Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Long Road Ahead

Fifteen months ago, a great friend asked me what I'd be doing if I could do anything I wanted. I told him I wanted to be assistant directing a show and writing reviews for TimeOut Chicago. Check. Check.

So fifteen months from now I'd like to be able to pay the rent. Kidding. Kidding.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Stare

When you have a handlebar mustache, you quickly come to accept a certain amount of staring. This could be unsettling, I imagine, but it can't be surprising. I have in fact, found it a great boost in confidence to be able to attribute any sideways glance, any uneasy interaction to the presence of an absurd hirsute appendage on my upper lip.

But always I end up cutting it. And then, that confidence is gone and the unsettling power of the stranger's stare is redoubled with my armor gone. I wonder if my fly is down, or my hair is crazy, or why my plain face would merit even a sideways glance.

Onstage, we are over-easy with staring. In real life the slightest glance is powerful and strange. You can feel it without knowing it. People don't stare at each other in an unmarked way. A flirting couple on the street will look in each others' eyes for mere seconds in ten minutes of conversation. Onstage this whole scene would easily be done without the actors ever breaking their gaze.

There are a few reasons why we might indulge in this eye-contact so frequently. First, actors look at each other like skydivers or trapeze artists look at each other: there's a lot on the line and they need to know their partner is on the same page. Second, I wonder if there's something in replicating the gaze that the actors' are feeling from the audience. Perhaps in a room where fifty people are staring at you, it feels less strange to stare at someone else, and directing your focus in this over-concentrated way helps distract you from the stares you are receiving. Lastly, and most likely, we have been intending to exploit the power of the stare as a means to heighten the action onstage, but, by overdoing it, it's become a genre-marker rather than a site for increased meaning. Let's reclaim the power of looking onstage by using it less and using it purposefully.

The Mammals

The newest Full Storefrontal is up, this one focusing on another company interested in horror, The Mammals. Hopefully a worthy article for a cool company.

Friday, October 23, 2009

This is All True

Nice post about "attracting young audiences" here (Hat Tip: Jack Tamburri). Everything he says is also true, of course, of any demographic group. The biggest marketing decision your company makes is what shows it produces, everything after that is advertising. There's a difference.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Conducting and Directing

It’s my impression that a lot of the newest ideas about directing theater come from dance and a kind of choreographer’s aesthetic and book of tricks. A lot of good has come from this and I have a lot of respect for much of the dramatically visual work onstage today. I want to offer an addition, not because I think it will be revolutionary or in an attempt to replace any work that exists now, but to complicate our relationship with the strange and nebulous function of the theater director.

To get to it: I suggest the analogy of the Orchestra Conductor. The job of the director is to guide the disparate instruments into a complete work. Could an excellent orchestra play without a conductor? Of course, and so could a bad one. But art is not economics, and though the violinist can do what’s best for her, and the timpanist what’s best for him, this might not be the best for the music.

The genius of Bop is the squeak of the saxophone. Suddenly, this sound that was an unfortunate accident of the construction of a given instrument – something to be avoided as it didn’t exist in any other instrument – was seen for what it is: an inherent aspect of that instrument, an opportunity to exploit, a virtue. This was Brecht’s genius too. Suddenly the false teleology toward naturalism was called into question. We don’t need to pretend a stage is not a stage, that actors aren’t actors. Let them be entirely exactly what they are.

We say an actor’s body is his instrument, but we’ve not, I think, really realized how accurate this term is, and we’ve failed to extend this term to its most necessary point. An enterprising conductor, under constraints of budget or time or by virtue of a grand idea, can assign written parts to different instruments. Casting is the finding of the instruments to play parts. And, importantly, every actor is a different instrument. The Leading Man, The Ingénue. These have value like Treble and Bass. But whether it will be a cello or an oboe, these are the more interesting questions.

