Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Out with the Old…

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, James Carter.

This week is my 17th anniversary of living in New York City. I, like so many before me, came here to study acting. I attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and shortly thereafter, I was cast in my first play. The play came and went, and the venue, One Dream in TriBeCa, disappeared, too, like so many of the other Off-Off Broadway spaces in downtown New York. I went on to perform at Nada on Ludlow, cut my teeth writing at Collective:Unconscious , and I experienced some of my favorite avant-garde work at Surf Reality and The Theatorium. All are gone, except the names and memories. Trav S.D. gave a great obituary for some of these venues in a 2003 The Village Voice article, examining a shift in the theatrical landscape of the Lower East Side. Recently, our beloved Ohio Theatre lost its space, and this season, 3LD (who recently overcame their own real estate woes) will help keep The Ohio floating on their ship for the time being. When we’re in the thick of it, it feels like the creative joy will never end. But it does end. Everything always does.

I don’t want to lament the loss of downtown theaters. Too often, our community focuses on loss of “great theaters” that cultivated life from their petri dishes of downtown awesomeness. Some truly are victims of inflation, real estate vampires and lack of funding. Some people, however, do not know how to manage spaces and let venues run to near ruins because egos stand in the way of allowing those more knowledgeable help them improve or change bad business practices. There are great moments in OOB, but there are horrors, too. The loss of some theaters may not be a bad thing. I even suggest the loss of some theaters have created opportunity where many OOB theatre artists would have never imagined 15 years ago. That opportunity is Brooklyn.

What I’m sharing isn’t new. The Brick, Chez Bushwick and Vampire Cowboys are the shit. They are the new homes to displaced downtowners who once lived across and down the street from Katz’s Delicatessen (http://www.katzdeli.com/). Two of the three of these are Caffe Cino Fellowship winners. All three of them generate work at a fast and furious level. Granted, Vampire Cowboys produce in Manhattan, but their Battle Ranch houses Saloons and rehearsal space for some of the greatest OOB theatre artists, including Taylor Mac. Fresh artists like Reggie Watts, Thomas Bradshaw, Crystal Skillman and Qui Nguyen throw down in the BK. These homes allow artists to explore, create and, most importantly, have fun. These companies have proven you don’t need to be in Manhattan to be cool, and people will trek a few stops into Brooklyn to experience new and exciting theatre.

We are a sentimental bunch, theatre people. We laugh hard, love hard and we lose hard. We will go kicking and screaming before someone takes what’s “ours”. Theatre people don’t have much, and when we get something – anything at all – we cling to it for dear life. I’m suggesting that we learn to let go. There was a wise old dude who explained why we all suffer – it’s because we cling to things. Let it go, and you no longer suffer. The less we suffer, the clearer our minds will be to move forward and generate great theatre.

It all ebbs and flows, and we need to focus on now. If a venue is endangered, of course we should fight for it. More importantly, though, we should focus on the OOB theaters that are succeeding. Why are they succeeding? Did they go to Brooklyn and find cheaper rent? Did they get sharp managers who wish to treat fellow artists with respect? Do they keep their season manageable, not overloading, double booking, and writing checks their butts can’t cash? Too often we roll our eyes and allow poorly run theater spaces to continue abusing and hurting the very community it purports to support. It seems we should focus on those doing it well to figure out how to get better.

The landscape of OOB has drastically changed over the past 17 years. When I arrived in New York, there was no organization like the Innovative Theatre Awards. The League of Independent Theatre hadn’t even been imagined. Hell, the word “blog” didn’t even exist, and now we have a place to put our thoughts and share with each other. As we entered the 21st Century, our gathering spaces may have changed, but they’ve become more organized and more global. Now, we congregate on Twitter and Facebook, sharing links with people from other countries, growing our understanding of theatrical greatness. If we embrace all that works and let go of that which doesn’t, we will grow by learning from the past.

What are some venues you think are doing a great job and why?

Guest Blogger of the Week: James Carter

Thanks very much to last week's blogger, Neal J. Freeman!

We're happy to announce this week's blogger - James Carter!

