When Is Niche Theater Too Niche?

January 15, 2010 by  

New York theater producer Michael Roderick, wrote a four-part blog series on the concept of iTheatre. He compares an individual indie theater company to an iPhone app:

Consider if you will, that each company is an app. You can find a theatre company that does work inside of swimming pools, a company that only does shows that involve food, or a company that does classical text inside of boxes on the street with homeless people as extras. Yes, this is a bit over the top, but not as much as one would think. As a result of this the iTheatre has the exact same strength and weakness as an iPhone. The strength is in the fact that you as the theatre consumer can find any theatre you want. If you want a show where someone will grind with you in the aisles, “there’s a show for that”, but that’s one company or show out of dozens of choices on any given night. Now look at the weakness, when presented with the thousands of companies that are out there, the consumer becomes overwhelmed and either chooses not to do anything or allows someone else to make the choice for them. Often the loudest choice will win.

The main thrust of his series is the desire for New York producers to unite in creating a system that allows the theater customers the best opportunity to find out about all the niche indie theater “apps” so that audience members can choose the production and theater company that connects to what they want.

2010 can be a season of, “Oh? I never heard of that” or it can be a season of “Oh you like Kung fu and Charles Dickens?” “There’s a show for that”

A very popular niche theater in New York right now is Vampire Cowboys. “Vampire Cowboys is an award-winning ‘geek theatre’ company that creates and produces new works of theatre based in action/adventure and dark comedy with a comic book aesthetic.” I have not had a chance to see one of their shows, but I think this is actually pretty cool, but as one that enjoys stage combat, I am in their target market. While being niche, I think they have enough dynamics (stage combat, comics, original work) to appeal to a broad enough audience that the work becomes sustainable. They are not just another company doing Shakespeare, Miller, etc. They are also doing something that is not being done, which creates scarcity.

Many theaters try to do too much to reach as many different audience members as possible and create seasons that include a musical, Shakespeare, American classic and one new work (or variations of the sort). While in one way this might make sense, current information shows that it is not working. What ends up happening is the average audience member goes to the one or two shows they know they would like. Or theater companies commit to producing only one genre (Shakespeare/classical, all musicals, etc.), but then that model becomes unsustainable because there are many theaters doing the same thing.

With niche theater like VC, the audience still knows that they will always get some sort of combination of stage combat, comics, and original work in every show. This consistency creates a specific core audience, and a few people who come to every show to check it out, who either enter into the core group, or move on because it’s not their niche.

When is niche theater too niche? How big of an audience is out there (even in New York) for plays that deal with Kung Fu and Charles Dickens? But when does it become too much about just one thing? Does niche theater work outside of major metropolitan areas? The first thing comes to mind is the Shaw Festival, and there niche of only producing work during the late 1800s-early 1900s. Could there be a niche not based around genre, but other concepts? Can a regional theater’s niche be that they hire one artist a year as their resident, but it changes each year. If any resident artist is hired for the season, it is usually a playwright, but can that artist change every year to include directors, designers and actors? In the obvious issues that are being brought to light in Outrageous Fortune, and as theaters continue to re-think their structure to survive, how will the niche mindset play out?

Image by Allison McCarthy via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

True Community Theater?

December 25, 2009 by  

Given the reputation as one who is possibly more tenacious than The Prof about the necessity to make artists part of a community, I could not pass up reflecting on Tom Loughlin’s post about the 2008 NEA survey. Loughlin’s reflection/passion reminds me of a need for what Cornerstone Theater Company did between 1986-1991. According to their website, they created twelve musical productions in ten states. These shows were epic interactions between classic plays and specific American communities: Moliere’s disintegrating and combative families in the Kansas farmland, Shakespeare’s civil strife in the streets of Mississippi, and Aeschylus’ ancient rituals on a modern Native American reservation.

