sure enough, that BOY gave me GONORRHEA. So, I went to the school nurse, whom I was WELL ACQUAINTED WITH, after faking a cold to get out of every damn gym class I could, and I told her what was wrong, and she was the sweetest woman, and she took me to the clinic, and I SHIT YOU NOT, the doctor in there gave me a TEN MINUTE LECTURE, the whole time *swinging* this prescription around in the air in front of me, a TEN MINUTE LECTURE on the difference between MEN and BOYS, and that *BOYS* are the ones who will give you diseases.

“The moral of the story? Don’t date *anyone* in food service. Okay? They’re all on coke and *COVERED* in gonorrhea. Oh, my name’s Michael, by the way…”

My favorite part is that the young woman knew he had gonorrhea before she knew his name.

The reading was a staggering success, and I walked away with that double sense of having spent two hours at a really well-constructed play, and that huge relief that comes from seeing a friend’s work and realizing they are actually an enormous talent.

I was leaving at 10, and I saw the same groups, the bridge and tunnel crowd streaming out the front door in dresses and suits, and the gypsies sneaking out the stage door in old canvas high-tops and brown sweaters. I always have this ache when I see these people, the ones who can afford to go to Broadway, and the ones who’ve given up so much of their lives so they can perform on Broadway. I’m sure the audience members would love to be able to write and produce the way I do, and a lot of the gypsies would love to be married and have kids, so it could be that we all pine for a chance to be one another, but I still get a low heart hurt when I walk among them, knowing I won’t ever be one of them.

On the train, I sat across from two unrelated people. All the way under the water and back into Queens, an Asian woman, maybe late 20s, sat with her portfolio next to her thigh, her jeans utterly unwashed and flecked with paint and clay. One of the most beautiful things about New York is that she might have grown up in Flushing and converted her parent’s basement into a studio, or she might have grown up in Memphis and gone to Sarah Laurence. It doesn’t matter now, all that matters is that she’s still making… *something*. And she can wear her work clothes on the subway, the same way the Wall Street guys do, the same way the construction workers do. We’re all holding on to the same pole.

The guy sitting next to her was a young, tall skinny black guy, who was practicing a piece of music in his head. He kept backing up his iPod and replaying the same phrases over and over again, and then humming and mouthing them, eyes shut. He might have been one of the gypsies from midtown, or he might be listening to something he wrote and recorded, and wants it to be a little better. Or maybe he’s just a fan, trying to own a little piece of whatever it is he loves.

I get off the train at the last stop and take off my headphones. When it isn’t too cold, I’d rather walk a little slower and not listen to music. I run into my neighbor who’s heading back in to the city at 10:30, which seems almost dangerously exciting to me. I walk back, past the converted coffee shop, where they’re having an open mic night that seems to be derailed by a bad sound system. Since I can imagine nothing better than having an open mic night derailed, I don’t offer to help.

I stand in front of my house for just a minute. My baby boy has been having trouble sleeping, and even as I stand there, I know that in three or four hours, he’s gonna wake up screaming and I’ll put him back to sleep. My wife is six months pregnant, and I know that she has managed to do yoga, but probably needs a back rub, or at the very least a foot rub.

The night is warmer than it’s been and, for just a minute, instead of feeling in-over-my-head, instead of feeling responsible for more than I can handle, instead of feeling like… the things I don’t try to fix fall apart immediately, and the things I do try to make better end up falling apart anyway… for a moment I stand outside my little boy’s window and I feel sublimely lucky.


Thursday, March 11th, 2010

I have tended to write about two things on this blog over the years. Theater, which has become the primary subject lately, and “Negotiating My Life”, which I haven’t really addressed very directly much in recent months. I think that talking about “Failure” is a pretty good intersection of the two ideas.

