Monday, September 20, 2010
I read an article in The New Yorker last week. It was about that
self-help book, “The Secret,” one of those books that teaches you to
“think” yourself rich, you’re an amazing creature, God wants you to
have nice stuff, etc etc. It’s a very popular book. I’ve never read
it. To be honest, self-help books annoy the crap out of me. Their
aura of smugness puts me right off. Sometimes people are sitting in
cars and a tree falls on them, and impoverished children in other
countries starve to death or die in floods, and it’s distasteful to
sit in our fat wealthy country and chalk it up to “negative thinking”
on the part of the victim.
But this New Yorker article also dealt with some of the backlash from
this book. (Hooray! Backlash!) Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in her new
book, “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America”
(which I also have not read) how books like “The Secret” offend her,
too. What offends her is the notion that “poverty is a voluntary
condition.” I’d probably like Barbara Ehrenreich.
But it got me to thinking about those of us who work in Off Off
Broadway in New York. We work in an impoverished field. We don’t have
money and we certainly don’t have nice stuff. We’re passionately
devoted to an art form that the overwhelming majority of people in
this country couldn’t care less about. I don’t have the stats right
here. It’s early in the morning, and I’m drinking coffee and my
wireless keeps going out because the neighbors keep changing their
password. So I’m not going to look it up right now. Plus, I’ve got
to go to the post office and send off this application that I’ve been
putting off. God, I need a few days to catch up on everything. Where
was I? Oh yeah. We’re negligible in terms of cultural impact, and
most people think we should really stop this and get a job.
But we work hard and we do it because we love it and we think we have
something to say or we have an idea. It’s a good role, someone’s
going to give us a break on the space, the script isn’t perfect but
the writer needs a production and how’s he going to learn otherwise?
It’s tough and heartbreaking and the rewards are small. But if my
lips twitch in anger in a Barnes and Noble as I pass by racks and
racks of “The Secret,” it’s because I’m saying to the writer, “Nobody
chose this poverty. We live in a system. We love this art form, this
discipline. We also live in a society that doesn’t value it. We
didn’t make that. But we don’t see any reason to stop doing what we
love just because a society or political system is indifferent.”
Yes, I frequently stop in the stacks at Barnes and Noble and have
conversations with the author who isn’t there. Don’t judge.
So this week, folks, when the world around says “you need to think
like a business,” or “you would have more money and resources if you
adjusted your attitude” or “have you thought about law school?” – the
everlasting chorus of “no” that surrounds you whenever you try to
create something – this week, dear reader, I hereby give you (and
myself) permission to cut a break. Give a pat on the back. Thank all
the negating voices for their time and tell them you will keep them on
file for the next project.
You’re doing just fine. Keep doing what you do. The world around us
is what needs fixing.
We're happy to announce our guest blogger during ceremony week: David Johnston!
David Johnston’s plays have been performed and read at the New Group,
Moving Arts, Rude Guerrilla, the Neighborhood Playhouse, Henry Street
Settlement, and Ensemble Studio Theatre. He was named one of Time
Out’s Playwrights to Watch. Recent regional productions include The
George Place at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre. New York productions:
with Blue Coyote Theater Group, Conversations on Russian Literature
Plus Three More Plays, a new adaptation of The Oresteia, Busted Jesus
Comix (GLAAD nominee 2005), and A Bush Carol, or George Dubya and the
Xmas of Evil. With director Kevin Newbury, Candy & Dorothy (GLAAD
winner, 2006) and The Eumenides. Publications: The Eumenides, (Playing
With Canons, published by New York Theatre Experience, Inc.) Leaving
Tangier, (Samuel French, produced by Blue Coyote). Awards include
Theater Oxford, Turnip Festival, Playwright Residency at the
University of Cincinnati, Berrilla Kerr Foundation Grant, Ludwig
Vogelstein Foundation and the Arch & Bruce Brown Foundation.