James Carter is a dramatist and producer. Full length plays include: Reaching Outpost (commissioned by Kaneland High School, Elburn, IL), Baby Steps (The Lion, Theatre Row), FEEDER: A Love Story (Center Stage, NY – terraNOVA’s 3rd Annual Solo Arts Festival & Collective: Unconscious’ undergroundzero Festival 2008), and Family Wayward (terraNOVA’s Groundbreakers Reading Series). One acts include: “Billy’s Bad Behavior” (part 1) and “Number Four” (part 2) with Impetuous Theater Group’s 2006 47:59 Festival; “The Christmas Card” for Center Stage, NY’s ‘Open 24 Hours’ hosted by John Patrick Shanley. Producer - Artists’ Night, dancelikeforever (CSNY), Baby Steps, Buck Fever (Blue Heron Arts Center), Lead Curator on terraNOVA’s soloNOVA Arts Festival (2004-2010 – DR2 Theatre & D-Lounge, Performance Space 122, Mo Pitkin’s, Center Stage, NY and People’s Improv Theater), Curator and Producer on SUBTERRANEAN, a monthly performance party (D-Lounge). James also served as Season Producer for The Ensemble Studio Theatre’s 2007/2008 season, including: Going to the River 2007, Lucy (William Carden, dir.), and On The Way To Timbuktu (written & performed by Petronia Paley; Talvin Wilks, dir.), Thicker Than Water 2008 (Youngblood), Marathon 2008 (playwrights – Auburn, Black, LaBute, Mac, Rivera), Close Ties (Pamela Berlin, dir). James is the Associate Artistic Director for terraNOVA Collective. http://www.terranovacollective.org

Sunday, August 29, 2010

This Week in This Week

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Neal Freeman

I decided for my last blog post for this week (and possibly ever) that I would do a little nutshell of the things I have done during the week in my capacity of Executive Director of The Gallery Players and producer of our upcoming show, What the Butler Saw. This is all while working one full-time job and two other part-time jobs. I suspect much of this will be familiar to those of you who produce at or run independent theater companies in New York. For the rest of you, it will probably be completely boring.

As things go, this was actually a pretty light week.

At 11am I met one of our volunteers at the theater who has some expertise in sound equipment and who helped me diagnose some of the problems we’d been having with our system. We trekked in the rain carrying expensive and extremely heavy sound equipment to the repair store via subway. I figured with the two of us we could save money on a car service and use public transportation. Stupid idea.

At the repair store, the guy said he would call me with a diagnosis and I told him that if the repairs exceeded $300 that I wanted to talk. More on this topic later.

Other things that happened today: Assembled text for a promo postcard for Reefer Madness, our next show, and sent to the graphic designer. Organized scheduling for space usage next weekend for What the Butler Saw. Proofed program copy for Butler.

We had an open call for Reefer Madness in the evening and while I wasn’t myself there, I felt the pain when Heather, our artistic director, texted me that 147 people had signed in to audition. That is a BIG turnout.

Today I found out that the guy at the repair shop had gone ahead and fixed our sound equipment at a cost of $460 without calling me with a diagnosis or estimate. I was a little mad about that and I told him so.

In any event, it was time to pick up the equipment. I started calling car services (see above – I try to be stupid only once per incident). The first one I found wanted $54 to get from Chelsea to Park Slope. I had used a car service back in March when I had to get our keyboard repaired and they charged only $20 to go from the East Village to Park Slope. I couldn’t remember the name though, so I did some detective work and went through my e-mail to find the date that I went to pick up the keyboard, and then I went to my cell phone account online and looked at the numbers I called on that date. I googled a likely number and discovered the car service I wanted. They offered me $25 for the trip. Success! Car ride back to the theater with heavy sound equipment.

At the theater, I took the opportunity to check in with the director and PSM of Butler, welcomed our brand new ASM who was attending her first rehearsal, got the mail, paid some bills, and started organizing a production meeting for the weekend.

When I got home I filled out and scanned the letter of agreement and credit card authorization forms that TDF Costume Collection requires so that our Butler costume designer could visit this week. Sent about a dozen more e-mails organizing various Butler-related things.


