Thursday, September 10, 2009

Should a Snowflake Respectfully Decline?

I haven't posted to Pheidio in almost four months. Nobody wants to hear an unqualified kid ramble on about theatre, it seems. There are enough blogs about theatre written by qualified, or at least persuasive, or at least charismatic, or at least clever, or at least old people.

No, it seems the only thing a person with none of those qualities can be expected to write about is politics.

Why not? I'll toss in.

I'm a registered independent. Being a poor theatrico with plenty of gay pals, no patience for religion, and a general disdain for NASCAR and chewing tobacco, I suppose I'm about as blue as most of you. I do have a few values that I'd consider conservative, and oddly enough, the one that is probably the most unpopular among my friends is the one that matters most to me. I'm gonna throw it out there because maybe I need to be educated on this point.

I think the whole idea of government arts funding is abominable.

I guess I don't think the government should stop offering arts funding...I think we should stop accepting it. If an artist accepts a grant from the NEA, or some state or local endowment, doesn't that government body become the artist's patron? Doesn't the artist then become beholden to serve that organization's interests? Can't an artist who is subsidized by such a body be considered ludicrous for demanding free speech from his/her backer?

A couple of my buddies, both much more learned and qualified than I, had a recent and kind of volatile debate about what a theatre company owes (artistically) to the guy who donates the chairs. I won't dwell on that too much, but it got me thinking. A lot of folks will admit that if your sponsor doesn't like the direction your work takes, then he, she, it or they are justifiable in declining to re-up the next time you send an appeal. Doesn't it follow, then, that if the government says "there's no money for you again this year" it's really just a blanket assessment that our stuff (all art) just isn't the valid investment it once was?

I've got more to say, but I'm at a loss for articulation. Really this post is more an invitation to correct me than anything else. To wrap it up, I'll just say that I'm not deaf to the argument that "Maybe the Goodman doesn't need it, maybe Lookingglass doesn't, but the storefronts should have the same resources for growth that they big kids did back then." My response is similar to the one I give to the idea that poor folks need WalMart...and it's not original. Voltaire said it first: "No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible."

Tell me how and why I'm wrong.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I do...but it's tricky language

It doesn’t help
Talking about it
It’s just words
Nobody believes in them
I don’t either
--from Fucking Parasites by Ninna Tersman

I was at my fourth real rehearsal for Fucking Parasites last night, and enjoyed one of those moments that reminds you why you love your job.

I don't know if you know this about me, but I really like words. I like saying and hearing and writing and reading them and making them up. In my theatrical endeavours, I'm a text-first kind of guy. I don't necessarily mean that I'm a capable memorizer...oh no. Wherever I am in the production roster, though, I've always got an eye on the page and nothing annoys me more than when actors think that part of their artistic prerogative involves judicious rewrites of their lines. That's not true, I guess: the thing that annoys me more is when I see a performance with absolute textual gems completely neglected by actors and the directors whose job it is to catch those things.

The hard work as a director is to make the actors love the words as much as they deserve. I've certainly seen people overdo it: it's not impossible to so elevate the script as to remove the dialogue entirely from the world of the play. In Fucking Parasites, the characters are fifteen and sixteen, from different countries, speaking to each other in a language that is not natural to either of them. Their communication is challenging enough without adding extra layers of poetic theory to the mix, right?

I'm not so sure. Ninna Tersman's play is so rich, and the words so perfect, that I don't want a single one of them to be taken for granted. I didn't know how to present this without adding undue pressure to my hard-working cast until I had a light bulb moment just before rehearsal ended.

Riso, who's playing Behrouz, speaks Japanese fluent Japanese. Olivia, playing Irina, speaks French. I picked about four or five words spoken by the teenage characters and I asked (paraphrasing a lot):

"'Incongruent', 'Embellishing', 'Contradictory', 'Embroidering', 'Endeavouring' many of those words can you translate into another language?"

They both hesitated.

"How comfortable would you be tanslating a legal brief or document from one language to another?"

The both asserted that they would not be.

"How much, then, can we infer about two teenagers who have already lived lives that warrant a legalistic, bureacratic vocabulary in at least one foreign language? When an Iranian kid and a Uyghur kid say words like "incongruent" to each other--in English!--and they understand each other, how heart-breakingly efficient is the story those words convey?"

From the expressions on their faces and the speed with which both of them were writing notes, I think I must have been on the right track.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


I click around a lot. I'm not ashamed of that. Recently I've been starting at the "Theatre in Chicago" entry at Wikipedia and clicking through the websites of companies I like, or about which I'm interested in learning, or the ones with the neatest names, or the ones with the most obnoxious names.

I've found that theatre company Mission Statements are better than celebrity upskirts to entertain and make one feel self-righteous at the same time.

As far as I can tell (and to protect the guilty I'm not going to parade examples in front of you--you'll just have to go exploring) there are a global total of five different mission statements in the theatre:

1. Our mission is to get you to attend our plays using the most popular artistic keywords possible.

2. Our mission is to get you to click off this page without reading it, daunted to embarrassment by the 1500-word block of text in front of you.

