Jeffrey Mosser

Director

Blog

An Addendum

February 2, 2012 (Only appropriate for Groundhog’s Day, right?)

Voyeurism only works without the veneer of acting, which is what makes improv work. Discuss.

My Thoughts (im)Preciesly on Audience Interaction, or is Site-Specific Theatre Still Theatre?

February 2, 2012

I think a great deal about audience interaction. You can google it all you want and find articles from American Theatre and beyond about what makes it work, what doesn’t, and some fairly imprecise data on what audiences think about it themselves. But what are we doing to figure it out? Qualitatively or quantitatively?

Something that is important to note is that audience interaction in a traditional theatre space is tough. Most of the time you can get away with a sly look or a clownish reaction towards the audience: “did you know Peter Pan could fly?” It’s one thing to see direct address, but when we think interaction we think questions — and there is the fear. The house lights come up slightly, an actor turns to you, and asks something. We are on edge because we may not know the answer — and the last thing an audience member wants to feel is stupid. Of course, actors are prepared for WHATEVER the response and will naturally move forward however it turns out. Talk about being in the moment though, right?

Producers of site-specific theatre need to understand that the audience is moving into a different space and will inherently be put on edge. They’re doing something non-traditional. So why do we treat them in a traditional way? You’ve taken them out of their natural theatrical habitat — there’s no reason to act as if you’re in it. Are we exercising the actors ability to concentrate? Yes, but I came to see a story. Are we taking the actors outside the fourth wall? NO! There is nothing but fourth wall! However, not for the audience. Therein lies the threat. Being a voyeur is one thing, but humans watching humans in the same room strikes that notion.

Our attempt at Theatre for Two was a step towards bringing an audience into the joke. They didn’t have to participate, but they were welcome to. The actors were in control and were performing and impovising — and so was our audience whether they knew it or not.

Currently, I’m working with a troupe that is taking parts of what Theatre for Two and Sleep No More do. We started by asking, “what can we ask the audience to do?” and slowly it turned into an experiment. Though we aren’t qualified psychologists we felt hazy jumping all the way into the Milgram experiment, but for now, we’re happy to be exploring larger audience interaction. Looks like there is more and more interest in this topic each day.

There’s no one way to do theatre (art) — but if we continue to ask this question we need to call this type of site-specific work something else. A theatrical experience isn’t quite right, but it’s close.

Prom Dress

January 19, 2012

Wherever you do a show you have to remember that the show must fit the space for it to adequately work — site-specific or otherwise. One of my favorite fringe theatre troupes always does a show in a drafty brick theatre. The stage consists of two sagging 4’x4′ plywood platforms and their “backstage” is onstage — sometimes covered by a partition… sometimes not! I ran tech for them once, which meant hitting play on the CD player and using the light dimmer to bring the house holiday lights up and down.

The best advice: This space is like a prom dress, you either wear it or it wears you.

They were beautiful.

Shakespeare the Musical

May 27, 2011

I’m used to somehow spending my summer with Shakespeare. About this time I’m rewrapping my brain around the language and naturally thinking about the wherefores and whatfores that go into producing the Bard professionally. But this year, I will be content with blogging briefly about it.

With Shakespeare we all start in the same place — the text. Before you pass this off as another “dedicate-yourself-to-the-text” missive I want to say that the only reason you do so is in order to dismiss it. The best performers are so immersed in the language that even when they go up on their lines they’re able to improv in iambs. You have to intellectualize this incredible poetry simply to understand and live in the text. We have to relearn how to hold the words in our mouths and live in these worlds.

So you’ve checked your lexicon for obscurities, rocked out your scansion, and done your breath work already? Great. Now what are you feeling? Why are you saying it? I’ve never been more bored watching Shakespeare than when emotion was mechanical and language was completely misunderstood. They might as well be saying:

daDUM, daDUM, *sad* daDUM, daDUM, daDUM
*angry* daDUM, daDUM….

If you can’t tell your coach or best friend the arch of your soliloquy, it isn’t ready for the stage. What does your character realize by the end?

Now get into your body! Don’t remember the words — remember the feelings! What does your body do when it’s sad, incensed, delighted?

It’s the soliloquy that kills or thrills the audience. Maybe it’s because I’m currently working on a musical, but I’m ready to argue that a Shakespeare monologue/soliloquy isn’t much different than breaking out into song. There comes a point in musicals where words are useless, and the only effective way to communicate this heightened feeling is to sing it!

Think about Hamlet’s decision not to kill his uncle in the chapel (III.iii).

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread;
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
‘Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season’d for his passage?
No!
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays:
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.

Now let’s think about Sweeney Todd’s “My Friends.” (For those of you unsure of the melody here’s a bit of YouTube for you to listen along. I’ve removed Mrs. Lovett’s lines so follow closely to Todd’s lines.)

These are my friends.
See how they glisten.
See this one shine…
How he smiles in the light.
My friend.
My faithful friend…
Speak to me friend.
Whisper…
I’ll listen.
I know, I know you’ve been locked
out of sight
all these years, like me
My friend…
well I’ve come home to find you waiting.
Home, and we’re together!
And we’ll do wonders.
Won’t we?
You there, my friend?
Come let me hold you.
Now,
with a sigh, you grow warm in my hand.
You’re warm in my hand.
My friend!
My clever friend…
Rest now, my friends.
Soon, I’ll unfold you.
Soon you’ll know splendors
You never have dreamed
all your days
my lucky friends
‘Til now your shine
was merely silver.
Friends, you shall drip rubies,
you’ll soon drip precious rubies…
At last! My arm is complete again!

