Archive for August, 2011


Saturday, August 20th, 2011

As a kid, my three favorite writers were J.D. Salinger, Kafka and, maybe especially, Edgar Allan Poe. I stole five Poe books from our local library by throwing them out the fourth floor window into the bushes and then collecting them later that night, and I drank them in as deeply as I could.  I should also come clean and say that, among my peers, PlaylabNYC has consistently produced the kind of theater that I adore and simply don’t have the talent or fortitude to attempt myself.  It might go without saying, but this show was easily  the most anticipated production of the festival for me.

Even with the highest possible expectations, I was thrilled with the production. I had missed the first performance with a case of the ague or something, and was still so light-headed and stupid by the second show that I got off on the wrong stop and staggered my way down Irvington, convinced I was gonna be late, but the second I got to the door and saw Jennifer Wilcox (who’s title might be any number of things, but she does for Playlab roughly what I do for Gideon… except probably a lot better) I knew I was in good hands. We had to step over Edison, Jennifer and Kevin’s little boy (who played with Barnaby for a year in our neighborhood before any of us knew we were in the theater…) to get to our seats, and from the minute I crashlanded in the theater, everything got magical.

Kevin P. Hale comes wandering out, looking supremely uncomfortable in his pajamas, and begins to tell us… everything. It isn’t just Poe’s story, or his stories, it’s often stories about stuff that is happening around Poe, about perspectives that he had, and it even slides into some real literary criticism. And as he’s telling these stories, tiny little sets appear and even smaller puppets – so small that we have to watch the bulk of the show on a projected screen as it’s being captured on camera.

The loving detail and craftsmanship is enough for this show to be a must-see. Nothing is short changed, but some of the really amazing bits stand out. Kevin does an Ebert and Roeper take-off, with two tiny puppets sitting in chairs watching a matchbox screen, and on the screen Kevin has built scene after scene that scroll across. It goes without saying that the tiny, tiny movie they are watching is Poe, done by John Cusack and Ellen Page, and yes, that’s absolutely hilarious – but I had a hard time laughing for the awe.

I was at the back of the house, and it was as if the audience were all doctors in one of those rooms above an operating table. We were all trying to drink in every little detail, every little shift. But Kevin does more than just create a new tiny set and characters for each piece, he stays utterly loyal to the spirit of Poe, perhaps more than he even realizes.  Poe’s life was rife for tabloid fodder, he’s always seen as a drug addict or insane or whatever (almost none of this, according to what I know, can be substantiated, except that he was a drinker and stubborn as hell), but he was both difficult to embrace and easy to be inspired by.

This is exactly how Kevin himself comes across in the performance, relentlessly punning and sliding out at the end of stories instead of giving us big applause lines. He seemed to be 90% performing the show and 10% suffering through it, the way we imagine Poe himself might have tolerated such an occasion. And the way Poe’s life details slipped into the stories and the interstitial moments, it feels like having a moment with… well, not with Poe, but with another perfectionist, another awkward and brilliant man who is willing to sweat every tiny detail to make a moment sing.

I absolutely loved being in the audience for this show. Poe’s endless punning is embraced by Kevin, and there was a series of affectionate groans from the audience… that’s I saw a fire light in Kevin’s eyes, as if our groaning was what he was looking for. It’s not Poe if there isn’t a chance that the whole thing will turn on you, that it will get weird and dark and disjointed before our eyes. The source material is really meaningful to me, and the production is a celebration of commitment and craftsmanship, but more than that, the material matches the artist in a way that happens so rarely outside independent theater, when the people who are creating the stories are the one standing on stage telling them to us. It’s a perfect expression of why The Fringe Festival still, after all these years, allows for the opportunity of greatness.

The Legend of Julie Taymor

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Standing outside 45 Bleecker Street, I could sort of feel my annoyance mounting. There was some concern that The Legend of Julie Taymor was going to sell out, and some of the slightly more vocal members of the waiting audience were flexing their various credentials with one another about how “inside” they were and how easy it would be to get in. There are just some shows at The Fringe that have the stink of an out-of-town tryout, here in town, and for a lot of us who feel there is a great brick wall that separates independent theater from the folks with 100+ seats, it can be a little off-putting.

This felt like one of those shows. See, they’re gonna be making fun of a whole bunch of things here, but ALL of it is gonna concern Broadway. And it’s going up at 45 Bleecker, one of the terrifyingly large percentage of small houses that have fallen apart because there’s so little commercial or institutional support for us. So I wasn’t really in any kind of a mood to listen to jokes about how 65 million dollars was wasted… for us that sting isn’t something to scoff at, it’s to cry over.

