It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Adapt and/or Die

Adaptable Dave Sikula lays it down in dire stakes.

“This is a revolution, dammit! We’ve got to offend somebody!” – John Adams, “1776”

Seems like I never have a topic for these little efforts until suddenly, at the last moment, Fate steps in and lends me a hand.

This time, it’s a twofer; two topics that are tangentially related, but ultimately make a similar point.

The first is the New York Times report from Manhattan (Manhattan!) that the “progressive” Dalton School had scheduled a production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” that had to be sanitized and Bowdlerized (look it up) in order to defend against offending the delicate sensibilities of “several members of the community.”

Now, let me hasten to say that, with some exceptions, I don’t think the purpose of the theatre is to offend. That said, if I’m directing a play by Joe Orton or Thomas Bradshaw, to name but two, and I don’t offend the audience, I’ve neither fulfilled the intentions of the playwright (about which, more later) nor done my job properly.

Let me further hasten to add that, although my personal politics are decidedly liberal, this is the kind of story that makes me hate liberals. H.L. Mencken, one of my personal heroes (and whose level of invective I can only aspire to), defined puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Similarly, I find too many of my brothers and sisters live with the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be offended by something, somewhere.

If I may take a step back here (and who’s going to stop me?), here are the facts of the case as I understand them. The school scheduled the show, which will be performed by sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and those “members of the community” (I love the euphemism, by the way) “had concerns about ‘the play’s use of racial stereotypes and references to human trafficking,’ and efforts to change the script proved ‘insufficient,’ leading administrators to make plans for the song revue as well as ‘a forum featuring leading academics and practitioners’ to discuss race and theater.”

While I applaud the administrators’ intentions to contextualize the issues in the show, which librettist Dick Scanlan defended as “a deliberate political choice that (director) Michael Mayer, (composer) Jeanine (Tesori), and I made years ago to portray Asian stereotypes and then challenge them in order to bust them,” I deplore the rest of their tactics. According to Scanlon, he and the other creators were deliberately playing off and embracing stereotypes prevalent in the media of the 1920s in order to force their audiences to confront them. As I wrote in my last column, I’m a believer in challenging audiences’ assumptions and preconceptions and making them defend their beliefs, rather than comforting them.

In the Times article, Ellen Stein, one of the school’s administrators, is quoted as saying “that the school would perform a new version ‘recrafted by some members of the cast, with the playwright’s permission and generous cooperation.’” Scanlan responded “that he and the show’s composer, Jeanine Tesori, had approved the school’s sanitized version of ‘Millie’ and suggested some new lyrics and other ideas.”

My takeaway from that is that the “members of the community” decided that the show they’d applied for and been licensed to perform didn’t meet their personal standards for (dare I say it?) political correctness, and rewrote the “offensive” material, and then – and only then – went to the creators (and for that, they deserve credit) to ask approval, an approval that was granted to prevent the kids from being disappointed.

Now, I don’t doubt that there are plot points raised in the show that some of the kids might not appreciate, either historically or as satire. But does that mean that they have to be protected from them rather than having them explained and contextualized? I’ve mentioned one of my favorite quotes before; that “euphemizing the past excuses it.” Some might even see the logical end of this mindset is censoring any book, movie, television show, or music that has politics or characters that don’t meet with current standards. Most movies of the 20s through the 80s probably portray women in a sexist manner – and don’t even get me started on the way minority groups are represented. There are any number of songs of the 1910s and ‘20s that modern ears would find incredibly racist. Books like “Huckleberry Finn” have already been sanitized into nonsense. All of this was done in order to prevent delicate sensibilities from having to confront the sins of the past. Please note: I’m not saying none of these works can be considered unoffensive. A lot of them are, but to discard them without trying to understand the cultural mindset that created and supported them is something that I find personally offensive.

All of this goes along (as I said, tangentially) with Melissa Hillman’s blog post of earlier this week that elegantly takes to task directors and producers who take it upon themselves to rewrite the works of playwrights whose work they’ve licensed to produce, without obtaining the prior approval of those creators. I consider the case Ms. Hillman cites (Frank Galati – who is usually a very good director – taking it upon himself to rewrite Brian Friel’s “Philadelphia, Here I Come!,” about which, more here…) to be different from the “Millie” case in that, with the Friel, the director chose to rewrite the play for artistic reasons (i.e., he knows better than the playwright how it should be presented) and the Dalton School changed the show to avoid giving offense.

My ultimate points are these: Firstly, if you can’t do a show without making wholesale changes, don’t produce it. If you think a show is so flawed that only your genius can rescue it, you’re probably doing the wrong show in the first place, and should write your own play that will showcase your brilliance. Or, if those ideas are burning a hole in your figurative artistic pocket, approach the writers or licensors in advance. If the alterations are as good as you think, they might go along with them. I know that when I’ve approached writers about changes or alternate versions of scripts, they’ve been very approachable and (mostly) amenable to small changes (lines, business, music cues, etc.). They haven’t always approved them, but they’ve been open to being approached. (I had a wonderful hour-long conversation with Jules Feiffer when I directed his “The White House Murder Case.” It was a political satire that didn’t need changing, but I wondered if he’d had any thoughts on it in the 35 years since he’d written it).

