Monday, May 30, 2011

Engaging the Audience

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Joey Rizzolo.

I saw How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying this week. I didn’t buy the tickets, they were given to me. I abhor the Great White Way, but I sometimes like to peek in on enemy lines. I watched the bulk of the show with only one hand free as the other was being used to pinch my nose. And all the other provisos you would expect from an avant-garde artist confessing such a pastime. Here’s my greatest confession: While a great musical this is not, the show itself I kinda liked. I could not help but consider that, had I seen this production at La Mama or The Chocolate Factory or the Astoria Performing Arts Center, I would have been impressed. It’s not going to change the world, but it’s probably as good as a lesser musical is ever going to get.

Here’s what I didn’t like: the audience.

On May 29th, 1913, Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring premiered along with the accompanying choreography of the Ballets Russes Vaslav Nijinsky at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées.  Shortly after it began, the performers were met with boos and hisses.  Nijinsky began shouting numbers from the wings when it became clear that the dancers could not hear the orchestra over the din.  The shouting escalated and eventually the unrest in the audience erupted into a fistfight.  Stravinsky himself fumed.  Camille Saint-Saëns is rumored to have storemd out.  Tuxedoed dilettantes of the arts threw punches.  Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev later said, “It was just what I wanted.”

It is difficult to imagine an audience responding this way without guidance.  Early audiences of the original Futurists of early 20th-century Italy reacted with even more ferocity, tearing apart the theater and driving performers into the street where they had to be rescued by the police.  But these events are difficult to reproduce in any way that can be regarded as anything but just that – a reproduction.

Many of the revolutionaries who delighted in such anarchy were unapologetic war-mongers, hungry for progress, and in some regards, they and their kin have succeeded: Progress has wrought things both magnificent and terrible, and surely unimaginable to our forbears.  By the display of such magnificence and terror, they would be simultaneously delighted and repulsed; delighted at the beauty of the speed of air travel, the acceleration of particles beyond light speed, the absolute arsenal of 21st century superpowers…but repulsed that even the acts of extremists no longer give way to conflict as easily as they once did.  Progress has made the world smaller, and the result is that we now live in an age of consensus, paranoid that if every action is met with a Newtonian re-action, we may very well bring about our own destruction.  Or, as King of Comedy Mohandas Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye, and soon the whole world is blind.”  Instead of providing a reason to act of out love, we instead fail to act out of fear, which is completely anathema to the vision of fascists and anarchists. Or artists, anyway.

As artists, we need not be warmongers to appreciate action over inaction.  Indeed, we tow a much more delicate line than that of the past.  A century ago, it followed that action created conflict, which resulted in war.  But progress has handed us a smaller world in which geopolitical borders represent little but the confines of the law therein.  Propaganda is a bygone instrument.  War is no longer the hygiene of the world.  If anything, it has become the refuge of the weak.  It is a difficult thing to lead a revolution in the age of consensus, when it is so much easier now than ever before to appreciate the perspective of your foes.

Greg Kotis’ Urinetown is, in essence, a story of revolution in the age of consensus. Throughout Urinetown, there are direct references to the musicals of Brecht & Weill (which attempted to be revolutionary in their own right), though perhaps it's greatest inspiration was an American musical that was itself the progeny of Brechtian drama: Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock, a play not just about a labor revolution, but one that caused a labor revolution during its first performance when the actors, banned by the union from going on stage, performed in the house.  In many ways, Urinetown indicted its inspirational material for being a product of its time.  Unlike the ending of Cradle, the revolutionaries of Urinetown inadvertently bring about the unraveling of society by dismantling the empire that, malevolent as it may have been, maintained order under dire circumstances.  It is as if Kotis is suggesting that yes, history is written by the winners but in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins because history gets written the same way every time.

Two years after Cradle, Clifford Odets would try to achieve a similar situation by involving the audience in his own drama of labor revolution, Waiting for Lefty.  But the audience involvement there was manufactured, and contemporary productions are rare as the audience participation is seen as a moment that could not be convincingly delivered on a modern stage. I’ve heard tell that during climactic moments of Turn Off the Dark (if, after however many previews, there can even be such a thing), there is an impressive swell of cheering by the audience…prompted by the ushers. To me, this is by far the most deadly indictment of Spider Man, far greater than the caterwauling of U2 or the absence of story or the emperiled actors. The audience of How to Succeed in Business was all too eager to applaud as soon as Harry Potter appeared before them (having done nothing yet to earn any accolades). Clearly, even uptown houses should require no coaxing to clap.

They don’t. It’s routine, a gesture that has collectively come to mean very little. Even when direct prompting is not required, there are unspoken formalities, and both sides shake hands; lights down before intermission, a curtain call, the end of a musical number. Expectations are laid, and everyone plays ball. Even the Futurists had to contend with the fact that, after a few performances that erupted in riots, they had inadvertently given birth to a new expectation, for it wasn’t long before audiences started showing up with bad fruit, expecting it to be redefined as ammunition.  All the work the Futurists did toward undermining the expectations of their audience ultimately went to simply creating a new expectation.  This is the danger of inciting unrest – any cooperation on the part of the audience that is done willfully is not done truthfully.  It is our responsibility, as creators of work on stage, to keep them honest.  If we are doing our jobs in creating theater that cannot be reproduced (which, by the definition of something that is going on NOW, should be a given), then we are not calling upon the audience to provide us with an expected response anyway.

If this seems like a call to make people, angry, it’s not.  Anger is not the only way an audience can respond of their own accord.  They can be prompted to other responses, but in doing so, they are still being prompted.  Reaction is what we can use to help them unlearn their habits of clapping as the only acceptable spontaneous response to a theatrical event, and even then those moments tend to be proscribed.  There’s nothing wrong with clapping, but why only that?  Why not boo? Why not dance, make a speech, be silent, turn their backs on us, induce vomiting, kiss a stranger, read the riot act, the real one?  As performers we use our allotted time to communicate something to them.  Why confine the audience’s otherwise limitless possibilities of communication to the act of one hand striking another?

