Letters to Holly

Friday, October 10

Ten Ways to Save Local Theatre

Still nothing from the student yet. Your Sis made pumpkin soup with chicken. The yoga ball killed me dead.

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I found this article via The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly. I'll add my comments.
Ten Things Theaters Need to Do Right Now to Save Themselves
In No Particular Order
By Brendan Kiley

1. Enough with the goddamned Shakespeare already. The greatest playwright in history has become your enabler and your crutch, the man you call when you're timid and out of ideas. It's time for a five-year moratorium—no more high schoolers pecking at Romeo and Juliet, no more NEA funding for Shakespeare in the heartland, and no more fringe companies trying to ennoble themselves with Hamlet. (Or with anything. Fringe theater shouldn't be in the game of ennobling, it should be in the game of debasement.) Stretch yourself. Live a little. Find new, good, weird plays nobody has heard of. Teach your audiences to want surprises, not pacifiers.

[What I say: It comes up later, but "new, good, weird plays nobody has heard of" sell fewer tickets. I'm in favor of layered pricing: The name shows charge full-price, and the new shows offer a discount tickets. Make it less of a gamble for the audience. I'm in favor of doing Shakespeare if the following measures are taken:

a) no one uses an English accent
b) modern staging
c) exploit the humor]

2. Tell us something we don't know. Every play in your season should be a premiere—a world premiere, an American premiere, or at least a regional premiere. Everybody has to help. Directors: Find a new play to help develop in the next 12 months.
Actors: Ditto.
Playwrights: Quit developing your plays into the ground with workshop after workshop after workshop—get them out there.
Critics: Reward theaters that risk new work by making a special effort to review them.
Unions, especially Actors' Equity: You are a problem. Fringe theaters are the research-and-development wing of the theater world, the place where new work happens—but most of them can't afford to go union, so union actors are stuck in the regional theaters, which are skittish about new work and early-career playwrights. You must break this deadlock by giving a pass to union actors to work in nonunion houses, if they are working on new plays.

[What I say: To my local theatre's credit, they premiere two new plays a year -- a one-act and a full-length play]

3. Produce dirty, fast, and often. Fringe theaters: Recall that 20 years ago, in 1988, a fringe company called Annex produced 27 plays, 16 of them world premieres—and hang your heads in shame. This season, Annex will produce 10 plays, 4 of them world premieres, which is still pretty good. Washington Ensemble Theatre will only produce three plays, one of them a world premiere. (An adaptation of... Shakespeare!) What else happened in 1988? Nirvana began recording Bleach—and played a concert at Annex Theatre. By the next year, Nirvana was on their first world tour. The lesson: Produce enough new plays and Kurt Cobain will come back from the grave and play your theater.

[What I say:I'm in favor of occasional staged readings. Less rehearsal time, fewer props, casual atmosphere, and an intense focus on the story. The closer to a radio play you can get, the better.]

4. Get them young. Seattle playwright Paul Mullin said it best in an e-mail last week: "Bring in people under 60. Do whatever it takes. If you have to break your theater to get young butts in seats, then do it. Because if you don't, your theater's already broke—the snapping sound just hasn't reached your ears yet."

[What I say: I suggest performing scenes in schools and libraries and street festivals. Leave the theatre and go into the community.]

5.Offer child care. Sunday school is the most successful guerrilla education program in American history. Steal it. People with young children should be able to show up and drop their kids off with some young actors in a rehearsal room for two hours of theater games. The benefits: First, it will be easier to convince the nouveau riche (many of whom have young children) to commit to season tickets. Second, it will satisfy your education mission (and will be more fun, and therefore more effective, for the kids). Third, it will teach children to go to the theater regularly. And they'll look forward to the day they graduate to sitting with the grown-ups. Getting dragged to the theater will shift from punishment to reward.

[What I say: I like this. It removes screaming children from the audience.]

