Monday, January 30, 2012

I don’t know you, but I love you.

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Hillary Cohen.

Everything you need to know about my family background, you can get from seeing a good production of anything by Neil Simon. I was raised 20 minutes outside of New York City by the kind of White Flight pseudo-intellectuals who wanted me to appreciate free thinking artists, but not starve like one.

So, as my IT Staff bio says, I saw my first Off-Off-Broadway play as a second grader in 1988 and have been hooked ever since. I cannot act, know very little about creating good design, and am more likely to inadvertently alienate a talented cast than direct them effectively, but I EFFING LOVE THEATER. Everything to do with it.

I’ve always done “support”. That means for nearly 25 years, I have been helping creative people create. I copy edit program text. I merge whole company’s crazy availability into a cohesive production schedule. I organize grant application attachments in the order they appear in the guidelines. Most importantly: I see stuff, attend attentively, and proselytize for my favorites. I’m a fan.

And you are…? And this is in reference to…?

The above preamble is to say, I know most of you don’t really know me. Maybe you’ve talked to our amazing Founding Directors. They are excellent as the Face of the Organization because they are passionate, articulate, and naturally good looking. Maybe you heard about us through our inspiring Company, Communications, or Outreach volunteer staff. Hopefully, you’re reading this blog because you want to engage with the larger Off-Off-Broadway community the IT Awards strives to represent.

The Judge Wrangler can be, at times, a shadowy figure. Most of our registration and adjudication process happens entirely online through web forms and automated emails. (If any of this is unclear, PLEASE check out the presentation here or the video here.) I don’t know what scores anyone puts on their ballot and I don’t want to know. My job is to keep the elegant IT Awards system moving and I take my job pretty seriously.

I like making lists.
That is why some of the emails we Judge Co-Coordinators get surprise the heck out of me! I’d really like to use my first Guest Blogger post to address them.

Who am I to judge?
  1. You aren’t Theater Critics.
    Sometimes we get an email saying the production cannot find a company member to serve as delegate judge because they do not feel qualified to judge their peers. Don’t confuse participating in the adjudication process with being a Theater Critic.

    Criticism as a profession has developed from journalistic tradition of analysis and editorializing. Tony Scott in no more a filmmaker than Paul Krugman’s a senator. Shows are registered with us by artists who want to be seen and scored by their peers; their fellow Indy Theater practitioners. They are choosing to participate in the more than just their company; they are inviting in the larger Indy scene. Take them up on this invitation…and let them know how close to “flawless” they get. Which brings us to:
  2. The community (YOU) defines what is Outstanding.
    The awards are decided based on a peer evaluation system. When a production is registered, the producers understand and accept that their fellow OOB practitioners and their audience will be determining their final scores. The IT Awards do not recognize Outstanding Level of Dedication or Outstanding Execution of a Stated Vision or Outstanding Ability to Produce Against Difficult Odds. If they did, I seriously think you would all win. Seriously.

    Hundreds of productions register every year. To be one of the few recognized out of that big a group really is an honor. By averaging 3 peer judges’ with the total audience scores, the IT Awards gather responses as diverse as the registrant pool. We don’t suffer from Flavor of the Month style prevailing preferences or the traditional expectations of an established Old Guard because the voters change as much and as often as the community does. Which brings us to:
  3. The schedule doesn’t care if it is your cup of tea.
    Some judges “cherry pick” their assignments. Not all, but some. I sincerely wish they didn’t. For every judge who only accepts proposed judging assignments for which they would have bought a ticket anyway…there is an equal and opposite producer who doesn’t want “some random Board Member from a Children’s Puppet Theater” judging their distinctly not Children’s Puppet Theater show.

