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As 2010 rides into the gloaming

This has been a fallow year for Cambiare Productions. We’re not dead. You can’t kill a guerilla group made up of two people and a mathematician (hi Amanda!). We’ve been busy bathing in other things that interest us, Will has been taking 120 or so shots a day and honing his immense talent for photography into razor sharp skills. Amanda has been chasing free range theorems and proofs all about as she pursues her 17th post-grad degree in the maths. I have noodled about with social media and the infrastructure of New Play development, learning a lot of nuts and bolts about how the bottom of this system works and how social media can make it work better.

That work will continue into the new year, and Will will continue to become the best photographer in Austin, and Amanda will take her math cudgel to an area high school.

Cambiare will take this year to really figure out how we develop plays. We began development on the “Childhood” project last year, aided by three phenomenal talents, but lost traction in part to the fact that as a team we have no process in place to develop works from scratch (adaptation we have a handle on). We put “Childhood” back on the shelf before we broke it beyond future use and decided we needed a new approach and better discipline.

So this year will be spent on at least two development projects with hard deadlines. One of Will’s devising and one of mine. If we manage to develop a presentable piece for next years’ Frontera Fest all the better. If not? Well, we at least hope to share the process here and with other member of the Austin theatre community.

We plan on working closely with the Austin New Works community on the Mellon initiative exploring new works models, and we plan on supporting indie theatre in Austin as much as we ever have.

With a low risk, low budget plan for next Cambiare doesn’t need your end of the year donations. But we would like to suggest places you can drop those final charitable doubloons of 2010 if you are so inclined:

Capital T Theatre is producing some of the finest work in Austin, they are doing it with a high degree of technical polish, they strive to treat their performers professionally at every turn and they lost %70 of their funding for the next year.

Rubber Repertory is making theatre that defies what you thought theatre could be. They do it every year. You leave a Rubber Rep show changed in some way.

PearlDamour is creating a work called How to Build a Forest that I am preemptively in love with as they develop it here in Austin via smaller Forest builds. A long term exploration of the very concept of “forest” and our relationships to them, the finished product in New York will be must see. Get in now and follow the process and you’ll be amazed how touching that process is.

These are the sorts of places that my attention and money go, if you trust me and have no other direction for your year-end giving? these folks will put it to good use.

Every blessing in the New Year from all of us at Cambiare.

Attention Must Be Paid

As has happened so many times in the last couple of years I said something off the cuff that someone else has paid entirely too much attention to.

On November 19th I said:


And yesterday Mr. Howard Sherman, president of the American Theatre Wing responded very thoughtfully. His considered response makes me regret we don’t share a city because I think that this is a discussion that would be an awful lot of fun over a beverage. It also made me regret my mobile status on the 19th because my shout out to the Emperor Jujamcyn was part of a running conversation about the profile of the theatre in America and theatremakers ongoing inability to a.) create a narrative about the work and the field b.) tell that narrative to any member of the press or possible theatregoing public without sounding like we’re on break from a PhD dramaturgy class. 

So let’s start with my appreciation for Mr. Sherman’s history lesson. I didn’t know any of that (save the Regionals on Broadway portion) and I think that it’s very instructive and gives us some pointers for directions not to travel.

My point of departure is: I don’t care if a single show ends up on Broadway. I have never seen a Broadway show. I’ve never stood on Broadway. There’s not a one of my megalomanical inclinations that lands on the Great White Way. But Broadway has The Juice. Being on Broadway signals to the public that This Matters and I want badly for the greater public to know that great theatre is being made every day in this country. Until that greater public has a guide to What Matters in theatre and Who Is Good we can’t begin to give them a narrative.

The idea of shipping things to New York is simply because that’s where the brand juice is right now so that’s an “easy” way to go about it and as I discussed in my post “Is This Heaven, No It’s Iowa” I would rather ship an entire show to New York than store all of my actors there.

So the short answer is that no, Broadway isn’t our national theatre in the way that theatremakers would talk about it and the founding and operation of a true national theatre in DC or elsewhere is a fate I wouldn’t wish on Donald Rumsfeld. But I’m not yet ready to cede broader vitality or a place in the cultural conversation for non-musical theatre. It shouldn’t feel like a Renaissance when we talking about August: Osage County or God of Carnage. Tracey Letts and Yasmina Reza should be cultural stars and most folks have never heard of them. To crib a line from the Bible, we need to stop hiding our light under a bushel and shine forth from the lampstand.

Now where the hell is that lampstand? How to we build it?

I don’t know. 
So I ask smarter men than I.
Often in fewer than 140 characters.

The Care and feeding of audiences.

Peter Marks of the Washington Post tosses off a quick “leave me alone” note to Washington theatremakers at the perfect time for me to talk about audiences: opening night of Rubber Rep’s Biography of Physical Sensations.

