Saturday, January 12, 2008

Kris Vire Gets It Right About Casting Local Actors

H/T to Isaac for drawing our attention to Kris Vire's excellent post about casting locally. Kris not only makes the points, but gives concrete examples as well, which makes it "stick" (to use the Heath Brothers' term). This is really worth a read. Great job, Kris.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Intimacy, Curiosity, Trust, and Play

"The problem is how to restore intimacy, curiosity, trust, and play into the happenstance encounter of citizens, in an era when the happenstance and the unpredictable are a threat," says Toronto’s Poet Laureate, Pier Giorgio DiCicco at the Walk21 conference in October in "a blistering speech" (according to Spacing magazine). "We will not save the environment until we have found a reason for living together. Until we discover civic care in each other, until we restore the city to its definition as a place of unexpected intimacies, not just as a place of amenities, convenience, business, and entertainment, we will not have sustainability. ... It is not cars that are the enemy of the pedestrian. The enemy is the absence of civic communion, the lack of empathic citizenship, our inability to see cohabitation as that place where we enjoy ourselves, by enjoying others. ... If all we want is clean and well-designed cities, it will likely come to pass. But in the long run, to save the environment means that we will want to save the environment not just for ourselves, but for each other. And to reverence each other means that we will have to discover each other."

This seems like something the arts might want to think about...

(h/t Community Arts Network -- communityarts.net)

To MFA or Not to MFA

I knew this was eventually going to happen. The Director wrote this in my comments:

I'm trying to get into grad school to work on my MFA in Directing. My undergraduate theatre training was more focused on acting, more specifically, Method acting. I've directed two studio theatre, $0 budget, no-support-from-faculty shows. I've decided that I really enjoy directing, I'm pretty good at it (I think! I hope!), and I'm smart enough, talented enough, and determined enough to make it.

So, is your suggestion ultimately to skip grad school and "move to a town with low real estate prices" and work professionally? How do I get connected to the Directing world?

I feel like I could benefit from more formal training, since I had next-to-no formal training at the undergraduate level, but I've also got other more practical concerns (read: food, rent, insurance) that I could use some time focusing on if I don't need to sacrifice three years of my life in an MFA program.

What's your suggestion?


When I first read this, I wanted to suggest that he email me and we could talk. But then I thought that would be copping out. This is where the rubber meets the road. How do I respond?

First, it seems to me that there are two reasons to get an MFA: 1) in the back of your mind, you have a desire to teach at the college level, and you need a terminal degree to do so; 2) to study a particular approach to theatre. The first is not only perfectly legitimate, but I wish more people would be that intentional, and I wish that universities would respond by creating MFA programs focused on teaching. Most MFA's are conservatories, and the single focus is on doing -- directing directing directing, or acting acting acting. But being able to direct, and being able to teach other people how to direct are two different orientations. But why should we expect MFA's to learn how to teach when PhD's, who are getting a doctorate because they want to teach, aren't taught o teach but instead are focused on research. Our graduate programs are an unfocused mess -- don't get me started.

The second is to say this: not all MFA programs are created equal. No, I'm not saying look for the prestigious program; many of them are filled with "instructors" whose real focus is on their professional careers and who don't really spend any time figuring out how to communicate with students or how to mentor them. There was a wonderful acting teacher at a school I went to who wanted to write an acting textbook called "Do What I Say." In class, she pushed and pushed and pushed and set a high bar and people worked like hell to get over it. But beyond insisting on risky choices, high stakes, and real commitment I don't know what she had to teach was communicable.

Anyway, when you are looking at MFA programs, try to figure out the orientation of the teachers. You're not going to be taught a whole bunch of different approaches to directing or acting, you're most likely going to be taught one or maybe two. Make sure it's the one you want to learn. If you study with a director who teaches Viewpoints it is going to be a different experience that one who teaches Clurman or, God help you, Dean. So choose a professor, not a program.

When I was in my late 20's, I entered an MFA program in directing, and after a year I shifted to the MA / PhD route. Why? Because the MFA directing program was all about doing project after project, learning skill after skill. But no time was spent exploring what sort of theatre was worth doing, or comparing different approaches to doing theatre, or expanding one's aesthetic sensibilities -- there was little thinking, reading, or reflecting. The idea seemed to be to cram as many projects as possible into 3 years. I decided to pass.