    Trust me, folks. Producers, you want the randoms! They will see your work with fresh eyes and you’ll get more honest feedback in the Comments. Sure everyone wants to see their friends' work, but you learn more and get a greater perspective when you see the unexpected and the previously unknow.  I was a relatively popular kid in senior high and in my college theater troupe, so I remember how great clique membership can be. Cliques, however, can suffer from Groupthink. Don’t let Groupthink get in the way of your theater company’s growth and your growth as an artist. Supporting one another is good. Letting it keep you from getting better is sad.

    And Judges, you want to randomly see something you would not pick on your own! It might be super weird or super predictable in the exact opposite way your work is not, it might remind you of how great your work is in comparison, it might remind you what not to do.
    If you’ve ever complained that you’ve never heard of the nominees or that nothing you’ve judged has gotten nominated, I respectfully suggest you ask yourself if you accepted the “never heard of them” assignments to actively score a show in or out of the running or filed an audience member ballot for work that really stuck with you. This is how your honest reaction ensures the season’s highest scores really do go to what the community deems its most outstanding work.
I know you’re busy, but we throw a couple of fun parties each summer. It would be great to see you there. Maybe you’ll actually meet me then. If not, just know I’m a huge fan.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Guest Blogger of the Week: Hillary Cohen

We would like to thank Sean Williams for his awesome blogs last week.

We are excited to announce that this week's guest blogger is our very own Hillary Cohen.

Hillary Cohen shuffles corporate partnerships paperwork for Baruch College/CUNY during the day and assigns judges for the New York Innovative Theatre Awards at night. She lives in unwedded bliss in leafy Park Slope with her tireless and tiring Domestic Partner, Jason Marin. Hillary likes to think she is hilarious on Facebook. Friend her and you'll see why. Before joining the IT Awards and Foundation staff, she was as a stage management intern for 2002 O'Neill Playwright's Conference. Her New York stage management credits include Cantata (Playwrights Theatre of New York), Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and Causin' A Scene (Big Step Productions), Chopin's Preludes (HERE American Living Room series), and several great Emerging Artists Theatre Company shows. She has served as a resident stage manager for Emerging Artists and was the company's Production Manager for their 2004-05 season. Hillary is a graduate of Drexel University with a degree in Corporate Communication and a Theatre Production minor. She attended the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.

Friday, January 20, 2012

You don't deserve anything.

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Sean Williams.

It's the end of my week here and I feel like I've given you the sweet nutty uncle of the indy theater world, but I haven't really given you the full grouchy old man, so let me do my part to end with the advice that every old person wants to give to every young person.

You don't deserve anything.

See, this is the toughest pill to swallow, but the most important one. No matter how hard you work, what you've done with your life, how steadfastly you follow the rules or how bravely you break them, you don't deserve the things you want.

As a theater practitioner, there's a spectrum from self-satisfied storyteller all the way to mercenary hack, and on the one end the artist is happy just to have told a story and to be heard, on the other the businessperson is only happy if the show sells out and the production runs in the black. But the fact is, you don't *deserve* an audience at all, let alone one that hears and understands your story.

You need to know this. You get together with eight of your friends, spend three or four years producing plays and build an ensemble theater of like-minded people with a clear vision. You go out and raise as much money as you can, you start a Kickstarter campaign, you apply for grants (see SEAN'S SECOND BLOG). You find a bold play that inspires all of you (see SEAN'S FIRST BLOG) and you begin the process of rallying around it and making it happen. You spend six months sending out press releases and keeping the story in the public eye (see SEAN'S THIRD BLOG) and the whole thing is thrumming along, with the community around you building excitement and energy.

And in rehearsal, you're discovering things about yourself. About your friends. This director you've worked with before, suddenly she just explodes, her vision and clarity is better on this project than anything else she's ever done. And you look at your community of actors, these friends that you've laughed with and been drunk with and gotten high with and woke up wearing the wrong shirts with - suddenly they're improving scenes that lead directly into what's written, their honesty is astonishing to you, and that feeling you have, that you're in the right place at the right time, is starting to coalesce into an assurance. You know; This is it.

