Austin is a Place

I have been toiling away in the puppet mines on a show called Cruel Circus for the last little stretch, right on the heels of assaying John of Gaunt and and the Bishop of Carlisle in Richard II. We’ll have a little more on that shortly but it was a side project during that time that I want to talk about now.

Howlround is the online journal of the Center for Theatre Commons run off the campus of Emerson College in Boston. They function as a US-focused clearinghouse for folks wrestling with questions large and small about theatre art and business. Editorially they try to run blocks of topical content to concentrate discussion around an idea or problem and attempt to generate heat not just light. Part of that editorial cycle is weeks at a time dedicated to individual city theatre ecosystems. The Howlround editorial team asked me to help curate Austin’s City Series week and I was extremely proud of Austin’s showing.

I wanted to give a broad outline of what it’s like to be a maker in Austin and so I asked Caroline Reck of Glass Half Full, lighting designer Megan Reilly, the Rude Mechs, Robert Faires of the Austin Chronicle, techwhisperer Robert Matney,  and Christi Moore of Scriptworks. Combined with a lovely mash note of Austin past from Daniel Alexander Jones I think it serves as a nice sketch of the past, present, and future of Austin theatre.

I know there are lots of folks who don’t like reading long form blog posts and I know there are folks who only read blog posts by folks they know or that are in list form.

So pretend this isn’t a blog post. Pretend it’s just a small book or magazine put out by a bunch of smart folks from your community. I’ve formatted a collected version for your Kindle, Nook, or Kobo and there’s a nicely formatted web version suitable for printing as well.

To read the collection on the web.

For the .mobi file. (for the Kindle)

For the .epub file. (for the Nook or Kobo)

Thanks to all the contributors for their work and to Austin’s theatre makers for making this a place worth writing home about.

A subject speaks…

On Thursday you have the opportunity to not only see the opening night of a play, but an opening night of a company as Poor Shadows of Elysium open their doors to the tune of a coin-flip Richard II at the Curtain (good seats still available!).

This process has been a joy. I am reunited with several of my compatriots from last summer’s 7 Tower’s production of Tis Pity She’s a Whore and I’ve been allowed to play John of Gaunt and the Bishop of Carlisle. If you haven’t read Richard II let me say simply that I get to deliver two of the greatest speeches ever put to paper. I get to do it on an Elizabethan style stage under the stars and I get to do it with a cast digging for every ounce of gold in this rich mine.

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And that’s sort of not the good part.

It’s the coin flip.

Chance decides who plays King Richard II and who plays his fair cousin Henry Bolingbroke. We really do open the show with seven couplets, two orphan lines, and a coin flip (expertly executed!) and on stage our Richard-of-the-now has all of 15 seconds to do his preshow prep and open the show.

And we have to adjust
and therein lies the fun.

From the beginning (as noted here) we’ve essentially been rehearsing two shows. None of the choices Aaron and Kevin have tried have been constrained in any way. Indeed the only times they even know what choices the other has made are in shared scenes. They’re pretty different. Aaron and Kevin are very different performers with very different styles and approaches.

In the standard rehearsal process choices and reactions tend to happen early, calcify early and remain until the space, costumes, lights and audience modify them …then that set of choices and reactions live for the run -Thespian bed death.

When you are playing more than one person opposite more than one person the geometric possibilities are impressive.  I play Bolingbroke’s father and one of Richard’s final supporters. The choices the two men make about their relationship with me drive my reaction back at them and that evolves as they own more and more of show and try new tactics.

You can’t stop listening. The only workable tactic is know your lines and intention and play it at stakes. Or y’know – acting.

It’s awesome. There’s no acting-cheating allowed. It’s not as simple as playing the note the same way every time. The notes change – the instruments change. It’s sort of enforcing the best acting practices in not allowing us to lean on our crutches. It’s lovely.


Last week (a week from opening) health issues forced our Northumberland to resign from the show (get well soon Casey!) and David Boss stepped from the roles he was playing into Northumberland. This led to shuffling as our director chose to not go outside the family at this late date. It lead to the untimely demise of Ross and Scroop and Wes Riddle picked up the Gardener’s man in 3.4.

