It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Put Your Head on My Chest, and I’m Mr. Success

Dave Sikula on how to succeed- and feel like you’ve actually succeeded.

Frank has the definition – as you’d expect.

I have a feeling the seams are gonna show on this one, but go with me.

I arrived at rehearsal last Tuesday night just in time to hear part of a discussion about “success” in the theatre, and just what that word might mean. (I also heard my name being bruited about as a hashtag standing in for “not liking things,” but that couldn’t be more false. Why, just last week, I caught Sister Play at the Magic, and loved it. But I digress … )

I believe I’ve mentioned more than once that, at this point in my career, I have a pretty good sense of whether a show I’ve directed or am acting in is any good. (And let me qualify that; once we open and the finished product is in place, I have an idea. Many is the time I’ve come home from rehearsal and said that I have no idea of how it was going to go over – or been sure on the final Monday or Tuesday that we were as doomed as doomed can be, only to have the ship right itself yet again.) I can tell if I’m good or if the show is good, but is it a “success?” Boy, is that a can of worms.

There are just too many definitions for success. Is it financial? Is it a (sincere) standing ovation from the audience? Is it (appropriate) laughter or tears? Is it good reviews? Is it personal satisfaction? Is it knowing you got the most out of all the actors and characters? All of the above? Some of them?

I don’t know. I can be satisfied and delighted with something, but does that equal “success?”

This is the part where it’s going to get sticky. In my last couple of offerings, I’ve talked about the plan by Actor’s Equity to kill Los Angeles’s 99-seat plan. For those who came in late*, in brief, there was a waiver that allowed theatres with 99 seats or fewer to pay union actors less than scale (like, as little as $7 a performance) in order for them to do material that was more challenging or interesting or larger-scale or experimental than work for television or movies. (I also expressed a wish that we had something similar in the Bay Area – not because I think actors shouldn’t be paid, but because I think they should be able to work on whatever they want wherever they want.)

Equity members down there voted on whether they wanted to keep the waiver plan in place (with changes) or scrap it all together. By a 2-to-1 margin, they voted in favor of keeping the plan. It was strictly an advisory vote, so Equity’s New York offices announced Tuesday (as expected) that they’d be scrapping the plan and, basically, putting dozens of successful companies out of business and preventing the very actors they were claiming to protect from working. At least one company, the Long Beach Playhouse (worked there; did two good shows, two okay shows, and one that was one of the worst theatrical experiences of my life), announced immediately that they were going strictly non-Equity, and I heard of at least three cases where actors were literally physically prevented from auditioning for shows.

The Long Beach Playhouse = in business since 1929.

The Long Beach Playhouse = in business since 1929.

Okay, what does all this have to do with “success?” A lot, I think. Consider the sides. The theatres in question? Mostly “successful” both artistically and financially. The way the vote went? “Successfully” for the actors. Equity’s take on what they’ve done? A “success” for themselves and their members. And yet, all three of them can be seen in just the opposite way. Those theatres? Well, not everything they did worked. (I mean, no theatre hits it out of the park every time. If they did, they’d have a formula that every other theatre would copy.) The vote? Well, about half of the 6,000 (yes, six thousand) Equity members in Los Angeles didn’t even vote, and Equity “lost” the vote. Where’s the success there? And Equity’s plan to kill the theatres is seen as a strong loss by the dissenters (my Facebook feed has been afire with outrage all day). Three events. Three successes. Three failures.

Getting back to the inciting incident (remember my walking into rehearsal way back up at the top of the page?), I was reminded of another conversation I’d walked in on, discussing a recent production some of us had seen. Some (like me) had liked it, others didn’t, though each side could understand the logic of the other. Was the production a “success?” It certainly was for me in that it succeeded (that word!) in illuminating the story and text it was trying to convey in an entertaining way. For others, it was a failure because the very nature of its story and text were fatally flawed. One production. One success. One failure.

To bring all of this up to the present, the rehearsal I was at was for Grey Gardens. It’s a musical. A very good one. (One might even call it “successful,” if one were so inclined.) It ran on Broadway for “only” seven months, so one could term it either a success or not. (And, no; I’m not being paid each time I use the word “success” … ) I think this production will be a very good one. The cast is marvelous (I exempt myself from this assessment) and we’re having a great time even though we’ve barely started. There are two things to discuss here, though. The first – and more germane – is whether it’ll be a success. I believe it will work artistically and will sell very well (get your tickets now!), so from those standpoints, it was be a success. Though for all of that, I have no doubt that there will be people who see it and think it’s putrid and the worst thing they’ve ever seen. They’ll storm out at intermission, angry at having that hour of their life eradicated. No success there – unless there’s a perverse success in not succeeding …

But on a personal level, I’ll be dealing with not just my usual struggle with lines (though these are – knock wood – coming reasonably easily), but I’ll need to add music, lyrics, and choreography to the mix, and other assessments will come into play. Will I move (I won’t say dance) as directed? Will I get those damn harmonies? Will I get the lyrics right? For my purposes, doing those will constitute success. Will I be good while doing it? I’ll do as well as I can and then judge whether I think the results are good. As with the rest of the production, I know there will be people who will roll their eyes and shake their heads at how inept I am.

So, what’s the upshot? That there’s no such thing as artistic success. It’s too objective and personal. I can be satisfied or happy (or neither) about whether I think I’ve met my personal goals for the role and my place in the show. Whether that’s a success or a failure will be in the eye of the beholder.

(*Completely, and literally, parenthetically, in the late ‘90s, I directed a production of The Night Boat. It was an okay production of a not-very-good 1920 musical. About 20 minutes into the show, three women called the “Plot Demonstrators” came out and did a number titled “For Those Who Came in Late,” which recapped the plot to that moment. About 20 minutes before the end of the show, they came out again to tell how it all ended, so that people who had to catch trains would know how things turned out [spoiler alert: happily]. It was that kind of show … )

"The Night Boat's" original production. That kind of show.

“The Night Boat’s” original production. That kind of show.

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