You get into tech rehearsals, and the set  perfectly matches the play's themes, and all the blocking that you've been working through in rehearsal, it's now clear what it was all about. Your Alexander technique, your Viewpoints, the diary you kept in character, the time you spent practicing to be a cat, all of it is *informing* the play in a way that it simply never has before. And tech goes perfectly, the cue-to-cue is actually easy, somehow it's easy, and on two of the light cues, the cast actually catches their breath. And the sound cue, just before curtain, the sound cue matching the end of the show makes the whole cast and crew burst out laughing and you hear the playwright and the director, in unison, yell "FUCK YEAH!!!!"

Then stop right there. Because that feeling is all you actually deserve.

Y'see, the show will open. And more than likely, half the people you think *should* see the show just won't come. You'll have nights you have to paper the house. The local retirement home, the ones you ignored when they asked for comps, they're gonna fill up one whole performance. For free. And they'll sleep.

And the reviewers will come and, worse than hating it articulately, worse than hating it and being stupid, they'll be smart and they'll write very smart reviews that say, "It's pretty good, actually. Not a bad play." A shrug. Every night for two hours, you sweat through your costume, you remember your monologue, you articulate your fight choreography perfectly, and people watch it and go, "… cool! Yeah, that was really cool. How did you remember all those lines…?"

No matter how hard you worked, none of us actually *deserves* an audience and reviews and attention. Karma doesn't exist in Theater.

There is only one reason to do it. Because in the middle of that sea of shruggers and nappers, there's gonna be one person. Maybe she's a director who works with a different company, maybe he's an actor who has lost his way. Or even better, maybe he's a local Otolaryngologist who used to do theater back in school and just needed a reminder of how much he loves it. But there's someone out there who will take what you did, the two hours of what you did, as a part of the conversation of their lives. It will inform the way they look at the world. Your play will change the way they read the news the next day, the way they approach their next job, the way they treat the people they see at work in the morning.

We sat around the fires at the foot of Kilimanjaro, before the exodus, before our skin and eyes changed, and one of us stood up and sang a song and told a story, and almost everyone else sitting around the fire was thinking about food and sex, but one kid in the back heard the song and thought, "I want to sing. Maybe a *little bit different*, but I want to sing too." That kid grew up and sang to a group of bored and distracted people who were thinking about bison and banging, but there was a kid in the back of that group too. And a hundred thousand years later, the fires are now fresnels and the singer is now a company, but you need to know that the audience is still thinking mostly about dinner and genitals, and our legacy is to talk to the 5% of people for whom it will change their lives.

Obedience to that legacy is our responsibility, and we are owed nothing in return.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Tale of Augie & Marlena

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Sean Williams.

Augie and Marlena had known each other since they were kids. Augie was best friends with Marlena's older brother, and even though they were four years apart, they had gone to neighboring high schools. Augie was a barrel chested guy, took up all the seat on the subway and never seemed to really button his corduroy suit coat. Marlena was cute, but short, tiny really. It seemed as if people were often looking right over her.

Augie moved to New York to be a theater director, and Marlena moved there too, although she wasn't exactly sure what she wanted to do. She just knew she wanted to be there, wanted to be a part of something, wanted to live in the city. She and Augie hung out a lot with a bigger group of friends, some old friends, mostly new theater people, and she saw some of the shows he had directed. After she'd seen a particularly strange piece, one that Augie loved and the critics didn't, Marlena found herself desperately wanting to write.

A few months later, she brought the script to Augie. It was a stage play… sort of. And it was a mess, he could tell, and not long enough to be a full play. But she was his best friend's kid sister, so he said he'd read it. That night he sat on his futon and opened the play with the TV on in the background. Ten minutes later, he turned off the TV. An hour after that, he pulled out his notebook.

He didn't sleep that night.