The now-cut Scroop delivers the news of Bolingbroke’s victories in England and York’s defection to the King in 3.2. It’s a huge driver toward the “Let Us Sit on Ground” speech. The speeches are now transferred to a letter delivered by Salisbury and read by the Bishop of Carlisle.

Honestly it’s a better scene. It colors the relationship between King Richard and Carlisle further (culminating in the “I Speak to Subjects” speech in 4.1) but more importantly it doesn’t ‘dilute the room’. Where dealing with the politics of status the fewer people in a room the more likely you are to get something truly personal (or at least less rhetorically obfuscated) out of the high status folks.

As much as it was a bit of a Balrog when we were already weary, the whole switcheroo has highlighted the flexibility of the process though. Rather than the panic of newly busted scenes and rhythms is was simply a new face where the other was expected which is something we’ve been training for all the while.

I can’t wait to share all this with you.

All About a Video

Word is in and we are chagrinned to announce that All About a Boy will not be reprised for Frontera’s Best of Fest.

You missed it.

We’re not bitter though.
This show was a blast to experience live as the energy was off the charts and the embarrassment was palpable.
(On the internet no one can hear you cringe…)

To show there’s no hard feelings?

Enjoy it as best you can from where you are:

 

Thanks to Elena, Mallory and Aaron for having the courage to take this on, to Mariah MacCarthy for always being up for a challenge (and then acing it), and to Will and Amanda for covering my ass when my ambitions didn’t check with my calendar. Y’all made a really fun thing.

Is there a Doctor in the house?

Last week I closed a four week run of Doug Wright’s Quills with Austin’s Different Stages and I wanted to jot down a few things I learned that will be helpful to me going forward. Please bear with me if this makes no damn sense or is insufferably precious about acting.

Quills 2

Doctor Royer-Collard is the sort of apoplectic asshole I’ve been playing since I was 16. He’s Horace Vandergelder with a bad childhood. He wants happiness and love… he just sucks at them and so clings to the rigidity of the framework The Rules supplies to force others into the same misery. The Doctor is what the free range nerd would call Lawful Evil.

I had a surprising amount of trouble with the Doctor for a character I’ve been playing for 20 years. Partly because of the setting the Doctor found himself in (sort of Grand Guinol farce), my own stubbornness in terms of what I wanted versus what the director wanted, and because, well, I’m in a very different acting shape than the last time I tried this sort of character on. I am a much more focused actor than I was 5 years ago – than I was 1 year ago. Regular work means that the acting muscles are a lot leaner and stronger than they were. It means that the sort of broad choices this character would have engendered of old didn’t fit any more. I sort of rattled around in them.

Eventually I settled out to an acceptable answer or two but it took much longer than it should have.

  • I forgot that I change.
    I’ve been playing this character (of a kind) since I was 16 and 70 pounds lighter. I was adding ‘age’ characteristics out of habit when they were necessary to the character or my portrayal at all. I was doing it because that’s what I do with these characters. Question all of your choices.
  • Quiet isn’t always best
    I’m a big believer in ‘make your choices and show them’ rather than talking them all to death. I will talk a show into the ground and it stops being about doing. However… I would advocate actually saying your choices out loud. It doesn’t need to be in rehearsal… I described the Doctor to my wife in a post-rehearsal frustration fugue and simply hearing myself describe him allowed me to fix the problematic choices. There were things that I hadn’t realized I had accidentally chosen…
  • Mind your words
    Look, this is awfully actor froofy, but mind how you describe a character. This is how I got into (and eventually out of trouble). All of the adjectives I was using for the Doctor were ultra-passive. “Waiting” “Cautious” “Plotting” “Scheming” they are so passive as to leave him flaccid. (It was Quills bear with me). Swapping out those words to something more active and playable makes a huge difference. “Coiled” “Prowling” – they create a very different tension in a scene and honestly it made the Doctor a LOT less frenetic.. which was to the better.
  • Overcome obstacles
    I failed at this… I didn’t realize I was doing it until closing weekend. My shows were a little tight, and the deck at the City Theatre is bouncy and uneven. It made me take very small steps.