Marks hates audience participation and I am so firmly in Mr. Marks’ camp that about a year ago I was led to ask why it bothered me so much. I don’t like being touched, I don’t like being asked questions, I don’t want the spotlight on me, no I don’t want to go up on stage… leave me alone. The kicker? I’m a performer! I’m good at all the things they want me to do!

So why does it bother me so much?

I talked to Kirk Lynn of the Rude Mechanicals about this in advance of their recreation last year of Richard Schechner’s Dionysus in ‘69 which promised to contain lots of things I hate including gratuitous nudity and audience participation.

Dionysus in 69 was perhaps the best theatrical experience of my life and my regrets are all for moments I DIDN’T participate in. What is it? Why? What was the difference between other experiences and Dionysus and why am I so excited to see Biography of Physical Sensations tonight?

The answer was simple enough to stupefy me when I realized it in development of the Cambiare piece codenamed “Childhood”.

It’s quality and intention.

Dionysus in ‘69 was a phenomenal piece of theatre by committed, vulnerable artists inviting an audience into the piece with them. In general audience participation is an unrehearsed, tacked on gimmick that essentially works as a power play on the poor audience. Either to expressly embarrass them or to carelessly embarrass them. To include an unrehearsed performer into your show gives you immeasurable power over them and includes no benefit.

Unless they are truly the point.

Dionysus worked because a.) the audience participation made sense in the framework of the show b.) the performers ceded status, c.) the audience participation sections were very well rehearsed, d.) audience participation was 100% voluntary e.) information was given before the participation was requested so it wasn’t a surprise, f.) in most cases the offer and the choice were made by audience members privately before the participation began.

Safe. Sane. Consensual.

A Biography of Physical Sensations is a step beyond that. You make the choice when you purchase the ticket that you will participate. You are a performer from the minute you arrive. You have some choice of intensity (in seat size choice) and co-AD Josh Meyer will be seating the 40 guests with some eye toward making the event pleasurable even for people who experience negative sensations.

But there is an explicit contract of participation.
To recap:

  1. Make it clear as strobes that there will be participation either in style or explicitly.
  2. Give the participants status.
  3. Never make participation involuntary.
  4. Never make involuntary participation about the embarrassment of the audience member.
  5. Have a specific reason for its inclusion.
  6. Give the audience reason to trust you.
  7. Rehearse it. Rehearse it. Rehearse it.

Mr. Marks? Feel better, there really isn’t a ton of audience participation going on in Modern American Theatre, you just remember every painful time it’s been inflicted on you. I’ll buy you a ticket to Biography if you make the trip. You’ll get to see the fourth wall (and the idea of theatre) forcibly torn down by some Bacchae and you won’t miss it.

You don’t need magic eyes

I have never been able to see those stupid magic eye images…

Y’know these things:

Never. Not once. Not then. Not now.

“Oh but Travis that’s nothing, that’s a parlor trick, it doesn’t mean anything.” Which is of course indisputably true. But back in their day they were everywhere. Those slots in malls that are selling Twilight posters right now? Or Avatar keychains or Inception dreamcatchers… they were selling Magic Eye posters, keychains, tissue boxes, books, calendars, mouse pads, oven mitts I mean they really were omnipresent.

Maybe you don’t know how foolish being beaten by an illusion you fundamentally understand is. I’m a pretty smart fella and this stupid optical illusion defeated me. I hated it. HATED IT. When you’re smart and snarky (before snarky was even a word) and 18 and you hate something, even something stupid and inanimate, you mock the hell out of it.

This is art.

A more versed human than I would look at this and be able to tell you influences on the painter, and skill level, and objective quality. They could give you facts and context. I can tell you that I like the colours and I like the texture in the spring green spackle.

Most audiences won’t even give you that. They don’t want to appear ignorant.

People have been trained (and are being trained better every day) that if you aren’t an expert in a field that you need to shut up or you’re going to be smacked down by someone else who either is an expert or is loud enough to cloud the issue until you run away. Artists and near-artist experts work so hard to prove how smart they are that they have brow beaten audiences into critical passivity.

Audiences dislike anything that they feel like they may not “get”, and they refuse to believe that they did in fact get it, or how little it matters that they “get it right”. People hate feeling stupid.

So instead of deriding their taste when they go see something that won’t insult them why don’t we meet them halfway? Save your dramaturgy for folks who will appreciate it (email me!) and give a scene after the show. Don’t continue hogging the spotlight, draw out of the audience that remains in your lobby what they saw, what they liked or didn’t. Help them feel comfortable talking about it. We complain vigilantly about the about the dreaded “how did you learn all those lines?” but we hesitate to help give our audiences any more critical vocabulary than they came in with. Be teachers. I understand that you’re tired. But this is a job, not Pretty Polly’s Tea Party.