He called Marlena the next morning. She got off work at 6, they could get a drink, she said. He didn't sleep that day either, and when he saw her at the bar, still in work clothes, he noticed that she wasn't as young as he thought. She was short, that was all, but she was older. She wasn't the same kid he'd known all those years ago.

He pulled out his notes and she drank a beer. There isn't enough here for a whole night, that's really the problem. But why does there have to be any more, she asks, and he tells her that people don't want to pay for a play that is this short, they want an actual play. She says maybe that's true… or maybe other people's plays are too long.

He laughs, because that's not how it works, and he doesn't know if he can explain it to her. And when he laughs, her smile cuts him off, because he suddenly realizes that maybe he's wrong. Maybe she's right… but it doesn't matter, there are some real problems with the script. There's a dog, and it's not a person playing a dog, it's an actual dog. A person can't do the things that a dog can do. And she says that maybe it's a puppet. Or maybe a person with prosthetic dog arms and legs. And he knows there's no such thing, except… then he realizes that maybe there is such a thing. They'd just have to make it.

But… in the play, the girl flies at the end. And he says, "we can't rig it so she flies," and she says, "maybe she can be carried. Or maybe a swing!" and he knows not to laugh, in half an hour he's learned not to laugh, but he also knows she can't be carried, there can't be a swing. He says so.

And she smiles and says, "then maybe she'll just have to actually fly."

And there's no actual sound, there's no physical sensation, but years later he'll remember a deep bass pop like a guitar being plugged in, and a bump in his stomach like hitting the turnstile on the subway…

Have you read this far? Do you want to know the rest of the story? Do you want to see the play they made?

Don't ask anyone outside of theater about marketing. None of you. Do you know what we sell? We sell two hours in an uncomfortable seat, at a time when you'd rather be eating dinner, during which you aren't allowed to speak, whisper, cough or move. That's what we're selling. So why do people buy it?

Because nobody else in America knows how to tell the story the way we do. There are two stories, one is in your play, and one *is* your play, and if you let us in on both stories, we won't be able to turn away. Use your blog, your twitter feed, your Facebook page, any chance you have to talk about your story.

Don't let any business person tell you about marketing, and that includes arts business people. We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of the dream.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Where does the money come from?

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Sean Williams.

Producing is a lot of things, yes, and I don't know a single producer who wears one hat, but if we are going to go strictly by our titles, then "Producer" is the person who finds the money to pay everyone, and then collects the money at the end. In a for-profit world, we find the money to build the widget factory, and then we collect the money from the people who buy the widget. Unfortunately, in our world, there's no factory and no profit, so as much as we hang on to these terms, they don't really mean what we want them to mean.

So let's talk for a minute about who is paying for your show.

1) Grants. I want to talk about grants for one second, because that's all they're worth. Yes, they are out there. Yes, you should apply and do everything you can to get them. But here is a fact for you, cold and hard - non-profit corporations bring in just over 10% of their funding through grants. That's ALL non-profits. And if you spend some time looking up grant application, you'll find that a vast majority of the available funding for non-profits out there is NOT for arts organizations, and the funding that is out there is being gobbled up. There is no holy grail in Grants. Please know this before you spend all your time and money becoming non-profit and 501C-3.

2) Funders. AH! Yes. Yep… This is… yeah. See, this is where it gets rough. But almost all arts organizations get all their money from individual funders. Basically from wealthier folks who are personal fans of the producer and his or her work. And this… It is what it is.

Should I try to defend this? I can't. I grew up as a lower-to-middle class American, going to public school, and then free junior college until I could transfer to a public university… but that STILL makes me one of the wealthiest people IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. I went to college, and my friends in college went into business, and their friends like our shows… you see where I'm going with this.

So, when you look at the professional theater world and you see a profound inequity, and you blame the artistic directors or the producers or whatever, please just keep in mind what I said about "Grants" above. These poor assholes think they have no choice.

But WE DO. And I'll get to that in a minute, so just bear with me.

