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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.

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.

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

Green Monster Ladder

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.

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?

Speechless complainer, I will learn thy thought

If you have been in near-Travis orbit of late you have been flooded with Titus-talk. The hot news of the moment (aside from my eldest sister’s lovely wedding) has been that I have been cast as Titus Andronicus in the Last Act Theatre Company’s Titus Andronicus.

I am delighted and terrified. I am a 20-year character actor tackling a difficult Shakespearean lead. Titus is for my money Quentin Tarantino’s Lear. Titus is Lear if Lear were bent toward action instead of away, if Lear’s madness were reflected in the world he inhabited instead of rejected by it. Titus is Lear without subtlety. 

Titus also talks a LOT. Non-stop truth be told and my brain hasn’t gotten younger even once in the last 20 years. I haven’t had a lead in three years and before that another 5. I am daunted. There is a mammoth task ahead of me. But I will learn my multiple fights. I will cram all of the words highlighted in blue into my head and I will choose and then navigate the insane emotional path that old Andronicus hurtles through.

But there’s always a chance that I won’t.

There is always the possibility that the show won’t go on, that I won’t ever really own my lines, that I will only make the safest choices and wave at them halfheartedly. I could mouth it as some of our players do. I am a radically pragmatic man. I know that this can happen. That’s the nightmare.

What does a pragmatic man do when he knows failure is a possibility? He leaves himself an out. An escape hatch. A pressure release valve. I do this all the time. Frankly, it’s a primary reason I’m not a more successful artist.

You begin by hedging. There’s this impediment and that resource hole. There’s not enough of X and too many Y. Rehearsal got cut short due to mono and we never really got to work a third act dance number…

You move to lowering expectations.
It’s a young company.
I’m just a character actor.
It sure is hard and I don’t know…

But the biggest weapon in this niche arsenal is?

Secrecy.

If an actor fails in the woods and no one is there to see it, it doesn’t matter. If I don’t tell you I’m doing something you won’t know. Entertainment Weekly doesn’t cover me like they should…

So you don’t mention it to the folks you respect, you don’t bring it up up the ladder of artistic success. You mention it to your friends and family who have to love you even if you really do kill Mutius in 1.1. And if it goes south? You have a story to tell and no blame.

But you can’t do something as hard as Titus Andronicus halfway. You’ve got to be all in.
So if you’re in near-Travis orbit and you’re already a little tired of the Titus-talk? I apologize.
But I have to hold myself accountable to this process.
I can’t hedge.
I can’t hide.

We open on October 20th. Less than a month.
Titus Andronicus in all of its violent, operatic sprawl.
Fierce and funny and brutally tragic.

I am Titus.

Will you join us?

A Few Good Folks

Last fall the New Works community in Austin was awarded a planning grant from the Mellon foundation to explore (and model) infrastructure to support the creation of… well… New Work (http://goo.gl/y0TcS). That process continues apace and one of the identified areas of need was a better outreach to other makers and supporters, in other communities around the continent and the world.

The more we build relationship, the more contact makers have with those outside their own sphere the better the work will be and maybe we can ease the martyr/persecution complex just a bit…. you are NOT alone.

So.

If you are a maker or supporter of new performance work we would love for you to raise your hand and be counted via the short form linked below. We wouldn’t know who to sell you out to if we were interested… and we’re not. Someone from the Austin NWC might contact you with some questions but there probably won’t be math.

Thank you.

Down the Rabbit Trail: http://goo.gl/H8R8X

A Vibrant Thing

A friend asked what I felt a vibrant theatre community was. Disappointed to realize I hadn’t already defined that term in this space I told her I would write up a post.

This is that post.

A vibrant theatre community is one that is connected vertically and horizontally, larger and smaller, more and less resourced, and across genres. Andrew Taylor uses a image in his creative ecology talk of the Honey Mushroom (armillaria ostoyae). To quote the linked article, “To go into the forest where this giant makes its home you would not look at it and see a huge, looming mushroom. Armillaria grows and spreads primarily underground and the sheer bulk of this organism lies in the earth, out of sight.”

Armillaria are to scientific knowledge the TWO largest living organisms. But you never see the whole thing. You see it shooting up here and there but the truth of it’s life and interconnectedness lies out of sight.

The hallmarks of a vibrant theatre community:

  • A talent base.
    Every community has a best, most talented person. A vibrant community has a pool of talent that like sourdough starter can be dipped into again and again and mot be diminished.
  • Opportunity to begin, opportunity to continue.
    The bar to entry is low enough in terms of resources that you can enter the community and (without hitting the lottery) sustain an artistic effort.
  • Culture of Making
    A vibrant creative environment needs to be rooted in creating opportunity rather than waiting for opportunity.  
  • Artist Awareness
    While taking a breath from their own pursuits individual artists look up every know and again and recognize that others exist and are doing the same things they are. Occasionally they may talk or even share a meal with another artist.
  • Cooperation, not competition.
    Each sees and supports each. There needs to be room for each creator to root.
  • Overlap between producing groups.
    Friction creates both heat and light, keep rubbing up against new thoughts and ideas.
  • Variety of goals.
    A town only producing musicals or design driven reflections on the work of Anne Sexton can’t sustain a broad enough population of artists or audience to maintain continuity.
  • Ambition
    Of some kind.
    Whether is for innovation or simply drive for greatness. The needs to be an animating force for something more than “I want to do a play”.
  • Continuity… and churn
    Like the ocean, a vibrant community needs a foundation of “elders” and community pillars underlaying a froth and chop of high kinetic energy, high entropy groups forming, crashing and reforming in a flurry. The two energies feed each other.

There is of course an equation hidden in all of this that would quantify it and balance the factors but lord knows I got 99 problems but a math ain’t one.