6. Fight for real estate. In 1999, musician Neko Case broke up with Seattle, leaving us for Chicago. (It still hurts, Neko.) When asked why in an interview, she explained, "Chicago is a lot friendlier, especially toward its artists. Seattle is very unfriendly toward artists. There's no artists' housing—they really like to use the arts community, but they don't like to put anything back into the arts community." Our failure abides. Push government for cheap artists' housing and hook up with CODAC, a committee that wants developers on Capitol Hill—and, eventually, everywhere—to build affordable arts spaces into their new condos. (CODAC's tools of persuasion: tax, zoning, and business incentives.) Development smothers artists, who can't afford the rising property values that they—by turning cheap neighborhoods into trendy arts districts—helped create.

[What I say:We had to do it, and it's a shame the county won't help out to establish a public performing arts center.The local college's venue is the domain of the college exclusively.]

7. Build bars. Alcohol is the only liquid on earth that functions as both lubricant and bonding agent. Exploit it. Treat your plays like parties and your audience like guests. Encourage them to come early, drink lots, and stay late. Even the meanest fringe company can afford a tub full of ice and beer, and the state of regional- theater bars is deplorable: long lines, overpriced drinks, and a famine of comfortable chairs. Theaters try to "build community" with postplay talkbacks and lectures and other versions of you've spent two hours watching my play, now look at me some more! You want community? Give people a place to sit, something to talk about (the play they just saw), and a bottle. As a gesture of hospitality, offer people who want to quit at intermission a free drink, so they can wait for their companions who are watching act two. Just take care of people. They get drinks, you get money, everybody wins. Tax, zoning, and liquor laws in your way? Change them or ignore them. Do what it takes.

[What I say: The local theatres do offer wine during intermission.]

8. Boors' night out. You know what else builds community? Audience participation, on the audience's terms. For one performance of each show, invite the crowd to behave like an Elizabethan or vaudeville audience: Sell cheap tickets, serve popcorn, encourage people to boo, heckle, and shout out their favorite lines. ("Stella!") The sucky, facile Rocky Horror Picture Show only survives because it's the only play people are encouraged to mess with. Steal the gimmick.

[What I say: The loyal audiences are too old to hear when only the actors are speaking. But I like the idea of actors breaking character to give asides to a reactive audience and then stepping back into the play.]

9. Expect poverty. Theater is a drowning man, and its unions—in their current state—are anvils disguised as life preservers. Theater might drown without its unions, but it will certainly drown with them. And actors have to jettison the living-wage argument. Nobody deserves a living wage for having talent and a mountain of grad-school debt. Sorry.

[What I say: The unions are in Asheville, and they are smaller than the community companies. Only Flat Rock can compare to the county theatres.]

10. Drop out of graduate school. Most of you students in MFA programs don't belong there—your two or three years would be more profitable, financially and artistically, out in the world, making theater. Drama departments are staffed by has-beens and never-weres, artists who might be able to tell you something worthwhile about the past, but not about the present, and certainly not about the future. Historians excepted—art historians are great. If things don't turn around, they may be the only ones left.

[What I say: I'd rather work with an actor with some formal training than a diva with bad instincts.]

Picture of the Day
Kabul, Afghanistan.

Thursday, October 9

Rain Running

So, yes, despite a daylong downpour, I wanted to keep my schedule. I suited up and ran for what became 46 minutes, the longest I've run without a treadmill. Maybe I'm water-cooled model. It felt great. I let my shoulders swing with the stride, and it staved off my rib aches. I think I may have found the runner's plateau that allows ridiculous distances like half- and full marathons. I hopped over gutter streams. I swerved around puddles, I wrung out my shirt every few minutes. It hasn't felt this easy to run for a long time, and again, I normally can't run for so long at one time.