So, how did I end up, an hour and a half later, grinning like an idiot, laughing out loud – in some cases leading the laughter from the back seats, and feeling completely enriched when I left? Because these guys were as full of heart, as fully committed, and as wildly talented as the downtown freaks, and they won me over, despite my prejudice and mood.

The reason we’re so fascinated by the Spiderman debacle is because it asks a series of really important questions and offers no answers. If you say you hate Broadway, then why are you loathe to support something different? Is a piece of art better served by being the sole voice of one genius, or does absolute power automatically corrupt? What happens if you discover that what your audience wants is no better, morally or aesthetically, than what the Romans wanted with the lions? Do you give it to them?

Now, don’t get me wrong, this thing is dripping wet with nudge-nudgery, the entire thing is full of puns and allusions, all of which *work*, but only some are inspired. The main character is now “Julie Paymore”, which is great, but the music is by the lead singer of “U-Squared”, which is… fine. And it’s like that all the way through, but really, all of that is just the glaze on the cake. The show is really about a megalomaniacal theater practitioner, and her followers and detractors. In the end, the show within the show is a disaster, and the producers place the blame on Paymore’s shoulders… but all the way through, when the characters are half-heartedly trying to avert disaster, they aren’t offering any *alternative* to what Paymore is creating. There are jokes that she would rather have wood than foam core, that she wants the expensive paint regardless of color, that she doesn’t care about the safety of the actors…

But in all of those cases, everyone follows, and nobody takes any action. It was incredibly interesting to me – the Paymore character has a song, where she sings “I’m The Only Artist”, and although it’s meant to be a scene-chewing bad-guy song, the fact is… she’s right. The music that is written for the show within the show is crap. The actors are crap, the producers don’t seem to know what they’re doing. Her vision might be insane, and the show argues that it *is*, but ultimately you hire a director for the vision and the producers are responsible for sitting on her or reigning her in, or simply finding the money she needs.

In terms of the actual musical, the music is wonderful – smart, catchy and allusive, full of good Broadway in-jokes and even swinging into some recitative-driven sections of snippets moving back and forth. It has a touch of the young-show problems, namely 1) a lot of songs that are sung by one person *at* another person, 2) the scene will explain something and then the song will explain it more and 3) maybe a few too many forced rhymes, but honestly I didn’t get hung up on any of that, it has ten times more charm than it does limitations.

The show is fictionalized… sorta. Most of it is true, except where it isn’t, and it gets to be a little messy. When Paymore *murders* a theater owner, you can feel the unrest in the audience because… I mean, are we saying she sucks, or that she’s a sociopath? But the really brilliant turn at the end justifies it, they bring back the geek chorus (one of the most popularly mocked aspects of  Taymor’s Spiderman) to say, essentially, that the legend is what we’re talking about here, that the lessons are more important than the facts. And I totally agreed.

AND, I really liked that it got so dark, so effortlessly. The injured actor becomes Paymore’s puppet, literally, with a hint of “Heaven On Their Minds” from Superstar in the score, the puppet-actor defends Paymore’s vision and artistry, and the only point where the supporting players drop Paymore is when she insists that the play is finished, that her vision has been realized, and nobody understands it. The theater owner actually says, “It sucks”, and we all laugh, but GOD, what a dark moment, to find out you’ve just paid for and produced a play you can’t like. (And believe me, I’ve done it, it’s a horrible, horrible feeling).

Before I get to the one unfortunate mistake, I have to point out that the most searing, powerful and maybe funniest moment is the song performed at the actual opening of the show within the show. Mirroring actual events, the audience are delighted in their own misery, the revel in their own hatred. They tweet, constantly, with iPhones out, and the actual song is not a song of despair – it’s of celebration. The audience can not wait to read a review, they can NOT wait to get home… they have to trash it. Themselves. NOW. It really is one of the most perfect expressions of what is wrong with Broadway today. It could have been Joe Brooks “In My Life” that they were watching, if only they had had Twitter then…

There is one glaring mistake that I have to point out, mostly for my friends who are making their own musicals. One of the characters is the slimy columnist for a hack newspaper, played BRILLIANTLY by Christopher Davis Carlisle, and he has a song that explains his backstory and anger at the Paymore character. It is a fantastic song, the accompaniment was rich, and the staging was absolutely inspired. It became a puppet nightmare, a perfect stab at the woman who made The Lion King, and it couldn’t have been performed better.