Education: College of William and Mary, Circle in the Square. Member: Actors Equity, Dramatists Guild, Charles Maryan's Playwrights/Directors Workshop.
Saturday, September 18, 2010
What IS “good enough?” Good enough for who… uh… whom? At the expense of what?
I’ve been bombarded recently by instances of having to push, hard, for the best in my work. And sometimes the pushing is not well received. And because my work is collaborative in nature, I can’t push alone. It can be difficult when one person aims for the stars, and others are content with the clouds. One actor gives 150% to a role, the next gives 100% - who’s ‘wrong’ in this instance? Is there a ‘wrong?’
Our resources are minimal, and yet we’re surrounded by platitudes “necessity is the mother of invention,” “go big or go home,” and “poverty breeds creativity.” We do theatre because we love it; we do it in NYC because we want to make a living at it. So we go for the gold, reach for the stars, etc. And yet…there are those that are happy at “good enough.”
How do these people work together? Conventional wisdom says you have to learn to cheerlead, to make people want to work harder, be better, reach for the stars. I confess, I’m not a good cheerleader – I can’t jolly people into coming along with me for the ride cuz it will be fun, awardwinning, profitable. Because oftentimes, it won’t be. It will be difficult, and frustrating. Will it be worth it in the end? I say “yes.” But will you agree? How would I know? I don’t know your priorities, your inner ruler by which you measure these things. All I can really say is what is the point of doing anything if you don’t give it your all?
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a Fosse or Welles or Cameron, people known for their drive and determination in every way. There are days when I seriously want to chuck it all, go work in a flower shop, have a dog, pay my taxes and have a real honest-to-god weekend. But I just can’t! This storytelling..disease..won’t let me go. And so I do it again. And I push to do it the best that I can with every breath. And I piss people off. And sometimes I’m sorry about that – and sometimes I’m not.
I have no closing paragraph for this. I don’t know the answer. The closest I get is to search for like-minded people and then work with them again and again. And avoid the “good enoughers.” Not because they’re wrong – just because it’s wrong for me.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
When I first moved to New York, a dear friend, John Morrison, introduced me to the WorkShop Theater Company and they welcomed me into their fold. Thus began my entrée into the world of Off-Off-Broadway theatre. I met other directors, actors, playwrights, stage manager, producers, technicians and all the “slashie” combinations of those positions. As we all know, the ability to wear multiple hats, and change them mid-stream can be a real asset in our world.
Then I took a detour – I began work at T. Schreiber Studio, which afforded me a wonderful opportunity and unique environment to hone my directing and producing skills. TSS was a great place to work, but one thing I noticed about my time there was that I was losing touch with the outside community. So, after I left TSS, my first priority was to re-establish contact with the theatre community. Seems like an easy proposition, right? After all, it seemed pretty straight forward in my earlier years. Turns out, identities in the theatre world are mushy, grey, and ever-changing. See that struggling, first-time playwright over there? In her day job, she’s a well-respected actress in off-Broadway and regional houses. That budding OOB producer over there in the grungy jeans and decades-old tee shirt? He makes his living as a literary assistant at a very well established producer’s office, wearing a very snazzy tie with his white shirt, thank you very much.
Who are these people? Where/What are the parameters? How the hell am I supposed to get back into the swimming pool?
Fortunately, there are two very big and helpful elements to help me take this dive. The first is that theatre people are generally very willing to help each other out. When I sit in a puddle in the floor and wail “HELP!” I am never left hanging – good friends, and “6-degrees-of-facebook” friends have always come to my rescue. Casting advice, rehearsal space, that one freakish prop you desperately need – all of these have magically appeared just when I was on the verge of ripping my hair out because of the generous nature of our community. So, when I tap on the shoulder of a stranger at a gathering, feebly introduce myself, and take a chance on this scary thing called “networking,” it’s gratifying to have them smile and say something like, “Oh riiiight! You’re the one that was looking for the blue thing-a-ma-hoochie with the red candles and spotted feathers. Glad we could share ours with you.” (The fact that no one in the group even looks vaguely askance at that description is testament to a whole ‘nuther trait about theatre folks, which I’ll leave for another time.)
