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.

Working Title: Only the Best

Will Leschber embarks on the fools errand of putting together a best of list when the year hasn’t yet come to a close. Enjoy…

This time of year falls to looking back. We see the year as a whole and take time to reflect and collect our best and worst moments of the year. Shortly, most media outlets will be flooded with their respective “best of 2013” lists. Since there are never enough of those out there in the blogospheres and various media tiers, I figured I’d provide a short list here as well. For brevity’s sake, today’s list shall be limited to a top 3. Top selections of film and theatre as seen my me.

This year in film has been strong. Or at least the latter half has been, but that’s always the case. The highlights remind me of how transportive great film can be. By no means does a mere top 3 list encompass the entirety of quality film entries this year AND this isn’t necessarily the order or my final top 3 BUT they are some favorites that best fit the focus here. Meaning, not simply were they some of the years best, but they optimized the best aspects of what the film medium can achieve.

After all that ado here we go…from the top down

#1 Gravity: Alfonso Cuaron’s film was a monumental success on many fronts. From a technical stand point (editing, cinematography, score, sound design, visual effects) the film offered innovation and excellence. Also the uncommon storytelling was executed expertly. It features Sandra Bullock’s best performance to date. And if that was enough, the film was a giant financial success. Gravity shows the power of the film medium by placing us out in orbit with our astronauts and relentlessly pushing us through their spectacular struggles.

#2 12 Years a Slave: Based upon Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography, 12 Years tells the harrowing journey of a free black man who is abducted and sold into slavery. Narratives of this kind bring the story stakes to the highest level. However, it is director Steve McQueen who elevates the story above the mere biographic details by shining a light into variant corners of our humanity and collective past. It also features one of the best performances of the year. Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays our lead, Solomon, is simply superb. 12 Years a Slave shows the power of film by making this 150 year old story emotionally immediate and terribly accessible through its even lens. It’s a hard watch but there are few better out there this year.

And now for something completely different…

#3 Frozen: This latest entry into the Disney animation cannon reminds us how good animated fairy tales can be. This may seem light fare compared to the other two on this list but, I tell you, not a single frame is wasted in this re-imagining of the Hans Christian Anderson tale, The Snow Queen. The wonderfully rich and deep color pallet is stunning to look at. The songs co-written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, of Book of Mormon and Avenue Q fame, rival the best in Disney’s back catalog. While playing with the familiar tropes that we love about these animated tales, Frozen also turns the true-love morality story on its ear and provides something fresh after all these years. The voice cast is chosen upon ability and character fit instead of star power. In short, Frozen is supremely satisfying. It feels like the best of good old-fashioned animated musicals. I’m not ashamed to say I saw it twice.

The best pieces of theatre that I was privy to this year range from the regional/professional to the personal independent. These stories would fundamentally change in another medium which only speaks to their power as theatre.

#1 Terminus, The Magic Theatre

This play closed the season last spring at The Magic Theatre. Boy, what a finale. Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe weaves a tale of intersecting lives on a dark Dublin night. Singing serial killers, love sick demons and other unconventional characters populate this play that is told in a series of rhymed monologues. With only three actors, a charcoal rocky raked stage, and minimal lights, Terminus relies upon it’s acting and it’s writing. Both of which are stellar. It’s a hard play to wrap ones head around with its violence and lyric poetic language, but when all the theatrical pieces work this well together it makes for potent theatre.

#2 Underneath the Lintel, ACT

Beginning with one small act of mystery, the return of a 113 year past due library book, this one man show opens up to the universal and the sublime. Lintel concerns itself with human endurance, trials through suffering and small decisions, maybe even not our own, that affect our lives in monumental ways. The play excels in this theatrical setting mainly because of its singular performer, David Strathairn. He imbues this piece with so much heart and compassion that I would have spend many more hours listening to his librarian spin further yarns on life and the dancing mysteries therein.

#3 Age of Beauty, The Exit Theatre

What this play, written and directed by Stuart Bousel, captured for me was the sense of all the important conversations that one has in their 30’s. Redefining ourselves , the loss of friendship, measuring up to our own expectations, being ok with the fact that life isn’t what we thought it may be: these things and more are on the table for discussion between four pairs of women. Like all excellent theatre, this play is held up by superior dialogue and genuine characters. We remain with these women for an hour and a half because we like them, we laugh with them and we get frustrated with them. They are real to us. Their unique perspective is valuable because it illuminates our own. In viewing them, we are privy to insight we may not have had and are reminded of things we may have forgotten. It’s life circa our 30 year old selves.

The best part of making these end of year lists is having people tell you how wrong you are…or right. What were your favorites of 2013?