3) Your Staff. These are the real source of your funding. Wait, you're saying, say, your actors have never invested in your company? Well, let me ask you this. According to the showcase code, you're allowed to schedule thirty-five hours of rehearsal a week, for five weeks, and then run sixteen shows over four weeks. In return, you're responsible to pay for the actor's transportation.

That's two months where that actor is forbidden to find other employment, and hundreds of hours of work, both in and outside rehearsal, all for the cost of a monthly metrocard. If you paid him or her *minimum wage*, then the rehearsal period alone would be $928. So, please keep in mind, when you're casting a show, who's doing whom a favor here. The actors are doing VASTLY more for you than you could EVER do for them. When you look at an audition room, the producers are the ones with their hats in their hands, and all you actors should know that.

4) Your Audience. Ah! This is where you will make back all your money, right? After all, if you sell out 90 seats a night, for 16 shows, at $18 a pop, you will earn almost $26,000!!!

It might happen, sure, but even if it does, that's no model to live by. Would you take a full time job that paid you 26k a year? That's what most of us spend on rent.

But what if you sell the show to an off-Broadway producer? Yes, that would be great, but far more likely is that THE SCRIPT will be optioned, not your production. And if the production is optioned, they will want you to help come up with the money. And then, suddenly, you're in the world of watching-your-back and obsessing-about-the-bottom-line.

We don't have to be those guys.

I mean, that's the fun thing, right? We aren't screwed into a corner the way the big theaters are. I went to the Devoted and Disgruntled thing here in New York a few years back, right after "Outrageous Fortune" came out, and BOY were people throwing a fit. Every regional theater, every off-Broadway group, every organization was freaking out about how screwed they all were, especially with the cuts in the NEA and the fear of a disappearing audience.

And I walked out of that place elated. Because five companies, that very month, were putting on episodic shows at the Vampire Cowboys Battle Ranch in Brooklyn, and when we weren't on stage we were all sitting in folding chairs drinking beer and yelling for our friends. These regional theaters were trying to figure out how to reach a new younger audience by selling skittles in the lobby, and meanwhile "Craven Monkey" was going up at The Brick.

We're in a better position than almost anyone in America as storytellers, writers, actors and artists. Think about it. I know, it's really hard to scrape together, say, ten thousand dollars, but EVERY SINGLE OTHER ART FORM requires so much more. You wanna go off-Broadway? For ten grand? You wanna make a TV show. A MOVIE? Are you kidding?  If you want to make a single *sculpture*, how much do you think that will cost?

I know that raising money is hard, but it should be a *little* hard, right? Your sole source of funding is "people giving you money", but that's true for almost everyone at all levels of theater. The difference is, nobody can make more with less. I am willing to defend the statement - no business in America can make more with less than the Indy Theater World. If you've got a thousand dollars, you've got a show, and nobody else in any industry can say that.

We're already light. We're already flexible. We already do theater in the back of a van. We're already appealing to a younger crowd, a group of theater people who don't know they're theater people yet. And twenty years from now, when the world wants to remember how culture got to be the way it is in 2032, they're gonna remember The Brick and Horsetrade and The Mad Ones and Cry Havoc and Rising Phoenix and Flux Theatre Ensemble… and if we just keep pushing, maybe they'll remember me and you too.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What is your smell?

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Sean Williams.

Oh, we never take the advice of our long-toothed wizened elders, do we? When I decided to stop pursuing a career as an actor, I joked to my friend Mac, "If only someone had told me it would be so *difficult*…" We are told many of the same things, over and over again, but we just don't want to listen. And yet, it's the curse of the elders that we Just Can't Stop ourselves from desperately trying to run interference, to stop you youngins from making the same mistakes we did.

And so, here I go. Another guy who tossled his grey hair this morning and cast his memories back to Gerald Ford, who has decided that you, the fair producers of innovative theater, need to know what I think I know. They gave me a week, so I'm gonna give you some guidelines that will help you in your pursuit of that elusive 99-Seat monster success you just *know* you're gonna score.

