Theater For The Future

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Archive for January, 2008

“I wanted to live, but I couldn’t,” or, Saved by the Theater you don’t expect

January 17, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Teachable Moments

egyptbev.JPGI visited Bev a few days ago, for the first time since right after the accident.

Bev Longo had been our stage manager at New Leaf for our production of Accelerando two seasons ago. Bev is an accomplished MFA director who had worked as an assistant with Lookingglass, taught for years, but was having difficulty getting reconnected with the theater scene in Chicago and at that point was really interested in doing anything. I know her because she’s also the aunt of Lilly West, my counterpart sound operator for the Albert stage at the Goodman, who helped arrange the whole collaboration. Bev was quietly focused and almost religiously respectful of the theatrical process, and we desperately needed a capable stage manager, someone who would shepherd the project and help it grow. She sort of ended up as a mother figure for the show – running sound and projections in addition to the myriad props presets and stage sweepings and note taking that goes with stage management. She certainly was the central culture rock for the cast, and remains good friends with several folks, including New Leaf regular Tiffany Joy Ross. We hoped that she’d be interested in continuing our relationship with us at New Leaf by directing one of our upcoming shows, and indeed Bev was involved in the casting process for last season.

For a couple reasons, that never ended up happening, and it took me a while to understand why she ended up leaving the directing project suddenly, and with little explanation. Eventually, through much discussing with Lilly, I learned that Bev had a dream of starting a theater of her own, a dream that compelled her to focus her energies on her own work and not the often compromised collaborations with teams she couldn’t always trust. At the time, I didn’t understand and to be perfectly honest, didn’t trust that “go it alone” impulse, but now it’s something I’m beginning to feel a bit more myself. That need for complete trust and focus is strong when you really believe in your own work – when you decide to put all your eggs in that basket – and I think with where New Leaf was at the time, we couldn’t offer her that kind of complete support of vision that she could trust to the ends of the earth, which meant the time had come for her to forge her own path.

Bev was arranging space for her first Chicago production, I believe, when she was hit by a CTA bus at the corner of Belmont & Clark, on August 31st. She landed on her head and spend the next three days in a medically-induced coma. Life has a way of wiping away the petty drama when you least expect it.

Correction from Lilly: Bev was only medically comatose for about three days, which is when I saw her the first time, and the remainder of the three weeks was simply her stillness in recovery and from morphine and other pain killers. For those of you who have experienced a friend or relative with a head injury, this is a big difference – the longer a patient is comatose, the smaller their chances of recovery.

I don’t know why I stayed away so long. Maybe it was seeing her in the ICU, asleep and bandaged. Even though I knew whatever bad blood or disappointment may have existed between us didn’t matter to Bev anymore, I somehow still carried that idea around. I thought that if she had bad feelings about her time with New Leaf, I didn’t want to reawaken those memories with my presence. I tried to help Lilly with just being a sounding board, I suppose, as the family dealt with the massive change to their lives and the innumerable crazy things that happen when families need to come together again to cope with a big change. I didn’t even know what I could do for Amanda, Bev’s daughter, who I didn’t know as well but who had been suddenly thrust into the completely overwhelming situation of being the caregiver of her mother, and therefore needed all the help we could give. Bev eventually woke up from the coma, and like most head trauma cases has to go through a very long recovery process, which so far has involved three four very capable and dedicated care institutions (from Lilly: Illinois Masonic, RIC, St. Joseph’s, and now the Imperial. I wanted to include them before but didn’t have the details in front of me) Slowly movement returned, then some speech, then some sentences with mixed up but somehow still evocative words (When she was asked where she got hurt, instead of “I was hurt in my head” she jumbled up the words and said “I got hurt in my soul.”) Then, some memories came back, and the ability to read and write soon returned as well. In the last four and a half months, Bev has retrained her neural pathways from almost scratch, while retaining many of the long-term memories of her adult life.

This is truly one of the greatest battles we can face as human beings, as creatures – a journey back through our mind, finding our way to our body and our words after the old well-worn path has been lost. In that journey, you have a memory of your old mind and yet you cannot find it… the whole house of cards has fallen. The cards are still there, of course, but Bev has to put them together again, one by one.

