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Institutional Memory

Isaac Butler linked an old article from the Guardian today featuring an interview with David Lan the artistic director of the Young Vic. Mostly it’s a run of the mill quick hit interview, and I’m going to steer clear of the writer/performer debate it raises for a moment.

Is there anything we’re particularly good/bad at in this country? What do you think are the industry’s real strengths and weaknesses, compared with theatre elsewhere?

We’re fantastically good at acting and designing and production management. We’re not very good at writing any more. We have some brilliant directors but no means by which directors can learn from each other. We’re far more interested in European and Asian theatre than we used to be which is good. We’re bad at continuity. We’re always starting again with few lessons learnt.

It’s not just your country Mr. Lan. Promise.

Theatre, and small theatre in particular, has no institutional memory. This is largely due to a combination of the localized nature of the form, and the fleeting nature of most organized companies, but a shame none the less.

Each new person on any given scene feels the need to begin their own company, each with their own particular blindness to the strengths and weaknesses of the given scene. They try to create a certain kind of product, often unaware of what has come before unaware of the proclivities of the theatre-going public in their area.

How do companies in open competition with one another for talent, space, and funds find a common ground to meet on? How can we share the knowledge each of us has gained in out journey to this point? Simply MEETING theatre professionals outside of your sphere isn’t easy. Never mind being in contact often enough and intimately enough to create honest relationship on any level.

If I knew properly I’d write a book and sell it to you. But my best guesses are as follows:

  1. Attend each other’s shows.
    A gimme? Maybe. But it solves the myopia of the always producing theatre professional (what else is going on in town? Are you duplicating efforts in the same artistic space?) and it gives you the opening to create an artistic dialogue. Plus there are better than even odds that they will attend your show in return.
  2. Festival Programmers and Planners can save us!
    Theoretically.
    The structure of the San Francisco Fringe offers lots of opportunity to meet, have discussions with, and hit on other artists over the course of the Festival. Frontera Fest here in Austin (in the last iteration) had no such opportunity.
    Part of the problem is the availability of space and the location of that space. But a festival atmosphere is such a great, low-key way to meet other artists, often after having seen their work, that it seems a shame when those opportunities pass us by.
  3. Established companies can save us?
    This of course requires resources AND ego swallowing… but indulge me. If a company has succeeded for say (arbitrarily) a decade.. they have something to offer in the way of knowledge. Maybe all they have to offer is what works in this market at this time, but that’s a pretty valuable maybe. If they reached out and offered assistantships and internships to folks they can pass on their brand of knowledge.
    Would folks take the the positions? I don’t know. Will theatre professionals have any idea how to pass that information on? I don’t know. But we need the info in their heads.
  4. BLOGS can save us!
    A certain subset of the population anyway.
    There is something wonderful about wading hip deep into an honest discussion of you field. If every community was chronicling it’s exploits and being aggregated in the way the Theatre Forte does for the broader theatre blogosphere don’t we all win?
    Mark Jackson’s chronicle of starting up the Art Street Theatre completely changed my way of thinking about theatre (I’m a text based human) and honestly it was pretty much a blog that had been edited and printed. How is Clurman’s The Fervent Years any different than a true insider blog?

One Sentence Summary

Networking isn’t just for the suits.

Homework

Where is my blind spot?
Why won’t networking pass on the collective knowledge?

Passions

`A short time ago Laura Axelrod asked her readership about their areas of interest, their true passions.

Name your area of expertise/interest:
Everything
How did you become interested in it?
Born more curious than a cat.
How did you learn how to do it?
I haven’t.
Who has been your biggest influence?
Everyone
What would you teach people about it?
Don’t Do it

Sad isn’t it?

I wish these answers were a little less true.
Perhaps in a more perfect world they would be the tongue in cheek segue into how I spent the last ten years studying with XXXX and am now a certified YYYY, setting up shop in ZZZZ.

Unfortunately, the second lesson of my collegiate theatre life (the first lesson being how to mop a stage) was that I needed to stop being a theater generalist and find a Thing. A niche. A specialty.

Thank you Dan Raymond. You were 100% correct.

I didn’t listen.

My love is for Theatre.

Not Chekov, or Beckett, or Mamet, or Meisner, or Sondheim.
I just love good stories told well.

My only true passion in the theatre is manipulating the audience.
I hold that Art may be audience-less and still be Art, but theatre isn’t theatre without someone on the receiving end.

Creating a specific experience in order to create a specific response in a group of people and succeeding? Feels better than anything I can think of.