    Get up and take 10 steps with your stride foot landing inches in front of your plant foot.
    Now just STRIDE the 8 feet.
    That difference in control is huge, the difference in power is huge and the difference in perceived power is huge. I blew it.

Mostly Quills was a win. I stripped away the unnecessary age, mostly won the never ending battle against Britification in period speech, I fixed the rampant passivity and by the end of the run was actively pushing the Abbe towards his well-earned end rather than waiting for him to get there. Baby steps.

All About… someone else

Tonight is preemptively one of my favorite nights.

As I’ve been annoying everyone with for weeks, I’m… busy. The busiest I have been in my entire life. It’s terrifying and glorious and aside from missing my wife and cats terribly -  this is the dream. It’s rare you are allowed to see such things as they happen but today sums up this period in my life. Tonight I will be onstage as Dr. Royer-Collard, the moral center (ha!) of Different Stages’ Quills at City Theatre, Cambiare is presenting Mariah MacCarthy’s All About a Boy as part of the Frontera Fest short fringe (tickets!), and the lovely and talented Dan Solomon has written a very flattering profile that appears in this week’s Austin Chronicle.

Cut-your-Face

All this on a night off from rehearsing Poor Shadows of Elysium’s Richard II and in the same week that 7 Towers Theatre company announced their upcoming production of Pillowman which I will be in somehow.

It’s a pretty great time to be me.

Except…

A million years ago I started writing a theatre blog to explicate what I want to be as a theatre artist… the sort of art I wanted to take part in or support and the aesthetic that I wanted to champion. But as my wife will tell you, I have no idea what I want or what makes me happy. It drives her crazy.

There hasn’t been a plan. For me or long term for Cambiare. My time in Austin was supposed to be temporary and I forgot to ever adjust my thinking to what I could accomplish here. Much like my office in the new house – I never really unpacked, I just sort of starting going with one eye on the exit. I never set my feet and really rooted and it led to me missing something that I already knew. Something that was, quite frankly the reason Cambiare started in the first place.

If no one is doing the thing you need doing?
You’re the one who needs to be doing it.

I jump started Cambiare because there wasn’t a company in town that would do Transformations and it deserved doing, and because not enough people knew how good Will Hollis Snider is at theatre.

We’ve done an okay job with the things we’ve made, but as Mr. Solomon pointed out in the profile… work has been pretty thin on the ground. All About a Boy is indeed a step in a direction Will and I have talked about: simply workshopping more rather than letting our uninstitutional lack of resources mean that we disappear for 18 months. We need to evangelize for writers and texts we love – that I love.

Because Mr. Solomon nails it (just about: I added an “else”)

Ultimately, it may have taken the promise of leaving town to turn Bedard into the sort of Austin theatremaker that he’s been waiting for someone [else] to become. But at least, finally, he’s bringing the conversation out of the Internet and onto the stage.

All About a Boy is the sort of project I think ADs should be doing.

It’s not my story. It’s not my STYLE of story. It may actually be the opposite of the sort of theatre we would make for ourselves. But Mariah MacCarthy is a compelling writer who makes plays that need to be seen on their feet. There is something about her writing that is alive when actors breathe it… but you have to see that to know it.

And someone has to show you.

I will try to be better about showing not telling.

Let’s all keep digging into the best work we can find and make sure the world knows about it. I’m sorry I haven’t been doing it all along.

The First Rule of Fight Club

Will, Amanda and I decided after Orestes to stop pretending a company without plentiful resources or a building could (or should) operate the same way that a $5M theatre with 15 full time staff operates. It was a good call on our part. It saves us from burning out, it saves us from wasting resources, it gives us time to work with other folks and groups.

While out playing with another Austin company, Last Act Theatre Company, I worked with Elena Weinberg and Mallory Larson in the Tragedy of Doctor Faustus. Over (at least one) Mexican Martinis at Trudy’s we got to talking about next projects and how to get the two of them in a show together doing all of the wackiest things no one would ever let them do.