The second element(s) are the folks at NYIT. [Yes, I know this is their blogspot, but I’m really not just kissing up!] I got involved with NYIT originally as a judge for productions, and then was asked into the Honorary Awards Committee. Being involved with this varied group of individuals has really widened my understanding of how intricate, complex and passionate our community is. And professional! Sometimes the word “community” has more of a social feel to it, but the reality is that our “community” is deadly serious about what we do. And the folks at NYIT are entangled with community leaders and organizations at all the various levels – political, legal, social, revolutionary, journalistic, polling, statistics, reviewing, “a”warding and “re”warding, past, present and future. If it’s going on in the world of independent theatre, someone at NYIT is involved or knows someone who is. So, when I made the decision to leap back into the fray, I turned to these colleagues, and they said…… “Hey, wanna be a guest blogger for us?”
So, next time I’m being the wall-flower at a gathering, and I pluck up the courage to come tap on your shoulder, hopefully you’ll turn around and say, “Oh yeah, I know you – I read your blog!” and we’ll have widened our community by one more degree. Who is the OOB community? – I am.
And, should you need a blue thing-a-ma-hoochie with the red candles and spotted feathers, I’m there for ya.
Monday, September 13, 2010
Cat Parker is a freelance director based in NYC, who has worked regionally at Dallas Theater Center, Dorset Theatre Festival, and Oklahoma City Rep. She assisted Jerry Zaks on the Broadway debut of A Bronx Tale, featuring Chazz Palmenteri. In New York, Cat was the Producing Director at T. Schreiber Studio, and has directed at The WorkShop Theater Company, Creative Place NYC, Mid-Town International Theatre Festival, Abingdon Theatre, and UrbanStages. Favorite productions include Picasso at the Lapin Agile (NYIT Award Winner), Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Towards Zero, A Doll’s House, a steampunk-influenced Twelfth Night (NYIT Award Winner) and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. New works include the New York premiere of Sister Cities, (NYIT Award Nominee), The English Channel, En Passant, A New Theory of Vision, Riders of the Golden Sphinx, Echoes of Radioland (a theatrical radio show), Lovers of Verona (an original commedia del’arte piece), Lilith, Blind Study, Safekeeping, Switch, Gone Astray, Shadow Pier, Beachwood Drive, The Chekhov Dreams, Native Stone, Underpass, and Rapture. (www.catparker.com)
Sunday, September 12, 2010
Liz Vacco-Performer, Choreographer and Founding Member/Managing Director of Immediate Medium offers her thoughts on self-producing experimental theater. Thank you, Liz!# 1. What was the first show you produced? What was the most important lesson you learned?
I've been producing work with my company, Immediate Medium, since 2002. But most of what we did for a while were short pieces in group shows or more installation based work. The first full production we put up was in 2007 when we produced a 3 week run of an original piece, Things Are Going to Change, I Can Feel It. We learned a lot during this experience, but I think the most important thing we learned is that for our kind of experimental work it's key that everyone involved is really excited and dedicated to the project. It's crucial that every collaborator has a strong artistic stake in the project; if not, things can get hairy.
# 2. How do you define your role as producer? What do you enjoy most?
For our company, it's about getting the space and the funding to put up the pieces we want to develop together and ultimately show to the public. Therefore, every company member does whatever it takes; sometimes this means sharing responsibilities, delving into an area in which we have no expertise and it definitely means learning as we go. I have enjoyed learning and gaining knowledge about arts administration and producing that I might not have acquired otherwise.
#3. What are some of the benefits to producing your own work?
Complete artistic control! Granted I work with a collaborative, but we came together since we share an aesthetic and a set of values about performance and art as well as a creative drive that we bring to each new piece. It's great to know that we as a group have the ultimate say about what each piece will be.
