In For a Penny: Playground Rules

Charles Lewis III, a perspective on perspective.

Stop sign copy

“[W]hat is it that constrains the individual to fear his neighbor, to think and act like a member of a herd, and to have no joy in himself?”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations

I think it’s safe to say at this point that every theatre person I know took some time out last week to read the Chicago Reader’s exposé on Profiles Theatre. (In the days that followed, Profiles’ AD Darrell Cox released a response statement on the theatre’s official Facebook page, but as of this writing, all of the theatre’s social media channels are shut down. Their official site contains only a statement that the theatre has permanently closed its doors.) If you’re anything like me, the article probably got you thinking. Not just about the stories of the people mentioned in the article, but thinking about your own theatre history.

I thought about my first professional theatre job nearly a decade ago. It was a staged reading with movement for a major theatre and I was (I think) the only non-union person involved. I was very eager to please and didn’t want to look like a fool – or a wuss – in front of all these seasoned pros. So when the director decided that my scene partner and I would perform two kisses described in the script, I kept my apprehension to myself. Stage kisses are fucking terrifying and the only one I’d done before was on a girl’s cheek. Thankfully, my scene partner was a good guy and made it a comfortable learning experience for me. Considering the unspeakable stage acts I would later perform (playing The Soldier in Sarah Kane’s Blasted comes to mind), it now seems kinda silly that I got all choked up over a kiss. Still, it was a decision made about me without my input and I just sat there and said nothing.

I read the article and thought about how years after the above reading I was part of a full production that also required a kiss. The director was insistent that my scene partner and I kiss early into rehearsal, but I wasn’t ready. I want to read and develop a deeper understanding of my character before physical work is done, and it didn’t make much sense to me for physical intimacy to blocked when the entire cast is still on-book. The development I was discovering with my character got me lots of compliments from the cast and playwright, but the director wanted me to hurry up and kiss already; I wanted to find the motivation behind the kiss. This, combined with several other mitigating factors, lead to my leaving the show – a decision I don’t at all regret.

I read the article and thought of a production in which a female scene partner decided to ignore the director’s choreography and got uncomfortably physical with me. The longer the play ran, the more “grabby” she got, to the point where I – in character – would push her away from me. During one show in the penultimate week, as my character was walking away from hers, she grabbed my ass. I stood motionless on stage for a good second-and-a-half (brief, I know) before I regained my faculties and went through with the scene, glad to make my eventual exit. I remember my first instinct being to turn to her on stage, shout “What the fuck is wrong with you?!”, collect my things, and quit right then and there. Instead I finished the run and added names to my list of people with whom I’ll never work again.

I’ll be the first to say that the experiences described above pale in comparison to those described in the Reader article. By and large, I’ve been privileged to have worked with some of the most courteous and professional directors, trainers, and choreographers the Bay Area has to offer. I’ve had the personal comfort of I and my scenes partners given as high priority as that of our personal safety. Although I’m rarely part of union productions, I can usually place good faith in the thought that above scenarios were exceptions for me rather than the standard.

But, as the above proves, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for those things to happen. I don’t mean accidents, because only so much is our control (an on-stage misstep during last month’s ‘Pub show left me with knee pain that’s only now almost fully subsided). No, I mean situations that could – and should – be prevented but aren’t. Whether it’s an actor being “so into” his/her character that they make their fellow cast uncomfortable, or the director whose “artistic vision” requires bully tactics meant to reduce cast members to tears – none of these acts should be ignored, let alone encouraged.

Artistic collaboration relies on trust – between the creators, collaborators, and even the audience. Violating that trust for one’s own personal interest isn’t a healthy way to make great art, it’s a warning sign for disturbing behavior. People don’t listen to the playground bully because he has something invaluable to say, they do it because they’re afraid of what will happen if they don’t do what the bully says.

And the best way to push back against that is for voices to be heard – on both sides.

Far too often the onus of continued abuse is place on the abused rather than the abuser. I don’t think any theatre or company wants to hurt their collaborators, but they should be transparent in regards to those collaborators. Sure, this director’s last show was extended three times, but how many cast & crew would willingly work with that director again? And when a company sends out casting notices, they should ALWAYS be clear about the fact that the show has material (nudity, violence, etc.) that would make an actor uncomfortable to perform. The company’s job is to make their collaborators as safe and comfortable as possible at all times. Barring extenuating circumstances, failure to do so is the company’s fault.

And yes, actors can and should deeply research a company before auditioning. (Not doing so is a mistake I’ve made before.) The Information Age has thankfully made this much easier than it would have been years before. Is this your first production since graduating? Ask friends on social media what it’s like to work for this company. Look up reviews of shows. See how the season is programmed and if you’d want to do any of the shows in the first place. And always know what your comfort levels are, because you’re the only one who will. Peer pressure was tough on the playground and it’s tough in the real world, but you ALWAYS have the ability to say “No”.