I knew I was being childish about the whole visiting thing, so while we were working on Shining City – which is a play that really resonates with those that have suffered a similar loss in their family, let me tell you – I finally said to Lilly, let’s go. During tech, whatever, I wanted to see how Bev is doing. And I finally did.

As we walked into the room, I didn’t expect the constant laughter. From Bev, from me, from Lilly. Bev has changed, of course – her scars, her mind, but her heart is the same – wide open and excited to be alive. I say her mind, but I should be more specific – details are mixed up, like memories and vocabulary, but her cleverness and even wit are still there. Bev thrives on company, but Bev is the first person in her boat that I have ever heard of that still knows how to work her audience. When she can’t remember a word, she uses tricks to try to improv her way through. She’ll read voraciously to jog her memory… when she can’t remember the word for potato she’ll sneak out her printed menu from dinner and say “Oh, we had 1 starch for dinner.” And then she realizes that she’s goofed, and laughs with you. It’s hard, yes, but I also see it as downright inspiring. She is living, and engaged fully with her life, and she has a second chance.

She sat us down first thing and told us something, which coming from Bev is a very promising sign:

“Did you know… I was talking with Amanda, and… I didn’t realize before, but I almost died!” She walked us through her scars, with excited and eager eyes, and told us of the injuries and the surgeries that caused them, as pieces of the puzzle that she’s been putting together since she woke up. For the first time, her short term memory has improved to the point where she is now retaining her recent past, and discussions from a few days ago. And she tells her new stories with all of herself – hope and joy and wonder and self-deprecation.

Bev began writing in a journal the other day to help herself remember. Her written words are that tool she can rely on. It’s a tool that her sharp human mind can use to repair itself, survive and thrive. In her bedside table she reads and rereads her MFA dissertation, amazed at her own work and remembering bits and pieces of emotional detail, especially the signatures on the front from her advisors – “These are the people who liked me so much, they wrote it here.” Her dream from the last year of starting her own theater and directing again has resurfaced with a vengeance. She wants to write a play about what she’s been through, what she’s going through, what she will go through. She is writing with the purpose of remembering who she is, and her writing already reveals that she has a rich inner understanding that she cannot express yet through her damaged speech centers.

“I wanted to live, but I couldn’t.”

We’ve been talking at New Leaf about what it takes to write with your whole soul… Writing and creating with all the language that we possess, not just our words – our music, our dancing, our faces, our hearts. We’re trying to open up a new possibility of engaging with our work – going after the work and the themes that resonate with us from a multi-disciplinary approach. Intellect, Empathy, Touch, Music, Shape, Color… all our languages. Bev has always understood this kind of trust and completeness that you need to have in your own work. And she still has that trust that the work will help her through today.

I learned a lesson yesterday. I guess i knew it before, from my own experiences with teaching and stories of Theater eureka moments like Parabasis’, but I have never seen it and felt a calling to it as strongly as I did when Bev read me her journal two days ago. Theater, and the tactics of engagement that we use in the theater, can save your life. That’s why theater is valuable and worth fighting for. Theater and the crafting of theater can give us all purpose, and hope, and a reason to keep plugging away through overwhelming adversity. It can codify our stories and help us remember the things that matter. But you don’t get to compartmentalize the experience, and you don’t get to do it halfway – clapping politely, and forgetting the experience on the way to the parking garage. It’s an experience that changes you. It’s the hardest work you can do – opening up new neural pathways. And that means it’s not just the words on the page, it’s in the eye contact and the touch – in the connection. It’s acknowledging that we have an impossibly long journey ahead of us, and choosing to take that journey anyway, because we take it together.

God bless Bev Longo. She is one strong woman.

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I’m being hypnotizzzzzzeed…

January 15, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects

By listening to the Broadway in Chicago Podcast, otherwise known as the “Bi-monthly Have You Seen Wicked Yet? Podcast.” I don’t know why I torture myself.

But it does give me leave for my own moment of blatant self-promotion. You know, for balance.

We have just ramped out a new New Leaf Blog which we’re going to be using to open up our rehearsal and development process a bit to our audience.

Also, I challenged myself to my first same-day podcast for New Leaf’s first rehearsal of Girl in the Goldfish Bowl (which was a few hours ago). You can check out said podcast online here and of course subscribe through iTunes.