We spun a nonsense scenario involving two super competent women debasing themselves needlessly in pursuit of a boy. The same boy. After giggling about how ridiculous it was, and about how funny it would be. There was that pause.

Watch out for that pause it’s a killer. That gap in conversation when you all realize – “Hey that’s not such a stupid idea” and you begin filling logistical holes.

Okay so  – Elena and Mallory in a Frontera Fest Short Fringe slot made easy sense but who in the world could write a happening-style gross-out fringe piece about two fierce women challenging gender roles and their self-perception?

Go with your gut.

I’ve known Mariah MacCarthy for some time now, and it’s not that CAPS LOCK Theatre is on a roll or that the Foreplay Play was up for New York Innovative Theatre Awards or that she was just named one of NYTheatre.com 2012 Persons of the Year… it’s that her women breathe fire without sacrificing their humanity. I can’t believe she had time. I can’t believe she said yes.

What happens when you pair fearless dynamic actors with a writer who loves challenging her performers?

I don’t have the first idea.
But it will be fascinating.

We’re calling it All About a Boy. It’s not.
It is very much about these women.
Let’s see the lengths they’re willing to go to for another person…
for themselves.

Join us on January 17th as we share our experiment with the Frontera Fest Short Fringe audience at Hyde Park Theatre.

Solo-Elena

Solo-Mallory

AAAB-Poster-Attempt2

The hip bone’s connected to the…

Rose Rage opens this very night and it’s been a slog personally.

Coming on the heels of Tis Pity She’s a Whore I came to this process tired and sort of emotionally roiled. We had a great Tis Pity run and I was proud of my work but the end was cut short by rain and there was quite literally no break. I left Rose Rage rehearsal to stand in the rain and not get to perform the final Tis Pity show and then the next night back into Rose Rage. It’s been a long time since I’ve done concurrent shows. I’ve been several people since then and there a few calcifications that needed to be broken away to switch modes.

One of them is the personal fight I’ve had to be more selfish in my performance choices. Democracy is a political system not a proper methods of art creation and I have been too democratic and team oriented in my personal artistic meandering. In my desire to be a team builder and consensus forger I too often have forgotten to raise my own voice and toss my ideas into the ring to be part of that creation. I was much better about that in Tis Pity and the show was stronger for it.

My role in Rose Rage requires a different tension. There are a fistful of players in Rose Rage that function as body movers, fighters, rogues, ruffians, peasants, Messengers (No. 4?) and assassins (SPOILER!). The tension is that these roles are small and almost textless but require the same sort of focus, intent and energy that York, or Cade or Margaret do. Why? Because the fringe roles are the world of the play and when Cade or Edward or Margaret turns to an attendant or a soldier they need to be met with… something.

Here’s where choices and instincts matter.
The first choice is whether or not you need to be invisible. When carrying off {SPOILER} at the end of scene 23 I need to be engaged in the scene so when the testing audience member checks I’m involved or not (and they do) I am but other than that I don’t “appear” until Edward needs something (someone) cleaned. I equate this with Upstairs Downstairs sort of invisible servants making sure coasters appear under glasses like magic.

The non-invisible choices come when those one-off ruffians and messengers provide the tension for the Named or deliver outside world exposition. In the Jack Cade scenes the rebels provide the push and pull that keep the scene active until Outside Forces meddle, we are effectively the negative space that defines Cade. We need to give him that push and pull or he’s simply delivering text. How do you push, how do you pull? When do you let him have eye contact? When do you dodge?

Messengers have the chance to ping a scene and change the energy directly. Enter with low energy and bad news and it can be a trap door for a scene, dropping the Named into despair and making them fight out again. Enter with high energy and good news and hypercharge the rest of the scene. Miss an entrance? Shoot the show in the face.

Laurence Pears as Jack Cade photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski

The other thing you need to be in these sorts of roles is production invisible. There is no benefit to casting you over casting a turnip in the (multiple) role(s) if you are requiring as much time from the production team as your leads.