#4. What are the unique challenges to wearing more than one hat? How do you deal with them?
It's particularly difficult when in production. During our productions, each company member has either been performing, directing or designing as well as helping produce the piece. Sometimes grant deadlines coincide with tech week or the demands of putting up a show combined with rehearsing and preparing to perform simply become overwhelming. You just don't sleep much - and deal.
# 5. Any words of wisdom for artists who want to produce their own work?
Talk to the people who's work you admire; find out how they do it. Or intern with them at first; just being in that environment and talking with fellow artists will teach you a lot of what you need to know to get started.
Liz Vacco is a Brooklyn-based performer and choreographer. For the past ten years, she has been active in the New York theater and dance communities, performing and creating with Les Freres Corbusier, The Collapsable Giraffe, Fovea Floods, Gold No Trade, The White Horse Theater, Sidra Bell NY and at St. Ann's Warehouse, P.S. 122, Lincoln Center's Clark Studio Theater and the Hangar Theater. Liz is a founding member and the Managing Director of the multi-disciplinary performance collaborative, Immediate Medium (www.immediatemedium.org). She has contributed to all IM works since 2002 as a collaborator, choreographer and performer. Additionally, she teaches dance, theater and yoga to young children through the New York City Ballet's Ballet Bridges and Ballet Tales Programs, at Discovery Programs and at Let's Dance Brooklyn. She has choreographed for student productions at the Browning School and the Imagine Project. She also worked for the non-profit organization, The Children's Aid Society, implementing and expanding the after-school theater program at P.S. 5. She received a BA from Yale, where she served as Co-President of Yaledancers. www.lizvacco.com
Friday, September 10, 2010
Contributed by Guest blogger of the week: Cyndy Marion1. What was the first show you produced? What was the most important lesson you learned?
And now we will hear from Matthew J. Nichols--Actor, Director and Co-Artistic Director of Zootopia Theatre Company (see complete bio below). Thank you for participating Matthew!
The first show I produced with Zootopia Theatre Company was PROFESSIONAL SKEPTICISM, a dark office comedy by James Rasheed. The most important lesson learned was to plan for everything and expect anything. Be organized but flexible. The more prepared we were at the start, the better able we were to roll with the punches. Also, surround yourself with good people and listen to their ideas.
2. How do you define your role as producer? What do you enjoy most?
Usually when I produce I am also fulfilling another artistic role such as acting or directing, but the most important thing to me is the success of the production as a whole. For Zootopia, since our focus is new works, I measure success by asking, are we serving this play with the best premiere possible within our means? My role as a producer is to ensure this success by gathering all the elements needed (the right creative team, casting, funding, performance and rehearsal space, etc.) to pave the way to success.
3. What are some of the benefits to producing your own work?
The biggest benefit, for me, is creative control and the pride of ownership. When I produce my own work, I get to decide where my passions lie, what projects I wish to work on, how I wish to work, and who I want to work with. There is nothing more fulfilling for me than looking back and thinking, I made that happen, with the help of others of course, but it never would have gotten off the ground unless I invested myself in it fully.
4. What are the unique challenges to wearing more than one hat? How do you deal with them?
The challenge to wearing multiple hats is to know when to wear them one at a time. For me, the producer exists outside of the rehearsal room, smoothing out any bumps in the road so that the artists can work without having to think about external forces. If I'm doing my job right, I don't confuse the two because I don't get in my own way.
5. Any words of wisdom for artists who want to produce their own work?
Don't rush into a project before you're ready. Good work takes time. Carefully plan what kind of production you envision, and think about how you wish the audience to experience it on every level, from the moment they first hear about it and decide to attend until the moment they leave the theatre.