1) Be Who You Are.
I really feel worst for the poor kids who come limping out of their 20s and into their early 30s with their Equity cards and their MFAs, finding themselves determined to create a theater company of "like minded artists" who are committed to "thought-provoking theater" which will "leave audiences talking". Of course you are, my darlings. But who are you? Write down everything you are, write down your dreams and ambitions, and then CROSS OUT *EVERYTHING* that could apply to ANY OTHER THEATER COMPANY.

I'll give you an example. When The Vampire Cowboys sit down to try to tell someone who they are, do they have an answer? Yes, of course. And is *part* of that answer to expand their audience, to tell thought-provoking stories, to create more opportunity for grants and funding, to secure reviews from leading arts magazines and to better support their artistic team? Yes. That's totally part of it. But do you think that's the part that *ANYONE* talks about? Of course not.

I just wrote to Qui and asked him what VC does, and he wrote back -

"We create action infused comic book style geek theatre… for geeks… which we think is everyone."

Qui and Robert Ross Parker stuck their noses in their armpits, breathed deep their own funk and then raised their heads and said, "yyyyyYYYes! THIS IS WHAT WE SMELL LIKE!!!"

You should do this because it will separate you from the rest of the pulsing pile of humanity that is exhaling theater all over the city, and it will also give you clarity when the productions you initially wanted to do are now done, and you have to move on to what is next. If you know how you smell, then you'll know the stink of your next project from a ways away.

But… there's a more important reason. See, you can't just worry about failure, you also have to worry about success. If you look around and say "A ha. It seems that plays about frogs are very successful, so let me find a frog play!" And then you produce it. And everyone comes. And everyone thinks it's great!

But then you have to look at yourself and say, "That was awesome! TOTALLY AWESOME! Man!… So. That was… Um… I wonder if there are any more frog plays out there… Or, maybe, uh… maybe I should start doing, y'know, *amphibians* of some sort, but still basically frogs, y'know, still frogs, just… Wait! I don't know anything about frogs!…. I don't actually care about frogs AT ALL…"

If you do plays that smell like you, and everyone hates the smell, then that's fine. Maybe you have a condition or something. But if you do plays that smell like someone else, and everyone loves them, then you'll never know how to sniff out your next play. And, the most devastating of all, you do a play that smells like someone else, and everyone hates it, and you find yourself sniffing and saying "Yeah! I know! I don't like the smell either! WHY DID I DO THAT?"

But there is no finer feeling when you greet people at the door of the theater and are able to say, "This play? This is me. This is me and my friends, this is what we want to say, and how we want to say it. In a perfect world, you will love it, but even if you don't, all I ask is that you hear who we are." As a producer, this has to be your only goal, every time, and every other decision you make has to be made in service to this ideal.

In summation, get with like-minded people and look at who you actually *are* and then boldly believe that who you are is worth it for 90 people to spend $18 a night. I'm gonna talk about money and marketing and personnel and all that, but this is the most important thing, the first thing you need to do.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Guest Blogger of the Week: Sean Williams

Sean Williams is currently the executive producer for Gideon Productions, although he is toying around with changing his title to "Viscount". With Gideon, he has produced Viral, Universal Robots, Hail Satan, Fleet Week The Musical and a whole stack of things that he's just as proud of but you probably didn't see. He also served as the executive producer of The Soundtrack Series from it's inception through November of 2011. His day job consists of working for different publishing companies as a music educator, and parenting his two small children like Captain Von Trapp - except the Captain Von Trapp at the end when he's very nice. While he has acted in some four dozen productions, man and boy, he held a press conference in 2005 announcing his retirement and he would like people to *respect* that, if you please. Needless to say, he will be acting in Gideon's upcoming production of Advance Man running at The Secret Theater in January.