The audience is a crucial variable that makes any act of theater a one-time event.  Sometimes we involve them to demonstrate this to our audience.  Every so often we empower them so that they realize the extent to which they are participating in something unique. The plea to you, theater-smith, is this: find ways of extracting new responses from your audience. They have always been free to indulge in must now not just have their private responses, but you are in position to create a collective response, a reaction to a change in the way theater reflects the world and, just maybe, a reaction to the way theater changes the world.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Guest Blogger of the Week: Joey Rizzolo

We want to thank Heidi G. Grumelot for her great posts last week.

We are so happy to announce that next week's blogger is Joey Rizzolo.

Joey Rizzolo is a father, carpenter, teacher, and performance artist with the New York Neo-Futurists, with whom he produces the weekly East Village staple Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind and recently Locker 4173b with Christopher Borg.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The role of collaboration in artist development and community, sustainability

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Heidi G. Grumelot.

To wrap up the week I wanted to talk a bit about the role of collaboration in artist development and community building. While our fundraising efforts for USM present an immediate sustainability issue (go to and donate $50 and we will love you forever), our community and the collaborations within it are our long term strategy for sustainability. 

Just this past Wednesday night I watched a storytelling and burlesque collaboration that looks like it is the beginnings of a very compelling and raw look at depression. And I know it all started because the artist hosts burlesque, is a storyteller, and was asked to guest host a certain storytelling show, and he liked the format so well he used it to create a new show. On top of all that they have an experience with depression that needs to be told…. maybe my summary of the process doesn’t do it justice. So instead of me blathering on, I interviewed three of our current Horse Trade Resident Artists, Miranda Huba, Killer Kelly Dwyer, and Seth Lind about their experiences collaborating. 

Playwright Miranda Huba is a member of our resident company Animal Parts. Her play Dirty Little Machine is currently running in the Red Room until June 4th.

Can tell me how you know Animal Parts?
I know Anthony and Nathan through the Canadian theatre community. By some weird twist of fate we all ended up in New York around the same time ready to make our careers as artists in the city. It's helpful that we all enjoy each others work and are wholeheartedly ready to support one another. 

How did the idea for this collaboration with Nathan and Anthony come about?
Nathan and Anthony asked me to write a play for their company. They had read and seen my work and wanted to impart their vision into my writing. I believe they were especially interested in the twisted comical nature of my work. I was more then happy to write something. Nathan is a wonderful director and really understands my writing. When you find those people you need to hold onto them. It's not everyday you meet someone who likes your work and wants to bring it to the next level. Anthony is also a wonderful dramaturge and is someone who is invested in making the script the best possible version that it can be.

What inspired Dirty Little Machine?
Two things: First I had an infuriating conversation once with someone about pornography. The argument was about underage porn, consent, etc. I remember being enraged but in the back of my mind knew that this conversation needed to be in a play. It was so raw, unedited and at the time I couldn't even share it with anyone because I was so upset. It was something I knew that would work on the stage. Also In the play the character of Jane speaks of a porn novel that she read as a young girl. This is based on a dirty novel I actually read. I knew that I wanted to explore the themes and complications of the novel. In Dirty Little Machine the story of the porn novel and Jane's relationship with her boyfriend run parallel to each other. I think it's a good example of how our fantasies, and unspoken desires, seep into our most intimate relationships. 

Was there anything about the development process of this piece that was unusual?
I did rewrites in the rehearsal room and was open to suggestions that Nathan made. Usually I am a little guarded about this. I like to keep the script as written and don't like to make changes when in the rehearsal room. I was at almost every rehearsal which was totally new for me. This actually worked out very well. I became open to making changes and was instantly able to solve problems in the script that take much longer to solve when you are sitting alone in front of your computer. As a writer you are extremely precious about your work, but theatre is a collaborative process. It becomes a collaboration in the rehearsal room and this is when really exciting things can happen - so it's best to be open.

What are some of the things you discovered in the rehearsal room that were not a part of the script you wrote? 
There were a lot of physical moments developed by the actors, Nathan and Anthony that really add to the story. Particularly one moment near the end of the play where Nathan asked the actors to do a physical bit that represents something that happens in the novel. A lot of people have asked me if this moment was something I wrote into the script. I didn't, but clearly its a powerful moment on stage.

What are you most pleased about with this project?
I am so happy with the ensemble! We have two wonderful actors who are so open and generous with difficult material. Nathan and Anthony have been so supportive of my work and elevated the work visually, stylistically, and dramaturgically. We have a Dirty Little Machine family and I'll be very sad when it's over. The thing is, I know that these are all people I will work with again. That excites me, when art breeds new collaborations.

Improv Artist, Storyteller, Host Seth Lind
He is a part of HT resident company ThankYou Robot that performs monthly a monthly improv show at USM every third Friday. He is also co-creator and host of TOLD a monthly themed storytelling show at USM every third Monday of the each month. 
Can you tell us about your improv team and your storytelling show?
Thank You, Robot is my improv team. We met taking classes at UCB and have been performing together for 4 1/2 years, which means we’re one of the oldest independent improv teams in NYC. Our number has dwindled a bit – we were eight and now we’re five – but we adore performing together and see no end in sight. We host a monthly show at Under St. Mark’s called Summer Fridays, with two guest teams. It’s basically a love fest where we try to feature brand new teams and great veterans of the improv scene. Long form improv – where you get a suggestion from the audience and craft an entire set around ideas stemming from the suggestion. The best moment of my month is when we take the stage for that show.