Both characters are thinking revenge, both have sudden changes. Both are ripe with ideas, consequences. Both are secret internal conversations. Both build! Both are the truth!

If you know Sweeney Todd I dare you to re-read Hamlet’s soliloquy and NOT try singing it.

_____

Capital T

May 18, 2011

A Facebook quote recently reminded me of a Stella Adler quote:

“The word theatre comes from the Greeks. It means the seeing place. It is the place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation.

Huh. What a novel idea. Right? Truth. We can see something fictitious and still believe it. We can see something outlandish and still believe it. But if we see something false, it’s dead to us. What makes it false?

This brings me to two thoughts about Truth; in theatre and culturally.

Say we see an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Outlandish characters, larger than life personalities, unrealistic situations and riddles (for the most part), but we still go along with it, because we see Truth in Alice (and, ultimately, Dodgson/Carroll). We can see ourselves vicariously making critical choices throughout the performance. In a more realistic production, O’Neill or Letts for example, if there’s a personality or circumstance we don’t quite get, i.e. “why would anyone keep dating her,” we don’t have to identify with the character as much as we have to find a clue as to why they are acting this way. There must be evidence on stage even for a fleeting moment. It doesn’t have to be said, it can be shown. It can be a bit of compassion or a slice of kleptomania, but it has to be justified. We are interesting Humans in that we need this, no?

False theatre can happen whenever character motivations are poorly portrayed — or even overlooked. And this can be the fault of the the playwright, the director, the actor… but it will never be the fault of the audience.

My second thought on “Truth” asks a much larger question culturally. Ms. Adler’s quote reminds us of the Greeks who traveled thousands of miles to amphitheaters to see “truth about life and social situation.” Here, Deus ex Machina and the Cheshire Cat aside, we see that theatre is the cultural tell-all; that drawing parallels allows us to say make statements about our own lives.

So, where does America go for truth?

I’m not trying to be a FOX, CNN, CNBC, Daily Show commercial, though you will notice the first things that came to my mind to write were news stations. Theatre is a slice of life and a form of entertainment, and is still drawing parallels as well as lines in the sand, but will it ever fully reclaim the place of Truth? Has it evolved? Has it de-evolved? Frequently, in countries other than our own, theatre is still the best way to inform people of disease, political action, and more! Does some of this have to do with literacy and language barriers? Sometimes, but never always. Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed focuses on the daily lives of citizens. Through Forum Theatre they create ideas that demonstrate the truth so that the audience can do what they wish with the information.

The Truth is under so much gloss today. Most of us know we’re being sold to. Even comedy has evolved to such a detached level that we are making Rebecca Black #1 on iTunes. You have to be considered a conspiracy theorist (WikiLeaks included) before you can make a point about questioning the government (I bet there’s a great piece of theatre in that thought — anyone wanna work on it with me?). However, I will say, that it is becoming increasingly hard to consider a conspiracy theorist false these days. Walter Cronkite could still make editorial comments, why can’t Brian Williams.

That was a bit of a wild tangent, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is theatre evolving or de-evolving from its truth telling roots?

_____

Musical Rehearsal

May 5, 2011

What is it about music rehearsals that make you feel, “Wow, we’ve really got a show here!” Quite simply, I’ll say, it’s the music!

You begin rehearsals thinking, “we need to block this” and “I hope the stage has this” and “wouldn’t it be great if we could get some of these to be in the audience.” So much of your thought process is tied up in logistics and theme that the music is almost an afterthought. Your music director passes out the music, teaches each part, and then, “o.k. let’s try it all together.” A few runs of that and you’ve got the idea of the song.

You don’t often have the actors in that sort of concentration either — meaning they’re physically concentrated  learning music together. Likely, they’ll be strewn about the stage singing individually as a group. This unity of voice makes your heart and your head say, “Wow, we’ve really got a show here.”

This first music rehearsal instills a lot of confidence and trepidation in everyone. Block it, rock it, and show it so that it builds that confidence, and then you really will have a show.

_____

Staged Reading vs. Script-in-Hand

April 25, 2011

On Wednesday, April 27th we’re staging the second phase of our workshop of “Dearly Beloved.” It’s a script-in-hand staging and I hope you’ll join us.

I can hear some of you thinking it out there, but I’ll put it on the page: How does a script benefit from a script-in-hand staging? As you may know we’ve already had a staged reading. A reading paints the broad strokes textually. It tells you several things about the play including character motivation, continuity issues, and perhaps the greatest boon: what the audience thinks. Receiving audience feedback about what was confusing or interesting will frame the next draft. From a staged reading the playwright should be fueled to round out the script to a newly cohesive piece.

Essentially, a script-in-hand staging is different from a staged reading in that we are going from narration to motivation. Are these lines motivating? Do they naturally build in action beyond on the page? Are the mechanics working? Do my characters inhabit a world that gives them business? What do I need to give them? The playwright needs to see the rhythm of the script matching the rhythm of the stage. If you as an audience find yourself saying, “what-the-what?” you probably just witnessed the script dragging. Maybe it was for a joke that was built in or a plot point that may fit better somewhere else.