The North American population has been mainlining short and medium form storytelling since they were infants. They know a ton about it, they just don’t think that they do. Show them that they don’t need magic eyes to see your art and you’re halfway to making a fan out of them. 

This is Our Town

I am something of an Austin theatre scene booster. I haven’t been at all shy about that. I am rightfully proud of the raw amount of theatre (and art in general) that goes on in a town that has a population only about 30% of Brooklyn’s’. One of my criticisms of the scene is the lack of a regional theatre to anchor the identity of the region and serve as an importer/exporter to the nexus of American theatre. There is justreally no place to grow to.

Of course that’s also a strength in what is a D-I-Y town, do your thing and make it on your own.

It also means that there isn’t a Big Boy in town to root against. There isn’t a Giant in town that is sucking the air out of the room for the indies. There are two larger theatres that pay better, but they’re really just older successful versions of what everyone in town is doing. One a little less adventurous and one a bit more, but how do you root against the theater that sits in the big boy seat and has as it’s “In Trouble Need to Make Money” season:

The Break-Up Notebook
Fiction written and directed by Steven Dietz
The Book of Grace written and directed by Suzan-Lori Parks
August: Osage County
and the yearly Santaland Diaries

Yeah. That’s a tough life. Absolutely there are commercial choices, but they have salaries to pay. And there are commercial choices and there are COMMERCIAL choices.

Way to go Zach! thank you for challenging yourselves every year.



Just Take Those Old Records Off the Shelf

It’s been 6 months already so the theatre blogs and the #2amt (2am Theatre) kids on Twitter are bashing around labeling of theatre again. It’s one of rashes that theatre bloggers seem to have that flare up pretty consistently. I’ve talked about this before here and there are links over at 2amtheatre.com and at The Next Stage and more if you search the #2amt tag on Twitter. It makes Don Hall’s head pound just to listen to us talk about it, which is it’s own reward but not why we do it.

Why do we do it?

Why do we talk about getting more people in to see our work, their work, anyone’s work? Even in those icky business clichés that drive all the true artists/punks to want to slit their digital writs?

Because we love this.
We love this out of all proportion.
We love this more than we really should.
At some point in our lives live performance hooked into us and never let go.

And we spend our free time creating it, talking about it, talking about talking about it, writing about talking about it, hanging out with other people who create it, write about it , talk about it, write about people talking about creating it…

My wife has two degrees in this and she would really like me to go back to being hooked on baseball sometimes.

And most people just don’t seem to care. They care more about jai alai than live theatre. This field has become a cliché on both ends of the spectrum (the garish Broadway musical and the warehouse performance artists) and those of us in between just can’t get people in the doors.

And we know that it’s because someone somewhere lost them, and that if we can get them in the door one more time we can keep them. That they will be as hooked on this as we are. But we messed up somewhere and lost them to something someone told them was newer and better. Frankly, we suck at language for a largely text based art form. Republicans never would have let this happen to their art form.

Even old and musty doesn’t need to be a terrible thing. The masks and Red Curtain can still be wonderful, and theatre in general is just as vital as it’s ever been. But we talk about it like half-drunk epileptic docents, and THAT is what this discussion is about.

We don’t have the words for what we do that make it easy for anyone else to understand why we love it, and the time for that ineffability being enough is long since passed.

Records, vinyl records, are an outdated medium that has no technical advantages over the technologies that followed it, it lacks portability, it lacks purity, and it lacks permanence.

And for a whole bunch of folks it is the only way to Really Listen to music because those imperfections lend a certain warmth of tone that perfect FLAC files and $20 ear buds just don’t capture.

But theatre makers manage to make analog sound like a thesis instead of a privilege and I’m going to keep mucking around in the language bin until I get the words right for what it is that I do.

Walking the Talk

There is a guideline/rule/rubric/something I heard this one time about never responding to your critics. Or maybe it was never respond to your critics publically or some such…

I’m mostly well behaved about such things.

But I want to point anyone who knows the formentors of rebellion who sic their fans and subscribers on someone who doesn’t like a show to what a grown up response looks like.

Mr. Don Hall and his 5-Ring WNEP production The (edward) Hopper Project have gone before the review stand and while you might assume that you can guess Mr. Hall’s stance, would it really be Don Hall if you could?

No it would not.

So if you would please take a look at Mr. Hall’s dialogue with the critics after each review, rather what I would like to believe the bar would be like after the show.

And if you know someone at the Huntington feel free to point them there as well.

Fences and Walls

I wrote a glorious, witty, self-serving piece about the need for big tent tolerance in both religion and theatre.

Oh my god it was bad. As Treplev says in the the Nina Variations (by Steven Dietz – buy now), “Nothing makes an audience run from the room faster then the phrase, ‘I had a dream…’, except perhaps for this phrase, ‘When I was a young boy…’”

You need my personal history like you need a panel of rabies shots.