The storytelling show I host is called Told, produced by Heidi Grumelot and presented by Horse Trade. It’s also at Under St. Mark’s, which happens to be the best small theater space in the city, hands down. It’s a cozy room that makes everything on stage better and everyone in the audience feel at home. Told features four storytellers on a theme, with interludes performed by someone personally or professionally associated with the theme – a tarot reader doing mini readings for ‘The Crystal Ball,’ a public defender for ‘I Fought the Law,” an acrobat for “Trust Falls,” that kind of thing – plus I tell anecdotes from my little perch on the side of the stage. We feature the best performers from the local storytelling, comedy and theater scene, and make each evening unique by gluing the stories together with the interludes, which comment on the preceding story and bridge to the next. No microphone. No notes. Casual but carefully curated and produced. Zero publicity and always full. We’re proud of it.

How did you get into these different scenes?
I had a job as a writing tutor at John Jay College when I first moved to New York in 2001. I worked there for like three years. One of my co-workers was Negin Farsad, now a veteran comic and then an improv student at UCB. We would goof around at work and she encouraged me to take classes. I took one and enjoyed it, but I was really bad. Or just, too scared to let myself be good. And improv only works when you’re relaxed. I was pretty frustrated, so I quit. Four years later, I was in a job that was making me miserable and I needed an outlet, so I signed up for a level two class. I wondered if they’d even have a record of me taking level one class so many years before. But they did, and I started, and this time I got it. I had mellowed out enough to not be so terrified, and I got really into it. I took classes for the next two or three years, and met my teammates in an upper level class. We practiced for months with a coach before ever performing, and kept practicing weekly for years, doing shows here and there. Eventually we got our own show at Under St. Marks. We’re all much busier now with other shows and stuff, so we practice less. But the shows are always so fun.

The storytelling show started more randomly. I arrived at a Thank You, Robot show all tired, and the bartender asked me why I looked so exhausted. I explained that I had just ran from work to get there after a 12 hour day. She asked what job and I explained that I’m the production manager for the public radio show This American Life, and we put out our show on Fridays, the day of our improv show. The bartender – Heidi Grumelot – who would go on to become artistic director of Horse Trade and producer of Told, said that they had been thinking of doing a storytelling show and would I help them find people to be in it. I said sure, and basically just met as a consultant. I asked who was going to host and they said they weren’t sure, and I volunteered. I think in the beginning they had more of a theatrical monologue from scripts thing in mind, but it evolved into more straight storytelling with no notes, and the interlude idea developed naturally too. It’s been really fun to figure out what the show wants to be.

Obviously collaboration on an improv team is essential, how does the collaboration work, or is this a UCB trademarked idea?
Ha, no, certainly not a UCB trademarked idea. Improvisation is collaboration. Ideally you’re just reacting to the last thing your scene partner has said or done, reacting honestly to that to organically find out what is strange and therefore funny. Surest way to kill a scene is to go in with an idea of what should happen, or to ignore something that happens. The audience saw it, and you need to react to it. There are no mistakes. If you look at everything your scene partner does as a gift – no matter how surprising or how different from what you think ‘should’ happen – your scene will work.  There’s a rule in improv: “no arguing.” You can actually have a scene that’s ALL arguing, as long as you’re in total agreement on what you’re arguing about, instead of arguing about what the scene is about. Whenever you say no, it has to secretly mean “yes, I heard you, and here’s what I’m giving you.” And beyond individual scenes or even within our team, we collaborate with other improvisers to put on shows and get audiences to attend.

How does collaboration work within the storytelling scene? Obviously your collaboration with me with TOLD is completely perfect (except all those times we fight about what's gonna be in a show...)
People who come from other scenes like standup or even regular theater are often surprised at how supportive and familial the storytelling scene is. People go to each other’s shows, give each other notes, and are just generally really positive. I think because the art form is self-revelatory but less narcissistic than your average solo show or standup set, it builds respect between the performers, and between audience and performer. For a story to work you have to seem like a real, relatable person. The scene is really blossoming, with dozens of monthly storytelling shows in NYC. Half the storytellers host their own show, and are always looking for new folks. At Told we pride ourselves on having several people on every bill who have never done the show before, so it brings new people into the scene.

What's your best experience of a collaboration?
The best experience of collaboration is an improv scene that is really working. It’s effortless. You’re not trying at all, just reacting as a motivated character to what your partner is doing.  The audience is having fun because you’re having fun. There’s nothing quite like it. And you can’t point to why it sometimes hits and other times misses. It sometimes just works, and is pure joy. You feel sort of possessed but also completely in control, unhinged but calm. Totally in sync with another person, bouncing toward insanity, barely able to hear the laughter.


Comedian, Cabaret Host, and Leader of Kill the Band, Killer Kelly Dwyer
Alter Ego, Kill the Band, Glitterati, Penny’s Open Mic, miniFridge….in fact, where isn’t Kelly Dwyer.

Tell me about the work you do.