Matthew J. Nichols is an actor and director in New York. As Co-Artistic Director of Zootopia Theatre Company, he has produced PROFESSIONAL SKEPTICISM by James Rasheed, STILL THE RIVER RUNS by Barton Bishop, and EMINENE by Barton Bishop for FringeNYC. Zootopia's productions have been nominated for seven NYIT awards, including an Outstanding Direction nomination for Matthew's work on STILL THE RIVER RUNS. Select acting credits include PROFESSIONAL SKEPTICISM,THREEPENNY OPERA (New Rep), A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (Colorado Shakes), and the independent film THE WEEKEND. www.zootopiatheatre.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
I am delighted to be your guest blogger for the week. I have decided to explore a topic close to my heart and often on my mind- Wearing More than One Hat: Artists as Producers: I have put together a few questions and assembled a panel of distinguished Off-Off Broadway Artists-Producers. We will be hearing from Matthew J. Nichols (Actor, Director and Co-Artistic Director of Zootopia Theatre Company), Liz Vacco (Performer, Choreographer and Founding Member/Managing Director of Immediate Medium), Kevin Doyle (Playwright, Director, and Artistic Director of Sponsored By Nobody), and I, too, will also weigh in on the subject.
So,...to get the ball rolling--I'lll go first.
# 1. What was the first show you produced? What was the most important lesson you learned?
The first show I produced was Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind with White Horse Theater back in 2003. I was brought onboard to direct the company's first production of True West the year before and things just clicked. When one of the founding members left I stepped in as Co-Artistic Director and things just went from there. It was a very ambitious production for a young company with very limited resources. The most important lesson I took away from this experience is never cut corners in the technical department. We did not put the necessary time and care into finding the right tech team for the show. We also did not pay enough attention to the type of equipment we had to work with when booking the theater space. With very limited tech time, these challenges proved costly. On opening night lights were popping on and off all over the place and sound was missing from crucial scene changes. If these technical details are missing it can really have an adverse effect on the show.
# 2. How do you define your role as producer? What do you enjoy most?
In the beginning I shared the producing responsibilities with actor Rod Sweitzer-the other White Horse Co-Artistic Director. As producers we would make the show happen from start to finish. From selecting the script and obtaining the rights to booking the right theater, raising funds (and in the beginning most of the money came from our own pockets), acquiring rehearsal space, selecting the right production team and finally casting the show. At first we would divide these tasks, but eventually I started taking on more of the producing role. I found myself actually enjoying the producing duties. As a director, it just felt like an organic part of the artistic process. From finding the right theater to work with my vision for the show, to selecting the right art to market it-the producing role seemed like a natural extension of my artistic responsibilities.
# 3. What are some of the benefits to producing your own work?
You have complete artistic and managerial control. You can select the material you want to work on, do it on your own terms and with the people you want to work with. It really is the ultimate artistic experience. I always refer to the work I do with White Horse as my "passion projects." It allows me to establish a unified tone for the artistic process and ensure that every decision made serves the best interest of the show. A well-produced play will benefit artistically. I have been involved in too many off-off experiences where the shows and artists suffered because they were poorly produced. Often the artists involved end up taking on many of the managerial responsibilities anyway (without receiving any credit for it) because the real producer falls short of giving the show what it needs. If we want props at the start of rehearsals I make sure that they're there. If I want to delegate a larger portion of the budget to the set I can do that. I also have the ability to set the rehearsal schedule so that it works with my day job. If anything goes wrong in the process I only have myself to blame and I have the power to fix the problem as well.
# 4. What are the unique challenges to wearing more than one hat? How do you deal with them?
Of course the major challenge in wearing more than one hat is finding the time to tackle all production aspects and give them each the attention they need. I find it very helpful to create a production timeline and start preparing about a year before the production date. I try to take care of as many of the producing responsibilities as possible before going into the rehearsal process, so that I can really focus on directing the play and not be overwhelmed worrying about all the managerial tasks that need to get done. Of course unforeseen emergencies do happen and this can be very stressful and distract me from the work. The more flexible I can be in approaching these issues the better and I take great care to bring very efficient and responsible people onboard the production who I know I can fully trust to help get the job done.
