Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

FART-ing Around

It’s been a busy week here at the FART. We’re playing host to a large software conference for three days this week on top of our regular slate of shows. This makes for 16-hour work days for many of us, and a whole pile of sleepy for me.

We seem to be booking more and more of these outside gigs. I’m glad that the theater’s making money somewhere, because frankly the shows are struggling right now. I have my own opinions about some of the season choices that management made this year, but in the interest of keeping my job, I’ll keep them to myself. Times are still tough in the arts industry, and I’m not sure they’re ever going to recover completely. There’s been a sea change in how our audience thinks about their entertainment dollar, and I think that cultural institutions have to figure out what that is and adapt to it, or die.

It’s hard for me to think about what theater I would want to attend, since I’m so deeply wedged into the community that it’s difficult for me to discern between stuff I want to see and people I want to see. I feel like I can apply this thought to something that I love but attend much less frequently – the visual arts.

We have several large art museums in the Twin Cities, and quite a few smaller galleries and studio communities. Being a very busy person, I don’t go out to see much art anymore. To me, that time feels like a luxury that I don’t often have, so I treat art like an indulgence. It’s a treat that I save for birthdays, or when it’s the dead of winter and I need a pick-me-up. Because it’s seldom, when I go I want a sure bet most of the time – something that I know I’m going to like. This tends to be a big name touring show – I hit up a Rembrandt exhibit for my birthday, or the Frieda Kahlo I saw with my folks when they were visiting. These kinds of exhibits sell tickets and cost money to get into – maybe $10-$15 each. That’s not a lot of money, but it’s definitely a consideration for why I don’t go more often.

That’s the kind of art-going that I do most frequently – to something with a lot of heavy promotion, something that generates a lot of buzz and everyone has heard of. My art choices are the Christmas Carol and Hamlet of the art world. But sometimes, I’m looking for a little adventure. This is usually a less-planned, more spontaneous type of art-going. I’ll hear about a show from a friend, or I’ll know one of the artists having an opening somewhere. Maybe I’ll see a postcard at the coffee shop or something in the local Alt Weekly will catch my eye and look interesting. I’m pickier about these offerings – it’s either gotta look REALLY cool, or it’s gotta be free. I’m usually willing to take a risk with my time or my money, but not both. These sorts of shows are usually the smaller ones, and I can visit them in an hour or two, rather than giving up a huge chunk of my day.
So what does this teach me about the kind of theater that people want to see? I’m guessing that since I’m not an “art world insider,” my art consumption habits are pretty similar to the average theater-goer’s. I’m mostly looking for something I know I’m going to like, or something I think I should see because it’s Important. My Warhol and Rodin are someone else’s Shakespeare and Shaw. If I’m looking for something a little out of the ordinary, then I’m willing to risk a little, but not a lot. I’ll be looking for a gallery that I feel like I can trust because they’ve shown work that’s consistently appealed to me before. I may jump on a show because the subject or the medium appeals to me. Or maybe I’ll go because I heard a story on the radio or read it in the paper, and I learned about something new and want to see it for myself. Or my favorite – I’ll go to a festival or fair. Maybe 90% of it’ll be blah, but those one or two awesome gems will make it feel worth it.

So what do we learn from this?

1: Some shows will sell themselves. Well-known (but not overdone) pieces will draw an audience from name recognition. An a-list star will do the same. For those shows, all you have to do is make sure that people know about them, set the ticket price, and get the hell out of the way. The only corollary to this point is that if your show is bad, word will get out fast.

2: If you have something less well known or a little weird, education and word of mouth are key. Sometimes that means that the fact that your playwright won an Oscar should get top billing, even if you feel like a whore doing it. Sometimes that means getting the news media interested in the story of your show, or in some aspect of the production. Theaters set their seasons months ahead of time, and they can use that time to educate their audience and raise some excitement. There are lots of ways to do this. Some are obvious and everyone does them – fliers, mailings, emails with info about the production. Some require time and money, but could have a huge payoff. Stage a reading a year ahead of time, to get people interested in the script. Host a lecture on the topic. Run a book club or a meet-up to discuss shows before they start. Use social media to present facts, or detail the rehearsal process, or make a trailer like a movie.

3: The flip side of educating your standard audience on a new topic – find people who love the topic and tell them about the show. Offer amenities (beyond group ticket prices) for hobby clubs. Doing a show about the civil war? Contact re-enactment groups and history departments. Is your main character Galileo? Reach out to astronomy societies and advertise at the local planetarium. If you can get THEM excited about the show, they will help you sell it to others.

4: This is the one that always hurts the worst – be willing to be flexible about ticket prices. If your ticket costs $60, you have to work really hard to make your potential audience $60 worth of enthusiastic. Now, for some shows that will be easy – see point #1. But #2 and 3 will be a harder sell. A non-traditional audience will look at that and balk. They might be more amenable to $40. There’s a tricky cost-benefit analysis to do here, and it’ll take a little bit of strict experimentation to get a good feeling for what the market will bear. This is complicated by two things. The first is that if 15 people are willing to pay $60 in the first week and love the show, they may go out and convince 30 others to go. But if twenty people see it for $40, they could convince 40, 50, or 60 others who wouldn’t consider it at $60 but can do $40. The second is the demoralizing effect that empty seats have on both the actors and the audience. People don’t like to see plays in empty houses, and the actors perform better with big, responsive audiences. It’s a better show for everyone once a certain percentage of the house is filled.