“With each of the 13 communities that Cornerstone visited, one of their goals was to leave behind a group of local people, experienced in how to do theater and infused with the love and understanding of “community theater”. The community residents involved with Peer Gynt formed Stage East upon Cornerstone’s departure. Beginning with their first performance of Play Boy of the Western World in the fall of 1990, Stage East has provided a wide range of theater, three and four productions every year, involving audiences and young people and adults both on and back stage, in the creativity and excitement of the theater experience.” (Stage East Bio, Picture from production of Peer Gynt)

During graduate school, my Applied Theater class watched a documentary on Cornerstone’s work during that time and it has stuck with me. Due in part to the cast being a mix of professional actors from Cornerstone and the community members, it was even more of an incentive to attend the production as the audience wanted to see their fellow community members, but also the productions were speaking to the issues within the specific community. The power of communal storytelling created a “reality that people who don’t go to the theatre really, truly don’t want [wanted] to go to the theatre”. I have been wondering if what Cornerstone did could be replicated over twenty years later. Is there enough artists out there who would be willing? What would such a project look like now? Does it have to be a traveling company? Can the same work be done within the community in which the theater practitioners live or are the theater artists minds focused on the gigs that will get them to NY/LA/Chicago? I am concerned that if the mindset/work of theater practitioners continue to focus on those reflected in the NEA study, true community theater will be lost.

Below is a paragraph from Loughlin’s post. There is no summary I can give that would give this post justice. All I can do is to implore you to read it.

Hopefully by pointing all this out I have given the theatre world a holiday gift it can truly appreciate – the assuaging of their guilt. Once you fully understand the reality that people who don’t go to the theatre really, truly don’t want to go to the theatre, you can then stop feeling guilty about declining attendance, lack of diversity, class inequities and the like. After all, don’t you really want to produce theatre for those who want to be there, and can afford to be there? Isn’t that what counts? Isn’t that where the road to your professional success truly lies? You don’t really want the American public in your theatres, do you? Why, that might mean getting theatre out into America, and having more artists live out in America, and meet everyday Americans of all sorts of backgrounds and income levels and ethnic backgrounds and political persuasions – and what an inconvenience that would be! I mean, you just can’t get a good bagel and a smear out there!What’s all the fuss about? (Or why the NEA study shows how successful we are!)

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Support Gorilla Rep’s Independent Film of Macbeth

October 4, 2009 by  

I am signed on to play Banquo in Gorillia Rep‘s film production of Macbeth. Click the image below to read more about how you can support the film.

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SAFD SPT Broadsword and Shield

September 1, 2009 by  

I received a recommended pass for the skills proficiency test in broadsword and shield through the Society of American Fight Directors. My instructor was Joseph Travers from Swordplay and the test was adjudicated by Fight Master J. Allen Suddeth. The video above is from our rehearsal just before the test.

UPDATE: My AMAZING partner was Renee Rodriguez, who is also artistic director of the Curious Frog Theater Company. Go see their Romeo and Juliet playing Sundays till Sept. 20th.

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Shakespeare Handbook

December 20, 2008 by  

I created a Shakespeare Handbook as part of my final project for my Shakespeare I class. It can be used as an aid for teachers, students and artists. There is a list of group exercises we did with the Youth Ensemble, as well as observations, play analysis and dramaturgy. There is also a journal where I recorded my thoughts observations about each class session and our rehearsal process for our class presentation. I will continue to blog next semester during the Shakespeare II class.

Theaters To Do List

October 10, 2008 by  

Brendan Kiley wrote an article for Seattle’s The Stranger entitled Ten Things Theaters Need to Do Right Now to Save Themselves: In No Particular Order. Below is the top ten with my reactions. Th article focuses on the fringe as the main type of theater that should implement these changes. What do you thing?

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.

Goes big right off the bat. I am torn by this one as I both agree and disagree. I am sure we have all seen one too many shows of Midsummers or Romeo and Juliet. But when Shakespeare is done well it is it amazing. There are also so many students every year that see a production and then are turned on to the work. Maybe we modify this recommendation that we put a cap on the amount of Shakespeare a theater company can do. One show per year?  One every other year?

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.

New works are a must! I love when I see a play that I don’t know and it takes on me on a ride of discovery. I think this can also go for published work as well. Maybe poll the audience of what plays they have seen so a theater knows which ones to avoid.

I think the union/non-union issue is the bigger issue. Just coming back from a theater conference in San Francisco this is a major issue for the actors in the Bay area. Most theaters there are non-union which leaves the union actors with little opportunity to work on new works or anything at all for that matter. There is a 99-seat code in Los Angeles and a workshop code in New York. Why can’t we get a code across the board or at least in all the major theater cities?