The summary line of that post was: Some people like musicals, light comedy, Sarah Kane, Shakespeare, and improv. Stop complaining that X Style/Production is Killing theatre.

It’s not.
You just think it’s stupid.
They mean different things.

Let’s push things forward

That all rattling in my head: religion, and theatre, and the resilience of both remind me of when I was a young boy…

All right I wasn’t, I was like 25 but whatever.

I had one of those Discussions. The kind of Discussion that for me only happens on the Beach or at Diners (or in this case both) about Humankind’s desperate need to define and label and create boundaries for themselves. I belong to this fraction of this fraction of this fraction of the group of people who live in this city/state/country and this is what that Means. We create as small a niche for ourselves in this limitless universe as we can to keep ourselves sane.

Then from the beginning of time we created stories to explain why we were in those niches. Oh we love stories.

And religion gave birth to theatre, and campfires gave way to the public square (of whatever size) to the airwaves but the stories and our need for them never change.

It occurs to me that the reliance of religion on narrative is exactly why there is no significant Right Wing Theatre. Religion fills the narrative needs of bulk of American Conservatives. In many instances with higher budgets and better production values than Off-Wherever Indie theatre.

And for those who aren’t looking for personal but rather group narrative we have the political and athletics realms.


Theatre isn’t going to ever die.
SYSTEMS die. Not forms.
The narratives we weave, and the reflections of ourselves that we crave will never go disappear.

We need to stop reacting out of anger and fear at every turn.
We’re storytellers. On the stage, at the pub, by the campfire, in our living rooms, we will continue to be storytellers.

I’m not saying there aren’t challenges. But the challenges aren’t TO THE VERY FABRIC OF THEATRE ITSELF. The challenges are (in my case) producing the theatre I want to in the style I want to without risking my own money. In many cases it’s a challenge to Have a Career in Theatre. Or to Make Money at This.

Those are real challenges and deserve talking about. But choose your words. How you define your challenges becomes the walls of your world. Make it personal.
Which is exactly what your success will be when you achieve it.

What is your Challenge?

On the walls of the day
In the shade of the sun
We wrote down
Another vision of us
We are the challengers of
The unknown

Challengers – The New Pornographers


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.


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.

Critics and I revisited

In response to my earlier post on the artist/critic relationship and a brief email exchange after his review of Orestes on Austinist.com freelance writer  Dan Solomon wrote a very thoughtful reply which I think deserves to be featured better and had been lost to the dark matter of the interwebs:

And I quote:

The guiding principle behind my work as a reviewer is that I owe the theatermakers only fairness – I don’t owe them kindness (though it’s rarely fair to be unkind, in life as in criticism) and I don’t owe them support or encouragement or anything else. I owe the readers honesty.

As a critic, I’m a representative of the theater-going audience. (How large a sample I represent, I’ve no idea.) I have to be honest because I’m representing people who aren’t given the same platform I am and I need to do that as accurately as possible. I also owe them honesty because some of them, at least, are trusting that my opinion is worth considering when planning how to invest their time and ticket money, and that trust needs to be repaid.

The responsibility to the artists is a little bit trickier. Fairness is a double-edged sword. With Orestes, and other shows like it, I try to walk the line by focusing only on saying things in print that I’d be comfortable saying to your faces. I read every review I write aloud and try to imagine that I’m saying it to the director of the show – who, often these days (and more so in the future, I’m sure) is someone I know personally. (And probably like. Music criticism’s much easier, as those dudes are d-bags.*) That’s part one of being fair. The other part is trying to actively consider what the goals of the theatermakers are. And they vary. It’s unfair to hold an initial run of an original play that’s being tested out at a new works festival to the same standard that I held Touch. It’s unfair to consider an intentionally-slight, improv-based comedy show in the same context as The Method Gun, or to expect that they’ll be attempting to reach that level.

And the flip-side to that is that it’s unfair to hold a play like Orestes, made by theatermakers who take their work very seriously and intend to be doing work that’s meant to compete with world-class, professional theater, to a standard that isn’t exacting. There have been plays I liked less, and that I thought were less good, objectively speaking, than Orestes, and which I gave more positive reviews to. Because Austin’s theater scene is still relatively small, and not everyone in it as the intention of making big-boy theater, as you put it in that email. Work that’s intended to make a handful of paying audience members, most of whom are the performers’ friends, giggle, succeeds by accomplishing a lot less onstage. Work that’s essentially a dry run of new material succeeds by showing promise. A finished product like Orestes succeeds when it’s as good as the work being done by any company anywhere in the world. Even the greatest companies in the world come up short on that some of the time. (Ask me sometime about some of the crap I saw at Steppenwolf when I lived in Chicago, or the nonsense the National in London tried to pass off in 2007-2008.)

Dan Solomon