Wanting to combine my strengths of comedy, music and performance art, I began writing my own comedic music about 4 years ago using my computer and a loop machine.  Garageband was such an easy and willing collaborator and a great way to put music to the comedy and performance art I had been developing over the last couple of years.  My loop machine was a great and unique way to layer in different vocal sounds that mimicked instruments and sound effects.  It was me, myself and I back then and I still write my songs this way in the beginning stages, and still often perform solo using tracks, toys, my IPhone and my looper.  At some point though, I wanted more from my music.  What I was doing was working, but I wanted to take my unique yet catchy, comedy music to the next level.  I wanted to perform in regular rock venues and ambush people - catch audiences off guard with the comedy and theatrics while wowing them with killer, tight full band music.  I've found it hard in the past to work on projects I consider "mine" with other people because inherently, I do not trust people with my work....or my feelings.  But over the course of the prior 2 years I had been building close bonds and experiencing an amazing mental and communal collaboration of sorts with many people from Penny's Open Mic at USM Theater.  Joe Yoga and Mike Milazzo were POM regulars/forefathers and were the first two to become members of KILL THE BAND. With them it seemed like a natural progression from performing before or after one another at POM, to performing together as a team.  We pretty easily completed each other and had natural chemistry. We still needed a drummer, but I always felt like it was such a buzz kill having to drag a kit around and rehearse where a drum set was accessible.  Plus, I wanted a another unique element in the band so I brought in an incredible beatboxer whom I also met at POM to round out our sound.  The band had a good rookie run with that line-up including performing an original play I wrote for the Frigid festival in '10 about the band, starring the band featuring songs from our debut demo "Famous Baby".  But things were strained and something had to change.  Change is good.  Change promotes growth and just after winning the Audience Choice Award at the Frigid Fest, I "let go" our original beatboxer due to what they call in the biz: "artistic differences" (He didn't vibe on not being the star, nor dig the theatrics of the band, I didn't like his attitude or his brushes with the law).  Soon enough, through none other than Craigslist and a slew of auditions, I found our current beatboxer, Nick Fox and just after, discovered one of the KTB's biggest fans was a wicked sax player!  That was the easiest decision ever - to bring aboard Blair Frowner on Soprano Sax.  So that brings us to where we are and have been over the last year or so.  It's beautiful, but mostly it's hard.  It's beautiful because it's hard?  Hmm.  I am a difficult person to work with on many levels.  I am a bossy perfectionist but also have the attention span of a flea and limited "official" musical training.  I want songs automatically to be great and the work can often be tedious and annoying with compromises I feel obligated to make for the good of the whole.  I just wanna get to the stage.  I want to perform!  I wanna wear costumes and create an "experience"!!  I want it all and I want it now. (Did I mention i'm impatient?)  All this "what key is it in? and this is an augmented 9th chord is 4 measures before the key change" stuff sometimes gets on my nerves.  I want the band to be able to just do it.  Personalities clash.  One person feels left out and has their feelings hurt.  Somebody does something annoying like talk or move or blink when they aren't supposed to and I yell at them.  Scheduling rehearsals and gigs is a whole job in itself.  The band is like a family.  A very dysfunctional family full of artistic savants and I try to be a good mom to 4 rambunctious, sensitive boys.  I am so lucky that they stay and I think they feel lucky to be a part of something so unique and outrageous.  We rarely have real open fights but there is a pretty consistent underlying tension that probably helps to feed the complexity, comedy and magic that people witness at our shows.  We have found our places in the band.  When we begin a new piece, I play my Garageband version of something at rehearsal and sing a melody and each person starts riffing on that idea.  Everybody writes their own parts in the "workshop stage" and I'll be the first to admit: every one of my band members knows a ton more about the math of music than me.  They listen to me say: "I want it to go, ya know (snaps fingers) La-laaaaaaaaaaaa-bada-laaaaaaaaaa--uh-uh (smacks knee and stomps foot) 'Don't Attack me with your happiness...' and I want it to sound, you know sorta avant garde upbeat but sad but not sappy - happy sad, like a bubblegum blues dance tune - like that commercial for that high blood pressure medicine...."  And they, being the awesome band they are, figure out what the hell that means, and do it.  We found what works for us and it makes me - all of us, feel alive!  And that, is the spiritual connection that collaboration can elevate your work and your life to.  Collaboration is an art form in itself and if you can master or at least give in to it, your creative power can be endless.

When I look at the collaborating I do on my own personal projects, I have to admit:  I have to be in charge for it to work.  I am a leader, not a follower when it comes to the work, songs, pieces and shows I create.  If I am in someone's play or playing a role on TV or in a commercial or film, it is different.  I can be the most malleable, easy to work with, dream-of-a team player, direction taker, compromiser you ever met.   And don't me wrong, at heart I am the ultimate team player, but the very best way for me to be on the team, if it's my project, is for me to be the team leader (Read: I'll ask for your input or opinion if I want it).  Take for example my other baby, Alter Ego-Vaudeville Surreal.  Alter Ego is a variety show that celebrates alternative artists - I bring the underground, above ground and showcase hip-hop, modern and breakdance, burlesque, freak - anti folk and city music, alt comedy and sketch, comedy-music, performance art and puppets!!!   It's a ride of a show - a real journey and it takes a major amount of finesse to weave such different forms of art into a cohesive, two hour show with no rehearsal.  One minute you are watching a modern shapeshifting movement artist and the next you're being treated to masturbating puppet theater, then it's a dark couple of deep cuts by an anti-folk, street busker and next a rowdy, bawdy burlesque number followed by Jesus Christ: the stand up comic .  Balancing everything and filling the moments between is key.  Otherwise the ride can be bumpy and uncomfortable.  People like connectivity and are used to seeing all one thing:  a comedy show, or a rock show, or a dance recital or a play but I wanna throw it all at them and make it feel like a trip we all go on together.  After all, it's the journey, not the destination that matters, right?   Many of the performers I select for my show are people I have met (and trust) through my work with HT theater group - in fact, Alter Ego was initially started by a lovely gentleman I met one night after performing at "God Tastes Like Chicken" show at USM Theater where i was regular performer for it's entire two? year run.  I walked out after the show ended into the pouring rain to (somewhat unnervingly) have a man (James Rose) run after and stop me on the street.  Rain pouring down on us outside USM, asking if I might be interested in hosting/associate producing his show "Alter Ego"...and that he would PAY ME.  On gut instinct, I said yes but that he should talk to me tomorrow when I was dry and sober.  That was three years ago and we partnered on "Alter Ego" successfully for over two years until he moved on to other projects and left me in my favorite spot:  in complete control.  The show is flourishing and I take great pride have immense gratitude for the collaboration I do with 100's of artists to make that happen.

 Most people who end up working with me and continue to do so after one project, get it.  They joke that I'm bossy.  That I'm a diva,  That I'm a control freak and a perfectionist.  I am those things.  They will also tell you I work my ass off, am a consummate performer, lead by example, champion the artist, and am honest to a fault.  Collaborating has taught me a lot of deep truths about myself and other people.  Mostly that I expect out of others only what I expect from myself:  Perfection, or at the very least, you try your very best and learn from your mistakes.   