Secondly – and, to me, more importantly – give your audiences some credit. Don’t think they need to be protected. Challenge them. If you’re producing a show with members of minority groups who are portrayed unfortunately, help your audience understand why those portrayals exist and why you think that, in spite of the unfortunate elements, the work is still worthy of production. The only way to defeat the stereotypes is to confront and defeat them, not hide them away in fear.

Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: Your Website Sucks

Claire Rice is here to tell the harsh truth and nothing but the harsh truth.

Marissa’s last column touched on the interesting problem of paying actors. When she talked about paying actors a minimum wage I thought Vocal union member and wonderful actress Valerie Weak helpfully brought up several options the union provides for paying AEA members. Valerie has been vocal in many forums about how she has come to find she needs to be pro-active with producers so that they aren’t intimidated by the union hiring process and understand that there are opportunities for small companies to hire union actors.

This isn’t a column about whether or not the union, or any union for that matter, is a good thing. This is an article about what happened when I thought: “I’ll be helpful to Marissa and I’ll show her where on the website she can get information about the union.” I should point out that Marissa is a much smarter than I am and I’m sure doesn’t actually need my help, but I’m a nosy person who always thinks they can fix a problem even if there isn’t a “problem” per se.

And then I went to the website.

Is it just me, or does this look like two guys butting heads? It's a total kiss or kill moment.

Is it just me, or does this look like two guys butting heads? It’s a total kiss or kill moment.

I’m not going to get petty about the way the AEA website looks. I mean, sure, the website looks like it was built in 2002 by a big fan of Clip Art 1.0, but styles change and sometimes you can keep up and sometimes you can’t. I mean, right now the big thing in website design is the big picture that you have to scroll past to get to the meat of the product like this example: http://californiasunday.com/#hello. So, I totally get it. That doesn’t mean the information the website has is any less valid.

I’m just here to find what contract would be the best option for a first time, small producer in San Francisco.

Wait a minute…who is that dancing lady? Gypsy Robe? What?!?

Hold me closer tiny dancer?

Hold me closer tiny dancer?

Never mind that now. Serious business. Where do I find the contacts? Where…Document Library? That sounds too general, but we’ll start there.

The first link is “About Equity”. Great. I already looked in the other “About Equity” link and that information wasn’t useful. I don’t know anything about hiring an AEA actor. This will be perfect. The document that looks most enlightening also looks like it is just for Equity Members. I can’t figure out if it will be helpful. Maybe I should come back to it. Oooo! A Theatrical Season Report. My research senses are tingling!

“The United States and the international community have faced some difficult events in the past ten years. From challenges to security, to devastating natural disasters, to economic instability the like of which was not seen in decades, the past decade seems

to have permanently changed the world in which we live. Individuals and industries havehad to recalibrate expectations, processes, and even the elements of day-to-day life in the face of this “new normal” which may be taking hold.” Page four of the report shows that less than half of equity members worked in the 2012-2013 season.

So, not helpful and also sad. But hey! I’m an employer! I want to employ! That’s good news, right? So where do I start? Why do I keep having to ask that question? Why is this hard?

It’s not, Claire. Chill out. Go back to the first list of links.

The thing is the document library is really just that, a document library. There are just links with lists of documents. These contracts, codes, rulebooks and what-have-you are not organized by region or company type. Also, what’s the difference between a contract, a code and a rulebook? Is there a document that has a definition of commonly used words in this document library? None of the links have short summaries of who this type of contract would be applicable to. Sure, some are obvious like “Members Project Code”. It’s a project code for members. But the “Cabaret Agreement” isn’t so clear. What’s the difference between a cabaret and a dinner theatre? Should I just inherently know that? Should I Google it? What’s a midsized theatre? But those aren’t really the questions, what I want to know is why it isn’t easier to find those answers on the AEA website. As a prospective employer who wants to read up on what’s available to me, why can’t be given the definition of the terms under which I’ll be evaluated before I’m evaluated?

The next link is Agency, and that doesn’t look helpful. Oooo! Agreements. Bay Area Theatre is right at the top. There isn’t a great deal of organization here, but hooray for alphabetizing. And though there are several bays in this country, we’re probably the only “Bay Area” so it’s a good bet this is where I need to be.

Apparently this agreement expires this year. Is that important? Should I be worried about that? Anyway, it also says there is no San Francisco office so I’ll have to call Hollywood if I have questions. Further investigation also leads me to find out that the Hollywood office handles the whole Western Region which includes 14 states so…they might be busy.

So, the agreement itself. After the table of contents you will get to page 7 which lets you know that this contract is for Aurora, 42nd Street and Moon, Magic Theatre, San Jose Stage Company, SF Playhouse, The Jewish Theatre San Francisco and The Z Space Studio. So…not me. All 98 pages are interesting (truly) and so many of the rules are worth aspiring to. Regardless, not applicable to me. Back to the links!