Today was mostly e-mails and no legwork. I tried to arrange a couple of e-blast trades for Butler. I did a few updates to our website. I labeled envelopes and stuffed/sealed 30 thank you letters to Materials for the Arts. I had printed these letters and labels last week right after the shopping trip and felt a little guilty that the letters were all dated August 13th and here it was August 25th and I had not yet mailed them. Overcame guilt. Mailed them.

Side note: does it not seem strange that an organization all about re-using and re-cycling should require so much paper to be wasted on these silly thank you notes?


Received via e-mail a cut of a promo video for Butler and posted it on our youtube channel and on the show’s webpage, and inserted it in the draft e-blast we have ready to go out on Monday. Updated the website some more, and got the ball rolling on an antique wheelchair we are trying to get back to the theater to use in Butler. Scanned the headshots of the actors to send in for the program. In the evening I attended a required grants seminar with the Brooklyn Arts Council. A dozen other e-mails on various other little details relating mainly to Butler and to Reefer.


A few e-mails today on a few Butler-related details. Otherwise, a quiet day in Gallery Players land.


Woke up thinking about Butler and fired off e-mails to the designers to check in as we are one week before tech. Then had lunch with our artistic director and our publicist to discuss strategies for the upcoming season. Then to the theater to help build the set for Butler. We had some volunteers there and progress has been excellent. Stayed until rehearsal began at 6pm. Over the course of the day I spoke with or corresponded with all five Butler designers.


Back to the theater at 10:30am for a set/props meeting for Butler, then stayed for a designer run-thru at noon. Stuck around the theater after the run doing some miscellaneous facilities tasks and clean-up. A few more tidbits on e-mail for the rest of the day.

And scene.

Next week, more of the same. Except no more blog writing.

Thanks for reading my blogs this week. If you’d like discounted tickets to come see What the Butler Saw at The Gallery Players (Sept 11-26, very funny!) message me at neal(at)galleryplayers.com and tell me you loved my blog. If necessary, lie.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Few Random Shakespeare Thoughts, Part 2

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Neal Freeman

To recap from earlier this week:

-I’m a Shakespeare snob.

I was going to briefly summarize my other points from the previous post, but actually I think that about does it.


I complain of free outdoor Shakespeare.

At one point this summer I had (what seemed like) six different friends doing (what seemed like) six different free outdoor Shakespeare productions in (what seemed like) six different parks around New York.

Does it seem like this market is a bit over-saturated?

I understand that outdoor Shakespeare (like short play festivals) is a way for fledgling companies to produce on the cheap. But I wonder how much service they’re doing Shakespeare by making him “accessible” to the strolling and Frisbee-playing masses.

Let’s face it - Shakespeare is a specialized taste, and not one suited to every weekend park-goer who happens to be walking by. And call me a pessimist but I don’t think screaming blank verse at them from the middle of a field is a great way to change their minds.

I love the poetry in The Tempest more than in any other play.

Caliban’s speech about the noises of the isle are my favorite lines in the entire canon.

The notes in the Arden editions are too academic to be consistently helpful to directors.

Every teacher and professor I’ve ever had has talked about how the Arden editions are “the best.” I think what they mean is that they are the best for other teachers and professors. When I’m directing the plays, I don’t care so much for a long discourse on the origins of a particular word or its usage throughout history. I like my notes more to-the-point and less in-the-way.

“‘Tis said they ate each other.”

On the night he is murdered, Duncan’s horses become deranged, break out of their enclosures, and devour each other.

I was teaching Macbeth to high school kids on September 11, 2001 and I remember being particularly struck at the time by this passage describing how an evil act resonates palpably throughout the natural world after it is committed.

Powerful stuff.

I don’t like Romeo and Juliet and never have.

Perhaps it has to do with not being allowed to see Olivia Hussey’s…um…hooha…when I was a high school freshman. (see the intro to Part 1 of this blog for an explanation of that reference)

Actually, it’s that the emotions in this play are way too over the top. I understand the chaos of teenage love and all that, but (for instance) I defy anyone playing Capulet to pull off the scolding of his daughter and the mourning at the funeral without seeming like a complete buffoon. That stuff is COMICAL. It’s called subtlety, Shakespeare. Look into it.