I'm working on 10 different projects right now but one of the nearest and dearest to my heart is my upcoming variety show that is part of this year's Mini Fridge Festival.  Having done MANY shows (possibly too many to count) with HorseTrade is a sure sign that they get me and I get them.  With HorseTrade, I know I can make anything happen and will have their complete support.  I was honored to be asked to co-produce the official cabaret of the festival and we've decided to call it Killy vs. Kanada (I told you they get me) The Canada part is a reference that the Mini-Fridge and HT are part of CAFF (Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals) and I am working with Canadian Jillian Thomas to create a killer cabaret with incredible acts and a fun, fitting finish to the Save USM fundraising campaign.  Without USM, I would not have found my voice.  No school could do what that theater has done for me.  USM/HT gave me the confidence, strength and support to not only believe in my alternative voice, but to pay it forward and become a role model and leader in experimental and unconventional performance arts.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Some thoughts about audience building

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Heidi G. Grumelot.

I recently got this piece of advice from a marketing professional, ‘Know your audience.’ It is more cost effective to market shows to individuals who are likely to go to theater. To that end, we have been working on our branding and website organization lately to more coherently package our eclectic mix of offerings and to help our current audience know about our other shows. Like most Indie Theater Companies, we rely on the friends and family of our artists for much of the back bone of our show audiences. Obviously, shows that are good at social networking tend to garner the larger audience numbers,  and the more members of our community mingle, the more we see audience cross-over. And we do have the backing of a rather large mailing list accumulated slowly but surely over the past 12 Seasons. I think we know the audience we know, but we are interested in getting to know more folks outside the existing Indie Theater community. 

While Off-Off Broadway Theater websites have solved the problem of making basic show information available to the general population, and Blog Critics have done an amazing job describing the qualities of the shows happening around town, Indie Theater still seems to have to work hard to earn its audience. I often commiserate with performers, directors, and playwrights of wonderfully rigorous work saying, ‘I know; you have to make the work, pay for it yourself, and then you have to go out and get your audience too.’ New York is tough; we are in competition with so many other shows, sporting events, music events, film events, clubs, parties, sporting leagues (btw: have you heard of karaoke leagues? ), and just plain inertia with a population of hardworking people. 

Maybe we need to modify the earlier statement and say, ‘Get to know potential audience members.’ Find the people who are going to go out tonight, and invite them to your performance. My marketing friend also told me that the demographic that watches MTV normally goes to the movie theater on average about once a week. Indie Theater ticket prices are about the same as movie theater ticket prices, but I’m not sure how to break into the MTV market, save advertising on MTV and creating work about them. I do have an more developed idea about bringing more avid Broadway folks to the Indie scene.  A friend from Minnesota sent me a series of blogs that address ‘theater audience building’ from the perspective of an ex-music industry exec.  Out of all of the entries, here is the item that struck me most.

…I just wrote "theatergoer." That's like "music listener": it's factual, but not helpful. How much do fans of Carrie Underwood, the Buzzcocks, Lil Wayne, Caribou, Coltrane, or Mahler really want to listen to each other's music? Punk bands wouldn't staple fliers to bulletin boards in the Orchestra Hall lobby, even if they could. But how much do we do the equivalent? Admit it, we do. - What is "theater" anyway? June 20, 2010 by Scot Covey Issue: Wild grass

I think we can work a little harder at educating potential audience members, avid Broadway fans and MTV watchers alike, about the variety of theater and performance art genres available to them on any given night in New York. Maybe we should take a page from the Netflix book. If you liked Scottsboro Boys on Broadway, you might like Jump Jim Crow: How to Create Your Own Minstrel Show or Neighbors. If you liked Pricilla Queen of the Desert then you might like Lesbian Love Octagon, MilkMilk Lemonade, The Gay Agenda’s Great Big Broadway Show, or Goodbar. If you liked RadioTheatre’s H.P. Lovecraft  Series, you might like Fear Mongers or The Pumpkin Pie Show.  We could even give helpful categories like Opera, Subtitled Opera, Musical, Rock Musical, Horror, Romantic Comedy, Puppet Theater, Adult Swim Theater, Foreign Language, Saturday Morning Cartoon Substitutes, Action, Drama, Comedy, Burlesque, Improv, Stand-up, Sketch  or Storytelling….does someone want to make the website?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Save UNDER St. Marks

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Heidi G. Grumelot.

Hey there I hope you’re having a lovely Monday. I thought I would write a bit about the indie theater scene from the Horse Trade perspective this week.  Many of the things we are thinking about right now, beyond the May explosion of activity in our spaces, are the issues of sustainability, audience building, artist development and collaboration, and community building. Obviously a big part of our company’s sustainability right now rests with the fate of our UNDER St Marks Theater. If you have not heard, we learned that our building was up for sale the first week of April.  Here is an update on all things USM.

We have experienced an amazing outpouring of support from our community of artists and the indie theater community this past month. On April 7th Roger Clark featured USM and the building sale on NY1.   At 6AM musicians, comedians, performance artists, storytellers, playwrights, actors, directors, burlesque dancers, members of improv teams and blog critics showed up to drink coffee, share their art open mic style, and support USM.  The entire Horse Trade family was there and the experience was magical…but that’s how UNDER St Marks usually feels. I have shared a few photos from the event below.   

After the NY1 event, we have had good talks with our landlord, who is also playwright and member of our community. At this point, we have signed a rolling 6 month lease so that we can continue to operate and book the space as we normally do, and he is open to working with us on the building sale so that we can work out purchasing our space. In the mean time, we have been crafting a game plan for raising the funds necessary to purchase the building.   Phase one is happening right now, we are looking for 1000 people to contribute $50, to raise $50,000 by July 4th. To contribute, go to our indiegogo site. The amount of money we are attempting to raise in this fundraising drive is not enough to buy the building, but it will be enough to launch a capital campaign that will allow us to do so. We will use these funds to draw up architectural plans, create legal documents, and put together the professional business and marketing packet we will need to attract larger funders. 