Oh! Here’s the MBAT (Modified Bay Area Theatre) and it’s only 4 pages. It’s also set to expire this year. This is for companies with an average weekly box office of $3000. Well, if I sell out my 50 seat house all three nights at $20 a ticket (I only perform Thursday, Friday and Saturday), then I will…oh. And an annual budget of $100,000. Nope. Not me. There is another tier in the MBAT but that one is for companies with even larger budgets…so, also not for me.

So it’s on to Codes. Codes might be where it’s at. And indeed it is. There is the Bay Area Project Policy (BAPP)! This may just be it!

Some Equity Codes are too big, some are too small, some are just right!

Some Equity Codes are too big, some are too small, some are just right!

After reading it through, it looks like this code is for companies just like mine. Companies with low budgets ($20,000), low audience attendance expectations (99 seats or less), equal low pay across the board (the equity members must be paid the same amount as the highest paid artistic member of the production), and the company must have never have had a previous equity contract (obviously that is totally me). Lastly, it looks like the company can use this code up to three times in a single calendar year or up to three years as long as the company is only maybe one production a year during that time. After reading it looks like if this contract works out for me I’ll be encouraged to move on to an MBAT because this contract doesn’t look repeatable. Fine. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Right now, I just want to get my show up on it’s feet.

Is there more information I should know? Back to the links! Producer Material! I bet that has a document called “So You Want To Put on A Show!” Oh, no. These are documents for producers with contracts…agreements…codes…or something in hand. Cool. Fine.

Ok, so I feel more enlightened and it’s only…two in the morning. And that’s fine, right? I mean, when considering employing a person it shouldn’t be done willy nilly. As an employer I should be responsible to make sure the people in my employment are treated fairly and that in itself is hard. It’s hard coming up with an equitable agreement that benefits both parties and ensures profits so the business can continue. It should take effort to…

Browse a website? No way.

If you go back to About Equity in the documents and pull up that beautiful 25 page brochure, that is absolutely intended for new and prospective equity members, you’ll find it is actually a super helpful document. It explains all about codes and agreements. It groups information on different region agreements by region with clear and concise information about each type of agreement and code. It’s is friendly, clear and exactly what I was looking for.

And super hidden. And not written for me.

It would also be possible to use this document as a way to reconstruct the whole website to be utterly readable and, most importantly, non intimidating. Maybe equity doesn’t want me, the first time producer, to have easy access to this information. Maybe it’s easier if their members way out here in San Francisco feel like they have to do all the work of advocating for themselves against the people who are withholding paying jobs.

Honesty time: I’m a person who is connected enough to the community that I could reach out to a few fellow producers who’ve interacted with the union to get advice. I know equity actors who could tell me what my options may be. I’m also not afraid to write an email to equity itself and find out more information. All I’m saying is, that some of what I need to know shouldn’t take me more than a few minutes of easy browsing to find. I should feel welcome to have the information. Hiring an Equity actor should feel as much of an accomplishment as when an Equity actor get’s their card in the mail. Or, it should feel necessary and all part of the process. It shouldn’t feel frustrating and intimidating before I even email Equity themselves.

I should also point out that San Francisco Bay Area does have a Liaison, but again, I think this part of the organization is for members, not producers. [INSERT HYPERLINK http://www.actorsequity.org/arealiaisons/arealiaison.asp?liaisonCode=50

There are approximately fifty equity companies in the 9 counties of the San Francisco Bay Area, but you have to be a member to know what they are. There are two news stories. One about a meeting in October, and the other from 2011. While it looks like a nice website that someone has to volunteer to update and no one has cared to update it in a while, it isn’t helpful either. I can’t imagine it’s actually helpful to members.

OH! I almost forgot, the dancing lady. Well, click on her and you’ll get a really good history (well, a long weird narrative and then a good history) about a sweet way that Equity gives recognition to some of the actors in it’s organization who don’t often get a lot of recognition. I really do think it’s sweet. I also think it’s weird that it was easier for me to find the Rule of the Ritual of the passing of a “Gypsy Robe” then it was for me to find the definition of the word “Code”.

So, AEA, your website sucks.

Special notes and further reading:

What’s Happening Right Now?

Up on the homepage right now there is an important letter from President Nick Wyman that relates to recent controversies about touring company contracts. If you didn’t hear about this controversy you might want to catch yourself up on the particulars. Reading President Nick Wyman’s letter about the tier contracts and the touring controversies is a bleak portrait of a bleak economy with a bleak forecast for the future. “The plane truth is that there currently aren’t enough jobs – – let alone good paying jobs – – for all 50,000 of us.” His Touring 102 post about the economics of touring is just as sad. “ Now, because of the recession, the not-for-profit Random City Arts Foundation has lots half of its subscribers, most of its donors, and absolutly all its local government funding. So, when Peripatetic Production asks for $400K, RCAF says, “No. We’ll give you $280K.” So, yes, the union is advocating for the touring producers. The whole of the message seems to be: It’s better to be paid some than none. It is an open admission that the union isn’t strong enough to ensure that it’s members can be employed. If they don’t lower the rates actors are paid on the contracts then the touring companies won’t hire union actors. Concessions have to be made. Why might you not have heard of this? Because of your proximity to New York. Mr. Wyman says that right at the top. You aren’t anywhere near New York so you probably don’t have any idea what’s going on in the organization that ensures you are treated fairly. Good luck with that San Francisco actors. Sometimes I wonder if New York is the center of the acting universe in part because New York just doesn’t recognize that there is more to the universe than just itself.

