Thursday, January 29, 2009

Thespians Do it Live

1. The interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects.

Does anyone know what the opposite of synergy is? Or rather, when a single element is slightly spun so the others get thrown out of whack? That happens, from time to time, when you deal with intricately sequenced events on the stage.

We come to theatre to see human stories (or whatever) presented live. It's almost like an action sport - we want it to go right...but we don't. We don't want anyone to get hurt. But I think there's part of us that likes to see something go wrong. Not even in a schadenfreude way, but in that way that somehow...connects us. We root for the actors (hopefully). We want to see someone handle something unexpected with poise and cleverness.

We want to see the show go on.

So the little mishaps I've seen so far this week - a fallen prop-purse leading to a number of Ricola drops spilling out onto stage leading to a flustered actress still managing to make a graceful and comical exit... and last night, a jumped sound cue leading to a jumped light cue to a jumped entrance - it's something that throws us all. It's that split second decision in the moment of the unexpected that really defines live theatre, and the people who do it.

Let me explain:
One moment in Mockingbird calls for a car sound effect, which leads into seeing "headlights" upstage, then headlights pointing onstage, which leads to the entrance of a mob, and the rest of a scene.

The sound cue came early. It was too late to take the cue back and pretend it hadn't happened, so I opted to take the headlight cue early. Our intrepid crew backstage jumped onto the headlight aparatus, swung it appropriately - and the actors awaiting their entrance saw their cue leaping forward early and took their entrance. Unfortunately one of the mob was working stage right and because of the jumped cue, she couldn't make her entrance, so the mob was one short. It was a moment of ack! for all those involved, and probably looked off, or felt off a little. But because everyone was on top of things, the audience probably didn't know any better. I've had sequences go worse, when someone makes a mistake.

That's live theatre. We come to see real people sweating real sweat, crying real tears, and sometimes making real mistakes. I've seen walls fall over and actors continue on so smoothly that the audience believed it was part of the action. I've seen actors carry on with injuries, or through botched scene changes, missing sound cues, jumped dialogue, wardrobe malfunctions and unruly audience members with a quickness of wit and skill at which the mind boggles. I think we like to see that because it links us together. We like to root for someone. We like to see someone handle an unexpected, real problem and continue gracefully on with some brilliant improvisational solution.

And why not? After all, isn't real life just one big improv, too?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tuesday Matinee - Quote of the Day!

Okay, I'm a little guilt-ridden for not posting for a couple of days, so here's a few more in the Quote of the Day series:

How do you block a scene when you're on a postage stamp? -GJ

How was our butt-blocking? -Heather S. (Dill)
Better. -GJ

Bobby and Jim - behave yourselves, because you should know you can be replaced by cardboard cutouts. -GJ

But I don't want to be useless like Jackson. -Jim S.

(At the bar) She's thrown me more lines than a Russian fisherman. -Mikel "Atticus" MacDonald

My Family

This post will probably be a little kumbaya. Those who have toured may or may not feel a warm little glow. (You've been warned).

We opened this weekend to a full house - hallelujah! What a gratifying night. It felt surreal, and not in the way that most opening nights do. At least in my world, opening night is a mad dash to the finish line (or maybe just with certain shows), and opening night is such a relief that it's like that final stretch of a long run and then the gasping, exhilarating rush of endorphins afterward. I compare it to sports, but there's really nothing like it because it's all that - spiritually. And there's nothing like a spiritual endorphin rush. Some people get it from running.

Some people get it ...a little at a time. Seeing people come out in costume. Watching the audience go quiet when the lights dim. I get it, a little, when I hear the first big laugh. No - when the lights come up. And those are my friends and family down there (from where I sit, in the booth), no matter how I feel about them on a given day. My team. I get a little rush when I know the audience thinks something is beautiful - or sad. A lot of the times I'm surprised (as I was this Saturday) by laughter. Then I remember the first time I saw it in rehearsal, and I laughed too. After I watched it again and again it grew old (sorry, but it did), whatever the moment was. Then the audience makes it new - like taking a friend around your own town. You see the buildings and the quirky people and majestic scenery all new.