Speaking of Olivia Hussey…

I hate cheap laughs.

As You Like It is a beautiful, wistful play and I refuse to decorate Rosalind and Orlando’s scenes with Laurel and Hardy shtick. I think this is why reviewers have generally hated my approach to the play both times I directed it. They wanted cheap laughs, not the deep-down searching and aching that truly activates it.

In a similar vein, the lovers in Midsummer are not meant to be The Four Stooges. The reason the mechanicals are in the play is because THE LOVERS ARE SERIOUS. Their scenes are funny and are supposed to be, don’t get me wrong, but they must be approached with a real sense of stakes and drama or else we simply don’t care.

True story – I saw two completely unrelated productions of Midsummer (one of them by the RSC on Broadway in the late 90’s which was terrible), where the exact same shtick was used for a particular moment. Lysander and Demetrius, as they are about to walk offstage and fight in the dramatic climax of the play, followed Demetrius’ line “Follow! Nay, I’ll go with thee cheek by jowl” by comically sticking their cheeks together and duck-walking offstage like conjoined twins. Two separate directors thought this was a good idea! The non-Broadway production was a semi-professional one in Baltimore in 1993, a few years before the RSC one, and I guarantee Adrian Noble (director of the RSC production) did not see it. He was just in touch, somehow, with the magical collective unconscious stupidity.

I’m fascinated by the authorship debate.

I don’t think it matters a whit to the understanding of the plays, but I find it a fascinating discussion. One of the books I particularly enjoyed a few years ago when I was nerding it up big time about this topic was Diana Price’s Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography.

I never ever call Shakespeare “The Bard.”

I also avoid Bill, Will, Willy, Billy Shakes, Our Will, Sweet Swan, and pretty much anything else that is not SHAKESPEARE or WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.

Thanks for reading. I told you I was a snob.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Year of Plays: an interview with Anna Moore

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Neal Freeman

Today’s post is an interview with my good friend Anna Moore who has just wrapped up a yearlong project called “A Year of Plays” in which she went to see one play a week for an entire year and wrote a blog about the experience.

Neal: Hi Anna. Thanks for helping me pad out my blog posts this week!*

Anna: My pleasure!*

*Note: I made up these two lines to make it seem like we were in the same room talking.

What is the "Year of Plays" project and why did you decide to do it?

I started A Year of Plays because I was an actor who never went to see theater. In my first four years of living in NYC, I'd probably seen less than a dozen plays, which is just shameful. My brother was just finishing up a year in which he saw 52 live performances in 365 days, so I decided to do the same -- a play a week for a year.

The blog became a part of the project because I wanted a way to document the plays I'd seen, as well as a means to share my experience with family and friends. I'd had a blog once before, while performing sketch comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe, but I had run into some trouble as an actor reviewing other participants' shows. (You can read about that mortifying misadventure
here and here.) So in this new blog I decided to write about theater without reviewing it. I wasn't sure it was possible, but I wanted to try.

Talk about writing about theater without reviewing it. Was this a difficult challenge? Did you develop any strategies or go-to methods in absence of writing reviews?

Reviews mess about with egos and feelings and after my experience in Edinburgh, I just didn't have the stomach for it. So initially this was just a way to avoid that mess. But the more I sat with idea, the more I liked it. The point was not to denounce criticism but just to challenge myself to see what else there was to talk about. I figured there had to be more to say than whether or not I like a play, or whether or not it “succeeded” at what it was trying to do. I was also interested in what happens when you remove permission to write negatively about a play. What other conversations might arise to fill that vacuum?

It was definitely difficult, particularly in the first few months. Reviewing is a hard habit to break. But I eventually got the hang of it. I allowed myself to write positively about a show if I was so inspired, but otherwise I would begin by investigating some kernel of the show that stuck with me – a moment or aspect of the show that I particularly remembered. Once I began examining those nuggets, they usually led me somewhere interesting and often surprising.

Do you think you kept to this rule throughout the year?

I think I did. I’ve had people tell me they can tell when I like a show and when I don’t. But my response to that is, “You’d be surprised.”