That said, I cautiously endorse the MFA in Directing a bit more than the MFA in Acting, and here's why. American theatre is so caught up in worshipping the director that we make it something that undergrads only are allowed to do in their senior or MAYBE junior year. Most undergrad directing classes have so many prereqs that you can't get to it until the end. The message is that directors are So Important that they need to know EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD before they are allowed to direct. This is, of course, hooey. Directing is a skill set just like acting or designing or stage managing, and those skills can be taught just as early as the other theatre artists. But if we admitted that, the Cult of the Director would start to topple, and everyone would stop sipping the theatrical Kool Aid. All of which is to say that anyone who is interested in directing only gets, at most, a couple opportunities when they are an undergrad, so an MFA is way to make up for lost time.

But wait a minute. Didn't I say you'd do just as well to move to a town with low real estate prices and spend that money doing shows? Yes, I did. And if you don't harbor any interest in being a college professor later in life, I'd still stay that is the route. But let me clarify: what I am suggesting is moving to a small town with low real estate prices, renting a storefront, gathering a company of actors, pooling your money, and doing show after show without expectation of making money at all. Be sure you keep a detailed journal in which, after each rehearsal, you write down what you did, what worked, what didn't, and how you made your decisions -- this is going to be important for the second part of the learning experience. First, don't charge more than a couple bucks for tickets, because what the audience will be seeing is probably not going to be great. Serve them cookies for free in the lobby at intermission as a way of saying thanks. And then build into every show you do a post-performance drinking session with as many of the audience members as are willing to stay and get them to talk about what they saw, what they liked, when they were bored, when they were grabbed. Listen, don't argue. Probe, don't defend. Then go back to your journal and try to find those moments that the audience said worked and those that didn't and figure out what you did to get there. Get the whole company to do the same thing. There is no value to doing shows like this unless you debrief and consciously learn something from what you did.

And also, and as importantly as doing plays, read. Read books on directing, acting, design, playwriting, aesthetics, art history, philosophy, biography, cultural criticism - anything you can get your hands on that will broaden your references. And read plays -- at least one every other day. You won't get any of this in a Directing MFA.

If you do that, after three years you will be a better director, and you'll have a resume of shows you have done. And you might have a company that you can continue with so that you won't give a dman whether anybody else thinks you can direct or not. You'll be doing the work.

You have to choose what seems like the best route for you. There are people who really thrive being told what to do and how to do it -- for those people, an MFA program is great. For those, like me, who are a bit more independent and self-motivated, another route might be better. Look inside.

I suspect this isn't helpful at all.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Actors, Gimme Your Money

Over at Parabasis, Isaac is keeping the conversation going by pointing us to this article: "Actors, Think You're Done Training? Think Again" by Karen McKevitt, which was published in Theatre Bay Area. "Your thoughts?," Isaac asks innocently... Hoo-boy.

"It's no secret," McKevitt writes knowingly,

"in the dance world that the prima ballerinas are in class five days a week when they aren't performing, or that the world's top opera singers take voice lessons. Even Barbra Streisand tours with a vocal coach. But many actors are not so forthcoming either about continuing their training or even about the fact that they are training. Yet, the actor who doesn't continue to train may be the actor who stops getting jobs....[U]ltimately...the drive to continue training is a mindset. 'To say not 'I'm done,' but 'I've learned how to train, I've learned how to learn, I've learned how to assess where I am and where I want to get to. I've developed an appetite to learn new things.' If you have that, you're well on your way to being an intriguing, hirable actor."

As everyone knows who has read this blog for a half an hour, I am a college professor, so I take a backseat to nobody regarding education. I think it is important for every artist to continue to learn and grow. So I suspect there may be some raised eyebrows when my response to this idea is: "That there is some bullshit."

In the previous post, I wrote about bloodsuckers who make a living scamming artists, and I listed "the theatre owners and rehearsal hall landlords and headshot photographers and agents and newspaper ad salesmen and Kinko's franchises." Add to that list people who run acting classes.