But. It was absolutely useless in the show, it undermined all of the feelings of possible righteous indignation we might have towards a megalomaniac like Paymore, and it lowered the IQ of the entire production.

Look, I’ve done it. I’ve done it countless times, I’ve held on to something because it was just too good to throw away, and it’s almost worth knocking the rest of the show out of the way for this performance. It certainly was for the actor, it was a marvelous five minutes for him. But this is why we call it “killing the babies”, if it was killing cockroaches, it would be easy. It is so hard to trust yourself that you will write something just as good some other time. But every musical theater team has a trunk, and in that trunk are a thousand pieces of gold that the producers and the director and maybe even the writers themselves realized weren’t right for that moment.

This weasel, who nitpicks and niggles at Paymore for the entire show, we celebrate him for doing it because there are no checks on her ambition or ego, she needs to be stopped. She wasted 65 million dollars and an entire year of hundreds of people’s lives, the journalist who brings this story to light is, in a way, a hero – a spokesman for what is best in Broadway, maybe, or maybe he’s another All That Chat obnoxious know-it-all… why do we need a backstory about a failed romance between her and the columnist? We don’t, and it shouldn’t be there.

It could be that it was difficult for them to edit in this way because they weren’t exactly clear on who’s story it is. I said before that it’s the story of a director and her fans/detractors, but is there really an antagonist? Who is fighting against what here? There is a young broadway actor who gets hurt, there is the megalomaniac director, there’s the rockstar musician, there’s the columnist, and any one of them has a powerful point of view and an interesting answer to the questions that the show was asking, but in the end… I guess in the end, I’m not convinced, fully, that the show was as interested in these questions as it was in putting on a really funny show. And they did that, they succeeded wildly in doing that. I hung out and talked to a bunch of people after the show, and the place was all smiles. Even the Fringe crowd that I normally hang out with, which are mostly guys well into their 60s, all loved it and were smiling ear to ear.

I’m going to say the very thing that I simply hated hearing when I was younger, but… I’d be really interested in whatever the *next* thing is that these guys are doing. I hope they all keep working together, there’s enormous promise here.

On Reviews In General

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

My last post explained where I was coming from so that anyone reading this blog would know my bias up front, but I didn’t really explain what I do, as an audience member, to feel entitled to review a piece, so here’s a step-by-step of what a reviewer ought to do. It works for an audience member as well.

1) Take It All In

Start reviewing the second you walk in the door. A smart company has considered the venue when they read the piece, and they designed the front of the house to be a part of the show. And almost certainly, for the independent theater world, you just met the producer, the director or the playwright when you bought your ticket, so they’re a part of the show. Take in the pre-show music, take a look at the audience, get a sense where everyone is coming from. It’s not a book, it’s a play, you’re in a room and all of that has been considered by the company, so let it be an active part of your experience.

2) Bring Your Prejudices With You

Don’t lie. You’ve seen six other shows they’ve done, 0r you’ve seen nothing. You hate one person shows, or you love drag queens. Own it. Make sure you are fully aware of your excitement, or your disdain, when you sit down because it’s a LIVING THING, and as an audience member, you are going to affect it. And you will be affected by those around you. If you love an idea, then watching it with an audience who loves it will make you love it more, but if you hate an idea, then watching it with an audience who LOVES it will make you hate it twice as much. So be aware of that – hating a show because the people around you loved it too much is just unfair.

3) Let Go Of Your Prejudices And Focus On What They’re Trying To Do

Spend the first half hour without trying to adjudicate. Just try to figure out what the company is trying to say or do. It could be as simple as “they want me to laugh”, but it’s gonna take a while for you to figure that out. You have to be there, you have to stop being you, you’ve got to spend as much time as you can trying to be us – the production. Are we trying to upset you? Are we trying to turn you on? Are we trying to make you identify with someone we normally would write off? Are we just trying to crack you up? IT’S SO IMPORTANT – because if you don’t spend any time considering what we’re trying to do, there’s no point in reviewing the play. If you don’t know what we’re *trying* to do, then you won’t know if we *did* it. It seems so obvious, but it’s one of the biggest holes in theatrical criticism.

4) Decide If It’s Working

Sometimes you can’t do this until later, but this is an immediate return world, the play is happening now and if you wait a week to let it sink in, the play will close. You need to post your review tonight, I get this, so start thinking about whether or not it worked. The third and fourth part of this advice is the only really important part, if you have three paragraphs to review a show, then you should have Plot and Names Of People shoved in there somewhere, but basically all your readers want to know is a) what were they trying to do and b) did it work.