Having directed a few script-in-hand stagings — all of which took place in a “contemporary” or “real” setting — I realize it is challenging to truly feel connected to the world you’re acting in. The actors have scripts in their hands, they are acting their faces off (because they don’t have to worry about lines), but they can’t “mean-clean” the kitchen because the kitchen consists of a table upstage. The physical space is missing… on actors and on stage. We can see your head, heart, and hands acting, but because of the nature of the beast we will miss the nuance of the whole body acting.

But that’s not what a script-in-hand staging is about.

All this being said, I can see how this step is essential for new playwrights. It allows the playwright to ask him/herself, “is this how I see the story I want to tell?”

I want to hear your experiences though. Any actors, directors, playwrights or producers out there ever experience other benefits or detriments from staged readings or script-in-hand stagings?
—–
Dearly Beloved – A Script-in-Hand Staging by Brendan Doris-Pierce
Wednesday, April 27
Unity Church of God
6 William Street, Somerville, MA

_____

Drying Ink

April 17, 2011

On the T yesterday there was a young woman next to me who was writing poetry. Now, as much as I try not to eavesdrop (or read over shoulders) I couldn’t help it. This poetry was coming out of the tip of her pen so quickly that it was distracting me from my own reading. I pulled my cap down tight around my eyebrows and watched (because, of course, that is less creepy).
She used a rolling ball pen, not the usual cake-y thick ink, rather it was mercurial and soaked into the page immediately. It was fascinating to watch her fill the pages. She expediently filled the pages of a wide-rulde spiral notebook by writing double-spaced in her first draft. Then she went back to the top line and rewrote it with different colors (meaning word choices) underneath. The line was stronger, more pointed, and more exciting.
What was she writing about? I couldn’t tell you a single word.
So why am I inspired to write about this? Because of the seemingly simple discovery that it is more interesting to watch the ink dry, than it is to read the lines themselves. Meaning, the forward action is what draws attention — or at least should. Anticipating the next thought and change was exciting, and I had no idea what was coming!
What’s next in your text?

_____

Humana and New Work

March 29, 2011

When I begin to tell people about the Humana Festival of New American Plays I can’t talk fast enough. Anticipation settles into my chest and stomach, and, more often than not, I begin sweating.

Full disclosure: I worked at Actors Theatre of Louisville for the last few years, and this will be my first year going back as an alumni. Though my excitement is amplified knowing I’m going to see friends who still work there, it is remarkable how many people I’ve contacted to who are not ATL Alumni to ask, “are you going back for Humana?” The sense of national community, the “Homecoming” that it represents, is incredible.

I have never been in a place where the playwright is so revered and engaged. In rehearsals leading up to the Festival you see playwrights dotting the halls. They’re meeting with their dramaturg or director. They’re printing new drafts. They’re staring at the vending machines. Sometimes you can overhear conversations between directors and playwrights. There is a give and take that you don’t get to see in other social circumstances. Opinions and impressions are freely expressed. Motives are questioned. With this amalgam of ideas the playwright may continue to mold their script until their story is told. A playwright’s work is never finished. Even after opening night they may have new ideas for a revision.

You may know we’re working on a new play called Dearly Beloved. We’re taking steps to workshop this script because we have faith in it. We’ve worn opinions on our sleeves — openly offered thoughts and thrown them away. Open discussions have informed the work we’re doing, and I think you’ll see the playwright’s story coming through clearer than ever. We’re going to be taking it to the next level in our staging a month from now, and I hope you’ll join us.

Bringing a new play to life is exciting, and it is important for the world to know about it. This is why I think that the New Play Map (go find Dearly Beloved on there, I dare you) does an important job in making new work accessible. There can’t be a Humana Festival for every play, but there can be a way to develop and foster the work that is going on in your area. Go see something new around New England this weekend. I can’t wait to swap stories about what you saw!

_____

Modern Dance

March 17, 2011

I’ve come to love modern dance, however I used to have an awful aversion to it. There were very few pieces that I liked. I didn’t connect as an audience member and I didn’t know why. Therein, I dismissed modern dance for a great while. I wasn’t going to fake it and say, “that was amazing!” when I had no idea what I had just seen. I could certainly recognize the timing, strength, and skill of the dancers, but I couldn’t find what compelled the choreographer to design the piece.
Last night I was exposed to a text for a performance piece. The playwright read the piece and I assume that it was at the tempo and rhythm she desired to perform at. Her four, double-spaced pages took nearly eighteen minutes to read, and mired in amongst those pages were vivid, dreamlike imagery as well as detached, intellectual phrases. And finally, after years of thinking, I discovered what made “good” modern dance (but not an absolute as the arts are subjective. (Yes, I just created a clause to my thought)).
It’s the story. I will say that modern does not always necessitate a story or journey, but it was my biggest hang up.
Now, I’ve called it out before that I didn’t get the story. However, for a long while I beat myself up for thinking I wasn’t smart enough to get it. That it was too intellectual (A-HA!). That this performance style didn’t have to have a story. That dance was an exploration of the body and an exposing of the mind, however tangential. That there must be some other value or component that I missed, right? I did the same thing with theatre. When something avant guard is on stage as a performance piece I at least want to see a story, or a theme, or a lens to look through at culture or society. I want to see something that is going to connect me as an audience member or at least take me on a brief journey. Heartless, soulless, selfish theatre is something that I do not want to see (or make).
That is also to say that in any performance I need to see the connection between body and emotion, and from that comes the intellectual. Read any of Chuck Mee’s works and you will find a lens, a theme, and a story. While you will discover how disconnected his pieces may appear on the surface, I think you will find that there is a story to be had throughout (not to mention a theme and context). I will say that I have not read all of his works so perhaps there is an exception to my rant here.
All this musing is to say that I’ve been thinking a great deal about Beckett and Muller in juxtaposition to musicals and melodrama. How do we find connections in a disconnected script? And how do we ask the audience to come along? How far can we take them? This is what makes modern dance so human.

