A retreat. A residency. Part 1.

Process is an odd word — a strange thing.  It gets thrown around the performing arts with ease and, often, carelessness.  In any casual interview session a writer or director may be asked to explain his/her ‘process.’  And, as truly challenging as it is to functionally discover and hone one’s own, it seems even sillier to attempt to articulate a life pursuit in a conversation.   And this is where anecdotal evidence - a narrative - becomes absolutely essential.

When I decided to write again about my work in the theatre (attempting to flesh out this good-intentioned but poorly maintained blog), I thought the first thing I would discuss is my summer experience at Endstation Theatre Company and how it relates to my writing process.  However, seeing as I have yet to really synthesize much of what I absorbed at this point, it’s probably much more prudent to just tell a story or four.

When I arrived in Amherst, VA after an epic series of waiting, car rides and long flights from Los Angeles, I was a bit nervous.  Nervous about seeing old friends after 8 long years, nervous about having my writing read aloud and critiqued by strangers, nervous about being away from my home on the west coast for a month.  Now, those closest to me know I’m not the anxious type — but this was cause for some mild anxiety.  I was invited by the Artistic Director, Geoffrey Kershner (who was in my MFA Directing class at Florida State University) to join their Playwright’s Initiative as a visiting playwright.  It was an appreciated invitation.  

I longed intensely to work on my writing, which is a mode of expression into which I’ve only recently begun to delve.  Recently as in three years ago.  I’ve made much of my living as an actor, director and professor.  Writing was something that excited me and that I always genuinely respected, but never felt compelled to throw myself into head-first (which is only way I am able to really do anything with any success).  However, as aggressively as I’ve attempted to improve my skills in directing, acting and pedagogy — it was intimidating at age 30 to start building another related, but very different skill-set.  Here was an opportunity, now at age 33, to take what I had begun a few years earlier and focus on improving it in a virtual graduate-school setting - a residency in which I could lose myself a bit for the first time in quite a while.

Week 1 - Getting Acclimated to Porch-Sits and Whiskey Once Again

My time began with a campus tour of the beautiful Sweet Briar College campus, catching up with some old friends and watching an irreverent vaudevillian adaptation of Taming of the Shrew in the summer Virginia rain.  Endstation does a wonderful job with physical comedy and site-specific aesthetics, so it couldn’t have been a more appropriate way to wander into July at the foot of the Appalachians.  After the production, there were more introductions to the company while sitting on the old plantation porch of the dorm in which we were all housed.  Rocking chairs, Jameson’s and catching up in the sweet-smelling damp air with friends - old and new - kept me up longer than usual without regret.  And, while that night is crystal clear in my mind, the rest of the week is a bit of a blur in retrospect.  The following couple of days were filled with meeting the other visiting playwrights - two very young, very talented MFA students from Portland and D.C., respectively.  The time was also spent purchasing necessities for dorm living (something I am ashamed to say I was able to avoid all 4 years of undergrad -didn’t understand the requisite shower caddie, etc).  We also learned the details of the playwriting residency itself.  For those interested in applying for the future, I’ll recount the details as they currently stand as well as the contact information:  On Wednesday, we had our daily roundtable meeting which, in this case, was to talk about the reading series that would occur the following Monday.  This half of the residency was entitled the ‘Ad Hoc Series.’  The purpose is simple — we all brought pieces that were either finished, but needed refinement or were in mid-process — whatever we felt would be most useful to read aloud.  We would meet to read excerpts aloud at our daily roundtable meetings in order to refine and cast the readings until we were satisfied.  Again, a blur, but the weekend passed with some re-writing, some readings of the material, the reading of each other’s material to gauge our own potential amidst one another and, finally, more evenings spent conversing on the porch.  Time moved slow in comparison to freeways of LA, yet the following Monday would come faster than anyone anticipated.  And it was anticipated.  The Monday Ad Hoc Reading Series would ultimately tell us all a great deal about how each of us worked — and perhaps even a bit about our elusive personal process. 