3. Our mission is to meet 501 (c)(3) requisites by having a Mission Statement and a Board.

4. Our mission is to fix what's wrong with the world through make-believe,

and (the deadliest one of all, but far too common among the newer companies and some of the older ones)

5. Our mission is to fix what's wrong with theatre. We know you hate it and we're here to rescue you.

Tell me, is there anyone out there who has mastered the Mission Statement? Are some of the Mission Statements I've seen really good, and I just missed something? What does a good one look like? Are there a million other blogs out there that have already put this issue to bed? (If there are, please send me and about 300 Chicago Theatre Companies the link.) I know, I know, I missed all the pertinent workshops at the Expo the other weekend. Right now, though, I wonder if the Mission Statement should be left entirely to the grant applications and the board meetings and far far away from the ticket-purchasing public. I wonder if the only public statement a company should make is "Come see three of our plays and then tell us what we're doing."* I wonder if anything other than that is limiting and artificial and dangerous. I'm not saying any more...more than any post heretofore, I really want you to sound off on this. Go!

*I think that our own Halcyon (which IMHO has a pretty stomachable Mission if it's a little nebulous) has almost been doing that in an implicit way for a while. I wonder if we could just formalize that, T.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Ond Lhal Ehtsach Ta Clerbabs (Tub I Tabe Mhi Yawyan)

Today's post is dedicated to the AWG, who called me a lazy blogger. I told him if he only went cow-tipping once a week, he wouldn't be considered a lazy cow-tipper, or even your run-of-the mill enthusiast. No, he'd be a cow-tipping authority, and no one would question his dedication to the artform.*

The title is inspired by Brian Seitel, and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the author.

OK, that's it. Talk to you soon. Aren't you glad you schlepped your hump all the way here?

*I didn't actually tell him this at the time, but I woke up at 3 a.m. wishing I had.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Maynard on Art

It's a purging of sorts. Like, when you're all done doing your laundry and it's fresh and bright, but washing the wouldn't want to get in while it's spinning around.

--Maynard James Keenan

Go Out There and Be Somebody Else

My producer is concerned about the dialects.

He asked me why I think they're necessary and I told him: the two characters, from two different parts of the world, connect and share their experiences with each other via a third language; common to both, but natural to neither. Behrouz doesn't think in English, he thinks in Persian. Irina thinks in Uyghur. Mutual adaptation facilitates their communication, and the result has its idiosyncrasies. To the listener, the byproducts of those imperfections are unique richness and musicality and there's nothing wrong with that.

I'm not staging Gladiator (if that's what you're worried about), with Joaquin Phoenix agonizing his way through faux-Brit just because his character's supposed to be the king of all the other kind-of-British people in Rome.

TA hasn't expressed a problem with the motives behind my position. He's very concerned that dialect work will get in the way of the acting work.

It's heartbreaking to concede it, but there is a valid point there.

In the Chicago storefront scene at large, I see three big deficiencies which sadden me. The first is makeup, the second is movement style, and the third is actors pretending they're other people on stage.

A shortage of makeup is easy to defend: stage makeup is expensive, needs constant replenishing, and anyway the stages are too small to make it necessary. Nobody believes or wants to believe that you (the actor) actually stabbed that guy in scene 3, and at four feet from the audience, the only deep sucking chest wound we can afford on our budget would smell like Hershey's and Palmolive anyway.

Movement style is a bit trickier. "But, Adam," you say, "I keep going out to see imaginative shows in which the actors create all sorts of inventive creatures through movement." I respond "don't count the goblinprowlers and the birdwomen," and if you've seen as much of this stuff as I have, you sadly nod, try to come up with a retort, and sadly nod again. People know the goblinprowler because it's not only easy, it's also a 'level' and Anne Bogart is made happy by it. They do the birdwoman because...I don't really know. I've never worked with a movement choreographer in Chicago. Nobody can afford one, for one thing. Fight choreographers are necessary because you don't want anyone to get hurt, and if there's a dance, somebody usually comes in to stage it and leaves. More dangerous to most directors, though, is that old crime of telling the actors what to do, which is not only bad for creativity but also bruises the poor artist immeasurably. Directors don't want to hear it when you say "Yes, the characters in the Misanthrope were trained to walk and stand a certain way. They were taught that experientially if not formally through living in a society that expected different things from a person." Unfortunately, I know what it looks like when you ask actors to rest on the laurels of their training and create. All the organic creativity you can foster does not guarantee a successful stage picture.

This brings me to that third little tidbit. I had similar conservatory performance training to a lot actors out there. I went to school more recently than some, but the majority of twenty-somethings I work with consider my education positively Smithsonian. I can understand that your eight acting classes focused on "finding the truth" in the work. I only got two semesters of stage movement (and one of those was really combat) and two semesters of dialects. I know that some folks get less. That doesn't mean it's right! That doesn't mean that being able to depart from your own corporal limitations onstage can be considered an elective! That doesn't mean I teachers aren't remiss when they don't address Acting 101 thus: "The job you are pursuing is that of the make-believer. If who you are and what you feel is interesting enough to satisfy an audience, you don't need to do plays or films or can become a televangelist and make more money. What an actor needs to do is go out there and be somebody else. You are learning to be a liar. A bad actor is one who the audience knows is lying, but a really bad actor is the only one who thinks s/he's telling the truth up there."

