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NEXT…

DATELINE: 9/15/2009

This is the post I was supposed to write Monday night… and didn’t.

So Tuesday during work…
Tuesday night…
Wednesday during work…

It’s already mostly in my head so I couldn’t figure out why I was holding up. It’s not like typing is all that taxing.

And it took Will texting me out of nowhere to put the universes’ point to it. Today City of Austin funding award letters arrived.

Despite the flawed grant application the City granted us 77% of our request which should, with better fiscal husbandry, give us enough of a leg up to get us through our modest season.

So let’s talk about what’s next shall we?

In our (nearly) three year association (happy almost anniversary Will) we’ve come upon a slight reputation toward the… depressing? Summed up… when I announced Orestes at work they didn’t ask what this one was about… they asked how many people died.

Which isn’t really fair…
Only one person died in Con Mis Manos. Sure 4 characters died in Elektra, but 2 were in flashback and 2 were offstage.There was only one death of consequence in Intermission and that was a given circumstance not a character death. People may have died in Transformations… but I think only one was actually confirmed… and that was performance art, not a narrative character piece (and if you left Transformations sad you brought that with you). One death in The Nina Variations and the 5 in Orestes.

The whole thing is overblown.

Regardless… it is time for Cambiare Productions to step up to the plate with something lighter. So we will be presenting an as yet untitled piece currently filed under:
Cambiare Productions: In Search of Childhood.
I repeat – that is NOT the title of the show.

We’d have to double our postcard budget.

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What’s it going to look like?
If you know us at all you know we only have the vaguest idea.

What it will entail in the process is a lot of personal storytelling. A deep metaphysical exploration of skinned knees and mud pies and imagination. Wrestling with puppies and finding Bear the Bear in the closet before bed.

No irony.
No meta adults-playing-kids-doing-adult-things.

For it to be True of course we need a broad range of experiences. Will and I are pretty smart, but we only managed to live two childhoods between us. So we’re going to need your help.

We’re going to be running essentially a scavenger hunt for childhood and we need all the grown up children we can find.

We need you and your friends and your Moms and Dada and Sisters and brothers to join us.
Instructions will come in this space and be easy to spread.
So let’s play.

First five gallons of bubbles are on me.

I read the news today – oh boy…

I talked about Will following up all of my “what didn’t work” analysis about Orestes with a discussion about the parts of the show that were successful. His soft boycott of blogging means he never got to what I’ve been calling the Little Mary Sunshine post, so I’m going to let the nominating committee for Austin Circle of Theatres B. Iden Payne Award committee say it for him:

We were nominated for:

OUTSTANDING PRODUCTION OF A DRAMA
ORESTES

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OUTSTANDING DIRECTOR OF A DRAMA
WILL HOLLIS SNIDER

Will Hollis Snider

OUSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A DRAMA

GABRIEL LUNA

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OUTSTANDING FEATURED ACTRESS IN A DRAMA
LA TASHA STEVENS

Orestes Photos Robert Zick 8.8200-1

OUTSTANDING ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE
THE FURIES
DEREK KOLLURI
STEPHANIE NGO-NATCHIE
KARINA DOMINGUEZ

Orestes Photos Robert Zick 8.884

So roughly I’d say that’s how that went…

Congrats to our summer family and congratulations to:

  • Gabriel Luna for his OTHER nomination for Lead Actor in a Comedy for Black Snow
  • Smaranda Ciceau for Featured Actress in a Comedy for Black Snow
  • Adam Hilton (nominated for Killer Joe)
  • Megan Reilly (nominated for Black Snow and Ophelia)
  • Nina Variations alum Rachel McGinnis for her Lead in a Drama nod for Heidi Chronicles
  • Elektra alum Andrew Varenhorst for his dual Lead in Drama (Touch) and Featured in a Musical (Gorilla Man) nominations

What we have here is… Orestes Post Mortem #3

This will be the last of the Orestes post-mortem posts. I’m excited to move on to NEXT and honestly it’s not easy to frame the mistakes we made in such a way that it’s at all useful to others.

This is by necessity the most negative of the postmortems. There is little that went right in my technical positions on this show, and that had a dramatic impact on the final product and on the environment we provided the cast during tech week.

The problem was two-fold: the same concentration of duties problem that stifled the show in general, and my own lack of specificity.