It isn't that acting classes can't be wonderful -- they can. But the expectation that actors must stay in class in order to be employed, in order to prove that they are an "intriguing, hirable actor," is nonsense. What about you directors and playwrights and designers out there -- are you taking classes nonstop to prove that you are worth hiring? If I open the pages of Variety will I find ad after ad for classes in blocking or rendering or writing dialogue? Perhaps a few, but not nearly as many as I will find for acting and audition classes. Why? Because it isn't necessary.

This is all part of the scam that continues the infantilization of actors that started with Stanislavski and continues to this very minute. (Surely I'm not the only person whose reaction to An Actor Prepares or Acting: The First Six Lessons was the desire to smack those arrogant, insulting teachers in the chops.) The real reason we want actors to continue taking classes is that we don't want them to get out of the habit of being reliant on others to tell them what to do, we don't want them to forget how to be subservient and co-dependent. But let's get real -- if you're an actor, there is no reason why you can't get a group of your actor friends together to do scenes in your living room and give each other feedback. It doesn't need to be a class, especially a class that you have to pay for. Classes are just another way of separating actors from their money. They should be taken when there is a particular teacher you want to work with, not seen as a prerequisite for employability.

And dare I suggest that there are other ways of becoming intriguing and hirable than doing yet another acting class? How's about reading a book that makes you think, or going to a museum or art gallery, or taking part in a discussion circle at a local bookstore, or volunteering with a social or political organization -- anything that expands your frame of reference and gives you new and deep things to draw on as an artist is useful. Jesus Christ -- can we get out of the theatre ghetto every once in a while and intereact with LIFE?

While I suspect that the main reason we were supposed to read McKevitt's article was the section on out-of-town casting, there didn't seem to be much that was new in that section. Except perhaps this:

Leslie Martinson quickly points out that "our folks are as good as you can ask for. They're the best. We just need more varieties of them. The perfect person might live in the Bay Area but he's booked, and there aren't six more who are just like him."

Let's take a look at what Martinson is saying: that in order for a casting pool to be considered "deep enough," there needs to be an 86% unemployment rate. That's what she says -- for every actor who is perfect, there needs to be six equally perfect waiting in the wings just in case that one is doing another show. Is this sick or what?

Casting directors (and directors in general) need to get over this idea that there is a "perfect actor" for each role, and unless they have him or her the play will suffer. That, too, is some bullshit, a myth that casting directors propagate in order to justify their parasitic existence. I would draw their attention to this really cool thing called "acting" -- it's where these people called "actors" do this thing where they pretend like they are people that they're not. And people who watch them believe them! Really! It's very cool! Here, let me put this DVD in and show you how it works. Look: there's this actress called Bette Davis. Take a real close look -- she's really homely as a mud fence, isn't she? Those bug-eyes? But most of America thought she was really, really hot. How come? Because she acted really, really hot. See how it works?

I am convinced that one of the reasons that David Mamet's acting book True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor is popular is not that his ideas are particularly insightful, but that he treats the actor like a sane adult, not a neurotic child who needs a director to come in and tinker with their insides and "free them from their fear" or whatever. What they need to be freed from are acting teachers! For 2400 years of theatre history, actors took care of themselves. They rehearsed on their own, they looked in the mirror, they thought through their role, and they performed and adjusted to each other's performance as it happened. Then Stanislavski arrived and turned them into masochistic nutjobs. "Oooh! Hit me again, Torstov! I get such a sense of creativity when you debase me!" Sheesh.

It's bad enough that actors feel the need to go deeply into debt to get MFA's when they ought to be off in a small town with low real estate prices doing as many shows as possible with that money and learning in front of an audience. Like Moliere did. No, now some casting director says they have to continue shelling out what little money they have taking acting classes in order to signal that they are hirable.

I'll retire to Bedlam.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Changing the Direction of the Wind

God love you, Isaac, now you've done it! You opened up the "New York and Chicago actors are (perceived as) better than non-NY-and-Chicago actors" issue. This one oughta rage for a while. I'm glad you brought it up, since I was headed in that direction after the new plays discussion, and it is better that it start elsewhere.

I don't want to rehash Isaac's stories -- read his post, I'll wait.

I want to start broadly, and then move to Isaac's last paragraph, which asks a series of questions.