A little rush.

We had a big party after opening and everyone wore red! A swirl of champagne, wine, flashing cameras and the occasional spin on the dance floor. You have to have that in some form on an opening night. I can see how many people in the arts slip toward excess (but that's not what this post is about). Because the rush from the show is pleasurable, but it doesn't take away the nerves and the stress from before. It transforms it into something else - something that needs just as much to be sloughed off and let go of (like any high?)

So we dance and drink and then sleep most of the next sunny morning away. But I walked down the hallway in the hotel room and I realized how many of the rooms in the hotel were ours. I could have knocked on any door and seen a friendly face - my family.

There's a little something special about tour, that feeling of knowing your people, your family are all tucked safe away, and you know where they are - and the next day you're all going to head out and do that beautiful show again.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Evening Edition Quote of the Day...

...because some of the moments in Q to Q were priceless.

That's the best thunder I've ever gotten from a sound man in my life. -Greg Johnson

Become small again, then run. -GJ

Bobby and Ewell - there's got to be that moment of penetration. -GJ

Marie is the cutest ham ever. -Dan the Man

......yeah. That's right. Penetration.

Sacred Space

I recall an incident one production (no names) when the young woman handling wardrobe duties was so frustrated with actor attitudes and their treatment of her that she was near to the breaking point. This was one of the most loving, energetic people I know. She found herself grumbling and muttering as she prepared costumes before a show, over one actor's items in particular. After a moment of this, she stopped herself. When she told me the story she said, "I realized I was just filling the room with negative energy."

She took a few deep breaths, dug down and found her love again. With special care she laid the costumes out, sending good energy as she deodorized shoes and arranged makeup tables. She didn't say anything to anyone about it except for me, the next day. Later that same day when the actors were preparing, the one in particular who was frustrating her with his lack of courtesy stopped her, and thanked her for her work. The good energy she sent out came back to her.

We all strive to put on a professional face at work and be courteous no matter our mood. (Sometimes we try harder to be kind to our co-workers than to our dearest friends and beloved family - remember that, too). Sometimes, though, the frustration, anxiety or just plain personal irritations can really get to us. I know it gets to me. It's only natural, working so closely. Be wary of becoming jaded, though. There's no point being in the arts if you aren't doing it out of love. There are plenty of professions that pay more.
I know, sometimes you just have a bad day.

But, as actors must leave behind troubling characters on the stage when they go home, so too, I think, we should leave our negative energies off the stage when we return to work. Project good energy. Even - perhaps especially when you are frustrated with someone, think well of them. Wish them luck on stage, in the booth, in the dressing room, even if it's only inside your head and heart. When you step into your job, try to be of good cheer, even if it's pretend for awhile. It will always come back to you, and the shows will be better for it. We may be frustrated as people with other people or job duties or just having a bad day - but deep down, none of us wants the other to fail.

We're all sailing the same ship. Fill the sails with good will.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Special Sunday Quote of the Day Edition

More jewels from rehearsal. I haven't been tracking quotes off the clock, but I definitely should begin.

"Go ahead and keep trying things...I'll just shoot them down." -Greg Johnson

"This is the walk of the boy who's invisible." -GJ

"This is like sheriff training - you never go directly to a rabid dog." -GJ

"I never touch the ham." -Mikel "Atticus" Macdonald

And on a more serious note, Greg quoting someone else, whose name I did not write down: "Nothing is as good for the heart, the mind and the soul as a ceremony well performed."


Friday, January 16, 2009

Now, say it like you're sad.

Now that we've ditched 'the books', as they sometimes say - that is, the actors have gotten scripts out of their hands, and are solid on their lines, I've been mesmerized by the acting process in this show. Maybe because I'm trying to become more aware of artistic process in general, I'm not sure.

