Whispers and Thoughts

Tonight we begin a quick jaunt into the world of Stephen Spotswood‘s ‘In the Forest, She Grew Fangs‘.

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I’ve been trying to get a reading of this show together forever.

Spotswood is a longtime friend from the #2amt tag on Twitter but I hadn’t read any of his work (asking always feels oddly intrusive) until finally over a year ago, after hearing the title one too many times in my feed, I had to ask about Fangs. I read it and my immediate response was to record Ruth’s monologue… it’s that kind of show. As an actor I had to try saying the words out loud as soon as I read them.

It’s a monologue driven show which can be difficult for some readers and I really thought, and think, that this is a text that possible producers would do better to hear than to scan on the page. So I decided to combine a few streams in my head: have a lightly directed reading to give performers a chance to try on some roles they might not get a swing at in production, to give a director some time in a rehearsal room with actors that didn’t cost $4K from jump, and to give folks interested in new plays in Austin an opportunity to hear a play rather than read it between the 400 other things they need to do. It’s something that I hope we can persuade other Austin companies to do.

So Sunday at noon over some pastries and coffee Deb Streusand and some great actors will share their take on a lovely script which is a pretty great way to kick off your Sunday.

100 Heartbreaks

There was no way I was going to miss 100 Heartbreaks.

Even in the midst of the respiratory mayhem the season and the run of Changelings has wrought and the few nights my schedule allows me, I had to come. As I told director Jess Hutchinson on being greeted warmly to the Sahara Lounge – I tried to make this show 2006.

Discussion of my tact level aside, it’s entirely true. My and Will’s version of this show anyway…
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 In 2006 Will and I (then with Gobotrick Theatre Company) decided to recreate our ArtSpark experience and give ourselves 3 months from blank to stage to create a production. We knew that we had the Dougherty Arts Center and that April Perez (now Moore), who had recently performed the title role in Will’s Elektra, wanted us to do a musical. We decided to create an anthology show at a lounge featuring the last night of a local on her way to bigger things. In the front of the house were audience members going through similar transitions.

We had a kick ass band and a solid cast, but the form itself has pitfalls and the ancillary stories we devised with the cast lacked the conflict to keep the entire evening aloft. The show soared when the music was playing and dragged in between (I’m generalizing of course).  The world of the Dougherty Arts Center never really felt anywhere near intimate enough to replicate the sort of lounge we wanted, and the formalism of it being a theatre space (no matter how municipal) placed a distance between the audience and the characters that hurt the connection we wanted to create.

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I had to see how someone else dealt with these issues.

According to the Statesman, Joanna Garner, who wrote 100 Heartbreaks, composed all the relevant songs and performs as Charlane Tucker has been workshopping this for a few years.  The care and work shows.

 The first thing Garner and director Hutchinson got right was site specific venue selection. The Sahara Lounge is fantastic. The atmosphere buys the show a lot of goodwill from jump, and the drinks are quite good (I had a Old Fashioned with a touch of ginger syrup on opening night). The Sahara could absolutely be a dive in Montana, or Kentucky, or any ol’ end of the road really.

Right off the bat I just a bit nervous because in a non-immersive site-specific show the hand-off between “real-world” and “show world” can be awkward. You don’t have the shorthand conventions of a formal theatre setting to help you alert the audience to silence and attention and the further decision to have the opening moments set off of the Sahara’s breadbox of a stage made the opening moment softer than I would have liked. it was difficult to gauge “character awkward” versus performer awkward in the beginning. So yeah, I got nervous. But nerves went away pretty quickly once Garner and the band mates took to the stage and started playing. The music is good, even if the vocals were lower in the mix than I would have liked. The band is as real as it gets and Garner can really sing.

With a bit of a stumble into the show proper the next hurdle is exposition. How do we get leveraged into  this world  without getting swamped by gawky musician banter?  Mostly, you make sure that real-as-it-gets band can act and you power through the gawky stage banter, coasting on the rapport the cast has with one another. But 100 Heartbreaks really coalesces when Mark (Heath Allyn) joins the proceedings and we shift from telling to showing. The chemistry between Mark and Charlane is lovely and is most evident in the ways that we want it to be between our mythologized musicians: when they are singing with and to one another. When they’re sneaking glimpses at one another while sharing a microphone or more aggressively flirting after hours we see the hours on the road and on stage tumbling out and it is exactly the kind of intimacy we mean when we set out to create this sort of show. The sort of intimacy that feels almost voyeuristic in the moment.

The solid ensemble building and the fantastic scene work between Garner and Allyn pay off in  a third act that has the backing band rooting as openly as we are for the inevitable. And we are rooting and it is inevitable. For me that’s become something of a bellweather for really well-made shows – nothing unexpected happens in 100 Heartbreaks and that doesn’t matter at all because being on the road with the folks is such a joy. No, 100 Heartbreaks doesn’t present a solution to exerting control over an informal performance space or how to smooth over the talky exposition the form forces, but it washes them away with  a great cast, winning songs, and bucket loads of charm.

