Our guest posts continue with a piece by Sam Bertken. Enjoy!
I hear you, I hear you—“Help, Internet! I am really nervous about this new thing that I’m going to start trying out, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle it! Can you please provide me with witty repartee and insight from people that have ‘been there’ so I feel less overwhelmingly nervous?”
Alright, alright, sure, I wasn’t doing anything, anyway.
Okay, let’s play a game: close your eyes. No, wait, actually, open them. You’re going to need to read this in order to see where I’m going. Sorry.
Alright, low start, but we can come back from it, because I got an ace in my back pocket:
Do you guys like Kermit the Frog?
Yeah, there we go, everyone’s on board now. Who doesn’t love a gangly, felted frog with weirdly-shaped pupils, opining for the greener grass on other side of that oft-ode’d rainbow? I mean, when you put it that way the list gets a little longer, but for the most part I’d say there’s a collective nod of recognition when anyone listens to The Rainbow Connection. It’s about achieving a dream, it’s a promise to strike out for one’s self. It’s not a lament about the lilypad upon which you currently find yourself, but more of a love song that’s about the one right over there.
If only it wasn’t out of hop’s reach…
But it isn’t! Not always, anyways. And sometimes, with the right wind current and enough hamstring training, you might land easily in a wholly different context, catching new flies, writing new love songs to different sorts of weather phenomena; sometimes you’re widely considered a performer and then suddenly you find yourself in the director’s chair. Sometimes you’re part of a group ensemble making decisions collectively for your art and then you’re leading a group as the even-keeled captain to achieve that same aesthetic. Sometimes you get really bored while taking time to do some tech work, but when you’re back in a performing role, the whole world behind the lights has turned itself on its head. It’s a lot to wrap your head around, sort of like a long, pink, sticky tongue primed for catching passing insects.
Let’s leave the frog metaphors behind from here on out, shall we?
As someone who recently sat down with his accomplishments from 2013, I came to a few realizations, all of which primarily oriented around trying out new paths, to see if I wanted to explore them a little bit further: Write more (here I am)! Try directiong, somehow! Produce something! But where does that impetus lie? How do you get off the couch and start making calls, writing manifestos and making it happen for yourself?
I interviewed a few of my acquaintances about their experiences shifting gears, so to speak, in their creative lives, to help you—YOU!—make a decision on whether that impossible dream may not be so impossible as you may think.
Adam Smith is the Artistic Director of the newly-formed San Francisco Neo-Futurists, and was active for years prior in their New York chapter. Siobhan Doherty is a local performer (also originally hailing from New York), who recently took a gig directing for the Bay One Acts and is running with the same wild abandon as a preschooler holding scissors. Eli Diamond was a high school performer who, for college requisites, spent some time in the lighting booth and painting sets, and has since returned to the limelight with a different take on what makes him look so good.
To get at the impetus, that tipping point where things start to really come together for someone whose just shifted gears that these fine folks share, I asked our group about the origin story behind their decision to make a creative change. Adam Smith had this to say about the new run of the SF Neo-Futurists’ ongoing production, Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind:
AS: I learned I was going to move out here in the middle of my last New York Neo-Futurist production called “On the Future.” The immediate thought was, “Oh the Bay would be a great place to start another Neo-Futurist company,” but didn’t really think much of it. A few months later Lucy Tafler (now our Managing Director) and Ryan Good (one of our bi-coastal Neo-Futurists) were out for an extended vacation. We saw a couple of shows in the Bay, and eventually came to the conclusion that there was room in the scene here for Too Much Light.
SB: Yes, I can definitely see how having an established structure and group of experts working with you can make things start happening at a nice, easy clip.
AS: Needless to say Ryan and Lucy’s vacation has been extended even longer.
SB: Okay, no need to start crowing about it, okay? Congratulations. But what if you’re not motivated to break borders creatively just because you’re breaking them geographically? Siobhan has been performing around the Bay Area for years now—where did this itch to sit in the director’s seat come from?
SD: After acting for so many years, I started to form opinions about what makes successful theater. My impulse to direct sprung from my desire to see how those opinions would play out in performance. Also, morally, I longed to have more ownership of the overall messages I was putting out into the world.
SB: I hear ya! The more experience receiving direction on the actual stage, the more your own ideas percolate, is that it?