It always breaks my heart when I read stories like these related to theatre. I feel bad for those hurt, in no short part because one of their favorite activities has turned into an absolute nightmare for them. I then feel angry at those who hurt them because it’s often a result of the latter forgetting the one indisputable truth about what we do: this is all make-believe. The sets, the costumes, the make-up, the dialogue – all of it is for the illusions; getting people who watch us to wholeheartedly believe something they know for a fact is not real. Our job is to find the underlying truth of our illusion, but it will remain an illusion. It’s a game that everyone should feel comfortable playing. If you can’t see that, then the problem isn’t everyone else.

Charles Lewis III likes to keep his characters ground by repeating the old Stella Adler quote: “To play dead, darling, you needn’t actually die.”

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In For a Penny: Mid-Year Intermission

Charles Lewis III, keeping it together and taking stock.

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“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

So far this isn’t necessarily my favorite year, but it’s been busy nonetheless. Between a full-length show in which my character had the most dialogue, a stint in ShortLived, acting in two Theater Pub shows, and lots of on-camera work I can’t even remember, I should be relaxing. Instead I’m thinking about this evening’s rehearsal for a show that opens in just over a week. Besides, my way of decompressing at the start of summer is to just let my mind run in a million different directions at once. Like so:

Free Lunch

Over the weekend I took advantage of having some time off to see a great show before it closed. It was a last-minute decision and thankfully there were a few seats available. Unfortunately, their Square reader wasn’t working and I had no cash on me. Just as I was about to leave to find an ATM, the director showed up and insisted I be his comp for the evening.

I accepted, but I admit that I felt guilty about getting in free for an indie show. I have no problem taking advantage of comps or discounts from big houses, but I always feel a bit uneasy doing so for smaller venues and companies; I’m far too conscious of the fact that the money I’m saving is being denied to people in the production. Even using Goldstar or discount codes can make me feel like I’m shoplifting at a store struggling to pay property fees.

But I’m less adamant about this than I’ve been in years past. Back then, I thought taking advantage of a discount or comp from an indie theatre company was me giving the finger to said company; “Goldstar spite” I called it. (Some shows I only saw because I knew someone in production who’d comp me.) But I also don’t have endless money to throw around, so now I think of comps and discounts less a commentary on the theatre and more me not worrying about my account balance all the time.

Besides, I like that even before I began writing for this site I’ve been offered industry comps. It allows me to simultaneously take an active part in the local theatre scene AND make sure all of my bills are paid at the end of the month.

Field of Streams

If you read Playbill as often as I, then you probably saw the news that Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening, American Psycho) is creating a new musical that will be made available exclusively through a mobile app created by Verizon. The musical, Pulse, will feature a libretto by Kyle Jarrow and “[follow] a group of American expatriates living in Berlin who find themselves immersed in the city’s vibrant, kinetic dance scene. The series tracks one year of the characters’ lives telling the story as a lush and provocative EDM musical.”

Synopsis aside, the internet-first approach reminded me of Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog, which debuted on the internet in 2008. It also reminded me Alyssa Rosenberg’s recent Washington Post piece about how the price of Hamilton has become so prohibitively expensive that perhaps a film adaptation is now in order.

Ah, the age-old question of how to get audiences to the theatre. We indie folk often have to drag them kicking and screaming, but shows like Hamilton and Spring Awakening have to turn people away at the door. The question for both is how to get the show to people who won’t be there. As I’ve mentioned before, technology can be our friend in times like this. Streaming apps – Periscope in particular – have grown in popularity over the past year and it’s brought the live performance to new audiences. Just last year, I was part of a PianoFight audience as they livestreamed a production of Don’t Be Evil over YouTube. I remain convinced that it’s a great way to share theatre work with those who can’t be there in person. Whereas “Tweet Seats” still strike me as distracting to live performance, livestreaming is integrative and the very type of incorporation more live venues and companies – indies in particular – should research.

Turd Blossom

Recently I agreed to direct the staged reading for another writer of this year’s Olympians Fest. I then went to look over the material I currently have for my own script. As it continues to both shrink and expand, I found one particular verse that I knew would be the first to go. I’d written a pretty off-color joke that was unnecessary to the story proper and would definitely be taken as offensive to audiences that heard it (hell, it offended me).