Let's start with a few things I suspect we can all agree on. First, that there is nothing magical about the 100- and and 606- zip codes as far as acting talent is concerned. There's nothing in the water that makes people who live in these areas better onstage than anyone else. An actor from Ohaha doesn't become better simply by moving east. Second, I think we can also all agree that NYC and Chicago acting is not uniformly superior, and that there is a boatload of bad acting in NYC and Chicago. (And for those of you who are going to ask, I have lived in NYC and in Illinois and have a decent amount of experience with acting in those cities.)

Now lets take one step away from the easily agreed upon, but still the relatively safe: this issue is a chicken-or-egg question. Do regional theatres rely on NYC for casting because the best talent is there, or is the best talent there (if it IS, in fact, there) because the regional theatres are casting from there? Let's say you are a really good young actor living in, say, Charlotte. You grew up in Charlotte, you really like Charlotte, your family is in Charlotte, your friends are in Charlotte. You'd like to stay in Charlotte. But when you contact the professional theatre in Charlotte, they tell you that they only cast small roles locally, but most of their larger roles are cast out of New York. Are you going to stay in Charlotte?

Fast forward. Now the Charlotte regional theatre has a play set in North Carolina, and it looks around and says, we'd like to hire a local actor for this role (or director or designer), but...well, all the good ones went to New York! But then somebody remembers that you were good, you went to NYC, and you even did a couple off-off-Broadway shows which will impress the local newspapers. And so you sign the contract, do the show, remember how much you really like Charlotte, visit your friends and family, marvel at how much cheaper it is to rent an apartment in Charlotte -- and then you get back on the plane and jet back to LaGuardia because the next show the Charlotte theatre is doing doesn't need your "type."

It's a vicious cycle, and one that, unfortunately reinforces and reifies the status quo. Then a blogger brings it up, and someone from NYC or Chicago plays the "realistic" card, and writes "Let's be real -- all the best actors are in NYC and Chicago, and we can't ask a regional theatre that simply wants to produce the best show to give up the best talent they can afford in order to hire local talent!" Now a ridiculous status quo is trumpeted as reality plain and simple.

Isaac concludes by asking:

For what reasons should we break that cycle? Because believe you me, I believe that cycle should be broken and I believe an American theatre scene with as many robust well funded and well staffed local mini-scenes as possible would be a good thing. I think decentralizing theatre away from New York would be a great thing. I just think that those who are resistant to making the first steps towards doing so have perfectly good reasons for being resistant and it's worth looking at and talking about honestly.

So here we are. Looking at it and talking about it honestly. And here I stand, teetering on the edge of writing things about the NY-centric theatre system that, in the past, has led only to acrimony. Step away from the chalupa, Scott. But I can't.

In the past, I have blamed NYC for creating the problem. I no longer believe this is the case. Those in NYC are as much the victims of this system as everybody else.

In the paragraph that precedes the one quoted above, Isaac may have provided me with a way of addressing this without setting the woods on fire. He writes:

The theatre feels they have a choice between having better shows (short term gain) over a better overall theatre scene (long term gain) and they choose the former. I don't really blame 'em for it. We can say the thinking is flawed, or ask to redefine what "good acting" means*** or talk about any number of other ancillary concerns, but at the end of the day, if the theater views its job as putting on the best show possible and if to them that means casting outside of their local area, why shouldn't they do it?

If you define your job as "putting on the best show possible," and you are thinking about short term gain, then you have no choice: cast in NYC or Chicago. The definition leads you directly there. But the definition is the problem.

Before I go on, let me relate a story that Jim Wallis, the head of Sojourners, often tells, most recently on NPR's Speaking of Faith. He tells the story of addressing a group of citizens who had come to Washington DC to lobby Congress on an issue. He told them that you could spot the politicians because they were the ones walking around with a finger in the air. When they needed to make a decision, they would lick their finger and see which way the wind was blowing. The mistake people make, Wallis continued, is in thinking that we can cause change by replacing one wet-fingered politician with another. No, he said, you change things by changing the direction of the wind.

When theatre people begin demanding that they not be required to live the life of migrant workers in order to make a living, demanding that they not be forced to leave parts of this country that they love where their family and friends live, demanding that regional theatres hire them for longer than a single show or two -- in short, when theatre people start demanding that they be treated like human beings and not chattel, THEN the wind will change.