This is where it’s important to have a complete knowledge of how a theatrical piece is put together, because if it’s working, you can then know WHY, and give credit where it is due. Too many reviewers think that “pace” is the one thing that a director is responsible for, and “truth” is the only thing an actor can give us. You have to know what the sound designer *does* and what the lights can do, you have to know how much a set can be responsible for the mood of a piece. You have to do your work on “What Are They Doing” and then almost your entire job is explaining to your audience how and why it either worked or didn’t, explaining what the artists have done to create this.

And then, once you have done this, a sprinkling of you –

5) Tell Me How You Feel About It

Yeah, you should do this. I’ll come out right now and say, as gay as I’ve been, as many gay guys as I’m in love with, and as much as I love outrageous and over-the-top theater, I walk away from Drag always feeling a little crappy. Drag shows make me feel bad, and that’s the opposite of what they’re supposed to do, and the opposite of how almost 100% of my friends feel about it. *Women* dressed as drag queens make me just as sad as *men* dressed as drag queens, it’s not a queer thing at all. So, if I’m ever talking about a drag show, at some point I’ve got to say, “it made me feel sad”. Unless it didn’t! But, although the personal affect is an important *flavor* to a review, it isn’t your job. If you are offended by a show, then I hope you’ve done parts 3 and 4, and you’ve investigated whether or not that was the point.

I’m writing this not in response to any one review (although I’m sure my close friends will think it is so) but rather a response to what I hear so many lay-people say. A play is not what the playwright put down on paper, that’s the script, and most of what you’re responding to is the 18 other people that had a hand in the creation of this piece. There’s no *information* in the phrase “ably-directed” or “rounded out with wonderful performances by the ensemble”… these are the kinds of phrases we use when we talk about role players on basketball teams. There aren’t any winners or losers, we aren’t trying to figure out whether anyone did these things “right”, which is the implication when we describe actors as “stealing the show” or whatever. I’ve seen  a hundred productions where the static characters were played with perfect restraint in order for the scene-chewers to do their work, and when I see that I credit the actor out front, the actor in back, the director for knowing how to block it and knowing how to keep the background active without being distracting, and the playwright for understanding the balance she has to achieve to keep her story clear. I also credit the set designer for understanding the space, the sound designer for creating a vacuum for the actor out front to fill, and the lighting designer for keeping the actor in focus.

I know, there’s no way to write the reviews I want to read in the small publications who cover our productions. But what I hope is that WE, at least, don’t resort to the short hand of the reviewers, who have to sum up our shows in 250 words. When we see each others’ work, and when we talk to one another, let’s not fall into the easy trap of What’s Gonna Move and Who’s Selling Great or Who’s Selling Out. Ultimately, we’re the audience, and the production doesn’t get to come out and defend itself – their part of the dialogue was the show itself and our part is the discussion. But we don’t have to discuss our shows as thumbs up or down, or even in shorthand. We need to commit to a higher conversation… it’s the only way we’re gonna continue to achieve anything.

My Reviews

Monday, August 15th, 2011

It’s really important that I state here, clearly and for posterity, that any reviews I write of theater contain giant bags of my own prejudice, friendships, jealousies, personal animosity and mutual admiration. I would claim some kind of distance, but I have none. The fact of the matter is that every single person has the same thing, there’s no way around it, but these are not “reviews” in the sense that they are a certain number of words and contain a specific exigesis of a theatrical happening – they are far more the ramblings of an excitable fanboy. I’m sure that it will be perfectly clear when you read them, but it’s important to me that any reader knows that I am NOT impartial, I have *NOT* been offered this position based on my clarity of thought or education, and I do NOT write these reviews in the hopes that they will be quoted, either in promotional or fund-raising material. I am publishing these, they are out there and any google search will lead you to these random musings,  I can’t pretend that they will only be read by the people within my community who know me, and who know the theater people I’m talking about. But in case they aren’t, I would like to offer a bouquet of disclaimers. 1) I probably know these people. 2) I’ve probably helped them with marketing or money or just by hanging out and joking around with them and 3) Even if I haven’t, I’m deeply personally invested in the successes and the failures of the people that I go to see.


Do with all that what you will.


Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

I suppose the last blog requires a bit of explanation, now that I’m mostly a producer and not as much an actor or composer. Yes, we are doing art for art’s sake, and yes, we’ve left the profit motive of the larger arts industries behind… BUT, we still want to work within a reasonable budget, and we’re still desperate to perform our stories in front of the largest possible crowds. So, we should talk about how we go about doing that.