# 5. Any words of wisdom for artists who want to produce their own work?
Go for it. Don't wait for someone to hire you to do the work you really want to do. Take the bull by the horns. If your passion for the work is there you will find a way to make it happen. Take your time and do it right. Time will allow you to find the right resources to fit within your budget. Build a support network and do not be afraid to ask for help. Respect the people working with you and give them a rewarding experience. Keep at it. With each project you will learn more and be able to apply your knowledge to the next one.
CYNDY A. MARION is a native New Yorker and the Producing Artistic Director of the White Horse Theater Company. Her directing credits with WHTC include: CLOTHES FOR A SUMMER HOTEL, SMALL CRAFT WARNINGS, IN THE BAR OF A TOKYO HOTEL, BURIED CHILD, THE LATE HENRY MOSS, STATES OF SHOCK, A LIE OF THE MIND, TRUE WEST and a Workshop production of HALF. Other directing credits include: the world premieres of The Book of Lambert and MINA by Obie-winner Leslie Lee (La MaMa E.T.C.), PB&J (NYC International Fringe Festival), La Turista and Red Cross (Michael Chekhov Theatre Co.), Twister with an Octopus and Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry (The Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre), Fool for Love and Mud (Brooklyn College), Last Train To Nibroc (American Theatre of Actors), 12 Angry Men and Fighting The Gorilla (Riant Theatre), and The Mandala (The White Heron Inc.). She has directed readings of new plays for WHTC, La MaMa E.T.C., New Dramatists, The Players, and PRTT. She has trained with The SITI Company, La MaMa Umbria, Fordham in Italy, T. Schreiber Studio, The Acting Studio Inc., and NYU. Cyndy holds an MFA in Directing from Brooklyn College where she was the 2001 recipient of the Joel Zwick Scholarship in Directing. She is a member of The Players and The Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and was named one of nytheatre.com's "People of The Year for 2007." www.whitehorsetheater.com
Sunday, September 5, 2010
I'm writing as I head out to Montauk, NY on The Jitney. It's an annual getaway my lady and I do with some of our closest friends. We look forward to it all summer, for it's a time to relax, sit on the beach and have some of the best ice cream in the world.
In the not so distant past, I didn't take vacations. I remember times when I didn't leave NYC for two and three years at a time. I always had an excuse. Usually, it was lack of funds or being busy. Often, it was both. Then, one day I met this woman who vacationed. I mean, that's what she *does*. If she could live her life vacationing, she would. And I learned the value of getting away.
It's so easy to get burnt out - especially at the OOB level. We have few resources, little money and more often than not we're working day jobs on top of the full time hours spent writing, directing, designing, acting or producing. Sometimes, we feel if we feel if we leave town we'll miss out on opportunities.
But, if we don't take a break once in a while, the creative juices freeze up. Personally, I become a nervous wreck. It's imperative we rest. Sure, there's "super people" out there who run on two hours sleep a night and never take a vacation, but I just can't do that. NYC has a pace that is unlike any other. It amps up and sucks dry.
My recommendation: Get outta town!
Can't afford it? Save $5.00 a day. It's costing me $400 to stay with friends in a hotel/motel on the beach for 4 days. We put some money in a kitty, buy groceries, drinks and firewood for a campfire on the beach, and we just chill out. If you save $5 a day for 80 days, you've got enough cash to get away for a long weekend. Still to rich for your blood? Go camping. Or, find a friend with a house in New Jersey, Connecticut or Long Island so you aren't paying for a hotel. You know someone who will put you up for a night or two, and you don't have to go far to find respite.
Got a gig coming up? There's always a gig coming up. If you use this excuse, you'll never truly live, and more likely than not, you're not being picky enough with the work you're doing. True, work begets work, but how many craps shows have you done that suck your soul (and pocketbook) just because you think there *might* be an opportunity? Let this one go, focus on you, and when you return, you'll have clearer eyes to make better career decisions that will take you further.