I guess this advice is mostly for the large theaters like the FART. Most of the little companies I deal with already do many of these things. There are so many of them, and they have to work hard to get the butts in the seats and the bills paid. The big theaters are accustomed to a subscription model that guarantees them an audience, and I think that our generation of theater-goers is moving away from making that kind of expensive and long-term commitment. As an institution we have to make them trust us to do good work consistently, and if we can’t deliver on that promise they lose faith, and start being picky about what they’re going to see. It’s time to woo them back – with the quality of the work, the integrity of the theater, thorough and creative educational support, and competitive  pricing. It’s the only way we will survive.

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It’s actually been these past two weeks in tech. Tonight is opening night, and I haven’t been this glad to be out of rehearsal in a while. Remarkably, it’s not because this process was particularly long or arduous, because it wasn’t. Things went smoothly, everyone did their job, and we didn’t work particularly strenuous weeks or anything – week one came in at under 60 hours, which is always nice. No, it’s just that everything else in my life feels like it’s behind the 8-ball.


Our illustrious lighting designer (and my boss).

I shot these pictures toward the end of focus call two weeks ago, before the set was loaded up with props, furniture, etc. I love the starkness of a single light against the bare countertops and the wood floor. I think this show looks great; I can’t really publish full photos of anything for copyright reasons, but I’ll try to snap some detail shots to show you as this run gets underway. It’s set in the Brooklyn loft of a relatively well-to-do couple, and the livability of the space is great. Small, but great. I don’t think I could ever live in NYC; I have too much stuff and need too much space to be comfy in the kind of apartment I could afford. Hell, there would be nowhere to put all my yarn.

The show itself is remarkable. It was nominated for two Tonys when it was on Broadway, and it’s getting a lot of play around the country now that the rights have opened up to regional theaters. The subject is near and dear to my heart – ostensibly, it’s about the relationship changes that the central couple go through, but to me it’s all about journalism.

The play takes place in NY during the Iraq war. Sarah, a photo journalist, has just come home wounded by a roadside bomb. Her long-time partner James settles in to take care of her. He, too, was in Iraq, but came home weeks earlier after a mental breakdown due to PTSD. As the play unfolds, we watch the relationship between Sarah and James morph and change; they pull together and apart as they re-examine what they want out of their lives following Sarah’s brush with death. Despite the extraordinary context, their strains and heartaches are familiar – infidelity, depression, questions of identity, marriage, and children.

Anchoring all these interpersonal dramas is a question of journalistic ethics. A disclosure: my father is an editor and spent many years as a reporter in and around the halls of Washington. Although he was never a war correspondent, a lot of the questions asked in the play apply in broad strokes to everyone working in the news media. It asks what role a journalist is obliged to play – independent observer or activist.  When Sarah is confronted by a dying child, she takes his picture rather than giving first aid or trying to save his life. One of the other characters questions her decision – isn’t that a cruel and cynical way to behave in the face of human tragedy? Sarah argues that it is the job of relief workers to try to save the child; her job is to take the photo, to show the world evidence of what is happening, and to record truth for posterity. The scene leaves Sarah to justify herself to the audience, but neglects to mention what I feel is the most compelling argument in her favor.

I feel for Sarah; she has to believe in what she does in order to face it every day. She says it’s not up to the photographer “to step into the frame and fix things they don’t like,” and because she is a journalist, I think she’s right. We depend on reporters to be impartial, to look without judging, and to tell the facts as they are without analysis. The news media has become the target of so much vituperative criticism in the last decade – gone are the days when the family gathered around the 6 o’clock news after dinner and watched as the nation’s reporters read off the stories of the day. The right and left political machines have both pitted themselves against the fourth estate, accusing it of bias, manipulation, and stupidity. The public has come a long way from calling Walter Cronkite “the most trusted man in America.” There are still institutions doing their best to lay out the facts and let the people decide what they mean, but those are admittedly fewer and farther between. The play portrays Sarah as cold and detached, but I think she has a good handle on why she has put herself into a war zone – it is her duty to report the truth, not to alter it. She knows that if she gets involved, the picture changes.

If we as citizens cannot trust our media to be impartial and honest, we cannot make the decisions we need to make. We can’t elect officials, we can’t push for social justice, we can’t put pressure on the people who make wars to stop the fighting. Countries run by oppressive regimes often hold their power partly by abolishing the freedom of the press – in an open society they would be roundly condemned by other nations, but in secrecy they can commit atrocities. The current situation in Syria, where no journalists have been allowed,  is a perfect example of this – for over a year Bashar al-Assad has been killing his own people, and the response from outside the country has been slow in part because the situation has been unverifiable for so long. The good reporter takes this charge seriously; his is not merely a job but a responsibility.