I immediately 86’d the joke for the latest draft, but I was left wondering what corner of my subconscious spawned it to begin with? I’m not fond of shock value and don’t think highly of those who rely on it too much, but I also wondered if I was needlessly self-censoring my own work so as to not offend an audience that exists only in my mind? Would it be so bad if I occasionally embraced the more “uncouth” areas of my psyche during the creative process? I remember attending Tourettes Without Regrets a year or two back and watching this brilliant routine about how the Game of Thrones franchise is really just George R.R. Martin doing an extended version of “The Aristocrats”.

I actually liked writing the joke originally – done more or less during a stream of consciousness writing session – but editing is just as important to creativity. The joke didn’t add anything to script, so it was excised. Sorry, Dead Baby Joke – maybe some other play.

A few other theatre-related thoughts crossed my mind, but I decided to silence them with a nice jog. As this is my 35th year (yes, midyear of my mid-30s), I find it healthy to take a little mental inventory. I recently got news that I might not even be living in the Bay Area this time next year, so I’ll try to make the most of it while I am here. First-half of the year was busy, second-half looks intriguing. Let’s see what’s in store.

Charles Lewis III would like to assure you all that he does NOT have a collection of discarded death jokes just lying around. He’s much more of a “Knock-Knock” guy.

In For a Penny: Of the People, By the People, For the People

Charles Lewis III, giving us another look at Paul Flores.

Paul Flores in character, in public.

Paul Flores in character, in public.

“There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down Brothas on the Instant Replay”
– Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not be Televised

On-site theatre is a risky proposition, both for the performers as well as the audience. One the one hand, you’ve freed yourself from the rigid constraints of a typical performance space; on the other hand, you’re subject to the elements and limited as to what you can openly display in public. I’ve done Shakespeare in the woods, Sarah Kane’s Blasted in an actual hotel room, and – as the name of this website may have told you – pub-set plays in actual pubs. I can’t recall any one of those being preceded by the advisory that the show could be “shut down by the police at any moment.”

Such was the case yesterday at 2pm outside the SFPD Mission station. I’d seen on Twitter that Theater MadCap would be staging a special performance of You’re Gonna Cry for the so-called “Frisco 5”, so I decided to check it out. For those who don’t know, the Frisco 5 are five SF activists and politicians (Edwin Lindo is running for District 9 Supervisor) who are staging a hunger strike in front of the Mission station in protest of police-related killings by the SFPD. They plan to continue their strike until Police Chief Greg Suhr resigns from his post. Despite the word “Frisco” rubbing me the wrong way, I sympathized with their cause and am always interested in the intersection of art and social justice. The very idea that art can be used for genuine social change is one that still gets my blood pumping.

Theater MadCap’s Eric Reid, also the show’s director, shares a laugh with hunger-striker Edwin Lindo.

Theater MadCap’s Eric Reid, also the show’s director, shares a laugh with hunger-striker Edwin Lindo.

The “early bird” audience consisted of the strikers themselves, reporters from various news outlets and websites (one cameraman from KTVU was captured everything), twenty-or-so students from Mission High who took the day off to witness protest first-hand. Given that Flores’ one-man show begins in 1995, I was struck by the fact that none of these kids were even alive when this all took place.

I remember clearly what San Francisco was like that year (I was 14) just as I remember that dot-com bubble that followed. I also remember that it as being the first time I took a theatre class and the first time I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I wanted to perform, I wanted to get in touch with my Blackness, I wanted to fully embrace every part of this great, big world that had now been opened up to me. All of those memories came flooding back as Flores put on many hats – literally and figuratively – and I scribbled down notes as traffic occasionally drowned him out.

Most of it was the business-as-usual collection of garbage trucks and mail carriers, but there were also the occasional pointed honks of solidarity from motorists who held their raised fists out their windows. Several folks stood across the street to take photos and get a better look, though they couldn’t hear what was said. Since the performance was in the street’s bike lane, quite a few Schwinn-enabled hipsters swerved around the crowd with bewildered looks on their faces. About 15 or 20min. into the performance, another motorist drove by to show neither curiosity or support. A White man over 40, he began using his horn as a punching bag and angrily shouting “Go home! Go HOME!!!” to all gathered. Since he drove by during a green light, he was as gone as quick as he’d appeared.

Through all of this, Flores never missed a beat. Sliding from one persona to the next, it makes sense that a play about the colorful characters who used to inhabit the Mission be staged amongst and for the colorful character who inhabit the Mission now. Jumping from Spanish to English and back again, the high schoolers in attendance seemed most receptive of all. As much as it pisses me off when people call to “kill off Shakespeare” – claiming that he’s obsolete in contemporary theatre and curricula – I get equally pissed by people who say that youngsters couldn’t possibly take an interest in theatre, given their supposedly short attention spans. The teens gathered yesterday contradicted that theory.