Some months ago, I insisted to a group of my friends that we have to go see bad theater. There is too much noise about how “I want my two hours back” and all that, as if a bad night of theater actually cancels itself out, that it will erase a different good night of theater. I know for me, the last truly awful bit of theater I saw, I was supposed to go to another show afterwards, but I was so enervated that I limped out of the space and took a taxi home. I think I got a cheeseburger – I was so depressed by how awful the show was that I had to eat something indulgent from my youth…

But the fact is, I went. And that terrible show has given me some tools about what it is I like and don’t like. It took me some time to figure out what exactly I hated about it, and it turns out that the offensive thing to me was the disrespect the theaterfolks had toward their audience. Once I had realized that, it clarified my opinion about a lot of the other shows I’ve seen, and it has led me to make better decisions about what I want to produce in the future.

Now, I have a lot of experience with failure. I failed a LOT of classes in high school and college. I was that enormously frustrating student who simply either got As or Fs. If I found a teacher compelling or liked a subject, I sailed through, and often these were my math or science classes, and if I hated the teacher or the subject, then I failed. Weirdly, these were often the more “liberal arts” subjects, like “English”. And “Gym”.

And when you produce a theatrical failure, it feels a lot like failing a class. Yes, you got an F, and now, maybe, you have to take the class again to get credit. I’ve produced a terrible, terrible show that utterly flopped, and I’ve had to produce a whole stack of good shows to feel like my theatrical GPA (to extend the metaphor) has recovered to a respectable level.

It’s an interesting life-view, that your world can be measured in semesters or productions. Each year is a season, each season has shows and each show opens and then closes. Your company gets seen as a measure of all that it has done. It’s different from school because you never graduate, so you really can aim for a better and better GPA as you go.

As a father, things are quite a bit different. As a husband as well. Yes, things do eventually settle into an average over the years, and you can be a good father or a good husband, but there are no semesters, no seasons, no closings. And very often, you can do the work, you can put in the hours, but it’s not that simple. You can do great work, you can put in enormous hours… and still fail.

Especially as a father. That little brain is so maddeningly incoherent, it’s so full of variables and nonsense that it’s impossible to guess what your kid may be responding to. And the very thing that you are doing to improve their lives, or to negotiate your own, may be the actual problem, but you don’t know that until the damage is done.

When you’re an actor, you can’t be TOO off-book. You have to put in the hours, then you have your lines memorized, and if they are memorized perfectly, you’ve done the work. When you’re disciplining your kid… where’s the line? Can you hug your kid too much? Can you give your kid too much freedom, too many rules, too much credit? Can you spend TOO MUCH TIME?

In the end, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done, as a father or a husband. It doesn’t matter how hard you work. In the end, it’s your happiness and your family’s happiness that matters. You can sit somewhere and convince yourself that you did all you could do, but if everyone is unhappy, then, simply, you didn’t.

It’s a horrible realization, but it’s liberating. Your children and your spouse are either happy or they’re not, they wake up with nightmares or they don’t, they want to be in your home or they hate it. It’s that simple. And you can pat your own back about how much work you do, but if it comes to nothing, then you’re doing the wrong work.

And this is where it *does* apply to theater. If an audience doesn’t respond to one of your pieces, then it doesn’t work. They either want to be in the theater watching your play, or they don’t. You can say that you did everything you needed to, in terms of marketing or writing or costumes or whatever, but if it didn’t work, then it didn’t work.

I’ve been in so many rehearsal processes where the director wanted to make sure we were sweating blood, and in the end we simply didn’t know our blocking very well, or even the given circumstances. We wanted to, at the end of the day, be able to tell ourselves that we had worked very, very hard to make this piece of theater – and yet some of our biggest successes were a pure joy to work on, from beginning to end.

And maybe that’s part of the problem. Failure comes not from a lack of hard work, but a lack of smart work. And that applies to fatherhood as well as theater production.

Craven Monkey

Friday, March 5th, 2010

At the end of the show last night, Jordana turned to me and said, “This is one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long, long time.”

You will get what they are advertising. You will get hilarious over-the-top Simian characters, and fantastical story-telling. You will get to laugh and be inside the joke, you will get to be amazed at how ridiculous monkeys are and how fun a theater piece featuring nothing but monkeys can be.