But at the same time, theatres need to start demanding something from actors as well. They must demand that the actors commit to their theatres, they must demand that actors stop seeing them as just a yellow brick on the road to the Emerald City. Actors need to become serious artists, not fame and fortune mongers. They must value the ability to consistently work on their art MORE than the possibility of getting a high-paid TV commercial.

Until then, it is reasonable for Isaac to say that he doesn't blame theatres for making the choices they do.

But the status quo is killing the American theatre. And until theatre people get fed up enough to say "enough is enough," and they start saying it loudly, and they start saying it to each other, and they start saying it without worrying that maybe somebody who might be in a position to hire them someday in the future might overhear them, and they start saying it to their agents, and they start saying it to their union leaders, and they start realizing that all the hogwash being peddled to them in books like Acting Professionally and Acting as a Business and An Actor's Business: How to Market Yourself and Audition is nothing but a hoax, a con game, a way of getting you to keep feeding quarters into a theatre slot machine that rarely hits a jackpot, and that will eventually make you think that prostituting yourself is a form of marketing and abandoning your aesthetic values is a good business decision -- until theatre people recognize that show biz is not theatre, then nothing will change.

In 1931, Harold Clurman wrote that America has no Theatre. Nothing has changed in 75 years.

I get so dispirited reading theatre blogs and seeing all you talented, intelligent, articulate, and creative artists struggling just to get an opportunity to make art. You twist yourselves into pretzels,and work your fingers to the bone and share tiny apartments with too many people in order to scrape together enough cash to give to all the bloodsuckers -- the theatre owners and rehearsal hall landlords and headshot photographers and agents and newspaper ad salesmen and Kinko's franchises -- just so that you can do a play, give your gifts to the public. And to make matters worse, you all live in NYC, where just the cost of living is so exorbitant that it makes it that much more difficult to save money to get a chance to work. Imagine if novelists or painters had to do this -- had to raise thousands of dollars before they could type a word into their computer or put paint on a canvas. How much work would go undone? How many great works would never have been written or painted?

It is SICK. And it it time for us to quit pretending it isn't. It is time for us to stop sighing, "That's just the way it is." Because it may be the way it is, but it isn't the way it has to be. But we all have to have the courage to admit it, to speak it out loud and often.

Enough is enough.

Thanks, Isaac -- I needed to get that off my chest.

OK, Here's the Problem


I love books like And Then, You Act and The Empty Space all kinds of inspirational books that are poetic and spiritual. But the problem is that I don't actually think that way myself (which is why I read the books, I suppose). I am what Rich Gold, author of The Plenitude: Creativity, Innovation, and Making Stuff, calls an "Engineer." Engineering, Gold writes, is focused primarily on "problem-solving" and "the user and the world." We work less from inner vision (that's for artists) than from seeing a problem and trying to figure out a way to fix it. "Engineers believe that within the fixed bounds of the laws of nature, there is the solution to almost any problem." That's me.

Recently, I was reading a book that discussed different "life themes" that dominate people's lives, and one jumped out at me:

Activator-The focus here is to perform tasks that others have failed to accomplish. These may be truly gargantuan or quite menial, but the focus is always on getting the job done right. Activators are the turn­around artists or the trouble-shooters of the world, the ones who suc­cessfully reverse failure.

That's me in trump. I'm not an artist, although I have a great deal of creativity and am pretty innovative. But I use that creativity and innovation to solve problems. I'm probably not going to found a new theatre, but if you have a theatre that is messed up, I can probably come in and fix it for you. And then, like the Lone Ranger, I'll tip my hat, say "my work here is ended," and ride off in search of another problem. The question I am most likely to ask about a play or a theatre is what it "does" -- what effect does it have on people, how does it change them. That's an engineering question.