I’ll clean up the html tomorrow and make sure the dang RSS feed is pinging properly. For tonight, I rest contented.

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Storefront Theater Toolkit: Empathy

January 13, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

Tool BoxIn what I’m hoping will become a regular series on this blog, I’d like to showcase one of the tactics and tools that is always available to the storefront theater or artist to accomplish their self-development goals.

The recent hot topic of conversation in the Chicago Theater blogosphere has been the “regional theater disease” of hiring actors from NYC when we could be using our local pool of talent more. It’s an issue that riles great passion in many folks, and there’s a great deal of blame that gets thrown around on both sides of the equation. It’s also a problem that needs a lot of heads thinking about a viable solution and a roadmap to achieving that solution.

However you feel about the issue, if your goal is to really end the problem as quickly and permanently as possible, I find it’s often best to not start with a complete declaration of war and revolution against those making decisions. As much as I love to cheerlead on this site, I believe that real change happens faster and more completely when you use tactics of understanding and dialogue with the people that have the power to influence the situation. Speak Truth To Power, and have them Speak it Right Back. I believe these people are trying to serve the interests of the community, but the interests of the community are so complex that it is inevitable that they both succeed and fail somewhat depending on the perceived priorities of their organizations.

To put it simply: There isn’t currently a switch you can throw and make it a no-brainer to hire local talent over NYC talent. There’s crap in the road towards that beautiful shining city on the hill. We need to first identify what the roadblocks are. We need to realize that since we’re in the same car with the folks driving us there, we’re better served by pulling a better map out of the glove compartment than telling them to pull over in dangerous territory. This isn’t a father-knows-best argument – I’ll wager that everyone’s flying just as blind as we are. It’s just that theater itself is in trouble here, and the more we foster cooperation between individuals, small organizations, and large organizations, the more we can improve conditions for all of us.

So how to pick the brains of the folks currently in charge and figure out what they’re paying attention to? How do you convince them that your idea is something that is worth doing, something worth prioritizing? Empathy is hugely powerful in problem solving challenges of this scale. Start by reading what they’re saying, and understand what their focus is through their own words.

(The image here is of course from the hilariously dead-on regional-theater-spoof Slings and Arrows, which delves into these issues in a far more entertaining way that I’m doing here. See. It.)

Everyone involved in any complex problem is still a human, and most folks act from largely self-perpetuating motives (usually still with a bit of the faded youthful idealism of wanting to make the world a better place and correct injustice – so that’s an in with almost everyone). Researching, understanding, and redirecting those motives often can benefit all parties. Empathy gets two people butting heads to put down the rattling sabers and discuss contracts, concessions, grants and real action. Empathy helps win over groups of people at once – a positive message is almost always more effective than a negative one. Empathy helps you understand when someone could be receptive to an idea, and when they just need to grab a bite to eat and please get out of the way.

A Little More Coffee For You?Empathy is a tool learned by every good intern on the first day. You’re new, you’re green, you can see that your entire career depends on just a few people noticing you and valuing you enough to give you recommendations and jobs. There are interns who rightly call this bullshit, and refuse to play the game. Then there are interns who watch everyone on staff like a hawk. They get to know the personalities of the staff, not just their roles and responsibilities. They see when an artistic director forgets her script everywhere she goes, and they know to be there to pick it up and hand it to her. They see where they can be useful and make the process easier. They see that the director of development is insecure about their interaction with the artistic staff, so they engage the director with conversation about their thoughts on the last play and help pump up their ego, self-confidence, and trust. They do all this so that they will earn the trust of those who have the power to make change. It’s a mutual exchange… the intern here isn’t lying to get ahead, they’re learning how the folks in powerful staff positions think, and engaging with that thought process for the time when they will be in power. They can learn simply by keeping the flow of creative energy in the room open.

Empathy is also a tool that can help a theater drastically improve its relationship with the audience. How does the audience feel when they walk into your space? What does your space tell them? How do your plays make them feel, and how do those feelings mesh with the artistic goals of your play? Empathy is an essential ingredient in fostering the trust that a subscriber feels for your theater.