_____

Source Festival

February 7, 2011

So, my 10-minute play, “Love, Death and Latex,” has been accepted into the Source Festival! Woot.

Pretty excited. It takes place just before the 4th of July in Washington DC. If I can stay up to date with this blog I’ll try to let you know how it feels to be a playwright for a week.

_____

Life Happens

January 19, 2011

So… this is January. Sorry. I haven’t kept up. Life moves at a pace.

I’ve moved to Boston as my wife has decided to pursue her masters in Arts Admin and I cannot say how proud I am. It’s a shock to feel like you’re starting over (again), but I found that the people of Boston are extremely interested in fostering the talent that it has — and now it has me and I, it. Though I am new to it I’m finding that Beantown is an exciting place to be with a good deal going on.

I’ve started classes at ImprovBoston — because how do you make friends faster than improv. I’ve been accepted into an improv troupe called Rebels Without Applause which performs every few months on the ImprovBoston stage. I’m part of a playwriting group that meets weekly to discuss and read new plays — we will be putting a few short plays up in late April in association with another theatre. And I’ve had a fair shake of directing/assisting to do (as you can see from my website). I leave this weekend (my birthday weekend) to participate in the Universal Theatre Festival. A friend of a friend’s festival. There are many lessons I’ve learned about rehearsing this, but I will pick them apart once the dust settles.

Not to mention I’ve found myself increasingly envious of folks who dedicate themselves to an entire year of something. My friend Sean is traveling the American west as a homeless person and dedicates himself to a bit of photography and blogging. Also, a fellow here in Boston just told me that he’s completed his own 365 Plays in 365 Days project. Now that he’s finished he says that he can’t stop writing and ideas are flowing, growing, and exciting (my words to summarize his). I think what makes me so jealous is that these folks are pursuing projects that they truly want to become masters of. I’m brimming with ideas, but haven’t exercised my legs here in Boston yet.

At this point I should probably expound upon any and all of the above, but since we arrived I haven’t had much time to sit still (and that’s a good thing) — including right now. Time to get gussied up and head to rehearsal. Next time I write it may be from Provincetown!

_____

Month of March

April 2, 2010

I realize now that it is April.

March is behind us. For me, that means the Humana Festival has come and gone, not to mention one of my grad school interviews, and we’ve begun rehearsals for the New Voices Young Playwrights Festival. Obviously, I haven’t been rapidly blogging about any of these so I thought I’d get everyone up to speed.

It felt like Humana was quicker than ever this year. Having been a part of the 33rd season last year it was a pleasure to welcome friends from around the country to sleep on our floors, aerobeds, and couch for the 34th season. Each piece was endearing in incredible ways, but I must say that I was very impressed by the seeing the visiting ensembles’ work.

The cusp of March/April means it is time for the New Voices Young Playwrights Festival. The education department at Actors Theatre of Louisville read over 400 plays from students across Kentuckiana. Somehow we whittled it down to nine plays for this year’s performance. Each play will be published in an anthology and fully staged at the Festival (Monday, April 12 and Tuesday, April 13). I am proud to have the opportunity to direct “A Threepenny Space Opera” by Jackson Wolford — a junior at Manual High School in Louisville, KY.

Jackson has created a 17-minute (space) opera which takes place in the year 3050 AD. Our intergalactic ruler, Quasarkon Bona’na (quay-ZAR-kon), is bent on arresting the outlaw Jacks Muldoon for his atrocities across the universe, but will he catch this lonely space cowboy? So far we’ve had a great amount of fun learning the music. We’re just about fully blocked, but still a long way to go. Our production schedule allows us eleven  hours of real rehearsal before we’re teching and into dress rehearsal. It has been intense and fun to say the least. Actors’ company of acting apprentices have been incredibly daring and very excited to bring this play to life. It is great to work with great people.

So here we are, at the beginning of April….

What’s next?

_____

Drinks with Dominique

April 1, 2010

I took Dominique Serrand out for drinks. We talked about the Physical, the Emotional, and the Intellectual.

Me: When do you bring in the intellectual?
Dominque: Never.
Me: Never?
Dominique: Never.

Comment from dominique

“quite a bit out of context…but correct, in context.”