I love the stretch of making my loud 250 pound self into a ninja. I love the challenge of feeling the rhythm of the scene and playing the one note I have in perfect time with it. And I get a sword!

Exhausted as I am it’s been a ton of fun so far and we haven’t even added the audience in yet.

I hope to see you soon.
(Good seats still available!)

Time is a blockhead

There are shows you survive through like 8th period Western Civ class… watching the clock and hoping that the teacher forgets you’re there. And then there are shows that you miss like summer camp.

You can be in good shows, you can do good work in shows, or you can do shows with good people. It’s rare that all three happen in the same production and when it does it’s awful hard to let those shows go. But here in the #SummerofVerse the next opening awaits and while a rained out finale is no way to go, go we must – time is a blockhead.

What did we learn from Tis Pity?

My goal going in was to focus on physical specificity.

  1. I can in fact build a character outside in.
    I made stance/gait/vocal choices for two of the three characters and filled the “heart” of them in once I was sure those choices made sense. The Friar never got the same treatment and so remained the least specific and most sort of actor neutral of the three.  He remained more an idea rather than a person and so never made it to likeable.
  2. Commit to the bit (not just the laughs).
    While rehearsing in small places I choose to have Bergetto enter and exit at full speed. I chose it on both a micro (it would be funny) and macro (and inject energy into the show) level. I had never visited the Cathedral of Junk and discovered in tech that our entrances and exits (due to sightlines) were VERY long. But committing to the same energy even though it didn’t pay off in laughs ever, did pay off in energy both for the show and for me. It would have been easier to beg off and make a different choice, but it would have made for a weaker show.
  3. Be careful not to overlook storytelling.
    Bergetto went over pretty well. Big laughs – big sympathy… but along the way the second Bergetto scene (1.4 : ttp://goo.gl/lFrnb) stopped being funny. Over the first weekend I realized how much the shtick of Bergetto was running over facts the audience didn’t know yet and the relationship building with Donado. Slowing down enough to make sure that the story got told was spiking the laughs, but paid off later in the repetition of themes in the letter scene and in the increased investment in Bergetto just in time for his death. Trust the story. Tell the story.
  4. Stock characters are never stock.
    The basis of all three of the characters I played in Tis Pity are stock. The Vigilant Moralist, The Innocent Fool, and the Hypocritical Churchman.  Like any stew you begin with stock and then keep adding. Bergetto’s innocence in the actual discovery of each moment and the utter guileless joy in…. everything (especially the wench sale in Parma). The Friar’s non-hypocritical religion and honest desire to save everyone -  body and soul, and the Cardinal’s pure disdain for the backwater he is nuncio to all bring specificity to the stock exoskeletons they are framed from. 
  5. Never Underestimate the Power of Liking Your Team.
    When you are happy at work you work reflects it.

    Every time.

    I knew half of these folks before being cast but had only worked with one of them. Once I discovered I could trust these strangers to not embarrass me, crawling under the hood with them and making this bizarre blood opera work was a joy.

    When our final night was washed out I was heartbroken. Not just because I didn’t get to say goodbye to these characters but because being in the moment with actors committed to the scene, the story, and the show rather than unspooling their Oscar reel or even just getting through it is rarer than it should be. When you’re contending with less competent or committed coworkers you have to spend some of your time, energy, and focus in rehearsal and during performance helping them make good. You will never be giving everything you have simply to your work. The luxury of focusing on my work and knowing that they would handle theirs without being precious about it was remarkable. I’m going to miss the hell out of this cast and team.

We shall have time
to talk at large of all, but never yet
have incest and murder have so strangely met.
Of one so young, so rich in nature’s store,
who could not say Tis Pity She’s a Whore?

The Voice

Nothing is more certain in those pursuing any field with serious intent than that a nagging voice that lives in the back of their heads telling them over and over again what a failure they are.

I asked on Twitter:

and got the requisite sort of support that social media often offers.

I have a pretty healthy self-image. For a lot of people the idea that I can even hear the failure voice is laughable. While I hesitate to speak for the entire artistic universe, I feel pretty secure speaking for me and you know when I hear that voice most often?

When I’m the most successful.