I didn't hear from the student yesterday, and I may have spooked his teacher when I described all the hoops the kid may have to jump through. Not hoops of my construction, mind you. If someone wants to make a logo that has to be approved by someone else, they will face heartbreaking frustration. The other person may toss them feedback like "make it nicer" or "I don't like it, but I don't know why." The lack of critical thinking will crush your soul. I want to prepare him for that so it doesn't discourage him.

Picture of the Day
I know my phone works. Why, oh why, won't he call?

Wednesday, October 8

A New Project Perhaps

Your Sis pulled me over as I got home yesterday to ask if I would mentor a student. The seniors have to present an extracurricular project in their last year of school. This guy wants to make a logo from scratch for his church and use it for "branding," a marketing term for establishing the logo on brochures, shirts, cards, etc. He knows a little Photoshop, and he wants to learn Illustrator and InDesign. He had a mentor, but she bailed because of schedule problems, and he approached Your Sis about me. Some students know I do this professionally.

I have some questions about the project and his scope, but it's something I can certainly help with. I talked to his teacher and gave my phone number to pass along. Students who take on such a project go into the community to find a mentor. They can get guild-type skills, sometimes while earning a paycheck. Now, I have no chores to give him. But I can teach him how to create multiple logo suggestions and set up the other documents. He supposedly wants to print the documents at home, but he needs to learn how to prepare material for a print shop.

I'm waiting for him to call me and ask nicely. I know his teachers; I assume this gives me an advantage in helping him.

Picture of the Day
I thought the debate was a draw. If this was a title fight (with Obama as the champion of state and national polls), he would have retained on points. McCain tried a few stunt-punches (specifically the bit about fining employees for not providing healthcare) but didn't land a haymaker. They exchanged jabs as the debate calcified into statistical gainsaying. Obama continues to have an aggressive foreign-policy voice, and Mccain tends to fall on rhetoric when discussing the economy (his admitted weaness).

Neither man went for low blows on acquaintances and preachers, but McCain will need to swing for the fences if he's going to overtake Obama in the polls.

Tuesday, October 7

Running From Illness

Your Sis is recovered and back at school today. I'm also feeling much better; I credit the run last night. I have three weeks before the next 5k, and I mean to keep my schedule. I ran for 35 minutes. That's almost the speed of my slowest 5k. After running for time this week, I plan to target a 5k distance next week. I've noticed the running is much easier lately. I like to think my new coffee diet has something to do with that. Also, it's much cooler outside.

The campaign has turned ugly again as McCain and Palin assert that Obama has ties to domestic terrorists. The left-wing talkers fired back with Palin's husband's connections to a secessionist movement in Alaska. Also another old ghost has emerged: Trig. According to some outlets, there is no record of the newest Palin's birth at her local hospital. The rumor has long-simmered that Trig is not her child but one of her young daughters'. Also, there are no pregnant Palin photos.

McCain has nothing to lose by going ugly. The latest round up of polls show McCain leading only two state polls and in no national polls. As it stands now, the vote would be a blow-out. It makes for an interesting table-setting for tonight's debate. We will not miss this.

Picture of the Day
Looking out a space station porthole.

Monday, October 6

Are You Not Entertained?

We got back home about 3 Sunday afternoon. The drive back was fine and included a quick stop for McDonald's and gasoline. Not together; that would be yucky. We four split a bottle of sparkling red wine, and the in-laws shuffled out to Asheville. Your Sis and I, bedraggled as can be, hit the grocery store and got Starbucks. A pub dinner followed, and she decreed she wanted to watch a DVD. She picked Glaidator, which she had never seen.

It was the subject of a simmering argument with my comic gang. They hailed it, and I shrugged it off as a popcorn movie. It remains so. The script is crap. Great actors and director. Joaquin Phoenix stole that movie outright. Poopy story. And it seems to borrow heavily from a major storyline in the WWF from the late '90s. Just sayin'.

Your Sis is staying home from work today with continued exhaustion, and I have a sore throat. The babies may have infected us ...

Picture of the Day
But, as we all know, it's better to look good than to feel good.