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.

I am not 100% sold on producing that many shows in a season. I worked with a theater company in Los Angeles that prided itself on performing two shows in repertory.  I think for the smaller theaters it can stretch its already limited personal and budget. While it might be great for all the actors who want to work, the quality pf the show can suffer, which then effects the perception of the work being done for future shows. Also these artists also have full time jobs and other major responsibilities so while I agree maybe more than three shows per season I think twenty-seven is a bit much.

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.”

I think all theater companies should have some education ties to it. That does not mean that they have this education department that creates a touring show, but they should have a connection with a local English teacher where they can come into the class and present scenes and work with the students. Most kids think Shakespeare is boring until they experience how active the text is and then kids begin to love it. If the kids connect with the visiting actors they will ask the parents to go to that theater. There is you under 60 audience members. Then it is also the theaters responsibility to do work that appeals to both young adults and their parents at the same time. That does not mean you have to produce a fairytale, but you can’t have your whole season be crazy, sexual, avant-guard theater either.

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.

But when you do produce your avant-guard play that is not appropriate for children, in stead of alienating the parents give them the option of childcare so they can still come see the show. Yes, there are legal issues here that will need to be worked out, but it could be well worth it. How many theaters are offering childcare? Imagine if you were the first. You would be the talk of the PTA and the buzz around all the playgrounds. Get those soccer moms to work for you!

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. To get involved with CODAC, e-mail frank.video@seattle.gov.

A definite must. Lean on the government to recognize artists as important and worth the time and money.

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.

Embrace the idea of third space that made Starbucks what it is today. Third space is that place that is not work or home where people come together to talk, socialize and share ideas. The theater is a perfect place to do that. Make the lobby a third space. If that is not an option work with a local bar that you can encourage your audience to attend after the show. Theater is meant to create ideas and dialogue so lets give people that place to have that dialogue.

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.

I am hesitant to agree with this. I think there are some great shows that this can work and if a theater wants to explore melodrama (maybe Greek plays) than this might be suitable. I am not sure beyond that.

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.

When referring to fringe theaters I agree there is no money to be had for any of the artists there. Work done is for the love of the art and to grow as artists. I do not think this comment should apply to the bigger regional theaters.

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.

Interesting comment in light of what I have been writing about the Rutgers MFA acting program. I do think more artists are going into financial debt over education which will catch up to them much like the sub-prime loans and housing bubble. Those artists will have to work more to pay off those debts and that means less time creating art. I think all artists need some education how to live financially simple.  And also be encouraged that doing the work is very important.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival…a decade later

April 13, 2008 by  

It looks like I will be able to visit the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in early May. The last time I was there was my senior year of high school, a decade ago. That still sounds weird. A group from my high school would take yearly trips. I went my sophomore through my senior year and also attended the Summer Seminar for High School Juniors. The seminar was a two week submersion to all things Shakespeare. We took classes and seminars on everything from acting to theater management to costumes and various other responsibilities that go into running a huge theater. We also had the opportunity to see every show that was running. Between my school visit and coming back for the summer I got to see every show they produced that year. Great shows including Death of a Salesman, Blues for an Alabama Sky, King Lear, Rough Crossing and Pentecost.

There will be five shows running for the two days that I will be there: Fences, Coriolanus, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Welcome Home Jenny Sutter, and The Clay Cart.

midsummer play pictureOf that list the only play I have seen is Midsummer and I saw it ten years ago at OSF. From the picture and reading reviews this production is a high energy, sex romp that seems to hit on many decades. Bill Varble of the Mail Tribune says, ” The fairies are the key. They live in and represent an alternative world that exists next to and intermingles with the workaday world of Athens and the Court. If we believe in the fairies, the play’s world comes to life. f the fairies are timeless, the humans are living in a late-’50s-to-early-’80s kind of time. The young lovers — Emily Sophia Knapp as Hermia, Tasso Feldman as Lysander, Christopher Michael Rivera as Demetrius, Kjerstine Anderson as Helena — are as lusty and confused and foolish as ever. f these fools seem to spend most of their time in the dawn of the Reagan years, the Mechanicals are ’60s holdovers, stoners maybe, in over their heads without being over the top. Ray Potter as Bottom finds a balance between amiable befuddlement and simple dignity. This ‘Midsummer’ is a spectacular kickoff of the Bill Rauch era at the festival, and more. It is a revelation.” In true repertory spirit Ray Porter play Puck in the last Midsummers and now he is playing Bottom. I am definitely curious.