There are quite a few ideas about how to purchase and use the building, on the most basic level we would create a condo building and buy just our space.  A bigger game plan would include artist housing, a café space, and renovation and expansion of the existing theater space. Ultimately, whatever amount of the space we retain, we want to continue to use it to support the indie theater community in the most economical and efficient way possible. We really want to thank you all for your support and helpful advice these past weeks.

Also see:
Help Thy Neighbor by Doug Strassler

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Guest Blogger of the Week: Heidi Grumelot

We want to thank Joe Mathers for his posts last week.  We all had so much fun reading them.

We are happy to announce that next week's guest blogger is Heidi Grumelot.

Heidi G Grumelot is Artistic Director of Horse Trade Theater Group. She is co-creator and producer of the monthly storytelling show TOLD. She is the founding artistic director of The Drafts, an acting ensemble responsible for development of over forty original plays as part of their monthly reading series.  New York directing credits include punkrock/lovesong at The Brick Theater, Dido and Aeneas with The New York Collective of Performing Arts at The West End Theater and The Boston Early Music Festival, Donnie and the Monsters at UNDER St Marks Theater, and Accidents Do Happen, Tom's Things, and Turning the Glass Around in The Red Room. Reading and Development credits include The Flower Thief, A River Pure for Healing, An Absolutely Perfect Life, and Lines. She has directed productions in Michigan, Virginia, and Mexico. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Boy Who Cried "Awesome!"

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Joe Mathers.

I’d like to hear from the OOB world about something – and it’s a touchy, nasty, unpleasant subject that I think most of us stay away from. 

We are our own community most of the time.  Very often, when there are multiple projects all happening at the same time, we are torn between which ones to go see, which ones to spend our money on, and which friends we can possibly support.

That can be stressful.  So, what usually happens is that we turn to reviews to help us decide.  Given one night to see two different shows, and all things being equal, one assumes we’d select the best show based on our interests, and whether or not it has been reviewed favorably.  Marketing a show lets us know it’s happening, and the reviewers and good word of mouth get more folks in the door!

The other thing we do is something I’ve gotten a lot of people to admit to over beers, or walking home from rehearsals, late nights on the train, but a lot of those people won’t admit to this “in public.” 

We ask the friend in the show, “Is it good?”

Invariably, they say “Yes!” 

Then we say back, “Dude, seriously, is it good?  Like, GOOD good?  Or good like ‘I have to say it’s good so people come see it good?’”

And they say, “Welllllll… it’s OK.  I mean, it’s fun, but it’s not great.  It’s not the best thing ever.”  Or, “The writing is a little odd, and the director is sort of blah.”   Or  “I’m kind of feeling ‘meh’ about it and we only run for five shows, so it’s not, you know… whatever.”

Whether or not we’ve actually had a similar conversation, I know a lot of theater artists who have felt that way about a project they’re involved in.  I know I’ve been there.  How do you handle it?

For me, personally, I try to “fix it” whenever I feel like something’s off.  I’ve met with success and failure in that arena.  Often it depends on the show and the writer and director and how they work.  I approach the subject along the lines of “I think this could be so much better than it is.”  Sometimes I get lucky and I’m part of a team that is amenable to making changes and we come out with something I’m proud to be a part of. 

But sometimes it doesn’t materialize, and the show becomes an unpleasant weird lurching hunchback of a production (I can say that hunchbacks are unpleasant, weird and lurching because – little known fact – were it not for nearly 4 years in brace, I'd be an unpleasant, weird lurching hunchback myself).  

What do you do then?

How do you face your friends and “fans” with a show some producer/writer/director passionately believes in yet you think is best burned, the ashes scattered among various sealed vessels, each buried deep in sanctified ground so that it may never rise again?

Why, yes, I have done that with a script or two in my time.  Yes, it works.  Can we move on?

I admit, I sometimes lie about it or politely decline comment.

Why?  Is it out of kindness?  Is it out of political necessity – to stay “popular” in a very small world?  Is it simply economics of producing a show?

I think it’s a combination of many factors, but I wish we didn’t have to lie when we don’t like a show.  Even if we’re in it.  It’s OK to not be super psyched about every project we do.  Sometimes we expect that things will be one way and they turn out another. 

Do I want people to come see the final week of Dear Ruth?  Yes, yes I do, because I like the show, it’s warm, it’s fun and the people who produce it do good work.  I’m not lying.  Did I want people to come and see some of the other shows I’ve done in the last few years?  Not necessarily.  I didn’t think they worked. 

Is Dear Ruth for everyone?  No – of course not.  My brother probably won’t be coming to see it, simply because he’s not into fun, charming rom-com’s of the 1940s.  He does however like... well… I don’t what he likes.  He watches a lot of Law & Order.  Maybe I can find a procedural drama to be in that he’ll come see…     

My point is this:  not every show we do is going to be a shining work of high art.  Sometimes it’s a steaming pile of poop.  I’m not saying I should ever attack the people who may have produced what I think is a steaming pile of poop, but we shouldn’t have to be obligated to cheerlead for stuff we aren’t so excited about simply because custom demands it. 

Cheerleading for a project you don’t believe in is a risky proposition – I call it “The Boy Who Cried ‘Awesome’ Dilemma.”  Proclaim the magical goodness of a project too often, and you become incapable of being trusted to discern which productions are actually widely regarded as good.  On the other hand, if you don’t self promote to a certain degree, no one sees when you do make something awesome.
The obvious solution is to not get involved with projects you aren’t in love with, but that doesn’t always work either, and we can’t all drop out of projects when they aren’t working, right?

I don’t know – this is something I struggle with from time to time.  And my close friends know I can be pretty vitriolic about a show I’m not digging.  I’m putting this out there – how do YOU deal with the “Boy Who Cried AWESOME Dilemma”?  Write a comment or two, or assault my Facebook page – I’m asking for some opinions. 

After all, opinions are what art is about – and my shining symbol of artistic vision is probably being scraped off the bottom of someone’s else shoe right now.  Possibly Tim Errickson's. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Does someone smell sawdust?