SUPER LASTLY: I do want to say when I worked at Theatre Bay Area I had the opportunity to speak with representatives from Equity on a number of occasions and I found them lovely, informative and hard working. If you are interested in working with Equity Actors, you should email or call Equity. Don’t be intimidated. They don’t bite. And if you just produce theatre all the time with out talking to them they really won’t have an understanding of your needs and how best to serve their membership while still supporting the art of theatre.

Everything is Already Something Week 25: But What if They Hate It?!

Allison Page, talking about what she knows best: being an object of derision.

I was every kind of nervous. I realized too late that I hadn’t eaten enough. I started filling up on mimosas instead of food – what else could I do? I don’t know what I was so anxious about; it was exactly this moment that I had been building up to the last few months, and now that I was faced with it, it was really freaking me out! Yes, it was the actor read through of the first draft of my new play. This little baby nugget had to be tossed out of the nest. There was no more waiting, the day had come.

I’m not prone to nervousness. In fact, it’s an extreme rarity for me. I get that from my dad. He’s a pretty calm and cool dude, and so am I. EXCEPT THIS TIME. Sure, I’ve written all kinds of stuff. Plays, even. But they’re not usually full length, and they’re not usually this important to me. And this was a first draft! Actors were coming over to read my FIRST DRAFT out loud! What if they hated it? What if they walked around shouting about how much they hated it? Here are some things I seriously worried about:

1) Do too many people in the play exit to the bathroom?! Everyone’s going to think the characters have digestive problems!

Even the cat's on the can.

Even the cat’s on the can.

2) This seems like Mamet-level swearing. What if they don’t like the swearing? What if they think it’s like…HBO swearing? Do I care?!

3) I wonder if everyone’s going to feel really weird about the sex scene. I mean, I feel a little weird about it myself. It’s SEX, after all.

4) I bet at least one person will think that I have my character picked up and carried around just because I love being picked up and carried around – because I do. But that’s not why I wrote it!…is it?!

5) What if the director lights the script on fire in the middle of the reading in a blaze of un-glory?

Once we sat down and actually started reading it, I calmed down. Well, I stopped being nervous, anyway…and I started being excited! I think I was twirling a pen around the whole time because I didn’t know what to do with my hands. And I ate a lot of handfuls of cheese puffs. (Sorry, diet.)

Mamet: Probably Not Impressed With My Swearing

Mamet: Probably Not Impressed With My Swearing

This play has been brewing in my head for nearly 3 years. To put it down in typed words had its bouts of ease and of difficulty. Naturally, the day before the reading I sat at my computer from 7:30am until after midnight in order to finish it. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do. And even then…there’s no last scene. I have everything else, but there’s no last scene. Ending things is always difficult, I think. It’s so…final! Part of it is that I’m a little afraid of leaving these beloved characters in a not-necessarily-happy state. But I’m also hesitant to tie everything up neatly in a pretty bow. That just doesn’t seem a fitting end to their story; it’s too clean. It seems like I know I don’t want that good old fairytale ending, but I’m scared to do what might be necessary. It’s probably a “DO IT FAST, LIKE TEARING OFF A BANDAID!” situation…but I can’t seem to do that.

I told the actors at the reading that the final scene hadn’t been written yet. Even so, when we got to the last page, they all wanted to know what happens! I told them I had a few different ideas about how the last scene could go, but didn’t really tell them what those ideas are. They had their own suspicions. Deep down, a lot of people want a story with a happy ending – or as happy an ending as possible. But when that doesn’t serve the story – I’m not into it. If Ingrid Bergman had stayed with Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca, the story wouldn’t feel the same.

Forget that other guy, let's run away together! To hell with the fate of the world! Then let's make Casablanca 2: Lost in New York!

Forget that other guy, let’s run away together! To hell with the fate of the world! Then let’s make Casablanca 2: Lost in New York!

(Um, not that HILARITY is as important as CASABLANCA, but you know what I mean. Different endings have different effects.) Actually, many of the most enduring stories I can think of don’t have happy endings. I’m lookin’ at YOU, Romeo and Juliet! It’s not something I want to make a quick, impulsive decision about. I’m going to give it some time. I have a little time on my side at the moment, so I’m going to take advantage of that. Am I worried that I’ll choose an ending the audience won’t like? Mmm…yeah, a little. But mostly I want to make sure *I* like it. It’s my ending, after all. I don’t want to regret it. And I want to do right by the fake people who swim around in my brain. (Wow, that sounded delusional. Whatever.)