But you won’t be prepared for the fact that what you’re watching is essentially a ballet. What you won’t expect are the epic themes and the incredible mythic creations. This piece is a self-mocking epic poem full of dirty jokes. I mean, it’s funny when your uncle does his monkey face, and it’s even funnier when a group of actors dress up and roll around like monkeys – but when’s the last time you saw a theater piece where an actress flies around the room like a hornet, or the main character is attacked by an eight foot octopus? Honestly, I have to go back to “Seascape” on Broadway to remember the last time my breath was taken away simply by a character’s entrance.

The choreography, fight and otherwise, is meticulous and pitched perfectly, the music is incredible. The entire piece exists in a world before language, so every moment is danced or fought or physicalized, and the company creates something that’s more organic than kabuki but more sublime than mime. There is a narrator, but I almost wonder if they could have done the piece without the narration. It wouldn’t have been as funny, and it might have been twenty minutes longer, but I would have *loved* twenty more minutes of this show.

I’m writing this on stolen time, my freelance work beckons on the other side of my kids’ pantleg-pulling, so I can’t go into the specific incredible work by so many of those involved. I just don’t have the time and it’s killing me. I can only tell you this, when Jordana said it was the best show she’d seen in some time, I turned back to her and said, “I would be so incredibly proud to have produced this. These guys are just fantastic.”

This is their website

How Real Does It Need To Be?

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

There is apparently some brouhaha about the movie “Hurt Locker” and whether or not it is an accurate portrayal of bomb-defusers in Iraq, and this got me thinking about our own tiny little corner of the world.

There is a curious balance that one needs to strike when one is telling a story, because the meta-meaning is going to be sussed out by every audience member. When you watch Albee, you also know about Albee, so you start reading in to what you’re seeing, about what it might be *translated* into. But even when you’re dealing with new works by un-established playwrights, everyone is making snap distillations about the material and about it’s larger meaning.

We dealt with this a little bit with our last play “Viral”. Not to give too much away, but the story involved a suicidal character, and there was a small but vocal group who felt it wasn’t an accurate depiction of suicidal depression.

This is impossible to argue against, except to say that this is a story. We didn’t get our collective backs up about the criticism because there were different themes that Mac and Jordana were exploring, and the plot unfolded the way it did because… well, I guess because it did, that’s just how it happened. The playwright and the director, neither of them, are suicidal, and none of the actors or the production staff are either, so although we did the best we could to create an honest situation, there are those for whom it rang un-true.

I have to assume that those who leveled the criticism at the show *did* have some familiarity with suicide, and it can be particularly harrowing, when you’ve lost a loved one down that particular rabbit hole, to see it portrayed in a way that you feel is inaccurate. But the fact is, none of us can trust our memories completely, and we all experience things differently. As a matter of fact, I lost one of my closest childhood friends to suicide, and she was very similar to the character in our play, but that doesn’t make the criticism *wrong*. It means that I felt the story was truthful, from my point of view, and someone who lost a different sort of person in the same way… they just wouldn’t agree.

I do think, though, that the search for some kind of pitch-perfect truth in theater is a fool’s errand. It may be one of the greatest problems with modern theater, that we want realism and we shun allegory. “Hurt Locker” is not going to be close to some, or even most, Iraq War bomb-defusers’ stories, but does that mean the movie isn’t worth watching? Is there not something in the story that transcends whether or not it actually happened that way?

It’s the strangest thing. We all know there’s no Mordor, but we want the ship’s captain in “Master and Commander” to be wearing the exact right coat. We all know that Gregory House’s character on House is a fictional charming addict, but we’re furious when we find out that James Frey’s character is as well. I remember the uproar about the liberties taken with “Fargo”, as if the re-tooling of the story made it inferior somehow.

If I tell you a story from my life, I’m going to lie. Every story you’ve told is a lie as well. We don’t mean to lie, we’re just saying what we remember, what we took away from it. It’s why talk-therapy is so useful, even if you’re a liar. The lies you tell still tell the truth about yourself. And that’s all we’re doing in the theater, we’re telling lies that hopefully work as allegories that one can divine truth out of.