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Joe Mathers.

Hey folks, Joe Mathers again.  Thanks for reading the last post I wrote, and if you didn’t, well, you’ve no one to blame but yourself.  Or the internet.  There’s a lot of funny stuff out there.  You’ve seen the one with the kitten, right?

Ever notice that when you’re in rehearsal for an OOB show, and you show up in the rented theater space a few days before opening and you start running the show, and there’s a half a set there, and then the next day there’s a whole set there, and then suddenly its all painted and decorated, and has working doors and doesn’t fall apart on you (hopefully)?  And then someone makes it look even cooler with lights? 

Most of us know that there are a bunch of dedicated super beings doing the work there, and we’re aware that they’ve worked hard.  Hell, in some cases it’s the same people who are in the show, or producing it.  But what I want to talk about today are the people who bust their butts and really don’t get to take a bow. 

We’ll start with designers – a lot of the time the designers are yes, paid.  Let’s face it.  There are fewer designers than performers, and they have to be really good.  By which I mean, you can do bare bones theater with nothing but a space, a little light, and people saying lines from a play as directed by someone else, but if you want to do something more, producers have to pay to play.  And good designers aren’t as dime a dozen as good actors.  (I know.  You are a unique snowflake.  Just like everyone else.)  Set, lights, costumes, sound, effects, props, fight choreography and so on – that can get expensive.

Designers get credited in the program at least.  Electricians and carpenters… not so much.  Sure, they get paid – usually – and often it’s just another job… but seriously.  Let’s stop and think for a moment about the people who actually do the heavy lifting and the dirty work. 

I’m not taking the place of Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs or anything, but I bring up these people who climb the grid, swing the hammers, cut the lumber and bruise, slice, bludgeon and work themselves into a filthy grimy mess all so we can look so so pretty onstage (and we do.  We’re all going to prom!) because I think it’s worth remembering them. 

It’s worth remembering that while we’re talking about the community of New York’s OOB scene, we should be cognizant that there is a virtual army of unidentified workers who bust their butts to make that show as awesome as it is, and all for less than a few thousand dollars.

I don’t want to start a revolution here or anything… but do we give awards to our run crews?  Our electricians, carpenters and those mysterious geniuses called technical directors?  Those people who take a designer’s drawings and translate them into physical reality are – and I really think this – as valuable to the art form itself as the actors who perform the writer’s words. 

Wouldn’t be something to see a guy like Jason Paradine or Elisha Schaefer win an “Independent Theater Carpenter of the Year” award?  Mostly because I think he’d give a funny speech, but I think you folks know what I mean.   Our community of theatrical artists is so much bigger than just performers and writers.  More than that – it’s the technicians, designers and front of house teams.  We’ve actually got a sizeable population here, all of us working (paid and unpaid) to make something we believe in. 

A few years ago I was a partner in a small business – a scene shop that built for independent theater – No Time For Love Productions.  I recall late one evening (or was it early one morning?) we were tired and grouchy, complaining about how damned tired we were; no one cares, there’s no money in it… blah blah blah… when my biz partner and buddy Joe Powell said something I’ll never forget.

“If everyone who worked in independent theater was instead searching for the cure for cancer, we’d have it done in no time.” 

Now obviously, that’s not totally true – but it was a clear statement about when this community decides to do something, it gets done because we will work until it gets finished. 

That is another reason I love doing OOB theater.  Even the biggest jerk in the scene shop is here for the same reason as everyone else.  To make the best show we can.  And because I can say this… the biggest jerk in the scene shop is usually my pal Brian Smallwood, because he’s a big jerk.  Who, like a jerk, taught me much of what I know about technical theater, and carpentry.   What a jerk.  

Monday, May 16, 2011

Why "Do" OOB Anyway?

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.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Guest Blogger of the Week: Joe Mathers

We would like to thank August Schulenburg for his - ahem AWESOME posts last week.

We are very excited to announce that this week's guest blogger is Joe Mathers.

Joe Mathers has been in NYC since the late 90's after graduating from Syracuse University, and relocating from his home in New Jersey to Queens.  As a performer, producer, electrician, carpenter, or fight choreographer (sometimes many at once) he has worked with companies such as Boomerang, Impetuous, and as guests of Nosedive, Brown Bear Productions, and The Vampire Cowboys.  In 2001, Joe was a founding member of APAC and some years later was also a founding member of The Flux Ensemble.  He was a managing partner of a small scenic construction shop called No Time For Love Productions, which closed down in 2009-10 and while he misses the constant sawdust, he has been performing steadily since, currently appearing in Retro Productions latest offering Dear Ruth, and will also be making a showing at The Brick Theater's upcoming Comic Book Festival in June as Karl Marx in Action Philosophers by Crystal Skillman and Fred Van Lente.  

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Document your 2010-2011 productions

Contributed by Shay Gines.

I hope you had a fantastic and very productive 2010-2011 season. I want to document and archive your theatrical activities from this last year.
For the last 67 years, Theatre World has been documenting Broadway and Off-Broadway productions and has become the leading archivist of information for American theatre. In 2009 they began to include Off-Off-Broadway
The editors of Theatre World recognized the legitimacy of our community and felt that it deserved a place in this archive and I was honored that they asked me to help collect information about our amazing community.
It is so important that our community is represented. It helps to shed a light on the importance of this sector and demonstrates, the number of productions, the variety, the innovation and the determination of the work being created in our community. 
 I need your help.