This may be my last post for the week, since I'm heading off to "The End." The nickname for Montauk is "The End" because it is the last stop on the LIRR in Long Island. I like this, for it always feel like I'm going to the edge of the Earth, somehow. I feel like I can disappear into nothingness for a few days, and return rejuvenated. Tonight, as hurricane Earl smashes into the coast of Montauk I hope it isn't truly "the end," but I have a feeling it won't be. I have a feeling tomorrow's going to be a beautiful, sunny, new day.
Thanks to everyone at the Innovative Theatre Foundation for a chance to sound off here. You guys are tops.
Looking forward to seeing everyone when I get back!
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Recently Athol Fugard “berated dramatists” (will the overhyped online headlines never cease?) for failing to confront injustice. He, like those before him, scolds writers who take on more lucrative projects in film and television, and he suggests that these sister mediums are “passive experience.” There is a paragraph where Nicolas Kent, artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre, disagrees with Fugard, but there aren’t many details. Fugard does praise David Hare for his fight against injustice, and he suggests several global topics that are intriguing and valid. However, as I finished the article, I asked the question: Why doesn’t he write these plays?
To be clear – I love Athol Fugard. When I was in high school, I performed a cutting of his Master Harold…and the Boys as part of speech competition, and the first time I read that play I burst out crying. I lived and loved that play all the way to state finals. He is an activist, a director and a phenomenal dramatist. The respect I have for what he does is huge.
That’s why I’m so disappointed. Mr. Fugard obviously hasn’t been to see any theatre OOB in the past nine years. From the start of these despicable wars, I have seen more anti-war plays than anti-war films. The anti-establishment sentiments in theatre are so strong I’ve grown weary of them. Just as people have grown weary of the wars. This isn’t meant to rip apart Mr. Fugard’s opinion. His experience and reputation far outweigh my humble career. It is, however, easy to complain about the lack of political plays, overlooking a more important question:
Do political plays become irrelevant when they continually preach to the choir?
The real reason social change in the theatre is ineffective is because it often plays to an audience who agrees with the themes or messages. This also goes for film and television. Most drama confronting injustices are now passive because audiences have heard it all before. When it comes to film and television, people who want to see politically charged stories will Netflix or TiVo them (Let’s be real here – no one goes to the movies to see an anti-war film. They rent or record them).
A few years back, I went to a festival of “political theater” at the Ohio Theater, and all of the pieces I saw were slightly subversive, quickly & cheaply produced, and very, very leftist. I remember sitting there thinking, “Who is this festival for? Are any of these companies really effecting change in the community?”
Then, stuck onto the end of the evening, like drunken Uncle Harry, who happened to show up at the party and wanted to give a toast, was “The Right Wing.” Not the entire Right Wing, mind you, just a few viewpoints. A couple monologues and vignettes about abortion, the war and the economy. Mostly, social issues. All pushing back hard against an audience that didn’t agree at all.
I was one of those who didn’t agree. I laughed it off. I thought it was a piece of shit theatre (it was poorly done). But then I saw people talking, reacting, and getting riled up. It was the highlight of post show conversation. Taylor Mac had performed at the beginning of the night, and most people were asking “How did this conservative piece end up in a festival about politics?”
It was beautiful.
It was the first time I saw a New York theatre audience think about their politics. It made people discuss issues, rather than heading to the bar after the show and patting each other on the back for a “job well done” for “sticking it to the man”. I have no way to gauge the percentage of political plays produced in New York every year, but my guess is that of those political plays, over 90% of carry a leftist view. I’m not suggesting everyone go out and write plays supporting the Republicans, The Tea Party or fundamental religious groups. I’m suggesting we stop preaching to the choir. These plays are not effective in the echo chamber of liberalism. One of our foremost political playwrights doesn’t even hear the messages anymore. They are caught in the cacophony of leftist messages from people who don’t know how to propagate their message.