Update April 3, 2010

You’re right, sir! I should put some framework around this conversation. First, let me emphasize that we were speaking of the truth and how it speaks on stage. So much of today’s theatre, and the world of “realism,” is to be psychological. However, for centuries what American’s consider “physical theatre” has simply been “theatre” in Europe. Dell’Arte et. al reveals that the physical is always the truest expression of the emotion. From the searching of words to the fears that you harbor — they are living somewhere in your physicality.

The intellectual is for understanding the piece, the story, the article which all else is based upon. Once there is understanding there is living. And each time that the understanding is lived then there is a real discovery each and every time on stage. When does the intellectual appear on stage? Never. Only the truth of the physicality should appear.

_____

Producing Ensemble Work

March 28, 2010

Ensembles are getting a lot of attention lately. If you read back to my earlier posts you’ll see that I was very hesitant to give the nod to ensemble work. While I am ready to accept that great work comes out of ensembles I was turned off by some of the products I had been witness to.

“How can it be polished and adventurous?” asks Dominique Serrand at a recent panel at ATL on ensemble theatre companies, “Most importantly it must be quality.” I feel as though Dominique has given several kernels of knowledge this past month and I’m happy to have swallowed them whole. Quality! Yes! An ensemble must know how to work together to create a product, and not follow blindly without editing.

One of the best things about an ensemble created work is that an ensemble does not work on a strict timeline. If a piece needs to be further developed why not work for 9-14 weeks (or months) on exploring it. It is impossible for a regional theatre to commit 3-4 years to developing a new piece because a regional theatre can’t buy or sell development… or can you? Kirk Lynn and Shawn Sides of The Rude Mechs brought their audiences the entire length of their process. As they developed their piece The Method Gun they invited the audience in to give feedback: “Help us make this something you love!” The audience then was not only arriving on opening night of the piece, rather they were developed at stages along the way to opening. Bringing an audience from concept to product is an incredible way to foster a relationship between the company and the community.

“We need more producers,” said Thomas Kriegsmann, President of ArKtype. I completely agree. In fact, I’m beginning to feel as though I know several people who would absolutely be appropriately named producers, however they also carry with them an incredible artistic capacity as well. Not having a producer means not having a collective eye on the product. Several artistic personalities does not a producer make, in fact, it almost seems to dilute the product (you’d think). However, counter intuitively, the Rude Mechs have several Co-Artistic Directors and all decisions are made by consensus. The counter point to that is they have been around for about 15 years so I guess they’re doing something right.

Beginning with the end in mind is probably the best responsibility of the producer. With that in mind, the ensemble is rising. Keep your eyes peeled.

_____

Physical, Emotional, Intellectual

March 17, 2010

Recently, I served as Directing Assistant to Aaron Posner for Phoenix, a play in the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Aaron’s approach was exciting to say the least. This two actor show required a strong hand at the wheel, and as our actors were married to one another, we had to rediscover the charged energy of falling in love.

I can safely say that I gleaned a great deal from this experience. The experience alone of working with a living, breathing playwright in the room (Scott Organ — whom I can’t mention without saying that I haven’t read a script this naturalistic since Mamet) is wonderful and fed a very intellectual hunger I had for discussing story/character/etc. nuances.

Today I had the opportunity to experience a Masterclass with Dominique Serrand, formerly of the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, who is in town for another Humana show. His approach to building a performance is so raw and true, and it really deals with the physical being the truth (I think this also reflects some things I’ve talked about in my post entitled, “How does it Feel?”). “Theatre became psychological,” Serrand states, “and still is today.”

The greatest moments, in my opinion, of Phoenix are the little ones that our physically based actors do in the silence of the script. The expressions of excitement, of wonder, of awe tell us a great deal more in the biggest emotional picture.

Last week I went to the South Eastern Theatre Conference and participated in a Critical Response and Feedback workshop with Liz Lerman. In groups of three we created a dance based on the news (personal news, national news, or other). In our group we had an observer, an interviewer and an interviewee. The intervewer probed the interviewee about their news. The observer watched for natural physical gestures as the interviewee spoke. These gestures, in combination with the other group members motions, created our dance. We followed this by numerous amounts of theme and variation and could have very well created an incredible dance piece based on “the news.”

The six movement dances we created in our groups were obviously quite emotional — which I feel is remarkable having come from an intellectual story about this or that.

I think this all boils down to the thought that I am excited  about the approach to finding emotional depth though the physical, and physical depth after understanding the intellectual. And sometimes it is great to throw it all to the wind and do something altogether different.

_____

You’re Either With Us or Against Us

March 14, 2010

So our cast/crew had a brief debriefing regarding “Theatre for Two.” The general consensus of it was that A) it was great fun, B) the audiences were exceptional — regardless of participation level, and C) it was a stretch for everyone involved.

As I mentioned earlier, this project was an experiment in all kinds of capacities. One variable we were increasingly interested in was the audiences’ willingness to participate — which we found to be very high. All participants knew that this was an interactive production, but nobody knew to what degree.

I should probably mention some logistics before we move beyond this point.

My co-creator and I wrote five scenes to be performed at five tables simultaneously. Each table would have 1-2 actors and no more than 2 audience members at it at any given time. Each scene was approximately 7 minutes long thus creating a 40-45 minute experience. When each scene finished the audience members had to be moved (via our wonderful stage managers posing as caterers or wedding photographers) and our actors had to be reset (by their own devices and our crew’s brief check in as they dropped off new audience members). This rotation of audience members happened four times after their initial seating. Our actors resilience shone throughout as they were playing the same scene ten times in one evening.