In all questions, either business or moral, I turn to the most consistent source of good information, Kermit The Frog. In most situations, I look at my WWKD bracelet and have to conjure up ideas, or work through koans to get a good answer, but when it comes to marketing, Kermit, as Phillip Fill in Muppets Take Manhattan, gives us very specific advice. He wanders in to a marketing meeting for “Ocean Breeze Soap” where they have put forth such great ideas as “It’s like taking an ocean cruise, only there’s no boat. And you don’t actually go anywhere,” only to realize they don’t work.

           Kermit says, “Have you tried ‘Ocean Breeze Soap will get you clean.’?”

The incredibly brilliant Tammy Oler once sat down with me to talk about branding and the use of social media, and it was actually thrilling, so most of what I’m going to say I have learned at her knee and then changed for my own uses (to follow the jazz metaphor from my last post). Basically, the two most effective ways to get people to show up to something are to let people know how awesome the *show* is, or to let people know how awesome the *people* are who are making the show. This is true for every artistic endeavor, including TV and movies and Banksy and everything. If Oceans 11 had 11 people with limited appeal involved, there would not have been a 12 or 13, but those people were so incredibly fun and charming that they were able to make several movies that simply DON’T MAKE ANY SENSE. And you still liked them. I mean.. I LOVE THEM, and they seem to have been written by undergrads…

So, wait – let me split this into two sections.

Section One – Showing people how awesome the show is.

We have a built-in appeal as independent theater. Sure, the shows themselves don’t exist yet, so there’s no way to let people know what they’re gonna see when they walk in – but they already know what it’s gonna feel like. The roar of the greasepaint and all that, people KNOW that being in a theater, being 18 feet from people who are spraying each other with blood, sweat and tears, is utterly exhilarating. But more often than not, they’ve forgotten, and they need to be reminded.

So, here’s how you start. As you try to tell the story of the play that people will see, make sure you include how you want people to feel as they walk into the room, and how you want them to feel as they walk out of the room. When you put up your list of cast and crew, all those credits and stuff are great, but they do nothing to give people a sense of what the show will be. If you publish an interview with the lighting designer, or the fight choreographer, on your blog – suddenly people get ants in their pants. Is there something about the venue, a sense of history? Is there *anything* about the venue? I mean, honestly, if you’re materials include the sentence “you have to walk down two flights of concrete stairs and past the bar to get to our venue, but the back room has three couches, so get there early!” then you have, just for a moment, taken me there.

Check out this video from the upcoming Fringe production of “Lipshtick”

There’s very little about this show that makes me want to see it… EXCEPT THAT I TOTALLY WANT TO SEE IT. I feel like I will walk away from that show feeling really good, feeling like I had a ton of fun.

Did you know that there is a show in this year’s festival, Poe-Dunk – A Matchbox Entertainment, that is being done with tiny matches as puppets, and sets you could fit in a small bag? The whole thing is being done on a desk, with a screen behind it showing the whole show. That is insanely cool – I keep picturing myself in a classroom (in my head, it’s my driver’s ed classroom from Ridge High School, where we watched all the “Blood on the Asphalt” movies) sitting with forty other people, having our minds blown as E.A.Poe walks around on the end of a matchstick.

You can’t reveal how awesome the show will be because, frankly, you don’t know. TRUST ME. I did a show a few years back where I produced it and wrote the music for it and we got an A-List cast of Broadway level performers (all of whom have gone on to great things) and we controlled every single facet of it, and at tech we all just looked at each other and went, “whoops.” You don’t know what you have, even if you’ve got the same cast, same script and same director as the last time – we all change every six weeks and this time it will be different. But what you CAN count on is that the experience of being in the theater, that communal experience, is so natural, so base, so good and so HUMAN  that people willingly show up to church once a week in small towns, just so they can sit with their friends and listen to stories.

I’m not gonna tell you to feature celebrities and to talk-up interesting storylines in the plot and to play up awesome titles or great stage combat or whatever, that’s all a given. Of course you’re gonna tell everyone who’s in it and what it’s all about. This advice is IN ADDITION to that. Remind your audience how much they love being in the theater, how much they love watching real live actors do real live things. Tell them it’s 3-D if you have to. Just remember, we’re all storytellers – you’ve written this story, or you’ve directed it, or you’ve created an entirely ancillary story because you’re acting in it – so tell the story of the show as well.

Section Two – Showing People How Awesome The People Are.