The whole idea of 'motivation' especially, is fascinating to me, in the sense that it completely changes a person's expression, quality of voice, posture and so on. I know it sounds obvious, but the more I consciously observe and even write about this profession, the more I appreciate it.

There are basic ideas. 'Now do it like you're happy. Now Sad. Now angry - go.' Louder, faster, funnier. 'Now, do it as if you're in love with this person.' 'Now, do it as if you had alcoholic parents and nothing you ever did was good enough.' And they can do it, and I'm amazed. I'm completely impressed by the acting I've seen in this show so far. There's always more digging to do, but as far as taking direction, making choices, displaying emotions... it's all there to read.

We all used to play pretend, right? It's just a more sophisticated form of that. Pretending, motivation, assumption. We used to forewarn and direct each other (at least, my sister and friends and I did): "Okay, now you'll steal our things, and then we'll get mad, okay?" Young directors in the making?

To watch someone completely change the way they've been playing a scene in moments (sometimes seconds) without much time to ponder - it's beautiful, it's impressive. I've seen it several instances during this rehearsal process, and there's something to relish in it, like watching a painter bring an image together, or paint over, or do something completely surprising that makes absolute sense, in the end. (In a more metaphysical sense it makes me think...if we can play imaginary people and make up what they're feeling, every second, and why they say what they say - doesn't that show how much control we actually have over ourselves and our lives?)

But we're speaking of acting, now. I commend you all. To study the scope of human experience and emotion and then portray it - what an enormous task. It begins small, though. People often ask writers such questions as: Since you're a man, do you find it difficult to write women? Or vice versa. Children. The elderly. But saying that, you immediately separate yourself from the rest of humankind. You have only to draw on your own understanding of human emotion, the experience of a particular person or character, and some empathy. It's simple . It really is simple - though it might not be easy, until you wrap your mind around it.

There are technical details to consider, details that take training, talent and intelligence. But the base of it lies in human experience, doesn't it? Just knowing how to be happy, and look happy, or sad, or angry. We all do that a lot. So - why not now? When you're done reading this, go enjoy the daylights out of the rest of your experience today.

Even if it's a hard day... just do it like you're happy. Go.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Props: Not for the Faint of Heart

I find myself repeating a lot of themes, oddly enough. I'm almost certain I've written about props before. But they just keep popping up.

I feel the need to reiterate how odd our work is sometimes. I think good properties masters should be up for Tony awards too. (Maybe they are? Or is it all lumped under Production Design?) Either way, it's fascinating to me how long it takes to recreate almost any everyday, normal action onstage so that it looks real. A few examples:

Getting dressed in the morning.
Cleaning a room.
Making a meal.
Pouring a drink.
Sitting down.
Standing up.
Using office supplies.

The list goes on and on. It seems like a strange bunch of things to pick on, but if you really stop to think about how long it takes to figure out exactly how to choreograph almost anything onstage, it just points again to the bizarre nature of the business. So not only are we trying to make movements look realistic yet 'clean,' but then we have to make it look clean when people use objects. And sometimes, a moment will curl into a thorn that sticks in a director's side until opening.

Take - oh, I don't know...gardening, as an example. There tends to be one moment, item or action that a director will fixate on in any given production that has very little to do with the overall majesty and story of the play. Yet it becomes a bone to gnaw on. A thorn. In this production it is a set of three small, potted geraniums, which one actress must transfer to different pots and set those pots upstage, during approximately two minutes of dialogue. Later in the play they're replaced with different pots and bigger flowers, so they'll seem to have grown.

Nothing to do with the story. But the moment has an edge held to it now, an importance in the director's mind, because it has not yet been done right; the props are wrong, the action isn't accomplished quite as he envisions, or any other reason. An unimportant moment, a tiny detail in a huge play, on an enormous, towering set. Three little geraniums.