We were told that the SFPD could shut down the performance at any minute. This gave the show an air of uncertainty and unease when uniformed officers gathered at the corner of 17th &Valencia. Flores made it a good 50-or-so minutes through his performance without fail before he finally had to stop. To our surprise, it wasn’t the SFPD that stopped him.

Through a chorus of drum beats and chants heard from a block away, the 20-some-odd Mission High students were joined by a massive crowd of students from Everett Junior High School. Flores kindly relinquished his “stage” to these young supporters as they took turns extolling words of encouragement to the strikers.

Maria Cristina Gutierrez and Edwin Lindo meets students from Everett Middle School.

Maria Cristina Gutierrez and Edwin Lindo meets students from Everett Middle School.

It was then that I had another one of those moments. You know the ones. I’ve occasionally mentioned them during my column posts this year. It’s a moment that happens in spite of people saying “No one goes to theatre”. It happens in spite of my being told that my generation “is fucked and the next generation is double-fucked.” It happens in spite of everyone telling me “SF is so over”.

It’s the moment when I know they’re all wrong and I remember why I do what I do. I watched an effective peaceful protest in my hometown, punctuated by a moving performance, interrupted by a show of support from active youth. That’s almost everything I could want out of theatre.

On the BART ride home I just happened to see Barbara’s interview with Paul Flores get posted as I was already planning to write this very piece. I had no idea she’d interviewed him, so don’t mistake this for a two-part advertisement for his show. Still, I find it appropriate that both pieces run so close together, as they both present two important parts of the artistic process. The interview represented the artist’s intentions, this piece sees it in practice. Whether or not they’ve succeeded is up to you (this isn’t a review of the show), but I’m glad I got to observe it with the usual restrictions removed.

Charles Lewis III is in a show this weekend, but will definitely see You’re Gonna Cry during its run, which begins tomorrow and runs until May 28th. The “Frisco 5” protest has no end date in sight.

In For a Penny: (T)BAcon Bits

Charles Lewis III, involved.

So official…

So official…

“My royal lord, you do not give the cheer: the feast is sold
That is not often vouch’d, while ‘tis a-making,
‘Tis given with welcome: to feed were best at home;
From thence the sauce to meat is ceremony;
Meeting were bare without it.”
– Macbeth, Act 3, sc. IV

Like many members of our local theatre tribe, I often wonder how I, too, can be more involved. In spite of the fact that I’ve personally seen the local theatre scene from nearly every conceivable angle, these days it’s very rare to see me as part of a closed-door meeting deciding the future of a company’s artistic direction. I’m not likely to appear in a room full of investors in an attempt to have them empty their coffers for an additional year. And my opinion about a play isn’t likely to have any bearing on the next year’s major theatre awards ceremonies.

So although I have an active role in the Bay Area theatre community, I still feel uninvolved in regard to the unseen goings-on that take place and shape what I see on each of these stages. This lack of involvement is both hierarchal and – as with most things – financial: I usually just can’t afford to attend events in which these things take place, and on the rare occasion I can, there’s usually a scheduling conflict.

So when Dale Albright of Theatre Bay Area offered me the opportunity to lead a session at this year’s annual TBA Conference, I gladly accepted. Not only would I be rubbing elbows with some of the biggest movers and shakers of the most important theatre scene on the West Coast, but I’d be getting in for free – a price I can always afford!

Here are things that happened over the course of the day:

9am-ish: Despite BART coming dangerously close to make me late, I showed up to the Berkeley Rep in time for the registration and to get my nametag (above). Sure, my doesn’t have any special titles, but it’s the same name that appears inside the program for my session, so I ain’t complainin’. I see lots of familiar faces, some I’ve never seen before, and – most importantly – free bagels and orange juice. I avail myself of the latter before heading into the theatre.

9:30am: I find a seat up front (I tend to sit in the “splash zone”), which happens to be right in front of the cool kids from The Breadbox Theatre. After a few words from Brad Erickson, we get our keynote speech from Diane Rodriguez of Center Theatre Group. For the most part, it’s a touching speech about evolving theatre that goes over pretty well… until she rails against theatres that still put on Shakespeare. Hoo-boy, did she pick the wrong room. This sentiment is still in the air when the first Q&A question isn’t a question at all – the artistic director of Marin Shakes voices her disapproval at the comment. “Don’t make Shakespeare the enemy!” she says to a thunderous applause.

It’s just after 10:30 and things have already gotten heated.

11am: After wandering around aimlessly – both because it took me a moment to figure out the map and I was deciding which panel to attend – I found myself in the filled-to-the-brim Berkeley Rep SOT “Bakery” for the panel Inclusivity: Breaking it Down. A wonderfully diverse panel of local theatre artists discussed how to make our local scene (and beyond) more inclusive. As before, the panelists all told wonderful stories, but the best stuff came from the audience. The comment that stood out most to me was when Sherri Young, Founder and Exec. Dir. of Af-Am Shakes, told the room “You’re preaching to the choir [..] how do we reach the people who are NOT in this room?” I hate to leave a few minutes before it ends, but official business calls…

Don’t Panic!