 1. Please complete the online form documenting your company's season (see below)
 2. Please forward the link to this post to your fellow OOB producers and ask them to do the same.
What I need is your production information from the 2010-2011 season (shows that played between June 1, 2010 and May 31, 2011), for inclusion in Volume 67, including individual production information as well as benefits, readings, workshops, etc.
I know as an OOB producer your time is valuable, but the annual Theatre World publications are one of the premiere archives for American Theatre and it is so important for our community to be represented. I ask you to take this time to provide the information requested, so that your company's production(s) will be recorded and referenced everywhere by theatre scholars, students, casting directors, producers, and other industry professionals daily. In addition, it will be a part of the permanent record of Off-Off-Broadway and placed in important research and reference libraries from The Library of Congress to most colleges and universities across the country.
Here’s the link to the form:

Theatre World is the oldest pictorial and statistical record of the American theatre, published annually as a hardcover book by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books (America's foremost publisher of theatre and cinema books) and has been continually published since 1945. It is the most comprehensive and definitive record of Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theatre, and Off-Off-Broadway, and is available for purchase at many fine online establishments, including, , or
Thank you for your cooperation in helping us to maintain the most complete annual record of the American theatre!

Friday, May 13, 2011

We Are Such Stuff

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, August Schulenburg.

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

The infamous first lines of Peter Brook’s The Empty Space have set a tingle racing up the necks of undergrads ever since it was published in 1968. “Yes, that’s what it is, all it is, that’s all you need!” I remember thinking triumphantly in the sun-soaked quiet of Trexler Library.

The more you turn the statement over in your mind, however, the more its simplicity gives way to something more difficult. Theatre is not just someone walking across a bare stage with someone watching; or rather, that simple act has many different meanings. And so, our conversations about theatre are often defeated by the sheer size of the word, and the many different ideas it contains.

So what exactly is this stuff that dreams are made on?

Theatre is story: Theatre was the first storytelling medium, a brilliant invention to condense events into a pattern of cause and effect that could be re-enacted by anyone, and so passed down for as long as the story was useful. Because our pattern-hungry minds are so primed for narrative, storytelling is often seen as theatre’s primary function. As a result, it can seem theatre’s closest relatives are TV and Film, two later platforms for the transmission of story.

In reaction to the ease of film’s distribution, theatre retrenched in part by pretending there were stories that were “uniquely theatrical”, and therefore immune from the superior reach of film. This even led to a move away from story entirely, by fracturing narrative to the edge of incomprehensibility; but a confusing story is still a story, and any art form whose whole is revealed through its parts changing through time cannot pretend it is made of some strange new stuff. Theatre is story, and to those who feel this part of theatre most keenly, all that is needed to resuscitate the field are better stories (or the right stories, whatever that means to the person speaking). 

Theatre is place: Inevitably, when the old “theatre” vs “theater” debate comes up, someone will patiently instruct you that “theatre” is the act and “theater” is the place. Regardless of where you fall on that great butter battle, the simple fact is theatre is local. It can only happen in one place at a time. That weakness is also a strength, and theatre people can’t help but rhapsodize about the magic of artists and audiences “breathing the same air”. That many others don’t see that value in breathing the same air, and would instead prefer to be chilling with popcorn and beer as they get their story fix from TV, doesn’t change this unique aspect of theatre in an increasingly placeless world.

Theatre can also change the nature of a place: that charged feeling of possibility in an empty theatre can be translated to literally anywhere. Those who connect deeply with theatre as place often believe that theatre simply isn’t being done in the right locations, and if we free it from the traditional buildings(or change the dynamics of those spaces), all will be well.

Theatre is community: Both the process of making and process of performing a play are social acts, and because theatre is place, that social act invariably creates or reshapes a community. A unique community is created with each performance, and the impact of that event spreads out through the local culture. The invention of the 501c3 has led many not-for-profit theatres to place this civic/social aspect of theatre as paramount, believing that if only theatres better served their communities (whatever they believe that community to be), they would thrive.

Theatre is time: Theatre is never complete; it is always becoming (which I find very becoming (sorry)). Both as a collaborative process in rehearsal, and a collaborative event in performance, it exists only by moving through time, unfixed and in flux. There can be no definitive performance, because when the curtain comes down, it continues to evolve in the leaky cup of our minds. Those who most prize this aspect of theatre says things like “process is more important than product”, and believe if audiences only embraced process more, theatre would be properly supported.

Theatre is play: You might note that all of the above holds true for most religious rituals, and I sometimes think of religion as a play where the audience goes on suspending their disbelief after the curtain falls. But the transubstantiation of theatre, even in the most documentary of plays, is still the province of imagination, and that difference makes all the difference. Consequences of human choices matter both more and less in a play: more, because the pressure of a play’s brevity makes each choice (espresso, diamonds) count; less, because the consequences of those choices disappear into (thin) air when the play ends. The safety of this perilous place is what makes theatre as play so important; and this may be what I love best about it; that all the dead bodies rise again, that all the reunited lovers get on separate trains to go home.

You will note one glaring omission from this list: theatre is business. To make theatre, you may very well need to make some business decisions; and the theatre we end up talking about most is usually made by businesses. But it’s important to separate theatre from businesses who make theatre, as it is truly possible to make theatre from almost nothing (see Rising Phoenix’s Cino Nights); and there is no guarantee that financial resources will make it any easier to bottle the lightning.  

If there is a single characteristic that separates Indie theatre from the other ways to make plays, it may simply be that we live that distinction. We make theatre first, and businesses that make theatre second (if at all). That’s not to say that Indie theatre folk aren’t enterprising and entrepreneurial; some of the savviest folks you’ll meet sling spreadsheets for Indie companies. Nor does it mean that distinction belongs only to those toiling in the Codes. There are theatres producing at the highest resource levels that somehow keep that Indie spirit intact, just as there are many producing on gaff tape and moxie solely to “make it big”.

The distinction is essential in a culture that devalues any human activity that doesn’t make a financial profit, and in a profession where self-worth is so often determined by the financial size of the businesses where you make your theatre. I like artists making a living, just as I want everyone on the earth having enough to live out their lives in peace and dignity. But when you tell me you’re a theatre artist, I measure you first by what stories you’re telling, who you’re telling them for, who you’re making them with, and what they make possible in human life that wasn’t possible before. That’s the stuff Indie theatre artists are made on, so catch us now, because the thin air is calling, and we’ll leave not a rack behind.