Oh, and no one noticed the characters going to the bathroom too much. Thank goodness, otherwise I’d be forced to put in a line about them having eaten a lot of spicy food or something.

You can witness Allison’s delusions live at SF Sketchfest on Monday, February 3rd at the Eureka Theater with Killing My Lobster.

Theater Around The Bay: A Post About Posters

Our guest post today is by long time Theater Pub Art Director, Cody Rishell, who is making his debut on the blog as a writer!

We have all been enchanted by posters, and I’m willing to bet that there’s a poster hanging in your home, office, or studio that you cherish. It’s a theater poster or a film poster, a motivational poster, a propaganda poster, or a poster that just lets you escape for a few seconds in the day whenever you look at it. We hang them for education in when we’re in elementary school, and out of rebellion when we get to high school; in college it’s how we make our dorm room feel like our room.

When you're in my bedroom, you Can-Can sucker.

When you’re in my bedroom, you Can-Can sucker.

It’s a fine art, the poster, and has an incredible history that is largely responsible for bringing fine art to a lot of people who can’t afford originals or a expensive prints. It took art from inside the salons of Paris and put it into the streets and the homes of the lower classes, which was kind of a big deal. We owe a lot to the early greats and the Cherets, Muchas, and Lutrecs of the most recent ages. Hell, I dare you to look at a Drew Struzen and not feel enchanted by the Star Wars universe.

Since I much prefer Mucha, however, you're getting some Mucha.

Since I much prefer Mucha, however, you’re getting some Mucha.

Now, the poster has leapt from carts and panels to become a cornerstone of modern marketing. At its core, the poster’s purpose is to inform the greater public of SOMETHING, that SOMETHING is happening and you had better be a part of it. It’s not an easy task. A poster has about 3 seconds to create enough interest that a viewer remembers the image and whatever slogan your marketing team spent hours (or seconds) on wordsmithing. And truly good posters are hard to make for that reason. A lot of them, even some really beautiful ones, are still forgetable, often either because they’re not-eye catching enough, or so overwhelming (or obtuse, or complex) that they fail to convey their intent quickly enough to associate the image with whatever it’s supposed to be selling.

No, really, this poster is lovely... but what the hell is it trying to tell me?

No, really, this poster is lovely… but what the hell is it trying to tell me?

I’ve worked in the Bay Area theater scene as a graphic artist for a little over six years, and I have seen a lot of posters (usually reduced to their lesser cousin, the postcard.) I’ve seen some pretty terrible ones, some mediocre ones, some great ones, and some mind blowing ones, but I can’t really say that the poster, whatever form it takes, is really working for a lot of venues. There are a host of reasons as to why, all of which are understandable: shows come with contracts stating you have to use X imagery, artistic directors end up creating the posters themselves, marketing people put all their effort behind social marketing instead, etc. Whether it was lack of time, funds, initiative, know-how, or a great idea that sort of fizzled, at the end of the day, a lot of Bay Area theater scene posters kind of fail, and when I say that, I by no means think that every poster I design is perfect either, because the poster is a really simple, but incredibly complex, monster, and often times it kicks my ass too.

I may also have really high standards.

I may also have really high standards.

I will probably lose black box street cred when I say this, but I love “The Phantom of the Opera.” I first heard the overture of Act One when I was 9 when my sister was rehearsing it on her flute. I remember asking what it was, and she showed me the shows music book. The cover was a replica of the poster from the show, and it looks like how that overture should feel: dark, moody, and romantic.

Bravi, bravi, bravissimi...

Bravi, bravi, bravissimi…

It’s also so simple: black, a mask and a rose, and the shattered mirror font of the title. It’s not complicated but it really tells you what the show is about, without using a photo, while also leaving a ton of mystery, creating intrigue. It assists in the illusion that the show seeks to cast on the audience. All of the great theater posters have this approach in common, from “The Fantasticks” to “Wicked”. The best posters are simple, iconic, and tell you something about the show to pique an interest. They’re the brand of the show that adorns all other marketing materiel like programs, web banners, and e-mail blasts, and they’re usually the first impression your audience sees of the thing you’ve worked so hard on. Therefore they need to convey the mood of the piece, the flavor of the evening in store, along with subject matter, while also still leaving room for all that actual information like dates and times and places.

You are in for singing, violence, blood, and fabulous hair... AT THE ST. MARCUS THEATER!

You are in for singing, violence, blood, and fabulous hair.

I won’t go into much detail about my own process, but I’ve learned a few tricks along the way that I think are good things to keep in mind, both as a designer and as the person working with a designer, when creating posters for the theater:

1) Details of the show. Check the profound adjectives at the door. I want to know the title, who wrote it, what will the set look like, what will the costumes look like, what era does it all take place in, and who or what is the playwright’s favorite artist or design aesthetic. After this, tell me in one sentence the message you want to get across about your play. If you are going to put on a production of “Hamlet” where all of the male characters are played by female actors, and vice versa, because you believe “Hamlet transcends gender” that’s a pretty bold statement. So the design should probably be something bold.

Nothing says bold like Death looking you in the face.