Don’t Panic!

12:15pm: Before I’d attended the last panel, I’d gone upstairs to the loft to see where I’d be working. Now it was time for the Speed Dating session, in which I’d be linking some of the Bay’s brightest tech folk with local producers and artistic directors. In the end, we wound up with only five tech folks and 20 producers/artistic directors. After screaming internally at this wild imbalance, I rolled with the punches and kept the session moving. It wasn’t perfect, but every producer got to see every tech. Were I to do it again, there are MANY things I’d do differently, but I learned from it and everyone left satisfied. As the old saying goes “No one died, so I consider it a success.”

1:15pm: Lunch. After cleaning the room, I walk around the block to a little sandwich place and chat with one of the ladies of PianoFight’s Chardonnay Comedy. My official responsibilities are over, now I’m just here to observe.

2:15pm: Leading with Trust to Build an Audience: Cultivating Patron Relationships longer than a One-Night Stand. That mouthful of a title was my next panel. The goal was to figure out how to get “normal people” to see more theatre. In the panelists’ research, they found that most people have usually seen just one play, didn’t like it, then never attended theatre again. Why does that seem unique to theatre when people will see hundreds of bad films or continue to support sports teams after they lose? Although I wasn’t a fan of some of their suggestions (I’m still VERY anti-Tweet seats), the idea of engaging with high schools and colleges intrigued me.

3:30pm: We’re back in the main theatre for one final panel/Q&A about inclusivity, incidentally featuring many of the speakers from the earlier panel on that very subject. After that, a scene is acted out from Lauren Yee’s in a word, right before Yee herself receives this year’s Will Glickman Award for the play. This is followed by a moving tribute to SF Chronicle theatre critic Rob Hurwitt, who will be retiring this year after 40+ years of service. Then we make it back to the lobby chat, drink, and stuff our faces.

Why we do theatre.

Why we do theatre.

So that was my first TBAcon. I met a lot of people, heard lots of interesting stories, and remembered what I do and don’t like about theatre. I’m glad I accepted Dale’s offer to help out; I’d most likely do it again, integrating the knowledge I didn’t have before to make for a more effective session. Most of all, I now know that the purpose of these gatherings is to find out why folks like me aren’t part of them to begin with. Both sides have the same goal, yet find it just out of reach.

I don’t know the definitive answer to that question, but I appreciate being part of the conversation.

Charles Lewis III is a writer, director, actor, and all-around theatre artist whose name tag was pretty bare because there was too much to add.

In For a Penny: Whose Job are You?

Charles Lewis III, finding his place.

empty theatre

“No man likes to acknowledge that he has made a mistake in his choice of profession, and every man, worthy of the name, will row long against wind and tide before he allows himself to cry out ‘I am baffled!’ and submits to be floated passively back to land.”
– Charlotte Brontë, The Professor

I had a job interview last week. It was your usual fare: questions about past experience; asking what I’d bring to the position; explanation of where the company is headed – I’m sure you’ve all been through it. What was different for me was that it was the first interview in which my theatre work was brought into focus. Usually when I mention it, it’s in response to questions about what I do outside of work. Saying that I do theatre often results in blank stares, condescending raised eyebrows, and the occasional question of “Have you ever done any real acting?”

My theatre experience wasn’t just a random topic of last week’s interview, it was central. It was the subject on which we spoke for the entirety of my time in the building. It was the first time in my life in which I had the opportunity to possibly do the one thing that I’ve often thought wasn’t possible: turn my love of theatre into a full-time job.

There’d just be one catch: I wouldn’t be as active in theatre as I am now.

It wasn’t just a question of time consumption – although that would have played a role – but it was the fact that I wouldn’t have been able to see the Bay Area theatre scene from the inside-out anymore. I’d be in a position that would have fundamentally changed my role in the “ecosystem” of the local theatre community. I’ve seen that community from almost every possible angle – actor, writer, director, stage manager, tech, box office manager, company member, auditor, set construction – and that includes the past work I’ve done that directly related to the new position. The difference is that this would permanently place me into a role I’d probably enjoy, but make it nearly impossible to do the theatre work I’ve come to love.

I walked out of the interview the same way I walked in: knowing that there are certain opportunities that only present themselves once, if ever. What makes those opportunities so unique isn’t just what you hope to gain from them, but also what you’d have to give up in order to do so. “Nothing important is ever easy,” as they say. When I finally got home after the interview – and an evening rehearsal – I came to the decision that if this opportunity was mine for the taking, then I’d go after it head-on and have no regrets about doing so.