The effects of this analogy are not complicated. First: an end to the infantilization of actors. They are not clay to be shaped, models to be positioned, but artists. The conductor is an example of another guide of performers who each entirely inhabit their own creative space. Second, and this is the key point really: the choreographer in dance is the playwright for theater. Directors who behave like choreographers are forgetting that much of this job has already been done. The conductor interprets the music – even in a drastic way—but doesn’t feel a need to re-write Beethoven’s Fifth every time he does it. Let’s lean into the facts of the trade and exploit its inherent challenges and liberties.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Opening Night

Tonight's the press opening for The New Colony's Calls to Blood that I assistant directed. I'm looking forward to seeing it officially on its feet and I'm really curious to see how it's received. The role of assistant director is sort of strange, because despite being there every night for rehearsal, I have essentially zero accountability for the show. Can you imagine a review mentioning the assistant director? Or a person walking out of a show saying to her companion, "The show was great, but it was so poorly assistant-directed!"

Nevertheless, I enjoy the job, even though in my experience it's never actually the same job twice, and I learned a good deal from the experience. Tonight's sold out, but you can buy tickets here, and check out the e-playbill here.

I'll be leading some talk-backs later in the run, so I hope to see you there. Cross your fingers tonight.


Check out the new Full Storefrontal on WildClaw Theatre. I'm hoping to snag another horror company for October too. And for November, does any theater company only do plays about pilgrims? Oh! The Crucible...Interesting...interesting...

Also, WildClaw has the most significant number of Twitter Followers I've ever seen for a Chicago Theater company. Cool, right?

Thursday, October 8, 2009


On Monday night, my friends at The Plagiarists invited me to their new show American Stage Sessions (A.S.S.) at The Viaduct. It's a really fun show, peppered with the kind of joyously low-fi stage magic that should be synonymous with Storefront Theater (wait for the scene in the desert).

Switching gears, the premise is a failing regional theater holds a telethon to raise money, hosted by its artistic director and a TV Star who cut his teeth with the company. In between, the kids from the company perform scenes from incredibly important (and utterly fictional) playwrights.

In the press materials, director Steve Wilson wonders if the show is too insider-y. If it can appeal to the man off the street. This is, I think, an admirable concern, but I wonder if it's necessary. I mean, in general. Would someone come who wouldn't have access to laugh at a kind of über-pretentious love-child of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill? The weird truth is, I hope so, but I'm not sure. And then, is the show still funny? I think so, but I don't know. The Plagiarists' concern is, I think, something for THE THEATER to ponder. But I'm not sure it's fair or necessary for The Plagiarists to worry about it tonight.

More, certainly, to come.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Why I Think Court Theatre is So Smart

Court Theatre has a special place in my heart. One reason worth getting out of the way is that it's in Hyde Park, where in my experience a boy, if he's trying very hard, can become a man.

More importantly, they have made two decisions which, combined, are the smartest acts of self-awareness and future-building that I've ever seen an established arts organization undertake.

1) Their firm commitment to African American theater. As a purveyor of "classic plays" by their own branding, their reliable inclusion of the classics of African American playwrights proves they're not using "classic" to mean by dead white men, but to mean "really good." The right choice. Also, let's be honest, Chicago is still a segregated city and the Court is the most prominent theater as far on the South Side as it is. Actively including plays by African American authors is an honest representation of its community - something we're always claiming theater can do without knowing how to do it.

2) Their use of the MCA. Again, as a South Side theater, the Court may feel a million miles away from a lot of the tiny storefronts peppering the North Side. By doing shows at the MCA they trim away a possible excuse for audiences to not see what the Court has to offer, banking on the fact that when people see a Court show, they'll want to see more. Also the MCA just has amazing programming and becoming a part of that was an insanely good idea. We're talking about a company that HAS A SPACE. How many theater companies in Chicago spend their whole sputtering existences dreaming of a space? The Court has one, and still takes up residence somewhere else when the opportunity is great. That's thinking big.

I've teased Court productions before, and I'll do it again. My admiration of their big ideas won't cloud my reception of an individual piece. But what I think we can really learn from the Court is how important it is, as a theater, to know: who you are, who you're talking to, who you want to be, and who you want to talk to. What these two decisions really come down to is inclusion. Inclusion in an artistic way - diversifying the canon, experimenting with space - and inclusion in an institutional way - actively seeking new audiences. The unification of these creative and administrative goals is what, hopefully, can keep the arts in business.