Nothing says bold like Death looking you in the face.

2) What has come before this? There are so many ways to sell “Hamlet”, but what is the best way to sell Hamlet for your production? Looking at what others have done in the past and steering away from that is a good place to start, since obviously you want something brand new (unless your concept is to actively evoke other people’s interpretation), but how does your unique production inspire or justify going into new visual territory? Looking at how another company did (or did not) solve this design problem is a great way to get ideas- including ideas on what not to do.

Hmmmmm...

Hmmmmm…

3) What is the language of your audience? Tap into your inner anthropologist, and go out and see what the community you are designing for likes to do, talk about, and see. What images resonate with them- in good and bad ways? What challenges them? What bores them? What do they talk about- and especially what do they make fun of? Where does their aesthetic, your aesthetic, and the production’s aesthetic all meet?

The MTV Generation is now reaching Theater Patron age... can you tell?

The MTV Generation is now reaching Theater Patron age… can you tell?

Of course, most of the time, as a contract artist, you have to use already established imagery that has been designed by a design house, because in the Bay Area shows are predominantly put on by companies who are more concerned (perhaps justifiably so) with branding themselves than their individual shows (which is more the case on, say Broadway, where each show is kind of it’s own little company). But for the shows where you do have the chance to truly create the marketing images you send out, treat that process like it is a part of the play’s process, because it’s just as important in the long-run. Remember that while the poster helps get the audience in the door, they’re also (along with postcards and programs) the take-aways. They’re the thing that you give to audience members to remember all of your hard work and time, and ideally they hang your poster on a wall and be re-inspired by the show every time they glance at it for years to come. I think that it is really a precious thing when you can become a part of what long-term inspires someone, and so as you (and I) and our theatrical collaborators strive to create the perfect poster, always remember that the art is Art too!

Cody Rishell is a graphic artist who can often be found creating images and posters for the San Francisco Theater Pub, the San Francisco Olympians Festival, and for his own interests and musings. His past work also includes the Fringe Festival 2012, Bay One Acts 9 – 12, and Central Works. He currently has a daily cartoon called Clyde The Cyclops, which follows the adventures of a little blue cyclops named Clyde.

Theater Around The Bay: Adventures in Site-Specific Theater

We continue our series of guest bloggers with another story by Tracy Held Potter, who has written for us in the past. This week she takes us beyond the black box and into the great wide world of site-specific theater.

Artists and audiences are always clamoring for something “new,” something just a little bit outside of what they expect, so when I decided to start self-producing and I had a budget of zero dollars, the idea of creating site-specific shows seemed like an obvious and brilliant strategy.

Going into my company All Terrain Theater’s (http://www.allterraintheater.org) fifth season of producing work, I started reflecting on some of the adventures that I’ve had producing site-specific theater.

The first play I wrote outside of school was a 10-minute motherhood nightmare called “Reality Checkout,” and it took place inside of a baby store. As an entrepreneurial person, I thought that I could create a fun and low-budget production inside an actual baby store, take advantage of a captive audience, create an audience for my work and for the young actors I was working with, and also introduce more customers and sales for the boutique baby store that I was collaborating with. Everything would be so perfect and everyone would walk away with more of everything that they wanted!

This introductory collaboration was actually very lovely. I did a little grant writing project in exchange for free rehearsal and performance space at a boutique baby store in the East Bay, I worked with actors who were willing to accept a share of donations as payment, I already owned all of the props, and all the scenery was built into the real-life store.

We did a three-show run one Saturday morning during the store’s regular business hours. We had maybe eight audience members total during the entire production. What happened to “if you build it, they will come?” Apparently, people don’t flock to inconvenient locations for a free performance of someone’s 10-minute play unless they’re really, really motivated to go. Lesson #1.

Our next production, which was happening about a week later, was a traveling 10-minute show called “The Spin Cycle” and it took place in a laundromat, so we decided to perform this show guerilla-style in laundromats all over the East Bay—in Berkeley, Oakland, and Alameda. The only laundromat where we asked for permission to perform was the one that I used to clean my own laundry, and that’s because I knew the people there and I really didn’t want them to get mad at me. It turns out that when you perform in a laundromat, the sound of washing machines and dryers makes it really hard to hear actors. Lesson #2.

Laundromat – Colin Potter, Pablo Vadillo, and Dee Dee Hilgeson sneak into an Oakland laundromat in an early All Terrain Theater performance.

Laundromat – Colin Potter, Pablo Vadillo, and Dee Dee Hilgeson sneak into an Oakland laundromat in an early All Terrain Theater performance.

Also, if your scene is spread across two locations—the dryers are on one side and the folding tables are on the other side—then people can not follow your play at all. The play then becomes performance art and not theater. Which is fine … if that’s what you wanted. Lesson #3.