Of course, the point of someone interviewing for a job is that the decision isn’t in their hands to begin with.

On Monday I got an e-mail from my interviewer. I didn’t get the position. I replied telling him how grateful I was to have interviewed that I hoped he’d contact me immediately if anything changed. I was disappointed that I wasn’t hired for a great job, but I was also relieved that I wouldn’t have to make such a major change in my theatre life. I’ve spent the majority of entries in this column pondering my position in the world of theatre, both in the Bay Area and beyond. I do this because each day I’m more certain of it than I was the day before.

The evening after I received that e-mail, I went to rehearsal for the full production for which I’m rehearsing. The day before, I’d rehearsed my role in a play for this week’s ShortLived (a play written by fellow ‘Pub columnist Anthony Miller and directed Colin Johnson, who’s writing and directing the ‘Pub show for May). The day before that, I saw the earlier round of ShortLived. I have a few auditions coming up and I’m making a schedule to finally start writing plays I’ve had on the back burner for quite some time now. That’s my place in our theatre “ecosystem,” and I kinda like it here.

I first named this column “In For a Penny” because I’m someone who will fully dedicate himself to something once he’s committed. Right now, that’s being an active theatre artist. Soon it might be taking a different role. Whatever it is, you can’t say I didn’t give it my all.

To observe Charles Lewis III in the aforementioned “ecosystem,” see him tonight and all this weekend in Round 4 of ShortLived at PianoFight. It also stars fellow ‘Pub members Sam Bertken & Andrew Chung and is biting commentary of contemporary SF. Give us the votes! All the votes!!!

In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – The Direct Approach

Charles Lewis III, on directing for the SF Olympians Festival.

Pre-show layout for "Hydra" by Tonya Narvaez

Pre-show layout for “Hydra” by Tonya Narvaez

“Cut! That’s a print. Now get that bastard off my set!”
– John Frankenheimer

The quote above from the late film director was reportedly spoken on the set of his 1996 film The Island of Dr. Moreau. Adapted from the HG Wells book of the same name, the ’96 production is one of Hollywood’s most infamous: Frankenheimer replaced the original director, actors shot footage only to be replaced, the weather was hell, the make-up didn’t come out right, the budget and shooting schedule both expanded, the script was being rewritten every half-hour, and Marlon Brando was… Marlon Brando. But it was working with Val Kilmer that drove Frankenheimer to the breaking point. By some reports, the director is said to have gotten so fed up with Kilmer’s diva antics that two came close to a fistfight at one point. So when it came to shoot Kilmer’s final scene, Frankenheimer is said to have followed the last take with the quote above.

Every director, if they make a career out of it, has at least one or two actors whose very names drive the director into a blind rage. I know I do. I started to think of one in particular during last week’s Olympians Fest directors meeting (which was followed by the writers meeting this week). I’d gotten the chance to direct a great script by a great writer, but we weren’t able to get our No. 1 or 2 choices for a key role because they were both in another reading that same weekend (actors may only be cast in one reading per week of the festival). I tried my diplomatic best to work with the actor we got, but he was determined to do the opposite of every direction I gave him. It was a script meant to be read at a snappy pace, but he would drag… out… every… line. His character was meant to focus one way, but he would try to keep the focus on him. In a staged reading, he kept moving so much that he obviously kept losing his place in his script, and I gave the other actors movements in an attempt to appear as if there were any kind of cohesion with what he was doing. It was a shit show and to this day, whenever I see the author, my first instinct is to say “I’m sorry for that reading.”

After five years, 78 writers, 57 directors, some 290, believe me when I say that there are many such stories connected with the festival. On that same note, there are just as many – if not more – stories of festival collaborators who clicked so well that they immediately got together again on their next project. In fact, if you were to survey the Olympians alumni whose work went on to full production, I’m sure at least part of that could be attributed to the chemistry that was developed during the original reading. Having taken part in the festival every year since its inception, and having taken part in every creative role except illustrator (I’ve taken up finger-painting, so it’ll happen eventually), I know there are far more people I’d love to work with than those I wouldn’t.

It ain’t gonna happen.

It ain’t gonna happen.

The role of Olympians director has always been a tricky one because it’s always been the one that’s been hardest to define. It’s a writers festival first and foremost, so the two most necessary elements are writers to create the scripts and actors to read them. In a festival of staged readings, the emphasis will always be on the “reading” portion. So why is a director necessary at all? There isn’t a lot of work that goes into putting a bunch of people on stage to read a script; what’s the point of being a director if you’re not there to inject some stylistic flourish? Quite a lot, actually.