The sequence of scenes was as such:
Table 1: The Groomsmen
Table 2: The Mother
Table 3: The Caterers
Table 4: The Bride
Table 5: The Bloggers

After the show was over we brought everyone, actors and audience, together for a group photo as a sort of curtain call.

Yesterday evening the Apprentices at Actors Theatre of Louisville had an opening for another project of similar nature but larger scale. A production entitled Heist! by Deborah Stein. As an insider I’ve had great opportunities to hear about their process, but the proof was in the pudding last night as 250 theatre goers willingly participated in a very interactive and exciting performance. I had seen a run of the show previously so I spent a majority of my time gauging audience interest and participation.

My last topic which addressed “what kind of theatre do you like to watch?” feels a little stilted as I flesh out these ideas more and more about experiential theatre. I feel most excited about creating something that is an experience for the audience, however I am slow to embrace my own participation in experiential theatre. When it comes down to it  (and I reserve the right to change my mind at any given time) I want my theatre experience to take me into another world to be entertained and challenged.

I was incredibly grateful to have sold out all of our performances of Theatre for Two. In fact, recently we remounted it for an audience of 200. As this was very counter to the work we did it was great to hear that the audience still understood and were receptive to the moments that were taking place — sans the intimacy we meant to incur.

The actors who worked on Theatre for Two and Heist! said that their experience on the former really informed their experience on the latter. I felt pretty excited to know that somehow, indirectly, we fostered a degree of freedom and improvisation for so nine great actors. At a panel discussion I heard an apprentice describe their performance as vulnerable. They’ve been rehearsing scenes for four months where their scene partner, the audience, was unavailable, “Then they show up on opening night and they don’t know their lines!”

That was a huge digress….

Let me begin (again) by saying that the actors on this project were brave, vulnerable, and incredible improvisors.

As I’ve mentioned before, our actors interacted in varying ways with the audience. Each script varied: some scripts used direct address, sometimes it was a gesture, sometimes we intended the audience to be flies on the wall.

The actors in The Mother scene, which had the lowest amount of audience interaction, is where a huge plot point was given. At the very end a very direct line was improvised. Audiences most often came from the more garrulous scene immediately before and felt as though they could jump right into the conversation, however this scene was rehearsed with the intention that The Mother (in-law) would dominate the conversation and tell the audience to “shut-up.” Before audiences moved on from this station the Mother also stated, “You didn’t hear anything.”

This simple line impacted the interaction for actors two stations away. When audiences were asked at The Blogger table if they knew any good gossip they were significantly quieter than those that truly didn’t know the large plot point.

Of course, none of the script hinged on the audience communicating one set of information from one table to the next… but that does sound like an interesting project.

I believed it before I started this project, but now it has been confirmed that the audience will do whatever you ask them to. They don’t want to do anything wrong; they want to be a part of the action (in varying degrees); and, most of all, they want the actor to succeed!

_____

Theatre for Two

January 26, 2010

Tonight is opening night for a project I’ve been working on since early October. I regret not talking about it earlier, but there have been some pretty big priorities over blogging in the last few months.

The project is called Theatre for Two and was inspired by a project in New York called Theatre for One. Theatre for One is a theatrical experience for one actor and one audience member. A unique, intimate moment where a performance is shared. In a typical theatre hundreds of audience members may gather and share the same experience and discuss it’s ramifications, symbolism, or contribution to art (or lack thereof) on the car ride home or over drinks later. In Theatre for One each experience would be different. It is possible, because of any number of factors, that performances could vary from person to person. The shared experience is key to Theatre for Two. However, we wanted to provide the intimacy of Theatre for One’s performance. Therein, we created Theatre for Two to take place at the Intermezzo Cafe, the Restaurant at Actors Theatre.

I graduated from college with a degree in theatre and psychology, so I’ve taken quite a bit of pleasure digging through scholarly articles about Brecht’s Alienation Effect, the Actor/Audience Relationship, social psychology, and the playwright’s challenges of a changing audience. Through it all I’ve read some incredible articles (which I will soon post — I promise) including one about the Gallery Theatre in which actors were placed next to art installations to provide dramatized information. The patrons could wander past, sit and listen to repeated material, and/or speak to the actors (still in character). The director and the actors in this project held a rehearsal following their first showing and realized that they needed to be incredibly flexible in the information they were giving.

Tonight, we’re going to have fun. However, we have rehearsed, sometimes rigidly, in order to create opportunities for spontaneity. We’ve created five scenes which take place at tables in a restaurant. The story takes place at the reception for a botched wedding — “someone paid for it, we’d might as well go….” We’ve meticulously created internal cues which keeps each scene on track, not to mention we’ve also given some structured improv to each scene. We have four stage hands who are also in character: three caterers and one wedding photographer (he’s being paid to be there, might as well take some shots).

Audience members have signed up in pairs or individually, individuals have been paired up so that each table is “for Two” whether they expect it or not. (Another query I have is is how will audience members react if they’ve been paired with people they don’t know versus those who signed up together purposely? — I’ll discuss this more in another post soon!) Those pairs are each seated at one of the five tables. Those audience members are then moved from table to table by our stage hands. Once the audience is moved, the actors will reset their scene and begin again with another set of audience members. The actors deliver the same scene five times before the evening is over — truly an acting marathon!