I served at Technical Director, Set Designer, prop builder, carpenter, and deck electrician once the show opened. This breakdown is actually a pretty reasonable one if I were Truly Skilled at any of those jobs rather than “competent, breathing and free”.

For the sake of clarity: I wasn’t unhappy with the final product (though I have quibbles) but rather with the process and the lack of adherence our own goals in that process that led to a grueling load-in and lack of time for the cast to really adjust in the move from rehearsal space to stage.

The roles of carpenter and deck electricians were handled adequately though without distinction, and you don’t care so let’s move on to something that helps us all.

Prop Builder
Honestly a mixed bag. The look of them all was correct. I include in this the daggers (purchased), the lantern and the masks. The daggers were inexpensive and appropriate. The lantern I am honestly proud of in that way only an indie theatre moonlight craftsman can be, the director asked for a thing and I gave him what he wanted – lord help us it shouldn’t be that rare.

The masks… well.

The look and the build of the masks were okay, though I don’t recommend leaving a hot glued item in a backseat in Texas in July, but there were two functional problems.

  1. They were too small. (Yes, Ms. Catmull I totally agree with you) Even in the intimacy of the Off Center the simply weren’t large enough to be a very real presence on stage. They weren’t large enough to draw focus from the manipulators and be in a scene with Orestes by themselves. They were built from 18” away and they’re pretty good from 18” away. Unfortunately that’s not how we play those scenes in the theatre.
  2. The manipulation idea, while a good one, was probably wrong for the interpretation of the Furies that we ended on. It was intended to release the manipulators to be “less human”  in their movement and vocal choices, but ended up locking them down into some pretty static tableaus and limited Will’s options.

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Set Design
We talked about the shift from old to new set design earlier and it’s time to see if I was right. The answer is of course: sort of.

  1. The concepts behind the set design were correct.
  2. The aesthetics of the execution were correct.
  3. The utility of the set wasn’t great. I underestimated how restrictive an 18” rise would be for the cast, and it hurt the flow of the show.
  4. The aesthetics of the show were completely de-emphasized by our audience placement. It was all in the alleys along the outside of the house and ended up not adding to the show itself. “Space design” rather than “set design”.
  5. Safety precluded adding debris to the playing field… I’m not really sure why it never occurred to me that this would be a problem.

Technical Direction
Sweet merciful lord above what a farce. I spent the entire process shooting behind a moving target and never caught up. Without the help of Tramaine Berryhill and Jess Harper we’d still be building platforms. I underestimated the time necessary on every single element of the build which cost the cast time on the set and led to stress level not commensurate with a confident composed performance.

Before we try to cover my mistakes with lack of experience, this wasn’t a company problem. This wasn’t a system problem. This was simply me being serially wrong for a month.

I didn’t set specific goals for the aesthetic of the show. I abandoned the other designers to their own devises because I didn’t know every single answer. That’s on me. As the TD I needed to know every inch of every fact of the technical aspects of the show and didn’t.

For my money the TD needs to be proactive not reactive and I spent this entire show on my heels reacting to changes in the script, changes in character direction, and space limitations I either hadn’t known about or forgotten about.And because I was also my boss there was no pressure from anyone but myself to change it.

Overall
The lack of specificity in my choices as set designer, and lack of proactive attention to detail left a dangerous amount of slack in the process that was only overcome by the generosity of others. The goal is to be self-sufficient until such time as our progress and resources signal the need for expansion. This can be done without sacrificing production quality.

—-

So say we all.

This is the Captain Speaking…

At the midway point in the post-mortem I want to address a few things.

I have written countless times here and on your blogs about institutional memory and how critical it is for theatre start-ups to bridge the lack of access to That Which Went Before. Which is why I’m putting our post-mortem in public. These are mistakes we made, maybe you can avoid them.

There has been some comment about the negative tone of these post-mortem posts. I warned you about the tone when I was beginning them but I’ll quote myself here: “The tone of these posts will be vaguely negative. Don’t read into that, I’m trying to break down what DIDN’T work so we don’t repeat it. The goal, as always, is to improve.

I’m not trying to beat myself up or fish for compliments and I don’t think I’ve cast aspersions on anyone else involved. It was a largely successful show, what success it had was largely from other players and rumor has it that Will will add a post-mortem post from the writer/director perspective later which is where the bulk of the success of this project lies.