SD: I have experienced many, many times as an actor when I think a scene could have been more effective if a director had used more active, actor-centric language. For example, instead of “do that section faster”, saying something along the lines of “let the excitement of each new idea build and carry this section forward”, would have made a world of difference.
SB: Who better to know how to direct an actor than just another actor? I’m following your train of logic so far.
SD: Lastly, I would say about 80% of the theater I see is TOO SLOW. I hope to counter-act that instinct. I also hope to explore new formats for an old medium. Site specific theatre, and one on one performance, are two arenas in which I think there is lots of contemporary and relevant fun to be had.
SB: As a creative person, wacky-awesome ideas are always pulling you in different directions, like an unfortuante medieval criminal and his quartet of horses (perhaps an overstatement to the uninitiated, but just you wait—it can feel this intense.) Eventually, it seems, it just becomes too much, and you have to use the experience and the connection and the artistic will you’ve been cultivating to make your dreams finally happen, darn it!
What about you, Eli? What prompted your brief time dangling from catwalks, hanging gels and focusing lights?
ED: Well, the tech work mostly started at NYU. First year students have to run tech on all the shows. I did lots of lighting and set design. Set design was far more my thing than lighting. There’s something that feels really powerful in creating the world the characters live in, plus I feel like a MAN with my powertools.
SB: No arguments there, that’s for sure. Also interesting that your creative change, like Adam, didn’t really come from a place of internal need, but from a source of external compulsion (such as a degree requirement, or a job offer). Or maybe just a need to make screwguns make that awesome “WHIRRRRR” sound, in this case.
SB: So once you pick up the manly powertools and you find yourself other side, what’s happening now? It’s all started, sure, in a boring, general way, but once you’re in the thick of it, that’s exciting, right? Or does the floor open up beneath you, and you’re dangling above an entire universe of new opportunity? Is it breathtaking in a good way or a pants-shitting way?
AS: Ask me again in a year. It’s too early. The real test will be after about 3-4 months when everyone is really acclimated to the performance schedule and we’re trying to do gigs and workshops, and making big decisions about direction.
SB: This sounds like the dangly feeling I mentioned earlier.
AS: As Artistic Director, there are more tasks to accomplish, and there is more pressure to meaningfully contribute to the local, national and international art conversation.
AS: I’d say it’s largely positive. As an artist, I’m creating work that I might never have created if I stayed in New York. Between the life experience of picking up and moving, and being in a role of leadership, it has been pushing me to re-think my artistic choices and impulses.
SB: Not so yikes. That actually sounds pretty compelling to any artist out there whose eyeing some fresh new challenge. I’d say that’s the dream a lot of people hope for when they do jump into something new. A different perspective, a more nuanced view of the work you were creating before—it’s like a boot camp for better artistic expression! What do you think, Sio?
SD: Directing has been satisfying in new ways. It forces me to find a succinct, verbal way to express the meaning of a scene. It may even force me to find several ways of doing so if an actor is not comprehending my message. I must understand the piece extremely well in order to do that successfully.
SB: Yeah, like, you gotta read the whole script, definitely.
SD: Also, it is a great feeling to be surprised by your actors with their own ideas about a scene. In many ways, I think a great deal of good direction depends on casting actors that are willing to experiment and then just helping them to shape what they are naturally drawn toward. Not top-down, but bottom-up. If it comes from them, or (a la Inception) feels as though it comes from them, the results are more connected and resonant for the actor, and therefore, the audience.
SB: It must be kind of weird to have these thoughts about molding people who are in the position you were once in. I mean, you can’t have been the first, right? But that’s a whole ‘nother blog topic, isn’t it?
SD: The ego-centric part of me misses some of the focused praise afterward, since people often have no idea that you are the director. Although, that anonymity does give you excellent opportunities to overhear unfiltered audience opinions…
SB: Sneaky! Would you consider abandoning directing for acting, or vice-versa?
SB: Oh. Well. That’s, actually, liberating, and a good reminder for folks hoping to make a switch in the near future. It’s not like a door closes behind you—nothing’s that dramatic. You can sort of skip between them as your mood shifts. That’s a comfort, to find one other form you really rise to, find great satisfaction from, isn’t it, Eli?
ED: Lighting’s a little bit more monotonous and tricky to pin down. Lots of the work involves changing minor details. The lens of the light, the filter, etc. Things that wouldn’t really be noticed by the common person watching.