So, back to the problem of actors: if you follow the chicken and the egg around, the real problem seems to be that there is a perception in the public that they should buy a ticket if a show is from New York or if the actors are from New York. The perception is that New York shows are good, and Chicago shows and the talent that creates them are hit and miss. This is certainly a false perception, but that perception is not being systematically repositioned to the Chicago public. In order to solve the problem, we have to understand why it exists and adjust the perception, slowly and patiently and with a minimum of blood and rolling heads.

This perception that Chicago needs star power in its plays is perpetuated by the immediate and constant need to provide high-risk and high-value arts programming in regional theaters that sells out or carries a minimum financial risk. If a regional theater casts an LA or NYC star in a gutsy show, the play will still sell out, and the financial reward will satisfy the board and create financial stability which means they have served the community by getting their public institution closer to self-sufficiency. Yes, it’s arguable that they haven’t served the long term needs of the community or the organization by failing to build a cult of stardom around the more sustainable local pool of actors. But long term needs and short term needs for any organization are almost ALWAYS at odds and need to be carefully balanced. There is no “suck” knob on a mixing board, and there’s no “local only” button in a regional theater’s speed dial.

So how do we change situations like this, with multiple motives that create systematic injustice over time? I take my lesson (yet again) from David Hare’s The Permanent Way, where Hare picks apart the various motives and personalities involved in British Rail’s disastrous and systematic string of train wrecks from ’94 – ’02. From the bereaved to the rail managers to the investment bankers who funded a failed privatization that resulted in reduced maintenance, track failure and lots of fatalities, Hare approaches the disastrous system simply by listening, and paints a path through empathy with each player towards systematic health. As it turns out, everyone wanted the same thing – a safer, efficient, and well-used rail system. Everyone in our community wants the same thing for our community – opportunities for all, artistic growth, and audience development.

The simplest technique to shepherding everyone’s competing interests turns out to be the reverse of a standard dramatic technique. If you seek to understand the motivations of the people and groups of people that you see blocking you from your goal, you can quickly defuse the drama and find the quickest path to a mutually beneficial compromise.

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Follow Up: Someone else is already writing our history

January 11, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, projects, Teachable Moments

revisionist_history.gif

I did some digging this evening in the history of the Wikipedia entry for Theater in Chicago, because I’m sneaky like that, and I noticed a single user whose posts seemed, well… motivated by commercial interests, shall we say. One user has written about 40% of the article, including almost all of the recent history, and her entire user history is made up of updates to the pages on Broadway in Chicago, The Ford Center, LaSalle Bank Theatre, Cadillac Palace, Jersey Boys, Wicked, and, a few short months after the presentation of the Broadway in Chicago Emerging Theater Award and Marketing Package, the House Theater. And a review! For posterity. To the victor belongs the spoils, I suppose.

She also links her Broadway in Chicago pages to artlcles on Musicals, Broadway, Theater. Her entire user history, in fact, has been dedicated to one purpose: Let the world know about the joys of Broadway in Chicago.

As it turns out, I actually don’t think that this user is working for the folks at Broadway in Chicago. Some of her chat with the diligent article moderator – all of which is public – make it pretty clear that she’s just trying to help out in an area that she cares about, not one she’s paid to support. She appears to have just populated the information directly from the Broadway in Chicago site, driving all that Wikipedia theater traffic right to the people who need it least most. Maybe she’s just a big fan. I don’t blame her for being a dutiful web citizen, but I do know she has provided a perspective on the industry and the community that desperately needs balance.

The whole episode demonstrated to me just how easy it can be for a small amount of work to make a big impact on a community – both positively and negatively, depending on your vantage point. It also reinforced the argument that any sour grapes about haves and have-nots I may have are pretty silly, when it wouldn’t be too hard to sit down with the other folks in town and paint a clearer picture of the scope of the work being done in Chicago Theater.

So Julia1287, if you read this someday: I’ve got a couple comp tickets to some shows I think you might be interested to see.

P.S. I love wikis. I hope you do too. More on wikis in theater later.

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All Meta and no Real Work make Nick a Dull Boy.

January 09, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, productivity, projects

Nick knows ProductivityWhile the Chicago Opening Night Calendar project is chugging away, adding a few shows each day, I’ve dove head first into the actual production work that I’ve been carefully procrastinating on this month. The ideas are still bouncing around, but the time to execute them using the glorious tubes of the interwebs is running dry for the moment. That’s cool, right? We’re cool. Baby steps.