So when I look at something like the regional theatre scene in America, I'm looking at it like an "activator engineer." Somehow it got messed up, and I get the fun of figuring out how to fix it. It's not about inner vision or self-expression, it's about nuts-and-bolts systems, mission statements, and guiding principles. It's about what Paulo Coehlo calls, in The Alchemist, a "personal legend" and what Joseph Campbell calls "bliss." To me, once the grit is cleared out of the system, once the purpose is clear and the values are defined, then all the wonderful artists can take over and bring beauty and wonder and poetry into existence without being prevented by a bunch of friction and short-circuits. To me, the system of American theatre is so full of grit that hardly any artists are free to really do what it is they are best at -- follow their inner vision. Instead, they are forced to think like...well, like engineers: what does the market want, how can I get my work seen? If things were working correctly, a bunch of us engineers would keep the system running smoothly so that the work that artists created would be seen and appreciated and they wouldn't be bothered with marketing and administration.

To all the artists who read this blog, I hope you'll keep this in mind. Ultimately, I'm not interested in telling you what to do as artists, I'm focused on trying to make things work better so that you can fill the world with books and plays like And Then, You Act and Angels in America that inspire me and let my engineer's mind experience vicariously what it might be like to see the world not as a puzzle, but as a miracle.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Mother Teresa on Theatre


Who was it who recently wrote on their blog that they were reading Anne Bogart's And Then, You Act?


I can't find the blogger to thank them. For some reason, when I read their post, I could sense that I needed to read this book. I ordered it right away -- and I had just received in my inbox a 40% off coupon for Barnes and Noble if I used a Mastercard to order. The stars were in alignment.

Tonight, I just want to share the following from Bogart's chapter on "Intention":

"My friend Morgan Jenness admired Mother Teresa, now Blessed Mother Teresa, and at difficult personal junctures, the mere thought of her provided inspiration. Although now a playwright's agent, Morgan worked for many years with the legendary producer Joseph Papp at the New York Shakespeare Festival in New York City. One day, feeling especially depressed about her sesne of uselessness in the world, Morgan heard that Mother Teresa would be in Manhattan. She dropped everything and headed to the Indian Embassy in the hope that she might appear. Standing outside the embassy, Mother Teresa did emerge, surrounded by an entourage, and Morgan managed to capture her attention. She stopped, turned, looked at Morgan right in the eyes and asked, 'What can I do for you?' In the midst of her surprise and awe, Morgan described her work in the theatreand how she had lost all her will as she did not see any usefulness in it and then and there declared her determination to go to India and be of use. Mother Teresa spoke sternly, 'There are many famines. In my country there is a famine of the body. In your country there is a famine of the spirit. And that is what you must feed."
Wow.

Have you ever noticed how the really great people in the world are able to listen, and then compress into a very few words something deeply insightful? Distilled.

Anyway, that story just spoke to something deep within me. When I teach, and when I create a production, my highest wish is to feed a starving spirit. At least one.

Tom Loughlin: One New Play

Like me, Tom Loughlin at "A Poor Player" has been silent for a while, but he comes roaring back with a practical proposal for college theatre departments across America: a "One New Play Campaign." He writes (and read the whole thing here):

I think it’s simple: every theatre department in the country should commit one of their production slots a year to the production of one new play. Ideally, that play should be regional in nature, featuring the work of a playwright from within the region. But I would not make that a requirement. All that matters is that one new play a year gets done on every college campus each year. It can be either a student-produced play or a department-produced play. It can be the work of a student in the department (!) or the work of an outside playwright. Any work that remains unpublished (i.e. not available through Sam French or Dramatists or Baker’s Plays or any other publishing outlet for royalties) would qualify.

This is a great idea, Tom, one I'd like to take a step further. I propose that theatre departments not only do a new play, but also create a course in their curriculum that includes the reading and discussing of at least one new play (preferably a lot more). Don't stop that theatre history course at Angels in America -- what's happening today? In a previous post, I suggested what might be called a "contemporary drama" course that would involve reading whatever plays are published in American Theatre that year (and also reading the articles in that magazine) and a group of unpublished plays by contemporary playwrights who would be willing to talk to the students about their plays, either via email, a blog, a conference call, whatever.

I am willing to create such a course. If you are a playwright who would be willing to have one of your plays included in the reading list, and would be willing to discuss it with the students, email me at walt828@gmail.com. I'm on sabbatical this semester, so my course load when I return in the fall may be filled with catchup courses, but I will endeavor to get this set up as soon as I can.