I first directed for the festival in Year 3 and the first thing I remember was how strongly the writers were discouraged from directing their own scripts. As my own script developed, I began to see why finding someone else to direct was so strongly recommended. Writing is a solitary process. Doing it means spending a great deal of time bumping around in your own head. The problem is that the voice in your head will lie to you. A lot. Having the perspective of an additional artistic point of view will enlighten you to aspects of your script not even you had considered.

The problem comes when directors try to make it less about the writer’s words and more about what the audience will see. The impulse is understandable, but it’s also wrong. Those of us who have been with the festival long enough know why there are now rules about there being only 3-5 rehearsals before a reading, why you should never force an actor to do something with which they’re uncomfortable, and why you should never, ever wait until the day of a reading to fully stage a physical assault scene requiring the actors to both move and read while their scripts are in-hand. There’s at least one of those readings every year. We’ve all seen it. Some of us have actually been in it.

If I wrote a list of banned Olympians directors, this guy would be at the top.

If I wrote a list of banned Olympians directors, this guy would be at the top.

“Well then,” you might ask, what can a director do to help out when the emphasis is meant to be all about the words coming out of the actors’ mouths?” Easy: help them understand those words. They’re still actors, after all. They want character motivation and a better understanding of the person or persons they’ll be portraying. Perhaps the more esoteric moments in the script immediately made sense to you and the writer, but an actor will need something more. These are stories based on ancient mythological beings with fantastic abilities. The script is how it makes sense to the writer, the director makes sense of the script for the actors, and the actors translate that for an audience.

And that doesn’t require a lot of bells and whistles. The most common staged reading direction of planting folks in front of music stands is used as often as it is because it works. It allows the actors to always have eyes on their scripts, but still turn and react to their fellow actors. Wanna shake it up a bit? You can do like Stuart Bousel often does and eschew with the music stands all together, arranging the actors in the form of an orchestra. You can define the characters through costume (which, like direction, should be simple, but can still be eye-catching). You can take full advantage of the fact that there’s nothing on stage but the actors. Last year’s Hydra by Tonya Narvaez was one of the most memorable because of the atmospheric way Tonya staged it. She wrote a paranormal thriller and set the mood by having the actors lit only by the lights on their music stands (see the photo at the top). Needless to say, we were still talking about that one days afterward.

Simplicity, it makes all the difference.

I had a list of about twelve people whom I’d considered for directing my Year 3 script about Atlas. The one I chose wound up not being on the list at all and she was the one who encouraged me to direct it myself. After I picked her, she wound up having a busier year than she’d expected, so I relieved her of directing duties to make things easier. After failing to find another director whose schedule would fit, I reluctantly agreed to direct it myself – something I hadn’t done since I was in school. I did direct, it went off okay, and I have since directed so much that I actually should put a director’s resume together one of these days.

I’ve also seen my scripts directed by others, but in the festival and out. It’s given me a pretty clear perspective as to what function directors serve in a festival of staged readings: we’re conductors. That’s probably why Stuart prefers the orchestra-style approach to readings, because it makes clear just how everyone fits into the symphony. The writer composes, the actors sing (sometimes literally – again, happens every year), and the directors is there to make sure every single not is pitch perfect for the welcome audience.

Now you’ll have to excuse me, I think I hear the downbeat…

Charles Lewis is writing and directing this year’s Poseidon play. The music he’s been listening to that which plays when Kirk fights Gorn… it’ll make sense when you see the play. For more information about the SF Olympians Festival, please visit SFOlympians.com

In For a Penny: A little “Bitter”

“The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.”
– Confucius, The Analects

I read quite a few articles the past two weeks that have left some strong impressions on me. Three in particular.

One was a sort of “retirement letter” by Kenneth Baker, SF Chronicle art critic from 1985-2015. He reminisces about spending that time both witnessing and actively taking part in the changing face of San Francisco’s art scene and cultural make-up. As an SF native, it brought back a lot of strong and sad memories connected with my hometown (the Quake of ’89, the redesigns of the art museums, etc.). He mentions that the influx of residents, particularly over the past decade, has brought with it a lot of people with no interest in or connection to art. What’s worse, they seem to have little knowledge or appreciation of this city’s contributions to art or the fact that it is a work of art. He ends his piece with no regrets, but rather with a great deal of gratitude to have experienced so much within the span of 30 great years.

The second was a LongReads essay by Nathan Rabin. Rabin has long been my favorite pop culture writer (he’s the one who coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” after watching Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown) and a helluva raconteur. But despite having spent the past decade-and-a-half getting paid to write on the internet – a medium with nowhere near as bleak a forecast as the newspaper – he recently found himself let go from his regular job of writing for the website The Dissolve. He goes into painful detail about the indignity of being a man in his mid-30s forced to move with his wife and newborn child into the wife’s parents’ basement. As he elaborates, pop culture does not highly regard people who write on the internet from their parents’ basements. Like Baker, he ends his piece with a lack of assurance about the future, but all the more determined to have no regrets about what his former life has brought him.