I suppose there will be those audience members who come more than once, who might notice that the flowers grow and blossom from act one to act two. Some writers do the same thing in their books and call it a 'cookie'; a special treat for the observant. I suppose there will be at least one man or woman, each night, who sees Miss Maudie potting those flowers and think of their own gardening and identify with her. It does tell us it's early summer. It does put flesh on the bones of the world. I suppose, in the end, if it didn't look just right - well, it would look fake. And the moment something looks fake is the moment Mr. and Mrs. Audience remember they're watching a play. In that moment, they're no longer watching Scout and Miss Maudie; they're watching two people playing pretend. In that moment, we fail.

How apt it seems in some moments to pause, take a breath, and remember that if we want to tell the story we must truly hold, as 'twere the mirror up to nature...when it comes to details like that.

...I guess it's not unimportant, after all.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Another Brick in the Wall

A quickie thoughts aren't centered. This show is coming together really well. Knock on wood as you read this.

Thanks. Now we can move on. Last year's show was quite difficult. To put together, and to watch as they put it together. Tennessee Williams makes me tense, and his plays make it difficult for companies to get along. I'm not saying he isn't a great playwright - he's so good his work seeps into real life. Not only that, but chemistry clashes (or lack of chemistry) can make the flow of doing and watching a play less of a fun, wild ride and more of a sprint through heavy traffic, hoping you can make it through without getting run over. That's how last year's show felt to me.

I'm not sure what magical components have pooled into the theatre to mold this show toward what it's forming into, but there are a number of them:

  • A director who has done the show before
  • Several actors who have done the show before, with this director, with this company
  • A wonderful, moving play that lends itself to clean, bright storytelling
  • A dynamic, energetic and willing, cheerfully professional and hardworking cast (and crew)
...a lot of elements. Sometimes things don't work out like that. I think, like any other strange and beautiful phenomenon on this earth, if just one star or particle had been out of place for this production it would have been a very different experience. That seems obvious, but the more I think about it, the more it seems true. There are some bumps in the road as far as costumes go, changes still happening to props and to set decoration, but hey, we have two weeks. It's nothing new. There's always something. But as far as the work on the boards, it's going strong.
I've had a good feeling about doing this show since last spring when I said, 'Yes, I'll do it.'

Were they kidding when they asked, unsure? Drop out before Mockingbird? No. I like the idea of being involved in a tenth anniversery production. I like the idea of performing the same job my mentor Steve performed the last time the show went on the road. I like the idea of this story, at this point in history. It feels epic. So far, the feeling's still good.

Everything happens for a reason.

...of course, we still have tech week coming up...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Great American Play

I've noticed a trend in the plays that my current employer chooses. The mission of the Montana Rep is to produce high quality productions of the 'Great American Canon' of playwrights. It strikes me that in the last five years or so, all the plays that are Great American Plays are either set in the South, or the Northeast (New York.)

Certainly those places have an undeniable soul and quality that really speaks to the (American) human experience, and we relish these people and stories. The great South is such a part of our history; the old stories, the ghosts, the red dirt and the human struggle resonate with us deeply. The southern writers seem born with a poetry in them, infused with the history and the scent of magnolias and a knack for deep observation and understanding.

The New York stories have a different flavor, but - in the end - the same kind of tapestry. The great melting pot, the arrival point of all adventures that are American...that city and the great web of peoples and histories, dreams and iconic American City Culture also pluck a bright chord within us, and there are many great plays from the writers of New York.

Does anyone know of any great plays that take place in the West, particularly the great Northwest? While New York calls upon the tough-as-nails, gritty city and opportunity kind of character or story, and the South has a past as thick and rich as Alabama soil... where are the stories of the West?

Maybe I just haven't read enough plays, so if anyone knows of one (and I'm not talking 'Paint Your Wagon, here), please correct me. It seems to me, though, that the spirit of the Pioneer is mostly captured in movies and novels. There are some fantastic western writers, such as Dorothy Johnson, but even her stories were scooped up to splay on the silver screen, not the stage. Everyone's first idea of the West is, of course, the Cowboy. When I was in Scotland I got into a discussion about stereotypes with two girls from Switzerland. I told her the stereotype of Swiss women (buxom, sweet and blond), and she told me their American stereotype: Big (overweight,) big belt buckle, and a cowboy hat.