The Turf-War That Killed Los Angeles Theater

Scouring the various articles, blogs and financial reports of regional theaters around the country brings an important question to the forefront regarding the health of theater in America: Can adjacent theaters promote each others’ work without causing negative competition for themselves in the process?

Most of the discussion consists of a generally dry and uninteresting set of metrics that ultimately boils down to a simple fact: the live theater is no longer commercially viable in its current state of supply/demand.  If you’d like to digest some of those statistical circumstances, here are some interesting articles that go over the details:

I, however, have no interest in re-hashing the numbers and continuing discourse about a model that no longer operates.  Instead, let us go back to the impetus of storytelling in the first place: the need to commune and communicate.  To use a personal anecdote, when VanguardRep began promoting our outdoor summer Shakespeare Festival, it became clear that a few of the nearby regional theaters were concerned that we would take away from their audiences (as they were hanging onto their subscription base by a thread as it was, doing their best to cover their ever-increasing overhead of a permanent space in a major metropolitan area).  As understandable as the anxiety of competition is in a super-saturated market, I couldn’t help but think: isn’t it a question of demand, rather than supply?  In a collaborative art like the live theater—which thrives on a personal connection with audience and fellow artists alike—shouldn’t our community not only be as tight as humanly possible, but also support each other during the most dire circumstances?  Theater is incestuous and, if we’re being honest, a microcosm of itself in many ways, so where’s the support? 

There are huge challenges facing theater in the United States.  Our international reputation is poor.  The government support isn’t enough to expand rehearsal processes and development, the economic models are archaic and the most powerful practitioners are not in touch with social media or the current pace of consumerism.  However.  We need the wisdom and experience of those running the American Theater for the last 40 years in order to do the best work.  And they need to support the idealistic, passionate, communal and technologically savvy generation of theater artists rising and desperately needing the resources to change the models.  The younger generation wants to do new work.  The new generation wants to figure out how to use technology to connect the audience and bring them back to a live, performer/audience experience.  The new generation wants to feel like the generations who paved the way want them around.

So…next time a young theater company shows up doing interesting, unique and innovative work—perhaps promoting them and genuinely wishing for their success will aid them in bringing in new audiences to the theater community at large.  And, when that happens, we might be able to have a whole new discussion about how to cultivate a newly invigorated demand and not worry so much about the supply.

Los Angeles doesn’t know what to do as a theater community yet.  Let’s make it cool to go to the theater by sending the audiences to each others plays.  Yes, it might dent the numbers at first, but eventually people might remember the fact that it’s an unforgettable night of entertainment to experience what the live theater has to offer when it’s at its best.

Treating The Treatment with Respect

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of becoming engrossed with one of the year’s finest new works, The Treatment, by Richard Alger and Tina Kronis.  This adaptation of Chekhov’s beloved short story Ward 6 is a genuinely elegant mash-up of movement, sound and narrative.  As VanguardRep strives to create new work for a new audience and a new economic structure, we are always looking to models for a functional, internationally tour-able, yet fully-realized production.  The Treatment is an ideal of the American Theater.  An important work.  A work that should and could represent this country’s artistic sensibilities abroad.  Check back to see news of future productions and continued discourse with the production’s creators Richard and Tina in the very near future here at The Ritual.  And here’s to seeing this kind of work promoted with the same enthusiasm and visibility of regional offerings of lesser quality, risk or impact.  We will also be using The Treatment to begin a discourse of what the Los Angeles theater has to offer the nation and the international community in the future.  Stay tuned.

Angelenos in America

As theater artists in Los Angeles complain about the lack of support and structure, Mr. Davidson suggests that there is untapped audience resources in the City of Angels.  And while a resurgence is certainly taking place, it puts forward a question of “how?”  Willing audiences, unwilling drivers.  No walking traffic.  How does the next generation of theater artists create an environment conducive to the necessary audience support to change the perception of the Los Angeles theater community permanently?