Our next set of shows took place inside of apartments, which was fantastic because we had a lot more control over our space, and the audiences who came to those performances really intended to see theater. The drawback of doing theater inside a private residence is that sometimes potential audience members are skeptical that a show being performed in a residence is worth seeing. At least a laundromat is in a public space—it’s already legitimate because it’s a real business. However, anyone could just randomly put on a “show” in their livingroom and that’s supposed to be theater? Venues determine credibility. Lesson #4

Fortunately, by the time we got to the apartments, we had finally learned to reach out to the people who would be most receptive to our residential productions: close friends and family members. Lesson #5.

Our biggest site-specific production was Barbara Jwanouskos’ “It’s All in the Mix,” a play about three DJs that we performed inside of a record store in Oakland. Although the venue wasn’t that close to BART, it had the perfect feel for our show. The front of the building was a record shop and the interior of the building where we performed was a warehouse type space that felt like someone’s basement or garage. In other words, the type of place that a DJ might practice spinning.

Record Store – Johnny Manibusan, Kristoffer Barerra, Brady Brophy-Hilton, and Champagne Hughes figure out how to use a record store for Barbara Jwanouskos’ “It’s All in the Mix.”

Record Store – Johnny Manibusan, Kristoffer Barerra, Brady Brophy-Hilton, and Champagne Hughes figure out how to use a record store for Barbara Jwanouskos’ “It’s All in the Mix.”

In this production, I learned that doing large-scale site-specific work meant that I had to start fretting about things that producers take for granted in a traditional theater space, like seats and lights and sound equipment. Most traditional theaters happen to come with actual seats. We had to borrow ours from one of our sponsors. What about lighting and sound equipment? We had to import our equipment and figure out DIY ways to make it work. Small-scale site-specific work is super easy, but the bigger the production becomes, the more I consider taking the show to a space designed for theater. Lesson #6.

Producing work in non-theater locations helps make theater accessible to people who feel like “theater” is too stuffy for them (artists can’t be pretentious about their work when it’s performed next to a basket of someone’s dirty underwear), and it makes theater physically accessible to people who don’t live near theaters or who don’t live near theaters doing work that is relevant to them.

But mostly, creating theater in an alternative space is SUPER FUN. Site-specific work is for adventurers looking to mine treasure and overcome seemingly insurmountable—and extremely ridiculous—obstacles at every turn. Every performance becomes a triumph as a space that wasn’t originally meant for theater becomes a vehicle for creating collaborative art. And what’s more fun than saying that my baby store play was performed in an actual baby store?

Tracy Held Potter is a writer currently working as an MFA candidate in the Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University with Rob Handel. She is the Artistic Director of All Terrain Theater (www.allterraintheater.org), Executive Director of Play Cafe (www.playcafe.org), and Co-Founder of the 31 Plays in 31 Days Challenge (http://31plays31days.com). She’s looking forward to spending winter in San Francisco where she can start saying things like, “You think this is cold? Well, you clearly haven’t had to deal with a Polar Vortex.”

Higher Education: How I Re-Discovered My Passion for Theater By Writing a Syllabus

Barbara Jwanouskos gleans inspiration from the most unlikely of places.

Over winter break as I was killing time, I had to chuckle about an article I saw that talked about the tumblr, lolmythesis, where graduate students around the world can sum up years of research and work in one hilarious sentence. I joked around with my dad that mine probably would have been “No one is interested in theater anymore, but I paid $$$$$ to learn how to write for it anyway.”

Syllabus for writing a new play.

Syllabus for writing a new play.

Perhaps it’s a little cynical. It can be easy to get wrapped up in the ideas of “what’s next” or “did I make a complete lapse in all reasonable judgment”. Sure, maybe, but then you have moments where you remember why you decided to pursue something or what sparked your passion for it.

I want to share something I’m proud that I wrote. It’s not a play – it’s actually a syllabus for Advanced Playwriting, a course I’m teaching this semester. Last year, I taught Introduction to Screenwriting, which was a wonderful experience. My syllabus, however, was very dry and jam-packed with information that was really not expressive of who I am as a teacher, artist and person. So, when I set out to write this syllabus, I tried to look at it as if I were writing a play.

Here’s what I said:

What this course is:
A play is basically a blueprint for a production
and in this course
you’re going to learn how to capture an idea for a play
how to develop, pull apart, and destroy that idea,
how to actually finish a script,
and how to talk about new work.

What we’ll be exploring is
How to make a create the blueprint for
an theatrical experience that is

engaging,
transformative,
weird,
and uncomfortable.

How can we tap into ourselves
and explore how we view the world
then translate
what’s in our brains
down onto the page

so that it makes some sort of sense
when people read the words we have selected
out loud
but more so
when they perform the instructions
we have given them
for the presentation of a live experience?

How do we give the audience what it needs?

This audience is ready to see your play.

This audience is ready to see your play.

I realized that in having to define what I was going to teach in my syllabus, I actually had to define what I thought a play was and what “good theater” was. What is playwriting? Why do we do it?

My personal relationship with theater is kind of grafted together a couple things that folks have said to me over the years:

It’s an experience (not necessarily a narrative). I found this so interesting when someone had mentioned it, because it made it easier to account for all the plays that have affected me that do not have a clear linear or non-linear arc.