This comes up because I try to answer honestly when people ask “How Are You?” and at Rose Rage rehearsal the other day when Liz Fisher asked I had no answer but: really great. I am in the midst of what is the longest sustained run of success in my life, personally and theatrically. I am doing work I’m proud of in productions worth inviting people to, I’m working with people I’ve really looked forward to working with, Messenger No. 4 had a great debut for a project that I think will have legs for quite a while, and for the first time in maybe ever I can say I’m a better actor today than I was a year ago.

The cost of that is of course that I am worn to a nub. I am tired physically, mentally, and emotionally. What happens when you’re no longer taking peak care of yourself? The brain chemicals get real dicey. You start hanging out in shadier and shadier mental neighborhoods and you start listening to shaggier and more harmful voices.

How do you get back (get back – get back) to where you once belonged?

I got a raft of great replies on Twitter:

They break down like this:
1. Food. Especially comfort food.
2. Friends.
3. Alcohol.
4. Other art.
5. The next project.

The wisdom of crowds says: take a break to recharge with food you like and friends to give you context.

What is YOUR solution?

Once More Into the Breach

I am up to my neck in revenge tragedy, fully immersed in the schlagobers und blud of Tis Pity She’s a Whore for 7 Towers Theatre Company at the Cathedral of Junk. [Good seats still available!] The show is roughly three metric tons of Pixy Stix worth of fun to do, the wind sprint of playing the Friar and Bergetto in our Act 1 being some of the most fun I’ve been allowed to have on stage. The entrances at a full gallop and the lightning costume and character changes are the sort of challenges you beg for.

I have been performing regularly enough in the last 18 months or so to recognize some things about my needs as a performer and to have begun cobbling together a preshow process for myself. I firmly believe in the repeatability of a performance. The discoveries and moments need to be fresh every night, but an audience buying a ticket on Friday shouldn’t be seeing a radically different production than they get on Saturday night. For me this means getting myself into a similar place for takeoff every night. It’s not just superstition – promise.

1. Context – Place
I need to get myself into the space. Remove variables. The more I know about the space the less I have to think about it during the show. The variables change depending on which space I’m in. The Cathedral of Junk is an outdoor venue so it means walking all of my entrances and making sure the pathways they are on haven’t changed, or haven’t become slippery… make sure there are no loose rocks on the SR corner where I do the 3 Stooges clown stop or that that the corner of the up-center platform isn’t any slicker than last night.

“That’s the stage manager’s job”.

The SM has a general safety mandate. The corner of the platform being slicker than last night isn’t necessarily about safety it’s about movement. You are responsible for knowing how the space is playing today just like a golfer is.

2. Context – People

I check in with everyone. Every single person who’s a moving part of the show, cast and crew. Talk with them about their day, about last night’s show, about how they’re feeling. and this sounds a little creepy, but make physical contact. Touch on arm, fist bump, hug, toss ‘em over your shoulders like a sack of potatoes and use them for a physical warm-up… whatever.

If the top of the show is a fixed point, you’re all coming at that point from a slightly different angle every night. Be aware.

3. Context – Self

I am not a fan of group warm-ups but I need something for me in terms of body, voice, and focus/show review. For something as vocal strenuous as Titus I do a full vocal warm-up for resonators, pitch and diction, for something as vocally light as Tis Pity I focus on warming up for diction (I have lousy consonants).

I check in physically. I have feet straight out of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream so I have to be aware if they are hurting at all and if that’s going to alter my movement. If there anything else that’s going o effect blocking? Is my core energy normal? Is it spiking? Am I hydrated enough to get through the first act without dry mouth?

Where’s my focus? Am I mentally in the space? Is the day weighing on me? or something personal? I usually run my monologues to get into the text and let those things go. For Tis Pity I also have the luxury of running the lines of first scene of the show before go just to get the motor idling.

It seem like a lot of fiddly work but all in all it’s about 15 minutes of work that helps triangulate me for the show and lets me worry about acting and not the rest of the mechanics.

How do you prep for a show?
What warm-ups do you do?
How do you get yourself anchored in the space?