Third and lastly here at recess I want to address a comment made by writer (and now director!) Dan Solomon on post mortem #2.

Dan says:

I do have one concern, though –

We would have lost money on this show anyway because we’re soft and chose to pay our performers despite the budget cut at the beginning of the process

I know we’ve talked about this a little bit, but there’s still something that I find troubling about identifying paying the actors as a -choice-, just because it’s likely they’d have agreed to work for free if you’d told them there was no money to pay them. There’s no talk of being a big softy by choosing to pay the venue instead of asking them to provide it for free, or deciding to pay the bill to Rock N Roll Rentals or Home Depot or wherever various technical equipment and hardware came from.

I’m glad the actors were paid – I thought the benefit night idea was a neat one, and from what I gather, it seemed to work out pretty well. So don’t take this as, like, calling you out – I’m just conscious of the way creative types are often told that just the opportunity to do what they love ought to be reward enough, and I think it’s important that people who don’t share that idea work to make sure that it’s not reinforced. I totally approve of the fact that your actions speak loudly on this front, though.

In response to Dan I say: You are absolutely right.

But.

Will and I are committed to compensating our performers and artistic staff. That isn’t going to change. But where do we draw the line?

Do we say that we won’t produce anything unless we can pay the performers? What level of pay gives a green light? What percentage of my budget should that be? (Stipends were about 20% of Orestes budget with the set designer, technical director, construction crew, stage manager, director, writer, and one cast slot being unpaid positions)

And let me ask the official devil’s advocate (i.e. asshole) question(s) for a moment:


We agree that actors shouldn’t be expected to “do it for the love”, nor for “the opportunity”, but if we’re all waiting for sufficient budgets to pay them appropriately (even for an indie level) there will BE no Austin indie theatre scene and the simple truth is that they ARE willing to work for free for a long ways up the talent chain. Why should I as a producer with very limited discretionary funds (and Rock & Roll Rentals and Home Depot are ALSO discretionary expenditures, space is a discretionary decision but with very real production effects that weigh toward it being a hard cost) not see the performers salaries as the soft cost that it is in the real world?

Why am I responsible for the actor’s being professional and treating themselves that way? All actors need to do to change the mindset of producers is to not show up to calls for unpaid gigs and the talent drop off would force a change.


Mr. Solomon knows that’s not my real life position, but to avoid letter bombs let me reinforce that here:
I support compensating our performers and artistic staff wholeheartedly and support ending a culture in which paying them is optional. If that means for now running the Benefit night in lieu of hard contractual dollars until we are better established so be it. But let’s not infantilize our performers, they have a choice to not work for free as readily as I have the choice to pay them or not.

Food Chain : Orestes Post Mortem #2

The food chain goes one way. You are predator or you are prey. Unless it’s Cambiare Productions during Orestes. There was no top of the food chain when roles up and down the nutritional pyramid are filled by the same people.

The producer role for us comes down to:

  • Money. Providing and managing. This includes grant writing and managing. Fundraising. Check writing. Purchase approving, and bean counting.
  • Public Relations and Marketing.
  • Hiring. Artistic staff
  • Providing of needs: Space, both rehearsal and performance.
  • Quality Control.
  • Stopper of the Buck.

IMG_1672Normally this would be one person’s role. This got a little muddy during Orestes as Will and I split the cost. This made financial decision making more fluid (not a good thing) and made budget control harder. It also made artistic decisions that should have been reigned in by budget constraints  more awkward (“Well it’s his money”).

Will also provided the space (rehearsal and performance) and the angel funding. The artistic staff we split i.e. I hired the TD, set designer and lighting designer, he hired the sound designer and costume designer.

Muddiness aside, as the AD of the company and the listed producer, no matter how the tasks shook out I was responsible for them. To review:

  1. Money
    Easily the worst we have ever handled our money. The first time split of financing meant we didn’t talk enough about it and as it got awkward we let it slide. We overspent our budget by about oh, 50%. Without one pocket controlling the decision making (“yes we have enough left for that”) the answer was always yes. 

    We would have lost money on this show anyway because we’re soft and chose to pay our performers despite the budget cut at the beginning of the process (the City not being able to provide an auxiliary grant for the space) meaning that that line item had been cut. We were right but the numbers still look bad.

    Restraint would have meant that we would have minimized our loses and I don’t think it would have meant a compromised product.