It’s related to ritual. So much theater is born out of religious and spiritual rituals and ceremonies of the past. I haven’t quite worked out my thought-process on this, but there seems to be something key in the idea that a play is an experience that we need to give the audience by re-creating an event or a series of events.

It happens in space and time. Not that you can’t suggest multiple locations within a play, but a play is all about the current present moment and it is happening live in front of your eyes.

A play is play! A play is pretend, and we forget that sometimes when doing serious work. We forget the reasons why we inhabit different bodies and characters to perform a play, but I think a play is also something that should give us tremendous satisfaction in some way. I don’t mean that we need to be purely entertained. I think even searing dramas give us a way to delve into a thoughts, issues, and circumstances that are hard to talk about. Being able to do that is such a relief. Not because we are “done” with whatever the play’s subject matter is, but perhaps we feel like we are at least in conversation with it and trying to understand what it means.

Play time!

Play time!

Getting back to these core ideas gave me the answer to all my cynicism regarding writing for theater and being in a graduate program for a degree that – financially speaking, at least – may be essentially useless. I write because there is something I find valuable in what I’ve seen that I’d like to share with others. I write to explore beautiful, yet complicated grey areas of relationships. I write to challenge what I know more than to challenge others on what they know. Through that, absolutely do I find passion and enjoyment.

Why do you do theater? How would you define a play? Share with us your thoughts!

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Less than the Minimum

Marissa Skudlarek wrestles with some big questions about how we make art and uphold out political/fiscal ideals in a society where funding for the arts is so hard to come by.

Conservatives sometimes condescend to liberals by telling them that their idealistic sentiments are very noble and all, but they’re impractical for the real world. “If you’re a conservative at twenty, you have no heart; if you’re a liberal at fifty, you have no brain,” they say. Isn’t it precious that these sweet young things want to raise the minimum wage and implement universal health care? Isn’t it adorably naïve that they don’t know the harm that that would cause?

Such condescension has always irritated me, as it’s designed to do. It’s so cynical and defeatist, telling us that society just naturally chews up and spits out its poorest and weakest citizens, and nothing can be done to stop this.

Like all young idealists, then, I vowed that I would do better. If I were ever in a position of power, if I ever became an entrepreneur or a “job creator,” I would prove that you can run a successful business on liberal principles. In the meantime, I would stand in solidarity with all those individuals working to promote fairer wages and less inequality: the fast-food workers across America, the airport workers at SEA-TAC, the unpaid interns whose bushy-tailed enthusiasm is so frequently abused.

But now, I’m in a position where I need to get a lot of people to sign on to a project that I’m putting together: the play that I am self-producing this summer. And, well, I’m not revising my larger political views, but I’ve discovered that I need to make compromises, and abandon some of my most fiercely held (but most naïve) beliefs.

The play I’m producing requires nine actors, which is considered a large cast these days. (As a playwright, I love writing large-cast plays and hate that the economics of the American theater discourage this. As a producer, I’m starting to see why “smaller is better.”) Nine actors, plus a director, set and lighting designers, a stage manager, possibly other techies… that’s a lot of people, working long hours to put this show together. So, in doing my initial back-of-the-envelope budget calculations, I quickly realized that I cannot afford to pay my collaborators minimum wage. I can pay them a stipend of a few hundred dollars, which is in line with what other indie theaters pay. But to pay minimum wage would amount to about $1000 per actor, once all rehearsals and performances are factored in.

I had a mini-crisis upon seeing these cruel numbers and realizing the impossibility of changing the system single-handedly. I had honestly thought that I could succeed where others had failed! I had thought that I could support labor, support the arts, support fairness and justice, by following my ideals and paying minimum wage.

In distress, I asked some of my more experienced friends what I should do. One replied, basically, “Is this the hill you want to die on?” He suggested that if I were founding a theater company that regularly produced shows, I might have reason to be concerned about actor salaries; but because the play I’m producing is a one-off, I shouldn’t make “minimum wage” my primary concern.

Another friend tried to get me to see the distinction between McDonalds or Wal-Mart, on the one hand, and myself on the other hand. It is immoral for a CEO to refuse to pay workers a living wage when the company is raking in millions of dollars in profit; but it is not immoral for a self-producing theater artist, who certainly isn’t getting rich from this endeavor, to pay her collaborators a stipend in line with what she can afford. My paying my collaborators minimum wage won’t do anything to solve the larger problem of how to afford to make art in an expensive city like San Francisco. It would be a grand gesture, but it wouldn’t have a real effect on the overall system.

As I was writing this column, someone I follow on Twitter posted a quote by Jessica Mitford: “You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.” It was exactly what I needed to see at this moment. Mitford was a remarkable woman: born into the English aristocracy, she ran away from home to support the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and eventually ended up in the Bay Area, working as a muckraking journalist. Yet even she realized that one needs to balance idealism and pragmatism. I may not be able to change the world, but I can use this column to start a conversation, and I can continue to advocate in other ways for a fairer society. It’s the least that I can do.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She’s putting together a production of her play “Pleiades” for summer 2014. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.