Do you know how to tell that actors don't know this? It's one simple sentence which I'm sure each of us has said at least once:

"I don't think my character would do that."

In response to this, most directors either capitulate or spend scads of man-hours helping the actor search for a justification for the action the play needs. Seldom does a director give the efficient answer: "Yes, your character certainly does that. I know this because it's in the play. The play is a history of a fiction and you are simply a re-enactor of that preexisting record."

We (directors) never say that because we (actors) are always mortified to hear it. It's because we don't trust us with our work unless we know we really care.

And vice-versa. Still with me?

Why is so much emphasis placed on making sure creativity feels good for the artist and so little on making sure it feels good for the consumer? Why can't we say "you would be better at what you do if you had a broader arsenal of dialects and movement vocabulary and you stopped trying so hard to find yourself in the text"?

I want to see a world where acting teachers can compartmentalize that old sense memory and emotional recall stuff into a big box and label it JUST PART OF THE ART (does not allow user to fly). That little utopia, though, is contingent on an agreement to shrug off the timeless myth that Creative People Are Just Touchy That Way. We need to trust the artist with the truth that s/he's a liar. S/he needs to deserve that trust be being good at lying. We can graduate to that "lie which is nearest to the truth" stuff only once the first part's been established.

So, seriously, should I expect actors to be able and willing to speak in funny voices, walk in unnatural ways and throttle a swan without trying to rationalize what would catalyze themselves to throttle a swan? Should I be able to ask them to do all this convincingly? I think I should. The fact that so many can't or won't is institutional--I recognize that. The actor who knows and trusts enough to do these things has become the exception to the rule. Until the happy day arrives, I guess, we just have to work with exceptional actors.

The cast of Fucking Parasites, by the way, are exceptional actors.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Field Promotions: Anne Bogart= General Insipidity, Don Hall= Colonel of Wisdom

I'm preparing to direct, so what better than to read A Director Prepares by Anne Bogart? Specifically, I'm directing two actors a few years my junior, and I felt it appropriate to try to better understand the vocabulary of actors with more recent training. I graduated in 2002, which was to my reckoning about six minutes before educators everywhere started thumping on Viewpoints like it was the Fourth Testament. Since then, I've participated in numerous productions in which the very word "viewpoints" became a director's short-hand for "disjointed exercises you won't appreciate because I myself don't understand why we're doing them." This observation can't be taken as reflection on the book or the technique as the author presented them: I understand that as well as anyone who has ever cringed or rolled his eyes at someone's usage of the words "Stanislavski" and "system". It did, however give me a (perhaps unfair) aversion to Bogart's work sight unseen.

I still haven't read Viewpoints. I'm pretty sure there's great stuff in there, but the most thoughtful reviews I've gotten are that there's nothing new or even new to me, that Anne just presented it in a new and accessible way. This jibes with a long paragraph at the very beginning of A Director Prepares wherein Bogart adulates Charles Mee for what she considers his unique comprehension of the role of the artist in shaping societal values. She doesn't seem to notice that she, through Chuck, has simply distilled Joseph Campbell's life's work in comparative mythology into a fragment too insignificant for a back-cover blurb.

I'm trying to make my way through the book. I really am. Everyone who knows more than me says that there is wealth in there and I'm not so myopic as to deny my intelligent friends the benefit of the doubt.

So far, though, it's kind of killing me.

I need you to reinforce me. Bolster my resolve! Maybe just hint at the magic to come further into the book. Tell me that reading the first eleven pages over and over again, plumbing for some meaning, is not the way to appreciate a text--because right now I just keep wrestling with the following passage:

"A scuba diver lies first in the water and waits until the entire ocean floor below begins to teem with life. Then the swimmer begins to move. This is how I study. I listen until there is movement and then I begin to swim."

...I mean...crickets.

If this had been followed by a winky emoticon, I would have been much less disturbed. I wouldn't have momentarily glimpsed the Art World as conservatives see it: a Bacchan cesspit filled with butterflies, zebras, moonbeams and rabid stupidity.

Please, if anyone ever hears me say something like that up there, make sure I'm joking or strike me about the neck and shoulders.

And tell me that Bogart gets better.

For Contrast:

Last evening at rehearsal for Devils Don't Forget, the following was bestowed upon the fortunate cast and crew by Mr. Don Hall (AWGiC and our very own Udo):

Right! It'll give her a moment to ffffffssshht!
And him a minute to thing...
And then a...and there's, and a...
It's a tableau?!?!
And in the background you hear buh-doom

He's not even the director, ladies and germs. That's just what he, as collaborator, has to offer to the process. Do we need to pay to read the hippy-dippy fantasias of every boomer who ever opened an E.T.C. when true insight--experiential wisdom--like Don's is right in front of us and free of charge?