Each table requires a different amount of participation from the audience. The goal is to create an intimate, unique, and fun experience for audience members. Also, if we can help people think differently about theatre, that’s cool too.

Augusto Boal writes that theatre is everything and everything is theatre. Two people having a conversation over coffee could be theatre. What if they really were just doing a scene and the audience was the rest of the coffee shop who looks askance at them infrequently. I like to think that we are slightly the opposite, in that we’ve created theatre in a space that wouldn’t normally have hosted such a thing. A personal goal of mine tonight would be to hear from restaurant patrons not participating in Theatre for Two, “there was a play going on?” As in, they had no clue that anything was actually happening around them.

PS – All four of our shows are sold out. Wish you could be there!

_____

What Kind of Theatre do you Like to Watch?

January 20, 2009

In October I found my way to Chicago for a visit with some old and new friends (as well as old and new family). I trickled into town through the rain and the rush hour and knew that this weekend would warrant a couple good blog posts. Truth be told, I was actively visiting Chicago in order to answer the ultimate question of this blog: what’s next?

One of my stops included an unscheduled visit at Starbucks. My friend had been in the city for almost two years, and, as we have similar backgrounds, I knew that I could get a straight answer from her even though it would pass through our Midwestern censors. As I furiously fired questions about the city and its culture at her I suddenly received return fire with two air-raid siren blaring bombs. “What kind of theatre do you like to watch? What kind of theatre do you like to make?” I took this opportunity to take a large gulp of tea. I had never asked myself these questions before. And, indeed, it does seem as though each one is very different. My brain instantly went in two different directions at once.

What kind of theatre do you like to watch? My first reaction to this set of questions comes from me, the audience member. I hearken back to different scripts, performances, venues, and performance artists that I have had srong feelings about. Frequently, when these four qualities agree with one another they create a harmony that I want to see again and again. Conversly, the discord of one to the rest can be very telling, and often I have to pick apart each of those qualities to figure out just what was it that I didn’t like.

As a part of my job I read dozens, if not hundreds, of scripts as part of a selection process for a ten-minute play contest. Our literary manager and her staff says that everyone has their own tastes when it comes to reading scripts. I truly have found that I either need a perfectly tied together piece with no loose ends at all, or a free spirit of a script that really sparks my creative juices, “oh yea, then loose leaf paper can fall from the grid!” I love to see the characters in my head from the first page on.

That is the kind of theatre that I like to watch. The kind that lets the impossible happen and the kind that leaves you breathless and hysterical (in one sense or another) at the end. Lucky for me, it is also the kind of theatre that I love to make.

_____

How does it Feel?

October 18, 2009

Even with a timeless script, a group of professional actors, and a veteran director’s perspective the same rehearsal rhetoric still applies.

Last month I took in as many rehearsals for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as possible. The above components seem like the basis for going beyond rehearsal as usual, right? What I was surprised to hear from the director was, “how does it feel?” The cliche of this line resonates in the bodies of performers everywhere. It comes from the idea that a performer’s instincts trump the meticulous plans of the director. A good director/choreographer knows this.

What interests me the most about this question is what seems to be a disconnect from the director (all seeing) to the actor (all feeling) even though there is very little. This is not to say that the director doesn’t understand the feelings being conveyed in the scene — far from it, nor does the performer fail to understand the picture being created. The contrast to the question “how does it feel?” is thrown back onto the director by the cast with “how does that look?” The actors, short of videotaping their performance, may never know how they actually look on stage. Clarity is the goal. Having two people swing dance to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” might be a mixed message. Rehearsals are spent clarifying those moments with two very different perspectives — physical and emotional — both performers and directors are constantly hunting for the real moments to be shared with the audience.

In the tempest of creating a production there are a few guiding lights a director must work by, including telling the story. The positions of bodies on stage tells just as much about the characters as the words coming out of their mouths. One of my favorite directors once told me, “If Romeo can reach Juliet in the balcony there is no reason for them to elope, and the play is over. You can’t just give the passion away for free in this show….” The creation of this feeling, the need to be together, the desire, is the fuel for what happens next. And it is important that we want to know what happens next in the story.  So how does Romeo feel if he can’t reach his Juliet? How does it look that he’s hiding under the balcony?

It is incredibly important for the performers to say that their given blocking feels right. They must confirm that the blocking, the energy, the thoughts, the concepts, the themes all match through their actions on stage. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s often because it isn’t right. The performer’s instincts keeps the director’s meticulous plans on course.

_____

What if…?

September 7, 2009

In 3rd grade Ms. Muschelewicz had a rule: No What-If Questions.

Now, as a Teaching Artist, I can see how a 3rd grade teacher might be bombarded with questions including “what-ifs”: “What if I get lost at the zoo?” “What if I bring home a peacock on the bus?” “What if the bus gets a flat tire and we have to pull over and I miss my piano lesson after school?”