Austin Needs a Place

Making art is a grind.

As with child birth we tend to forget to the gross majority of the creation process isn’t magic, it’s a slog. So when we see an artistic birthing process we simultaneously reject it as something that never happens to us and runaway because: repulsive.

Something is about to happen in Austin that is rarer then hen’s teeth on a dragon egg in a blood moon. A new indie theatre venue is being born. It’s been ten years since that was the case in Austin and I’m sure that’s true in your City. New venues are generational.

I’m also sure that in your city there’s a pretty good chance that venues die at a much higher rate. In Austin despite the boom economically in a bad recession and a bumper crop of new artists there are fewer venues on offer for than any moment since I got here (and the Red Sox began winning championships like it was 2-on-2 bingo). There are fewer seats available at live performance (non-music division) in Austin than in 2004 despite the Austin metro area adding 300,000 people.

Into that breach steps long time Austin theatre advocate Lisa Scheps who saw the hole and assumed the risk. Ground Floor Theatre is intended to be a #newplay venue and a launching pad for the next generation of Austin makers. Not just writers actors and directors, but designers as well [the time is now for letting designers do something more than fix it with light]. Scheps also vows to keep rent as low as possible for all renters and especially for underreprented communities. Lord we need it.

We can argue whether or not the birth of a 140 seat black box should be a revolution, but the fact is that it is a revolution. And that revolution is here. The labor on Ground Floor Theatre is in process. This space is going to open. This baby is coming.

But to run the first year in the black they need a bubble of capital. They need the equivalent of diapers and onesies. Toner and lightbulbs and toilet paper. They need room to offer subsidies to new and underfunded groups. They need breathing room.

The Kickstarter is here and time is short.
150 more people are needed.
Or a few with deeper pockets, but we’re all theatre makers, we all know the uncle with deep pockets is a whiskey dream.

It’s us. It’s just us and thing that we need.

And it is we. This isn’t a fancy bauble that Austin gets to have. This is a node on the #newplay network. This is a new lab where a company gets to try something new, like your script or devised piece.

I know you’re broke. I know you’re tired and raising money for your projects.
Do what you can spread the word. Pimp out your household pets in videos:

They’re $7000 down and have to raise it over a weekend.
If you’ve ever crowdfunded you know that’s a long road.

If you would buy me a double tall gin and tonic at the bar after a show, or spring for a ticket to a show, or come see a show I was in and haven’t or can skipi the pizza this weekend : Please send it to Ground Floor Theatre.

Vote yes on ceilings and walls.

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.

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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 gambeling bonuses 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

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Take Your Cuts

Playwriting is as unrewarding as anything Sisyphus could possible have an application in for. Success in playwriting is getting your text into a theatre good enough that you’d care to see a show in it for a reading. It will be incubating, in the new play nursery, from when is will “experimentally” “emerge” for a “world premiere reading” or some bullshit. After which they will tear it apart and explain that in a few years you will be good enough for the black box downstairs (or offsite).

That’s WINNING.
I know.

So don’t think I don’t know what the voices after your midnight bourbon and Fudge Stripe run say. I do. It sucks. Those voices are the single most destructive thing to anyone’s creative process. The no’s someone else tell you can be motivating. The no’s you mutter to yourself before an idea is voiced is the perfect destructive crime. No one can stop it and you’re accountable to no one for it.

So stop it.

The negativity and the creative abortions, not the midnight bourbon and Fudge Stripe runs those are still on.

 

 

Let me segue clumsily to a metaphor you care nothing about

That right there is the Green Monster.

It is a thirty seven foot (and 2 inch) wall that graces left field at Fenway Park in Boston and it is a sports icon. It’s enough of an icon that even some of you non-sports fans knew what it was.

Can you see the texture?

The Green Monster stippled with the imprint of thousands of batted balls. It gets resurfaced occasionally and recently was surfaced with hard plastic in lieu of the old school green-painted tin, but while that surface is hanging do you know how you can tell one dimple from another? You don’t. You can’t.

One divot is indistinguishable from another.

The wall faces every batter who steps up.
A very short 310 feet away it looms begging your attention, but it’s as unpredictable a target as you could imagine.
There a scoreboard on it. And a ladder. And there are dead spots in it that hamper bounces.

Balls that are sure home runs in other ballparks are singles with a true bounce while conversely (relatively) tiny men like Bucky Dent can chip a ball over it for devastating home runs.

But you have to play
You have to swing.
It won’t be a career (and life) defining moment every time out. It definitionally can’t be. Heck, in baseball tw0-thirds failure make you an all star… but you can’t let the unlikeliness of world beating success stop you from writing. We need your voice in this moment. We need everyone to suit up or we don’t have a culture. We can’t win this game, this recordation of our cultural moment, without the entire team. One hit at a time.

Not a single one of those wall dimples is “success” by the ultimate definition of success for the baseball hitter– the home run. Not one of them. But the mark they left is very real.

You’re up.