Granted, there are theaters across the world that are choosing seasons to placate subscribers, and Mr. Fugard’s argument that theaters are more concerned with the bottom line than facilitating change is spot on. What would happen, though, if political plays really took their message to the people?
About six years ago, The Imagination Liberation Front produced a play at Performance Space 122 titled I’m Gonna Kill the President: A Federal Offense. It was a huge success, and people loved it for the subversive and leftist outlandish antics. At the end of the play, they brought an audience member onstage and made her take out a cell phone and call the “White House.” At which point, the entire audience yelled in unison: “I’m Gonna Kill the President!” Not only was it political, it was funny and pushed peoples’ buttons on many levels. People left the show feeling a little unnerved, more supported in their beliefs that President Bush’s regime were full of assholes, and very entertained. In the end, though, I wonder if anyone was really stirred to action.
Cut to two years later: I’m Gonna Kill… goes on tour. The company packs themselves into a van and hit the heartland: Kalamazoo, Michigan. They present the play, and it all goes as planned – until the end. After the phone call to the White House, “FBI agents” (actors) storm the location and “arrest” the entire cast. The cast is handcuffed, the audience requested to exit the theater. That’s supposed to be the end of the play. Everyone goes home. But, one audience member wasn’t about to go quietly. He began to argue with the “FBI agents” and other audience members began arguing with him. Punches were thrown and a fight ensued. The producers had to talk the audience down, insisting what they’d experienced was part of the show. Finally, embarrassed and disheveled, the man backed down, and the play was truly over.
When was the last time you went to the theatre and there was a fist fight? Or, an argument? Or, even a heated discussion?
Danny Hoch’s most recent show Taking Over played The Public Theater a couple seasons back, and the play dealt with gentrification, primarily. The performance I attended was dead quiet. The lack of audience response was palpable. I enjoyed the show, but I felt a disconnect between Danny and the audience. A couple months before his engagement at The Public, Danny performed the play as part of the Hip Hop Theater Festival in The Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. I had the opportunity to ask Danny how those shows differed from the performances he gave at The Public. The difference, he said, was huge. In the boroughs, Danny was playing to his audience, his crowd. When a character in the play, a native New Yorker, yelled at those gentrifying, Danny said the hometown crowd cheered the character on. At The Public, he was “public enemy.”
It’s important for us to be public enemy, and we won’t do that by staying in black boxes in downtown NYC where our 10 friends, 4 family members and a couple strangers cheer us on. We need to take it to the unconverted. If you have a play about the economy, figure a way to do it on the steps of The Federal Reserve or in front of the bull statue on Wall Street. A play about war? Find a way to do it next to an Army recruiting center. Have a great idea about a satire on Barak Obama being a Muslim? Do it in Alabama. Just don’t get shot.
OOB doesn’t just mean small, it doesn’t just mean scrappy, it doesn’t just mean New York City. It means doing theatre the big boys won’t touch. When New York Theatre Workshop wouldn’t put up My Name is Rachel Corrie, members of LAByrinth Theatre company met at a bar across the street from the theater and read excerpts of the play in protest. It wasn’t a production, but it took the controversy directly to the doorstep of injustice.
The only way to bring change is to raise awareness, and when we produce plays and share them for people who are already aware, it might as well be falling on deaf ears. We don’t need more plays confronting injustice. We need to take the plays fighting injustice to those causing injustice.
It's a start, a work of art
To revolutionize make a change nothin's strange
People, people we are the same
No we're not the same
Cause we don't know the game
What we need is awareness, we can't get careless
You say what is this?
My beloved lets get down to business
Mental self defensive fitness (Yo) bum rush the show
You gotta go for what you know
Make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be
Lemme hear you say... Fight the Power
“Fight the Power” – Public Enemy, 1989