SB: I can see how going from creating a work of art, a character, that’s the center of everyone’s focus, a part of the show that, to the general audience member, makes-or-breaks the production in a certain sense, is a little more interesting than picking between Light or regular Amber for a general wash.
ED: The satisfaction is just different for me. I’ve never been an artist in that regard, so when I do scenic work or lighting, ther’es a detachment. I simply don’t get as attached to my work there the same way I do when I’m spillig my guts, sometimes literally, onstage. When a sets onstage, the sets on display, not the designer, or his intention, or his inner life so much.
SB: I see where you’re coming from here, yes. I’m sure the opposite is true for the artist’s who end up making their actors look and sound as good as they do. And now that you’re on the other end, in the role that you presently inhabit, I’m sure things are different. Your world’s opened up! The hue of everything is this crazy, LSD-neon shade of blue, AM I RIGHT?
AS: I think the main difference is, if you’re cast in a company that already exists, it has a history and a wealth of knowledge to pull from. You can see different writing styles and how each ensemble member’s fits with each other. As a new company we’re establishing that with each other. As someone who has done it before, I want to support the expansion of ideas, but without being prescriptive to define what we do as being only one or two people’s perspectives.
SB: Okay, so perhaps switching your creative role isn’t completely earth-shattering. But it certainly isn’t back-tracking, from what I can tell here. Especially in the case where you’re adopting greater responsibilities and taking performers less experienced in your style and collective vision under your wing, there’s a lot of almost paternal excitement to see it grow.
SD: It has helped me as an actor empathize with directors. I have a first-hand understanding of just how difficult it is to juggle a mountain of variables when it comes to casting and scheduling.
SB: So now there’s this whole side-wink to every director you’ll be working with from here on out, now that you understand their pain.
SD: Also, it can be a blessing and a cruse to work with actors that you know from past projects. On the one hand, you can cut to the chase and you know what they are capable of, and on the other hand, they may not have fully made the mental adjustment that you are now in a position of authority.
SB: Directing friends. Another lengthy topic—let’s go get beers and hash it out!
ED: Doing these jobs gave me far more respect for them as an actor. I’m not going to lie. I was a dick in high school to some of the techies. When you haven’t been fully exposed to what it takes to make a show, you fail to realize – they are working.
SB: What was that far of chorus of “Finally, they realize!” I just heard from the stage manager’s box?
ED: Not to say that actor’s don’t work, but there’s a huge element of play in our profession that, for me, was lost in technical work. I’m sure there’s someone out there who gets the same thrill form changing filters in a light as I do from being on stage, but it’s not me.
SB: I’m not going to ask you to describe what the “thrill” feels like. Entrapment and everything, ya know?
ED: There’s also the respect you have to give when you’re working and you realize, “My job is to make this guy on stage look good. “ When I just acted, I didn’t even think about that. Now, I hope to make the techie I’m working with WANT to make me look good.
SB: And then spill in the chocolates, the roses, the invitations to dinner… But for real, it seems to me that, even if a creative role didn’t “do it” for you, there’s a whole different world that has opened up to you. One becomes less of a high school dick and more of a compassionate theatre professional who is sometimes a dick to high schoolers (but just the ones who deserve it, of course). That’s important for professional development, but as an artist, entering a new world, having everything turned upside-down, that’s only going to add to your empathy engines. And while that alone may not make you a better actor, or artistic director, or director, or writer, or stage manager, or blessed box office volunteer, it’s going to make you a better person to work with.
So there it is! The lilypad is in clear sight, and you don’t need to stay over there for the rest of your damned life. Why not leap and take the plunge? From what I can tell, the benefits speak for themselves.
Adam Smith and the other Neo-Futurists have begun their sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic, always edifyingly personal run of Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, which runs every Friday and Saturday.
Siobhan Doherty is going to be lending her new-found love of direction to an exciting Rough Readings piece for Playwrights Foundation by Anthony Clarvoe called Early Romantics, and it plays at Thick House 2/10. In addition, she is directing a solo-performance festival called Modern Lovers: Women & Technology for All Terrain Theater in the spring.
Eli Diamond is going to be laying low until DivaFest mounts Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl in May. He’ll be playing the role of Dave- and the drums.
Sam Bertken is an actor and a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. A company member with Naked Empire Bouffon Company and an intern for the SF Neo-Futurists, he has performed with various companies, such as SF Theatre Pub, Custom Made Theatre Co. and the Exit Theatre.