So despite all of Tennesee Williams and Neil Simon's work, our image is still the cowboy. Yee haw. I think it's fitting, though. Don't throw things at me for using the word 'maverick,' but that's an image we hold in our hearts - the brave, adventerous, western spirit. I've just never seen a play about it.

I think it's a mistake to set out to write a Great American Play (or novel, for that matter). If you look at all the great stories, they cover deep human feelings and truths, but in a specific way. They reverberate in our hearts because we feel along with a character, not an idea. To Kill a Mockingbird works because it isn't about deep racism, corrupt juries and ignorance: It's about Scout, Jem, Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson. It's about the people in the town who struggle with all those ideas. Through those people, we begin to reconsider or reaffirm our own ideas.

That said... with writers like Harper Lee or Tennessee Williams, you still get a sense of the Great American Story because within the specific, they speak to the universal. They also drop in magnificent flavors of the regions about which they write - the beauty and the darkness.

That said... I would like to see a great play about the northwest. Or rather, set in the northwest. I'm not sure who it would be about or how exactly you could convey a glimmer of the spirit of the people who choose a life in the northwest. I think it's a kind of person who's just as rich as Blanch or Big Daddy. When you watch them, you can feel the Southern heat, smell the bayou or feel the dust on your face in a cotton field and struggle with their old, awful, deep histories. You get a very real, human story that somehow we can identify with. We can identify with the pain of a lost sister, brother, or a dying father. Yet as we watch that universal human story, we feel the sticky heat of the south, enjoy the quirky neighbors or, in another play, hear the city traffic, dodge the Mafia and still hold fast with one very specific, human family.

I want to see a play that, when you watch it, not only do you engage with a character and story, but you can feel the brightness of a silver winter sun, feel what it is to dive into an icy mountain lake or watch snow fall for five months, cry at northern lights.... that spirit that brought men and women over the next mountain and across the broad valleys looking for their slice of this land, and why it's still important to us. A very different person. A very different slice than the riotous city, the mysterious south or the steadfast Midwest. I think it's story worth telling.

I think it could be great. A great play.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Special Saturday Quote of the Day Edition

This one's for Lauren.
Well, the G-Man has been knocking them out of the ballpark as far as quotes of the day are concerned. Here are a few gems from rehearsal:

Greg: "Could you take out the pause there and just say, "Hello ladies?"
Jackson: "But...there's a comma."
(Greg falls flat on his back on the stage in despair).

Yes, that actually happened. Priceless moments in theatre. Here are some more:

Always follow the turnip greens. -GJ

When you say 'Ivanhoe', it's like saying 'bucket of shit.' -GJ

Can you tighten that up? This is not, 'To Kill a Mockingbird' or 'The Heck Tate Story.' -GJ

America is based on the touchdown. -GJ

Whether you believe it or not...they were all funny at the time. Have a great weekend.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Caution: Humans are fragile

Not long ago I wrote another post about injured actors, so this one will be brief. We had our first on-the-job-injury last night. Those of you who know who's in the cast can probably guess who it was. (I'll give you a hint: his name starts with "Jim".)

It's a disheartening feeling to watch a fellow company member get hurt, for a multitude of obvious and less obvious reasons. In the worst of ways, it interrupts the work - at our most humanly compassionate moment, we feel horror for our coworker and want to help. In a small, selfish place, we wish it hadn't happened so that we don't have to deal with it. That's fleeting. Of course it is. But there's a little part of it, for a moment, the flickering whisper of our primal selves that used to leave the injured behind. We overcome it so instantly it's as if it never happened, but it's there. It's the same part of us that won't take twenty seconds to dig out a dollar for the Salvation Army Bell ringers. It doesn't make us bad people. It just makes us uncomfortable.