Some thoughts bouncing around this week:

– Our new sound intern at the Goodman is from the realm of sound, but is brand spanking new to theater. It’s been really fun to see him open his eyes to the possibilities while watching the process behind Shining City. It looks like he’s really falling for it, which is really great to see. Yesterday, I put the Opening Night Calendar to the practicality test and used it to find four shows – all in previews or early in the run to help his wallet – that showcased the variety of Chicago theater to a newbie with an appetite. It’s been a great reminder for me personally just how much is out there, and we’re not even done yet. Thanks to new adds Point of Contention, Theater W!t, Speaking Ring, Stage Left and Live Bait for being early adopters and Kris Vire and Rob Kozlowski, who both drove some traffic to the project over the weekend.

– Read this totally kickass analysis of why, systematically, the music industry is slowly drowning itself, and what other industries can do to avoid a similar fate.

– A spectacular cross-blog conversation on the importation of actors to regional venues has popped up here and here and here. I am grossly under-informed on the topic, or I’d join in. From my vantage point in the storefronts and even a great deal of the larger theaters, I see a lot of great local working actors, which makes me happy, and the imports don’t often last. I know it’s a major issue, and as Marc Grapey and David Cromer would say, we designers don’t have to deal with the import issue as much while we chew our bon-bons from atop our great piles of cash. Again, though… cross-pollination is a good thing, so if we can encourage it to actually happen and maybe balance the trade deficit a bit, we might be able to pump out a little lemonade from the situation. It’s losing actors to LA and NYC and other regions that I dread, but getting them to visit every so often is good for all. So while I have little to add, I think it’s pretty neat that the arguments are being refined right where you can read them, add to them… and now you can do something about it.

– The discussion of international theater festivals in the last post led me to try out a few great online resources, including the Chicago History Database which is operated by a history-minded English professor from Valparaiso University and assisted by Chicago Reader critic Albert Williams. The site’s mission is to track the founding, disbanding, archival materials, and key membership of all theater companies in Chicago, big and small.

The process of finding information on a now defunct cultural institution, the Chicago International Theater Festival, which last convened in 1992, proved to be more difficult and speculative than I would have thought. And finding information like this, which is key to a developing artist’s career and theater’s development. I think in Chicago’s scene there are a number of theaters that travel the same path as long-gone theaters because of a lack of institutional knowledge and community memory.

After all, one who does not learn from the past is doomed to repeat it. (Institutional Memory is one of those things that I mention at almost every company meeting. I’m a die-hard supporter of saving and processing the past and present for the benefit of the future in any organization.) Difficult and history-changing tasks like opening a new space or organizing an international theater festival leave traces of extremely valuable information and lessons that can be passed on to other theaters, or used in the pursuit of city law reform or improving public support. Plus, why do something twice when you can do it once?

Can you tell that I’m justifying the need for another crazy group collaboration project? It’s so crazy it just might work. (I’m so crazy I need to get to work.)

So the scarcity of institutional knowledge in storefront theater got me thinking: Just as our system for managing our collective scheduling might be insufficient to maximize the potential of Storefront Theater in General, how successful are our current methods for knowing just what work is being done in town right now, and knowing what work has been done before we even got here? Armed with that kind of cohesive knowledge, could we more easily notice trends, and use the lesson of the past to benefit the entire storefront community?

Like any possible project, it was time for me to survey what’s currently out there and what exactly was dissatisfying about it. Institutional knowledge certainly exists, it’s a question of where is it being stored, and who is storing it. There are a number of Chicago listing sites that also provide some insight into the wide kaleidoscope of the Chicago Theater Scene. The lists I was able to find when I first moved to Chicago just happened to be the ones with the top Google results: Centerstage’s largely comprehensive list of theaters unfortunately is usually quite out of date; Illyria’s Chicago Theater Homepages lists most current companies’ websites, but hasn’t been updated since February 2007; and Chicago Traveler has a good hit count but is by necessity driven by commercial interests. Other more recent sites try to get the list right, including a formidable recent attempt (powered by php, of course) by Theater in Chicago’s attempt to dynamically map every theater in Chicago.

