Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Joe Mathers.
I get to follow up Gus Schulenberg?! Great. Well folks, you’d best get ready for some dumbing down. Gus is a rather prolific writer, and has a way of explaining the world in a way that makes you feel like you’ve just been raw dogged by Aristotle. In a good way.
I’ve been in NYC for the last 12 years with a variety of companies, doing all kinds of different roles, both onstage and off. After all, when you’re doing OOB Theater, you rarely can do just one task. Even you purists who say – “I’m just an actor!” probably do more self-marketing and self-promotion than call girls in Vegas.
That’s nothing new I think, especially for anyone who’s a reader of the various blogs, and publications, or keeps a weather eye on the ITA site. If you’re generally aware of the independent theater scene, especially if you’re an active participant, you know that we’re all pretty much self-made.
OOB theater, or yes, as I like to call it, Independent Theater (it just seems kinda sexy right?) is a vital part of what constitutes the art form as we know it today. With the costs of producing a large-scale show exploding year after year, and the resources available to do so shrinking at an alarming pace, I believe independent, OOB Theater is even more important than ever. It’s always a good gamble – and I’m continually astonished that people plunk down their hard earned cash for dreck when they could see 5-10 great shows instead of “turning off the dark.”
On a personal level, independent theater is where I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of my work and on the whole it’s been work that has made me supremely happy. But here’s a great question – why? Why bother?
People who know me can tell you I’m a relatively practical person, and so I’ll be honest up front – if I had the opportunity to be making vast sums of money (or hell, even a comfortable living) performing on Broadway, on TV or in film, sure – I’d be doing that. I’m not an idiot – but I wouldn’t confuse that with what happens in independent theater – which exists for art, not commerce.
Alas, opportunities to sell out to commercial interests have been few and far between for me. I’ve had a few lucky breaks, and made a little money here and there, but like many of us, I’ve had to put in the “day job” hours.
Those day jobs however have allowed me to pursue projects and endeavors that I can be very choosy about. I firmly believe that if I’m not getting paid to do something, I’d better love doing it. And I do love it. It’s incredible to be a part of this community.
I think that’s why OOB is such a great thing for those of us who are making independent theater. When everyone is involved in a project because they want to be there, even though it’s costing them time, sleep, or shifts at the restaurant, I find there’s something different to their work – no one is phoning it in. Or if they are, they don’t tend to be seen around a lot.
I’m not saying what happens in independent theater is always amazing – in fact, I’ve seen and been seen in or built a lot of theater that is… well… not to my taste. Oh hell, some of it’s been awful. For those who saw that 1999 production of The Lottery at Center Stage – well, there you go. Sorry, it wasn’t my best work.
But – even at it’s worst, when it is failing spectacularly to be watchable, and I want to gouge out my eyeballs – there is something noble and magical happening. I may hate it, but this isn’t happening to please me, or fill some economic niche. It happens because people believe in it. There’s a story they want to tell. I don’t have to like it, or the people who make it, to admire it.
All that said, I’ve been fortunate to be lumped in with some incredibly talented people over the years. The folks at Flux, Impetuous, Gideon, Nosedive, Vampire Cowboys, and on and on – and from each group of people I’ve learned something crucial to my own work.
For example - currently I’m performing in Retro Productions latest endeavor – Dear Ruth. I’m not spoiling anything to tell you that I don’t have a gigantic pivotal role, but I have a fun role. And the cast I’m working with is incredibly talented. I count any show I’m involved in as successful for me if I’m doing good work, and I’m able to steal a few things from my fellow performers.
Or, maybe steal is the wrong word. Borrow? No wait… it’s an homage.
I mean – can I “homage” someone’s thought process and interpret it for myself somewhere down the line in another show? Can I add a dash of Matthew Trumbull’s timing to my bag of tricks? Can I “homage” Becky Byers’ simplicity in a vulnerable moment? Actually, probably not - but I can try.
Doing Dear Ruth allowed me to sit in the room and watch artists create a show, and take part in that creation. Seeing Shay Gines take what was ostensibly a rather dreadfully racist caricature and turn it into a fully realized person with her own odd sense of humor is priceless. Being present for Heather Cunningham and David Sedgwick turning a bunch of witty banter into warmth and storied affection is just as great, and as a performer, I learned a few tricks from watching them.
I do OOB because I learn more and more about performing and making art in a single show than I did in all the classes I took in college. Granted, we were doing selections of friggin’ Key Exchange so watching Alisha Spielmann fall for Douglas Giorgis’ warmth and tempered strength is obviously way better. And heck, I’m playing a guy who cozies up to Matilda Szydagis, and I get to wear a snazzy 1944 Army Air Corps uniform.
It’s not like I’m being tortured here.
I did that last year – it was called The Vigil or The Guided Cradle.
I love independent theater because I am part of it and I have built up some truly cool skills along the way. I’ve learned to do a lot of stuff.
What other stuff goes on? What else have you learned? Why are you asking so many questions? What are you, a cop?
Keep watching – and this week I’ll tell you what I know about the other side of OOB – the dirty, seedy underbelly of it all… not the sex and drugs, but the carpenters and electricians who build and light it, the stage hands who move it, and occasionally the fight choreographers who make it look like people are beating the snot out of one another.
And I won’t even talk about what it’s like to form a company, and produce theater. That’s more insane than anything, but without those loonies, where would we be?
Well… we could be stuck hoping our $250 tickets to commercial formulas (comic book fans + U2 fans = revenue) were worth it.