Any production I have any sort of control of must remain audience focused.

What is your Prime Directive?
What is your first priority when you set out creating a production?

In the beginning

As I mentioned in my introduction, this space is intended to primarily be a place for me to unravel what it is I want to do in my own theatre life, as well as wrestling with the larger “What is Theatre?”, and “What Do I Think Small Independent Theatre Should Be?”

I’ve decided that I would approach this impossible existential test by answer the questions I know that I know the answers to first.

Small Theatre Aesthetics

I have spent the last 10 years of my life in the small theatre scenes of San Francisco and Austin. Along with the sundry shows I have personally been involved with, my part-time gig as the assistant production manager at the Exit Theatre in San Francisco allowed me to see many MANY shows. I was also privy to the process of many of those shows, and the approaches that companies in varied stages of development took in regards to the technical aspects of their shows.

A fundamental truth of small theatre is that companies lack capital resources. I understand that all too well. Unfortunately, rather than accepting this truth and dealing with it, most small companies adopt a vicious victim complex and then try to pretend they have capital resources.

To the grave detriment of their productions.

You (the production team) have control over everything your audience experiences short of the baggage they bring in with them. You make the decision as to what that is going to be.

You can play the martyr’s role, highlight the fact that you have no money, and duct tape together a Noel Coward living room out of some Goodwill furniture and paint.

Your audience will pity you. You will win martyr of the week. But they also aren’t taking your show seriously. You are going to be salted away in the audiences mind as a Double-A production, almost regardless of the actual performance level. (ed note: there are of course no absolutes)

You have also spent money you likely don’t have to achieve this non-effect.

There is no logical reason to decide on that aesthetic for your work. The only reason to approach a show in that manner is because you have set in your mind what you feel a “big-boy theater” would do for a set, so you make a run at that ideal on the money you have.

No win scenario – see above.

The two resources that small theatre companies DO have are people and time. Leverage them.

Accept the limitations of your budget. Not as a curse, or the obvious oppression of a war mongering administration, but as an opportunity to create a solution. The benefits are obvious.

  1. You and your team create an aesthetic that is specific to you and your show. One that specifically addresses the obstacles you are facing, and one that highlights the tone and intent of your production.
  2. You spend the money you have. That you actually have. Maybe it’s $50. But you’re not mortgaging future productions for a half-assed production today.
  3. You can begin to create a company aesthetic.
    In a brand name world that matters.
  4. You give yourself the ability to fold in the edges. The better you live within your theatrical means, and the simpler your production concepts, the more likely it is that your production will look finished. Which is all an audience really requires vis-a-vis production values. That you completed what it seems you intended to do.
  5. The cleaner and more finished your production aesthetic the better your production shots look for the publicity, the archive, and for future possible donors.

One Sentence Recap:

When facing a fully staged production design within your means, and present a fully realized concept without apology, not a poorly executed gesture towards what you sort of think you meant to do if you had more money.

Homework:

What am I missing? Why am I wrong?

Why are companies spending money they don’t have to cobble together sets they hate that don’t accomplish their goals?

How have you creatively solved set/production problems on a string and a couple of nickels?

Hi… Hello There, and Welcome

Just what 2007 needed, one more theatre blogger.

Exactly.

The more members sitting in the august hall of the (inter)national Theatre Senate the better picture that we all have of what’s actually going on in the theatre world. To get a finer grained focus on the State of the Art we need more folks outside of the Theatre Capital of the United States checking in. I am not the best candidate for that job, but as a Theatrosphere lurker for a little over a year, there are too few candidates, so I’ll toss my voice into the vat.

So good morning.

My name is Travis Bedard. I am a 32 year old small theatre human currently living and working in Austin, Texas. Like your average small theatre human I have a day job (assistant at an engineering firm). Like your average small theatre human I do not get paid for the ridiculous hours I put into a production.

I am not a world class actor. I am not a top flight director. I am not a playwright. I am not a real designer of sets, lights, costumes, or graphics. But I am more than capable of getting you by with any of them. Which makes me a pretty valuable asset for a small theatre company short of money and folks. But I’m not going to draw anyone to your show.

So if I’m your average small theatre human why read here?

Because I am the average small theatre human. I’m not one break from the big time. My ‘career’ is what it is. This space will be my examination of what I want my life in theatre to be.

Why do I do this?

Why should I be doing this?

What do I want theatre in Austin to be?

What do I want theatre that I make to be?

This will be my own manifesto for myself, and a space to respond to the memes of the day in the Theatrospere. Please make yourself at home.