Okay, again, this is in addition to everything you already think you’re supposed to do. Except, I’m gonna maybe steer you in the wrong direction here, because I have a bad knee-jerk dislike of trying to sell indy theater using non-indy theater celebrity.

Follow Kermit’s advice. Tell us who you actually are, because I guarantee you this is not TV. We don’t expect everyone in your show to be fantastic looking, we don’t need our stories to be linear and fulfilling, we don’t want to be told that your show is as good as what we might be doing if we aren’t going to the theater. Don’t bring up movies, don’t bring up TV. It totally deflates everything. Your show costs me $18, plus the two hours, plus the time it takes for me to get there and get back, plus whatever I’m paying the babysitter to do, plus whatever it costs me in lost sleep. Will I be able to eat twizzlers during your show? Can I drink 68 ounces of Mountain Dew, and are the chairs gigantic, upholstered and feature drink holders? And, honestly, is it easier to see your show than to watch Project Runway on my couch, eating twizzlers and drinking 68 ounces of Mountain Dew?

So, don’t do it. Don’t do a Reservoir Dogs shot of your cast, because I know damn well, it’s a live show, you simply can’t do what Tarantino did in Reservoir Dogs. And you’re just reminding me, I have Reservoir Dogs on Blu Ray at home.

Watch this video from Yeast Nation, a new show going up at The Fringe Festival

Everything about this show is insider-ey. The guys who wrote Urinetown, who produced “Silence” (which is moving Off Broadway – another huge Fringe success story), and a cast of people who obviously could be doing daytime TV or better. But they blow all the air out of the thing, they’re basically just saying, “everything you think we want- we don’t. That’s all bullshit. This play is *retarded*, and we love it that way.” They go so far as to have Elena, the head of the festival, take a look at their application and lose heart. It’s awesome. What they are saying is this – “We wrote Urinetown. But before we wrote Urinetown, we had a thousand ideas. We got lucky, but we’re still here, and we’re still insane, and sure, it’s easier now, but still – we’re all in this together. We are yet another group of assholes at the Fringe Festival looking for the next Urinetown. We are lottery winners, and we keep buying lottery tickets.”

Is any of this true? I don’t care. I am now desperately fond of everyone in this video, and everyone associated with this show.

In 2005, we produced a musical at the Fringe festival that featured an actress who had been nominated for a Tony. Every single thing we put out led with the phrase “featuring Tony Nominee…” It turns out that people liked her in the show because she was very ,very good, they didn’t give a single shit that she’d been nominated for a Tony. I know this because another show featured an actress who was a lead on a very well known TV show… and it did not do as well. Not at all.

So be honest. And be loud about it. If you are a group of grad students from Sarah Lawrence and you’ve lived in New York for two years, then I would lead with, “We’re well-intentioned asshats. We all went to Sarah Lawrence – what? YOU WANT SOME?” It’s so much better than releasing a grand unified theory of all of theater and deciding that it’s your private school birth rite to be taken seriously by New York. And if you’ve done something awesome, tell us about that too, but don’t try to make a long resume seem awesome. Believe me, to get a long resume, all you have to do is keep getting old. My resume is about a mile long, it doesn’t mean I’ve done anything, it just means I’m old.

Section Three – Tell Everyone

1) Where did you go to school? Do you have an alumni organization? What’s their email address

2) Where did everyone else go to school? I mean EVERYONE. E – V’RY – ONE.

3) Look at everyone’s special skills. Someone knows Ballroom dancing. Where do they take lessons? Who has the email address?

4) Who else has performed in the space? Who is about to perform in the space?

5) How many restaurants are close by? How about bars? Do any of them want to offer drink specials for your audience? Do they want a stack of postcards? DO THEY HAVE A FANPAGE ON FACEBOOK?

6) What other shows has everyone (see above) done? Who was the producer? Do they have a page on Facebook? What is everyone’s NEXT show? Do they have a facebook page?

7) Did you write to me and offer me a ticket? How about Isaac Butler and J. Holtham and Matthew Freeman and Adam Szymkowicz and Byrne Harrison and Shawn Harris and, oh, EVERYONE on this page.

Eight) Did you invite every playwright you love? Every actor? Every other producer?

(Has anyone else noticed that the eight followed by the parenthesis makes a smiley face? Do they think I’m an asshole?)