    We need to improve our communication around financial issues and not cave in to ourselves when we want shiny shiny toys.

  2. Public Relations and marketing
    We actually did pretty well here. Will’s poster design and publicity shots were top notch and they were on the desk of just about everyone with a keyboard. We had 4 features and a radio interview and were reviewed by five outlets in town. There really isn’t much more we could have done outside of landing a tv spot, and frankly I’m not sure that would have helped us.

    Ultimately word of mouth sells seats in this town and an undercooked first week and a love it/hate it show meant that word of mouth was mixed. There were also 3.7 million other shows open in town, limiting our theatre-people attendance which is always the bedrock of these sorts of productions. We remain stalled out at about 280-290 attendance.

    We also need to improve our book keeping.
    Money and attendance.

  3. Artistic Staff
    We hired the right people save one, and we had hired him for a specific reason – he just didn’t do his job. But more on the set designer later.

    The only real failure here was getting caught flat footed when our original costume designer became unavailable. We weren’t prepared with a list of names to go to when we needed to, which meant that one department was short shrifted timewise.

  4. Space
    Great rehearsal space at a great price.

    The right performance space at a reasonable price. We shot ourselves in the foot contractually, shorting ourselves a day on load-in (we had no Sunday) and a day for strike.

    That will never happen again.

    We also forgot to adequately provide slack both in design and time for the inherent difficulties of the space. That will not happen again.

  5. and 6. Quality Control and Buck stopping.
    Here is where I failed in this position.

    I try very hard to stay out of Will’s way once rehearsals start. Directing a play, a new play,  a new play that you wrote… is difficult enough without getting questioned on every little nut and bolt. It also makes a relationship tense, the feeling that every move is going to be questioned. But it means that I didn’t question things that I wasn’t pleased with in terms of the show that I assumed where choices that were in fact gaps.

    We are going to strive to find a balance in the future, because I let too many things that I was unhappy with linger until postmortem and because of my giving him TOO much space I wasn’t supporting Will in the best way possible.

Deep Well of Forgetting

There will be several postmortem posts regarding Orestes as I had several roles on the show and want to break them all down. I welcome you to view the video record of Orestes at your leisure (www.cambiareproductions.com) and chime in on any of these posts as you see fit. The tone of these posts will be vaguely negative. Don’t read into that, I’m trying to break down what DIDN’T work so we don’t repeat it. The goal, as always, is to improve.

This first look back is on a meta level from the AD/Producer’s seat. What was it in our approach that led to Orestes being suboptimal, with the understanding that optimal is greatness or transcendence. What can we do to even out the audience’s experience? What can we do to better reassure the actors that they are being cared for and insulate them from the production side as much as possible?

But most to the point: what did we forget going into Orestes that simply having remembered would have saved us a few hours of sleep and sanded down some of the edges?

1. You can’t solve an equation with nothing but variables.
There is a finite equation that equals a fine, polished production. Lord alone knows what that equation is, but whatever it is there needs to be constants in the equation to be able to solve it. Develop new work with people you trust.
Take casting chances on a text you trust.
Take production risks when the text and cast are constants.
You can’t take production risks with all new people and words.
Not with so few sets of hands around to prop up walls when they fall down.

2. This WAS a new work.
Yes. it was based on a three thousand year old text, but an entirely new and unworkshopped adaptation. We kept treating it as though it were a published text, to our detriment. We ignored Point 1 because we failed to consider this a new work.

3. We’re a REALLY new company.
Not an excuse. Will and I both have enough experience under our belts to know better on a lot of things, but Orestes was Cambiare’s second show, and the first Cambiare show on which we were the core creators. There isn’t system in place yet. There is no muscle memory for what we did last time.  The company we keep is by and large older, established companies… we forgot we hadn’t done that yet.

4. We forgot simplicity.
Not that the technical aspects of the show were complex and over the top by any means, but in retrospect what was Really Necessary to tell the story? How could we keep stripping away to maximize our time in the space before the show?
We don’t know because we didn’t do it.
That’s on me. I designed simply rather than simplest.

5. Too. Many. Hats.
Just because you can do a thing doesn’t mean you should. I had 5 hats on this show. In trying to accomplish them all I failed at them all. Hubris takes down producer of Orestes. There’s your headline.

 

We’ll remember better for our next show.