How did you choose the plays?

Ironically, sometimes it was by glancing through reviews. Other times they were friends’ shows. Sometimes I just picked plays with titles that appealed to me, or picked whatever TDF had available for the time I’d set aside to see something.

What were the theatrical highlights of the year? What were the lowlights?

Venus in Fur at Classic Stage, A View from the Bridge on Broadway, Our Town at Barrow Street.
Lowlights: You can’t trick me. I don’t do bad reviews.

Any aphorisms or lessons or observations you can pass on to others having gone through this process for a year? Have your perceptions about the nature of theater or the nature of making theater changed since August 2009?

I don’t know if my perceptions about theater have changed so much as they have been more clearly defined. And they’ve expanded in number too. I had a pretty narrow perspective before, being an actor who didn’t see much theater. Spending a year immersed in my field, and forcing myself to explore and articulate my thoughts on the matter, has given me greater confidence as an artist. I have a better sense of what I think about theater now – of what I like and dislike, what I believe it can do, what I think it should do. That’s probably been the best part about this whole thing. That and rediscovering how much I love to write.

What's next for you in the "blogosphere"?

Year of Plays will continue as a theater blog. I just enjoy writing it too much to stop. I’ll probably loosen things up a bit though – relieve myself of the obligation to see something every week, for example. And I will definitely be expanding my scope of inquiry to include less conventional forms of theater. I’m heading out to Burning Man, for example, at the end of this week, and that whole event can be described as theater. I’m sure I’ll return with plenty to write about.

Thanks, Anna! I’m looking forward to reading about it.

Thank you, Neal. You’re definitely my favorite director working in New York today!**

**Note: Anna did not actually say this.

Read Anna’s blog!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Few Random Shakespeare Thoughts

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Neal Freeman

My first experience with Shakespeare was as a freshman in high school watching Zeffirelli’s R&J while Mrs. Dauber covered up Juliet’s naughty bits with index cards. I made my Shakespeare acting debut as a senior 3 years later playing Ferdinand in The Tempest. Since then I count 21 different Shakespeare productions I’ve either acted in or directed.

Along the way I’ve developed a few opinions about how I like to experience Shakespeare as a director, actor, or audience member. I’m kind of a snob about it, actually.

So with that said here are, in no particular order, a few random thoughts on the subject.

Cutting and re-arranging.

I’m a big fan of cutting Shakespeare – I like it at 2:25 or less if possible – but I’ve always felt that tinkering with the order of scenes is somehow playing too closely with the magical fabric that binds the plays together. I won’t do it.

For that matter, I’m all for women playing male roles. But I hate it when pronouns and proper names are changed to make them feminine. Prospera? Please, Julie Taymor. Just leave it alone and trust that we’ll accept it.

We know how it ends.

***Hamlet spoiler alert***

Everybody dies.

You probably knew that.

It was one of the true delights of the movie Shakespeare in Love to see that audience watching Romeo and Juliet for the very first time and vicariously experiencing their shock and surprise at the unfolding story. They didn’t know what was going to happen.

The lifeblood of the theater is the unexpected result. Directing Shakespeare, it’s tempting to accept that there will be no surprise and instead devote your creative brain to wacky and clever ways to get TO the result that everyone obviously knows is coming.

I offer that it’s important as theater practitioners to approach Shakespeare as if our audiences don’t actually know how it’s all going to end up, like we would with any other play. Maybe Hamlet will find a way out of this mess. Maybe the Friar will reach the tomb in time. Of course he doesn’t, and he won’t. But it’s the struggle, the drama of the attempt, that engages us.

I want to give a nod to David Ball in Backwards and Forwards where he talks about a similar thing and cites Claudius as a prime example. Don’t start the play by playing him evil. Let the drama unfold.

By the way, Backwards and Forwards is the best book I know on reading and understanding plays. Read it now.

Be careful with the underscoring.

Putting too much busy underscoring beneath Shakespearean text is like trying to read two poems aloud at the same time. They compete, and the text loses. I’m not against it all together, but it needs a light touch.

I’ll get you Neal Freeman.