There are no kingmakers, and no single thing you do will work. Jimmy Comtois and I were talking, and he said, “It feels like 90% of the stuff I do is totally useless…” and I was like, “Yeah, it’s a mess.” and then Jimmy said, “I think, actually, it’s that 90% of every different thing you do doesn’t work, but you have to do all 100% to get that 10% to work” … and I totally agree with that. If you invite your entire Stage Manager’s alumni organization, you might sell five tickets. But if you have 20 people involved in the show, that’s 100 people. That’s two shows sold out. And that’s totally worth it.


Monday, August 8th, 2011

Here’s what I’d like to say.

About forty thousand years ago, some dude was drawing with charcoal on a wall, and his friend came up behind him.

His friend said, “What’s that?” and the dude said, “Oh! Uh… This is me and you and the girls and the other guys, and we’ve got a fire going.”

His friend said, “Holy shit, that’s awesome! How did you do that?” and the dude said, “I’m not really… It’s just the end of a burnt stick, if you rub it on the wall…” and the friend said, “No, man, I mean – how did you figure out how to make this look *exactly* like the way we look, or… not even that, it just – It looks like the way we FEEL when we’re all sitting around a fire…” and the dude said, “I don’t know. Seriously. I just kinda… saw it. In my mind.”

"Dude!" "Yeah! I know!"

They didn’t say anything for a minute and the friend said, “Well, it’s awesome.” And the dude said, “All right, I’m gonna finish it later, we’ve gotta go hunt,” and the friend said, “NO WAY! Man, I’ll get you some bison jerky, just finish the painting. Seriously, finish it, everyone’s gonna freak out.”

And that was that. Here we are fifty thousand years later, and art is unchanged. Artists are unchanged and jerky is really not that much different. But what has changed is commerce, because now there are people lined up with machines and lawyers and ideas about copywright and a thousand other things, all designed to provide the artist with the means to get jerky. Because jerky is delicious, and is perfect for my low-carb diet.

So, where are we? The world of the professional artist is so enervating, with so many different disciplines at play on every front. A writer can’t simply write, she has to create protections for herself, she has to write for different audiences and to different specifications depending on what kind of money she intends to make. A screenplay is very different from a TV spec script, a half hour three camera comedy is totally different from a half hour one camera comedy, and there are advanced degrees available to people who want help charting those waters. An actor can’t simply act, he has to develop the relationships necessary to get invited to auditions, he has to read every casting director and director and display his technical prowess to create a sense of artistic symmetry, and he has to have several different headshots, updated every six months or every haircut.

It’s insane.

It was always this way, right? I don’t know. I really don’t. I’m sure there are times it’s easier and times it’s harder.

But the independent theater world is populated by people who, for one reason or another, just aren’t doing most of that crap. For some of us, we just can’t, but for many of us, we’re just not going to. And, because of that, we’re in a completely insulated world. We’ve given up on the profit motive, and we know we’ve lost the battle for the hearts and minds of an industry that only once in a blue moon spends its time watching something we’ve done – and then it’s usually not with good intention. We fly so utterly under the radar that we have had to create our own publications, our own journalists, just to have a conversation about our art. And most of us are buying our jerky with found money, or money earned elsewhere.

My GOD, it’s fantastic. It’s so fantastic.

Let me tell you who we ARE, just so we’re clear. We run shows for three weeks, and we perform in venues with fewer than 99 seats. Almost all of our work is written by playwrights without a national reputation, and almost all are directed and acted by the same, and the productions are financed hand-to-mouth. When you see one of our shows, as you sit, you will be able, most likely, to move the chair you’re sitting in. You will be able to hear the costume changes off stage. You will feel the lights, hanging on the grid eight feet over your head. The producer, most likely, gave you  your program, and told you that it doubled as your ticket. And you paid less than $20.

It’s $20, not fifty cents, so in that way, we’re not the underground nightclubs in Harlem in 1938. But in every other way, what we’re doing now mirrors the jazz movement of the 20s and 30s. Our venues are small and shitty, and usually sweaty and packed. And they are far away from the 40s and Broadway. Our artists lead shifty but thrifty lives, hanging on to day jobs no matter how late they were up the night before, sleeping on couches when shit falls apart, and burning with the desire to tell our stories. And it is The Depression right now, nobody has any money, and everyone is looking for something to take their minds off the feeling of despair and separation. And even if that thing is desperately sad and alone – you can be in the room with less-than-99-other people and know that you’re sharing this moment with these people. And the sense of improv is there, even when you’re not in an improv theater, the sense of history is there, even with an immature and grating play done by recent college grads, and the sense of “expanding the instrument’s range” is there, even if it’s a theater or a body and not Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet.