Lots of “what ifs” out there in 3rd grade — none of which get addressed by Ms.Muschelewicz. But there are a lot of “What-Ifs” out there in theatre (much less all other forms of art. Check out this “what if“). In fact, I would guess that 99% of theatre that is educating, inspiring, entertaining, and challenging is created by individuals that love to ask, “What if….” Ensemble groups constantly ask this question. I was fortunate enough to watch the SITI Company work through Chuck Mee’s “Under Construction.” While I felt myself screaming (inside my head) “SPIKE THAT, JUST SPIKE IT, THAT WAS GREAT” they were actively working from the ultimate “What If” perspective. “What if I don’t put the bucket in the same place tonight?” Conversely, the actor, who may be missing said bucket, has to trust his fellow actor and avoid asking himself, “What if the bucket isn’t there tonight?”

Conceptually, we start by asking “what if…” don’t we? In character development, in story development, in directing conceptualization, in improvisation. I like asking, “what if” because usually it is a question that stretches us. We can make rules for this new world that has been suddenly stretched open before us. A good “what if” makes me laugh with the thought of possibilities.

“What if” is the imagination at work.

But ask a good “How do…” question, and the satisfaction of “what if”, is bound to follow. “How do we make a forrest out of 400 square feet of linoleum?” “How do we make someone fly past the windows?” “How do we tell the story of Romeo & Juliet & Dracula?”

I crave these two questions, especially nipping at one another’s heels. I love the collaboration that goes into the creation. I hope we ask more questions together.

_____

Theme

August 27, 2009

A friend of mine once said, “as soon as I can imagine myself doing the same thing all day long, I’ll go to grad school for it.”

He doesn’t mean that he can’t imagine himself in a steady job… just give him a second to explain.

“Sometimes when  I wake up in the morning I want to go to Africa and teach, and then by lunch I am imagining myself in a mime troupe backpacking through Europe, but by my evening jog through the park I want to spend the rest of my life behind a camera.”

I started monitoring my own ideas in this way. Until I started seeing a theme I wasn’t going to worry about getting an M.F.A. and running with it.

My last post with the mention of the Jeune Lune was the beginning of a more recent theme. Since then I conversation with David Catlin of the Lookingglass Theatre. We discussed a great deal of the approach he and his respected theatre company takes when approaching a text, theme, and physicality.

I had some frustrating (and some wonderful) experiences viewing ensemble work. The connections may have been tied to a big idea, but they failed to edit their work. There has to be a theme. There has to be a connection. It can be episodic, it can be continuous, but it has to connect! When ensembles do well I want to cheer, but sometimes I feel like there has to be something more underlying it.

Physical seems right, but the weight for me doesn’t come entirely from an ensemble approach. I think it comes from the text. I want to work with a good dramaturg, and a novel playwright that is either from history, or making it.

I’m thinking about doing the same thing, all day long.

_____

Arts in Crisis

August 21, 2009 at

On August 12 I had the opportunity to meet Michael Kaiser. President of the Kennedy Center for Performing arts in Washington, D.C. I have since finished reading his book, “The Art of the Turnaround.” Inspiring moments, such as this, cause the arts manager inside of me to cheer. My body says, “of course you have to keep doing challenging artwork,” “of course your audience will receive it.” Ideas that are so common sense that they are almost extreme in the world we work in.

What is usually the first thing to go in an arts organization when facing cut backs? The experimental, the challenging. Suddenly we need to put some butts in the seats, but ticket sales never balanced the budget. Commit to a big project, get a big return. Investors want to know specifics on what they’re creating, and something new and revolutionary will normally pique their attention much more so than an old standard. There are all kinds of arguments on either side of this coin — I get that, I also get that there are numerous more points in what goes into this paragraph — just read the 10 rules in Mr. Kaiser’s book.

I started reading blogs about three years ago. Many of them being arts management blogs. I also saw Milwaukee Shakespeare and Madison Rep close their doors last year. One of the electronic news articles regarding Madison Rep’s closing included comments from numerous peanut gallery types saying something to the extent of, “good riddance, they don’t use local actors anyway.” [Sidenote: there is a great deal of hubbub about Madison’s new local equity house using local actors. More on that some other day.] That being said, I also saw the closing of the Jeune Lune. This closing was not necessarily recession related.  Great product, great base audience, great cast, great direction, but just couldn’t fully address that debt.

As Mr. Kaiser says, “there are no less characters in “Hamlet” than there were when Shakespeare wrote it,” but our proudction costs are going up. Mike Daisey spends a good amount of his time discussing the importance of why solo performance matters and how the resurgence of a trend from the 80’s will bring theatre’s back into the black.

I guess my look backward here forces me to ask, does arts management really interest me, or is it producing that really interests me? Or is it the freedom to put the experimental next to the old standard? Or the experimental into the old standard? What is the big picture? Where do I stand inside it?

_____

Next?

August 19, 2009

What kind of a blog name is Next?
First, it is a reminder to me to not dwell on too many past experiences. Posts here will be for me to collect thoughts on what to do… Next. Therein, I don’t want this to become a journal or diary, although I am sure it will often resemble one as most do at certain points.
I started reading a great many blogs 3 years ago and only now have I felt as though I could contribute my own thoughts into the ether of the internet. I hope that I can share some of my favorite blog posts here as a running history of observations and novel ideas I hope to draw from in the future.
Looking forward to what’s next.