Why are there so many lists, none of which are comprehensive? There’s several divergent motivations at work here for taking on the task of creating a comprehensive picture of the entire Chicago scene and the network of artists that work together to create it. The first motivation is pure Metromix: The commercial value of providing a listing service to audience members, and these sites are positioned to get the web browsing public to spend top dollar on glossy entertainment. As such, they leave out some of the younger companies and often do not update the information on even the mid-sized companies on a regular basis. Why not? Well, because that’s an overwhelming amount of information that changes almost daily. It may be valuable information, but it’s not valuable enough to these organizations to justify a full-time employee to seek the information out.

Another possible motivation? Positioning your site as alternative media source. You can easily feed your site’s content by the press releases of small companies eager for attention. Both Theater in Chicago and Centerstage position themselves as alternatives to larger media outlets that provide a different kind of coverage. It’s debatable how effective and sustainable those strategies are given the recent collapse of the Chicago Reader, and there’s a key problem with the information contained in almost all of these listing sites: Accessibility. These are all listing sites managed by lone gunman webmasters, who you need to email and rely on to have your information go public. The biggest problem with this strategy (and the working strategy of my Calendar project, for that matter) is the editor-in-charge off in a room somewhere that you need to know about and have access to in order to get your data published. It’s a lot of work to create a completely standalone site, and when you’re done, you need to work out how to cut out a chunk of the market share of the people looking for this information. When you’re talking about theaters who are so young they don’t really understand the context of the theater scene they’re operating in, how can anyone expect one of these listing services to ever be definitive repositories of our history and our progress?

So I realized that what I was really longing for was an improvement to the current Theater in Chicago Wikipedia entry. Wikipedia already has that kind of market share, and it’s going to be one of the obvious sources of information for the forseeable future. The entry is duly based on the definitive Richard Christiansen book, A Theatre of Our Own, but the list of theater spaces and companies is woefully incomplete. Some of the highlights of the ghosts of theaters past (Organic, but no Wisdom Bridge?) Anyone can add both their theater’s entry containing historical information like founders, artistic staff, production history, and mission, and they can also make their presence known in the greater context of the community in the main article. And anyone can edit (and hopefully not vandalize) to provide some measured balance to the whole picture, and create something worthwhile for history and public context. Most importantly, talent that is young, new to town, and wanting to see where they might flourish could easily see a more complete picture of the pieces that make up the world’s most vibrant theater scene.

Community projects move mountains. Many hands make light work, and by making the projects simple (post your theater and the theaters you remember on Wikipedia, everyone!), you can create big, intricate knowledge and labor bases that can help a lot of people with challenges we may not be able to imagine. This principle can be applied to any number of tasks, goals and dreams that seem unreachable now. If everyone in the neighborhood builds a park, everyone in that neighborhood will be able to enjoy that park.

So I’m gonna get on that… and you theater managers and activists should be proud enough of your young history to record the important points in the Wikipedia article yourself. Some savvy theaters have already done this – the history page shows updates from Boho and Sansculottes, for instance.

I’ll be getting on that right after I get these seven shows open. Because, well,… meta, real work, I’m in trouble.

Back to work!

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An International Renaissance

January 05, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

Sometimes I think New York is poisoning the water for the theater industries in the rest of the country. In this review of the Hypocrites’ recent NYC debut of The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide, Village Voice critic John Beer opens up with a smarmy potshot at Chicago:

In a Chicago landscape of actors’ showpieces and unapologetic realism, Sean Graney and his company, the Hypocrites, stand out because of their cool conceptualism.

Boy, that got my goat this week. Not the well-deserved praise of Sean and the Hypocrites… Um, “Landscape of showpieces and realism?” In a city that bred RedMoon, Lookingglass, Mary Zimmerman, Greasy Joan & Co., … Does he even know that Mamet left town? Why even bother classifying this city except to weaken it? There’s too much going on here to really even define real trends. It’s either a melting pot, or you’re not telling the whole story.