We just want life to be smooth. We want everything to go according to Plan. (Having recently watched 'The Dark Knight' I can appreciate this quality of normalcy even more). And we certainly don't want anyone to get hurt, especially someone we care about - not only for their pain, but our own. It's the same principle as stepping on someone's toe. Usually the offender feels worse than the person upon whose toe they actually stepped, and they end up comforting them. A person who gets injured on the job is the one who feels it most keenly - the person who should worry more about healing has all the same feelings about messing up the Plan and being a burden. That's in general. There are other kinds of people; different kind of reaction that I won't go into here.

The funny thing is how we live to create drama on the stage. We crave it, and relish it when we have the chance to watch or get our hands in it - because it's clean, but savory. Like reading a book or watching a movie. In the end, no matter how risky, daring, violent or racy or sad your project is, there's distance. No matter how someone felt about it, they felt it all in a secondary place, a carthartic place that lets us go through all the trouble and still walk out of the theatre without bleeding. That's the Plan.

Maybe that's why it's doubly upsetting when our pretend world brings someone to harm.

He'll be just fine, by the way.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Another Reason, Another Season

...for making theatre.

How could anyone describe the start of a new theatre job? (I ask myself as I sit here and try to think that very thing...)

Anyone who's done it knows the feeling, although they might never have thought about it beyond the first blast of enthusiasm that quickly wears down to day-to-day work ethic. Whether it's one show that you'll be taking on a national tour for three months or a year, or a season of musicals of Shakespeare in one location, there's a certain...stuff. It manifests so slowly and broadly we don't see it, but we know when it's there.

It's like looking at a white piece of paper, if you're an artist, or a blank screen and blinking cursor if you're a writer. Not only does the stage begin empty, the great canvas of each actor, director, designer and determined member of the crew, but the project itself becomes a blank slate.

It seems impossible that in just a few weeks walking around this great, steel set will feel just as familiar as walking around my own house. It seems impossible that I'll know every location of every hazard backstage so well I can navigate it in the dark - as will most of the crew. Sorry actors, most of you still haven't mastered this. But we know why. You have to go out front and face down the bright lights and expectant audience. We see in the dark - you tell the story. It's give and take.

Even more than the physical presence of the set and the daunting schedule that makes it look as if we'll be dog-tired every (although you hit a miraculous stride on tour) - it seems more impossible that all these people wandering around will become familiar to me. Intimately familiar, and with each other as well. (Some more than others, in every way.) Saying it's like a family is almost as worn out as saying 'the show must go on.' But it's true. We find our brothers and sisters, our annoying siblings, our mentors. Enmities rise and fade, because we're a family - except that we more or less chose to come together.

There is an even bigger, invisible canvas stretched out here. It's a chunk of our lives. It's a very specific way we've chosen and trained to spend our time - to create a sacred creative space, present a story, and go on our way again. But behind that sacred space onstage in the theatre is a band of people. They're the real canvas: the way we'll come together. The way we'll clash, and cry. Presenting the most dramatic moments in the lives of a fictional person can wear someone down. Dragging around and erecting a ton of steel and lights each day can wear someone down.

But when those lights come up and the actors set foot on that stage and are no longer Mikel, Marie and Jen but Jem, Scout and Atticus Finch... that's what keeps us together. Maybe we'll be the moment that changes some person's life forever, because they came to our show, and had a couple of hours to sit quietly and live through someone else's eyes. A differen audience every night. A different chance to say what we came to say to willing, expectant ears. With that kind of opportunity, there's little room left for squabbling and It's always said that you don't have to like everyone - but you have to be courteous. You have to remember why we're all here. That we chose to be. That, at some point in time we all wanted - desperately - to be doing this.

You have to remember that - or when you're sitting looking at all the people and the vans and the huge scenery and the long, long drives and days....

Well, it looks just a little bit crazy. But we're used to it. We've done it before - and we'll do it again, because when we find that magic Stuff, whatever it is for each person, it's most addictive thing in the world.