And then there was the theatre article (yes, this does have to do with theatre). Now, I’m of mixed feelings about the LA-based theatre website Bitter Lemons. They’ve written pieces I quite enjoy (“I don’t want to ‘Support’ Your Show, I want to ‘Enjoy’ It”) and several I don’t (too many to name). I imagine the way I feel about them is the way most people feel about them. Or HowlRound. Or – as I can personally attest – us here at Theater Pub. But what caught my attention recently was their announcement of the so-call “Bitter Lemons Imperative”, in which any company that wants their show reviewed on their website will have to pay $150.oo for the privilege.

Um… okay? 

Now I know that several folks have written about this already, so I’ll try my best not to just parrot what they’ve already said. Having said that, I do agree with their assessment that this is a bad idea. A really bad idea.

My knowledge of the LA theatre scene isn’t as intimate of my knowledge of the Bay Area scene, so I’m forced to ask: is Bitter Lemons so vital to the stability of the scene that it can make such demands? Seriously, I’m asking? If so, then bravo, BL, for being so valuable in a world that – as shown in the essays above – continues to put less and less value on artistic critique. Hell, earlier this year Theatre Bay Area had to cease production on its print incarnation and become entirely digital. Nearly every art zine and alt-press publication I knew growing up has vanished forever. So on the one hand, as a fellow arts writer, I tip my cap to BL if they’ve found a sustainable way to stay financially afloat in this business. Mind you, if.

On the other hand, whether the idea is profitable or not, it still has the problem of being both pretentious and elitist. Pretentious in the way BL appears to be lording their opinion over the theatre community (I know they say their motivation is just to stay afloat, but still…) and elitist because, let’s face it, what indie theatre company is going to put aside a single dime just for a review? With all the money spent sending out postcards and buying a single poster to put outside the theatre, we’re now expected to pay money out of our own pockets what some ‘Red Velvet’ Goldstar member with poor grammar and a stuck CAPS LOCK button gives us for free? Surely, you jest. Granted, I’m guessing the BL folks would bring considerably more knowledge than a potential Goldstar reviewer – both of the craft of theatre and of the local scene – but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still trying to (as the old term goes) sell ice water to eskimos.

And there’s still the inescapable fact that a company with more money could potential buy positive reviews. Think of it this way: movies are often screened a week or so before their public opening for critics. The critics are by no means required to positively review the film, but the studio is hoping for a blurb to put on posters. If a critic gives enough negative reviews to films from one particular studio, it’s not unheard of for that critic to be uninvited to future screenings by said studio (Roger Ebert spoke of this quite often).

Now what’s to stop this from happening at BL? What’s stop a touring Broadway show from, say, paying above the asking price in the hopes the BL will put a great deal of emphasis on the productions positive qualities? What’s to stop them from paying enough to wear a truly brilliant indie show doesn’t get mentioned at all while the touring show gets prime real estate on the homepage? What’s to stop BL from creating their own David Manning who does nothing but spout off positive notices for one company, but negative ones for their competition?

There’s getting paid for what you love and then there’s flat out prostitution. There’s a reason they say “No Press is Bad Press” and it’s because reviews are adverstising. Positive reviews are even better advertising. But if you’re going to say that you’re holding a standard of artistic critique, when does that standard lower for the sake of advertising revenue? 

I started off this piece by sharing the Baker and Rabin testimonials because I truly get where both they and the BL folks are coming from. When people seems less and less eager to pay for art (let alone art critique), it’s easy for a sense of desperation to set in. Compromises are made. Boundaries are crossed. Things once thought impossible become par for the course. But there has to always be a line. I probably wouldn’t have a problem with the Bitter Lemons Imperative if the price were directed at, say, other art critique outlets and media. If they were charging the New York Times to reprint one of their reviews, I’d think the price was high, but I’d be willing to hi-five them for getting that kinda cash from the biggest newspaper in the US. If they were doing this for American Theatre or one of the publications that’s still in print, I’d feel different.

But they aren’t. They’re asking the artists to put up this money for potentially dubious reasons, and that’s something I find morally objectionable. I don’t know what the long-term solution is staying afloat as an art critic these days. But if this is what it takes, you can count me out.

I dunno… maybe Patreon?

Charles Lewis III will gladly critique your work for free. That’s why he writes on the internet, because his opinion is worth bupkes. To read more of his meaningless words, follow him on Twitter (@SimonPatt) and Tumblr (CharlesandhisTypewriter).