It’s this kind of willfully ignorant attitude about Chicago Theater that wafts here and there through the NYC theater buzz that makes me think that Chicago theater, for its own health and self-worth, needs to open back up a big international theater festival, and skip the whole “export to NYC” phase that we’re enjoying the fruits of these days. Never mind that America could use a stronger dialogue with the international community in general, I think Chicago’s Theater community doesn’t make enough big plans like that, so our reach doesn’t always exceed our grasp, and we end up reaching for New York or LA instead of the stuff that could really challenge us as artists. I think that a big international spectacle, like the Olympics or the annual international film festival, or the Third Coast Festival, could be a lightning rod to reengage our local audience with the theater treasures we have in town, and provide fuel to enable both the Chicago and all domestic theater communities create more vibrant art.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to be working at my current gig as a sound operator for the Goodman’s Owen Theater (did I disclose that yet? Well here you go. Yes.) when the Latino festival brought Marta Carrasco and her company to town from Catalonia for a performance of her latest work, GaGa, and the final performance ever of Aiguardent.
Lian Sifuentes’ Fashionably Late for the Relationship
I should add, thanks mostly to a few key friendships and classes in my college years (especially with my pal Lian Amaris Sifuentes, who recently made a big splash in NYC with her Fashionably Late for the Relationship piece in the midst of Union Square) I am a die-hard fan of really personal performance art, so Marta Carrasco is totally my bag.

Marta’s performance was only half of the story of the cross-cultural exchange happening in the room, of course. Most of the companies coming in from across the world also brought a full support staff, including a technical director, and my charge, the sound engineer from the company, Santi Miquel. I cannot begin to tell you how fulfilling it was as a theater professional and an artist to have a conversation with someone using primarily our common language – Sound. Santi didn’t have much English, and I don’t have a lick of Catalan to my name. Our conversations – quick conversations, that were required to set up the show that was about to perform – were mostly bits and pieces of English, French, and lots and lots of equipment jargon. We spoke in decibels, in mixing board, in minidiscs, and in cues. We spoke the common language of theater operation. In between techs, we google earthed our hometowns, and explored the places we had seen – Santi’s house was particularly memorable, a little shack on the steep side of a mountain overlooking most of Catalonia. The whole festival was a blast.

It’s not often that theater technicians can safely achieve that wonderful childlike state of discovery that feeds wonderful and thriving art. But everything about those two shows stuck with me closer and more intensely because I was both in my element and out of my comfort zone. It was calculated risk-taking and the payoff was a fullness of experience for both the audience and the artists creating the work. You know. Theater.

Aiguardent, especially, was one of those shows that just haunts you forever. In a solo work exploring the past of her alcoholism, Marta begins the play seated next to a table with a jar of water facing her. As she stares at the jar for minutes on end, you slowly begin to sense of rotation… and you realize that Marta is dancing, seated, rotating slowly with the table and her chair on casters. Her eyes never leave the jar. The effect is almost cinematic – as she dances, her circles (while seated! at the table!) grow larger and larger, and the audience experience is that of a winding camera shot, rotating around this central figure, immobile and staring into her drink. That image – of dancing in solitude, in loneliness, and the simple theatrical technique that achieved that effect, was something I had never seen before on the stage, and was overwhelmed to have witnessed it.

And it was just ballet on casters!

At the time, we were preparing at New Leaf to take on another calculated risk – we had just secured the rights to the first U.S. production of a David Hare play, The Permanent Way. We were a tiny theater, so this was a huge coup, but if you’ve ever read or seen the play, it’s more understandable why a U.S. production hadn’t been attempted – it’s a series monologues, weighty, horrifyingly in-depth analysis of the seemingly British-centric problem of a deadly series of British Rail crashes brought on by unusually disastrous bureaucratic bungling. To us, the play resonated heavily with our CTA woes here in Chicago, and also as an intelligent exploration of how things like the Iraq war can happen without the proper oversight, but that didn’t change the fact that the show was going to be a hard one to convince an American audience to sit through – Two and a half hours of monologues, descriptions of experiences by Bankers, Union Leaders, Lawyers, Judges, and Counselors.

And then, I remembered Marta’s dancing. I mentioned the effect to our director, Brandon Ray, and he began to see a theatrical staging angle to the play that hadn’t occurred to us before… Bureaucrats on chairs, dancing their way through the descriptions of the crashes caused by their own bungling… Stock market hacks reliving – literally dancing through – the events that they helped bring about from within their offices and their cups of tea. Brandon had a staging breakthrough and expanded this concept thanks to some massive exposure to international theater and techniques outside of our own comfort zones.