fences playFences is another play I am excited to see. I have not been able to see an August Wilson play yet and having read The Piano Lesson I do enjoy his writing. This production, one of the cycle’s two Pulitzer Prize-winners, offers a complex and emotionally wrenching portrait of a man hopelessly bound by duty and outdated values to a life of few rewards. The review at the Ardest Forest Inn website says, “In a riveting performance, Charles Robinson is extraordinary in his portrayal of Troy Maxson, pitting his traditional mind-set against the period’s dramatic social change to maintain firm control over his family. Ultimately, this flawless, stimulating and unforgettable theatrical experience, under Leah C. Gardiner’s honest, sure-handed direction delivers a seamless blend of theatrical elements that’s destined to make a memorable mark in OSF history and should not be missed!”

Welcome Home Jenny Sutter playWelcome Home, Jenny Sutter is directed by Award-winning Chicago director Jessica Thebus and is about U.S. Marine Jenny Sutter returns from Iraq, she lays down her rifle but isn’t ready to pick up her children. Buying some time, Jenny takes a one-way trip to nowhere–a desert community where misfit residents gently nurture her wounded spirit and nudge her back to her own humanity. It is written by Julie Marie Myatt. Varble mentions, “The real antagonists are Jenny’s pain — she’s not only missing a piece of her leg, she keeps a terrible secret — and a world that doesn’t want to hear about it. We like our invasions shocking and awesome, our occupations short and sweet, our wars to be winners. We pass the cost down to our children and move on.

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Hitting the Pavement

January 29, 2008 by  

Life is busy! I was the city three days last week for drop offs, design interviews, auditions, and classes. I have been doing some “strategic” drop offs to casting directors. What is great about New York is I can walk/take the subway and do three or four drop offs in an hour, which would have taken two hours or more in LA. I also had a three hour callback for Romeo & Juliet at the Pax Amicus Castle Theater. It was intense, but fun. The most difficult thing was that it was my first audition. They called me into a callback straight from my headshot, which was nice, but I did feel like the underdog. They went into rehearsal today, and I did not get the call. It was good to work on the skills I am learning from John Basil at the American Globe Conservatory. John is one of the best teachers I have had in a long time and would highly recommend him.

On the web design front I had an interview with fusionlab. I felt the interview went well and the job is a perfect fit for me. Hopefully I will hear from them soon. I have also been interning over at Slideluck Potshow, helping them as they are doing a major update to their website. Things are even getting busier so stay tuned…

I’m back!

January 19, 2008 by  

I have been not in the mindset of blogging of late. Some things in life took a turn and caused me to doubt many things about career choices, life choices, etc. The short of it was that I was dismissed from the MFA acting program at Rutgers. The details are too l long to go into here. If anyone is applying to the program, and comes across this blog, I am willing to give you the details if you email me.

I am back in the professional world and trying to get my barrings. On the day job end I have been applying for entry level web design positions in the city while taking online classes to boost my skills. I have had a couple of interviews and sign up with a couple of creative temp agencies, so hopefully something will stick soon.

As for acting, I am starting to learn NYC and the players there. It is slow going, and there are times I wish I was back in LA where I knew the industry better. I am doing a lot of research, reading blogs from NY actors, sign up with the SAG Foundation for free casting workshops, and submitting for auditions. I recently submitted headshots to all the background casting agents in the city. If I can get three days of extra work then I can join Actor’s Equity, which is key for New York. Most of the theater here is equity where that was not always the case in LA. Three days might not seem like that much, but with the writer’s strike going on, film/tv work is slow to none.

Lastly, I am currently taking a three week Shakespeare Intensive with Jon Basil at the American Globe Theater. I am auditioning for USD, Cal State Fullerton, and the Academy for Classical Acting at the Shakespeare Theater in DC. The class is great and something I recommend if you are looking.

Hamlet Picture from Rehearsal

November 28, 2007 by  

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