There’s a Shakespeare scholar in Canada also named Neal Freeman, spelled exactly like my name, whose existence I found out about after someone once told me how much they liked my folios. Huh?

Distinguishing myself professionally from this other Neal Freeman is the reason I added my middle initial to my name in professional credits, something I otherwise had no interest in doing.

Someday I’ll get the bastard for that.

Guns bad. Swords good.

A professor of mine at Cornell, Bruce Levitt, told us that the reason George Lucas invented the lightsaber is because swordfights are dramatic and gunfights are not. He was using this as an example of why we needed to be extra careful when modernizing a Shakespeare that contains sword-fighting. How are you going to keep the drama in a gunfight? Or else, how are you going to justify the swords if they’re wearing modern clothing?

I’ve seen quality contemporary-dress Shakespeare before (a crystal-clear contemporary setting of “Timon of Athens” at the Shakespeare Theater in DC chief among them), but more often I’ve seen productions ruined by a careless mix of swordplay and modern dress that thwarts whatever attempt at contemporizing the play the company may be exploring.

While I am fully in support of modern-dress Shakespeare if it helps to clarify the play, I also happen to think that if the only way you can think to make Shakespeare feel relevant to today’s audiences is to throw everyone in contemporary clothing, you probably shouldn’t be producing him at all.

That’s enough for today but I’ve got more to say so I’m going to continue this post later in the week. Stay tuned for more snobbery.


Monday, August 23, 2010

OOB-er Waste

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Neal Freeman

First let me say that I’m honored to be featured as a guest blogger and that I don’t have a particular theme in mind for the week. Rather, I’m planning to write about a few topics that I often chew on myself without worrying about tying them together. I’ve also got a special guest for one of the posts later in the week. I welcome comments, feedback, and differing opinions. And now, on to the blogging!

This, by the way, right here, is my first blog post EVER.


OOB-er Waste

As Executive Director of an Off Off company, I often find myself (as I suppose many do) wearing any number of different hats around the theater. Volunteer carpenter is one of them, and despite my hatred for power saws (frankly, they scare me), I spend a lot of time in the theater assembling or dismantling our sets.

Our procedure is something like this: Go to Lowe’s. Buy a bunch of lumber and paint. Hire “man with a van” for $30 to bring it the 4 blocks back to the theater. (Seriously, it’s only 4 blocks.) Ask him to help us unload it. He declines. (Did I mention he only had to drive 4 blocks?) Over the course of 2 or 3 weekends, chop up the wood and assemble it according to whatever set we’re building. Paint it. Take pictures of it at a dress rehearsal. Charge people $18 to see it 12 or 16 times over the next 2 or 3 weeks. Then on the Sunday evening after the last performance, dismantle it as quickly as possible, chop it up into pieces no more than 5 feet long, and put it out with the garbage. Repeat 7 more times. Every season.

This is reductive, of course. We go to Materials for the Arts whenever we can, and as a company with our own space we have many stock items like flats and platforms that we re-use. But for every show there’s still a good amount of lumber we buy that will be cut and screwed into and onto various pieces that isn’t practical to keep when the show is over. We don’t have the space for all of it, and because of our limited storage we have to make smart decisions about things we might actually want again vs. things that are just going to get crammed in a corner and take up valuable space before they are thrown out in 5 years, un-used.

I also know that as a company with our own year-round space, we have it easier than itinerant companies for whom it must be significantly harder to avoid throwing out nearly everything at the end of a production.

I’d love to donate things at the end of a show to MFTA or to other theater companies. Sometimes we do. More often, we simply don’t have the resources to truck materials around the city after every show or to keep them around until someone else can pick them up. Besides, a lot of it gets destroyed in the process of trying to take it apart, or has been permanently altered in the construction phase into some specialized shape that isn’t useful to others. Ultimately it’s a hell of a lot easier to throw it away then it is to deal with donating it to someone else.

And this doesn’t take into account the paint, which of course cannot be re-used once it has been applied.

I wish I was leading up to some brilliant epiphany about how to work in a less wasteful way but I don’t have one.

For now I just accept that the fleeting nature of theater makes us far less responsible as consumers than I’m comfortable with.