The Permanent WayI’m pleased to report that yesterday The Permanent Way was mentioned as the #2 “Fringe” Show of 2007 by Nina Metz of the Chicago Tribune. It remains to this day one of the most important and special productions that I’ve worked on, and I don’t think the show would have been nearly as effective without the reappropriation of staging craft that was courtesy of Marta Carrasco. Someone could potentially argue that we “stole” the staging from Marta – as Parabasis warns in this article on the evolving Intellectual Property law precedence – but the loss would have been a new, different, original, and entirely separate work of art. We were inspired by Marta. We adapted it and used the technique for our own purposes – but not the exact movements or even the spirit of those movements. All artists do this, all the time. The sources are myriad, and both conscious and subconsious. And individual personalities, bodies and brain have a lot to do with the creatively mutated results – since most of our cast didn’t have dance training, we couldn’t approach Marta’s ballet-esque precision and grace if we had tried. At the end of the day, I became a better artist when I was exposed to her performance – a performance that I understood entirely outside of Marta’s context for her own work. It was just something that I saw and responded emotionally to in a way that I can’t with plays that I understand on that intellectual level, or with plays that are content to be confined in my preexisting context of experience.

As I’ve been saying in the last few posts – we have a lot to gain through real cross-pollination – with the New York theater community as well, if we’re open to it. I know that I’m embroiled in conflict-of-interest based on my employment and my past experiences there, but I’m excited as an individual artist by projects like the just-announced Goodman theater Eugene O’Neill Festival, which as Chris Jones glosses over will include “O’Neill productions from Chicago theater companies as well as from international theater groups invited to Chicago.” That’s the kind of thing that gets my blood pumping, and gets our own audience to question their own context of experience, which currently convinces many of them that they aren’t theatergoers.

It’s a big world out there. It won’t always come to us, we have to go out there and live with it. Like it or not, we are living in an empire. This is off topic, perhaps, but it another thing that gave me ulcers today was hearing of the tribute-like backbending that the Cambodian trade minister is enduring to keep American-encouraged fair labor laws while the attached American Trade Pacts are expiring, and that the first I hear of it is not from politics but from the great storytellers at This American Life. If you don’t like our relationship with the rest of the world, then maybe it’s time to travel outside of Rome for a while. Bring a friend, and in some places you may need to be leery of the water.

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Synchronicity

January 04, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Tools

calvin-hobbes.gifIt’s nice, when you set foot into country that you haven’t discovered yet, to know that others have been treading the paths ahead of you and noodling with the same kinds of problems….

In order to better educate myself about what’s out there, what’s being discussed right now and what different voices are already engaged in the discussion, I’ve subscribed to about a gajillion blogs from Chicago (including most of the available myspace blogs that us storefronters have been using to, New York, several other strong theater regions in the country, and most enlighteningly, several international theater blogs. I’ve been reading up on the past few months of activity, and it’s promising, especially the burst of activity that’s begun in the past few days. If you’re operating a storefront theater right now, it’s definitely worth your while to get in on the discussion and consider the possibilities.

To that end, if you’re already interested in the topics of this blog, I’m sharing the blog articles from other authors that are just utterly brilliant or taking a different approach to the topics I’ve been discussing and thinking about, and sharing them in a digest feed – You know, for the future. You can read the digest of the latest articles in the sidebar, or you can subscribe to the digest feed in your own blog reader.

Two blogs in particular have great voices and a deep desire and strategy to explore solutions to the every day challenges of creating theater as a living. Mission Paradox takes a creative and practical approach towards theater marketing, and Theater Ideas by Scott Walters thinks very strategically about how to best take on some of the biggest threats to theater as an industry and as an art form. Check out Scott’s post on the importance of considering trust when building an audience, which I also discuss here. They are definitely must-reads if one of your New Years resolutions, like mine, is to be more engaged with the entire theater community as well as our little local pockets of glory. There’s a lot of great stuff out there, and it’s inspiring – and strategic – to connect and discuss openly with people you wouldn’t otherwise connect with in the theater community.

Speaking of the entire theater community, thanks to the folks that are participating in the Chicago opening night calendar project… upcoming shows are both on the public Google calendar and on the sidebar. Go team!

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