Why wouldn’t I be here? If I can, and I can, then why would I be anywhere else? And I don’t mean New York, this is happening in Austin, in Chicago, in Atlanta – anywhere you pay less than $20 for a ticket and you sit in a folding chair. Just like jazz in Kansas City and New Orleans and Chicago – this isn’t a fad, it isn’t a place. It’s global, it’s a new Chautauqua, it’s happening like the ocean’s waters rise. We are standing tall as popular entertainment, but we’ve left behind all delusions of financial security. We are moving forward because of the scratching on the wall, knowing that we have no hope that the jerky will one day be rib-eyes.

We also have the same spirit of competition and improvisation that was here in the 20s and 30s, and the same motion from one discipline to another. Actors become playwrights, playwrights become directors, and everyone’s a producer. We feed off each other, we watch what everyone else is doing and avoid the mistakes and drool over the successes. We want to steal, and to be stolen from. We want to be as good as the best, we want the crappy to catch up, and we want the extraordinary to throw away their desire for a businessman’s success. We want, the entire culture is starving, we’re all leaning forward trying to see what everyone else is doing, trying to drink deeply from every well.

And yeah, half the time we spit it back out, more than half probably. I mean, how many sax players were getting beat down by Charlie Parker. THE BAD IS WHAT IS SO GOOD. It’s earnest, it’s stupid, it’s sloppy or it’s too polished. But it isn’t bad because it thinks it’s gonna get you. It’s not bad because of shitty product placement, or stunt casting, or some delusion that this little story is gonna make anyone rich or famous. It’s bad the way that an awkward kid tells a joke, or an Ivy League college plays basketball, or the way a four year old paints the bathroom. It’s bad, but when you watch it, in the indy theater world, you ALMOST ALWAYS get the sense that they could make it better. Or that you could. And you do – and they do – the next piece is always better. And if it isn’t, they usually leave – and often for great soap opera or sitcom success.

And maybe the worst way that we’re jazz and this is the depression is this – we’re inviting you, but you have to go, you have to listen and you have to care. We always want you there, we’re never gonna tell you that you don’t get an opinion, we’re never gonna tell you that you don’t get to watch – I mean, Jesus, we’re here to tell you that you should make your own play, for chrissakes. It costs 50 million dollars to make a movie, it costs 5 million to make a TV show, it costs 500 thousand to make an off Broadway play, and we’re saying here that if you can scrape together about 5 grand and an email address with a facebook group, then you’ve got your own MOVEMENT. You have your own company with your own identity, you’re in the conversation, and you get to tell everyone how full of shit they are, or how beautiful they are, it’s up to you.

I was a working actor for fifteen years until I retired six years ago. I’ve acted almost as much since I quit, since I put all my resources into being a member of this community. My headshot doesn’t have gray hair, my acting resume still has tap-dancing leads on it, and I’m a salt-n-pepper stay-at-home dad in his forties. But since I’ve quit, I’ve gotten to tell stories, I’ve been a part of countless nights of insane one-acts, I’ve sat and talked shit on the roof outside the Battle Ranch and across from The Brick, I’ve watched my friends crawl around the small hot storysheds that cover downtown and the outer boroughs, and I can’t count the number of times I sat holding my breathe, the number of times I realized I was dizzy in my chair, simply because I didn’t want to breathe.

I look at my friends, I look at their companies, and when one actor moves to direct someone else’s piece, I’m never surprised. When the venue manager becomes a playwright, it never shocks me. When the playwright steps in and acts, in someone else’s play, with someone else directing, and kills it, I know why. Because we all think we can, because we all have the chance to fail, because the entire thing is built above a trampoline and you can fall as low as you want, you *will be bounced back up*. And so we are all free to follow our heart’s content.

It is not all good. It is more bad than good. More misunderstanding than statement. More bad jokes than funny ones, more melodrama than storylines. But Charlie Parker discovered one night that he could play any note- any note at all, and resolve it back to the melody line, or to a counter-melody line, or to an inversion of the accompaniment chord, and he did it in a shitty club. Also in that club, probably, playing with him were Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke and Charlie Christian. I say “probably” because there are no recordings of this time. It was a shitty little club, and there were no recordings, and this kid was strung out on heroin and working for nine dollars a week washing dishes (so he could hear Art Tatum play), but if you wanted to, you could have heard the entire future of music shift in a single moment. But there are no recordings. You had to care, and you had to be there, you had to GO.

"Charlie Parker at Birdland" Photo by Marcel Fleiss

That’s why I go. That’s why Indy Theater. I believe it’s happening, it’s happening here and now, and I’ll be damned if I miss it.