Whew! If you’ve hung with me this long, thank you. I know this post didn’t really have anything to do with theater, other than the title. That’s how you know a play is good: when it riles up its audience, and asks them to think about things. Tonight is opening night, which means that I’ll be sitting through this one fifty or so more times. I’m looking forward to it. I’m pretty sure it will be unpacking itself for quite a while.

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Oy! There’s been so much to blog about in the last couple of weeks – an impending home repair project and lots of knitting and spinning developments. Instead of doing that, I’ve been sitting in a dark room for the last week, teching a production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever.

I feel a bit like Dante from “Clerks”: I’m not even supposed to be here today. This show is in the thrust theater, a venue I don’t normally spend much time in. It’s been good to spend some time re-acquainting myself with the room and how it works, and figuring out all the stuff that’s currently broken and what I’m supposed to do to work around it. I am, however, in tech three weeks earlier than I had originally planned on. Thankfully, if I’m going to do an extra tech this spring, this is the one to do. Last week was the big push week and it was, in the words of one of my co-workers, downright civilized. I think it worked out to about 55 hours, give or take, which is pretty light for tech. We quit early both of the nights we were scheduled until midnight, and none of the daily rehearsals this week have begun before 2 – practically unheard of. My lighting designer is a total sweetheart, and has already bought me coffee a couple of times. Yesterday, a package full of cookies arrived from his Mom. Everyone is pretty relaxed, and I couldn’t have asked for better circumstances. I’ll be back in tech for Time Stands Still in two weeks, and I know that one’s not going to be nearly so easy, so I’m glad this one has been smooth sailing.

Unfortunately, you can’t really tell how easy tech has been by the state of our house. I’m pretty sure the dirty dishes have been spontaneously multiplying when my back is turned, and every flat surface is covered with a thin grey film of cat hair. Adding to the state of things is the fact that the weather has been gorgeous, and so I want to spend every spare moment outside reveling in the fact that it’s March, 60 degrees, and there’s no snow on the ground. Speaking of which…

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We’re trying to open a gateway to another backstage using the repetitive power of… the Camera!

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I love mornings.

There, I said it. I work nights, I have a fondness for staying up late, I am often at my most creative at the end of the day. My whole life is structured so that I encounter mornings as infrequently as possible. So what the what am I talking about?

I love the mornings where my eyes open at 5 or 6 am on their own, without the help of the cats or the alarm. I love laying in the dark next to R, listening to him breathe, and thinking about the day to come. I like to get up and drink coffee, work on quiet things so as not to wake the boy, and watch the sun come up. This time of day makes me contemplative in a way that early mornings from the other direction do not. When I see 5 am because I’m still awake, I’m usually tired, grumpy, and only there because I have to be. When I see 5 am because I can, it’s a little glimpse into the spirituality of a world that I usually miss out on. Between my natural predilections and my sleeping medications, this doesn’t happen often. It’s always a treat when it does.

Because of the show, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Judy Garland lately – particularly the tragic end of her life. Judy died of a drug overdose in 1969, and it was a long time coming. Looking at the last years of her life, as she grew progressively more and more erratic and slid ever deeper into depression and addiction, it seems inevitable that she would pass either by OD or suicide. She spent her whole life on stage or in front of a camera. From the outside it looks like a charmed existence, with fame coming easily and fortune not all that far behind. We look at the 16-year-old girl in living Technicolor and see poise, grace, talent, and beauty, and think “I wish I could be like her.” What we don’t see is the immense pressure she was under from family, producers, and studio executives always to be perfect; to work harder, longer, and better while being beautiful at the same time. She never believed she was good-looking, and no wonder – the film producers she worked for made her wear prosthetics and caps on her teeth, and frequently dyed her hair to make her more “traditionally pretty.” She was given amphetamines to keep up with the busy production schedules and barbiturates to help her sleep. In this light, it doesn’t seem strange that she ended up depressed, suicidal, insecure, and addicted to alcohol and drugs. What is remarkable is that she kept going for so long.

End of the Rainbow takes place during her last London engagement at the Talk of the Town nightclub in the winter of 1969. Today I’ll leave you with a clip from one of those concerts. The sound quality is sketchy, but the voice is inimitably Judy.

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The End of the Rainbow set as seen from my spot behind the light board.


I spent this week in tech.


For the theatrically minded of my readers, you know what that means. For those of you who aren’t (bless you!), let me ‘splain. No, is too long. Let me sum up.

A play goes through several stages (ha!) before it opens to the public. First, the actors and director sit around a table, talking about the script and learning about the world it takes place in. Then , the actors get on their feet and the ensemble begins to put together what eventually will become the show. After two to four weeks of this (depending on the theater), the show goes into technical rehearsals – and that’s where I get involved.

Different theaters handle this process differently, but all of them do it. It’s the time when the work that the actors and director have been doing in rehearsal meet the work that the designers and technicians have been doing, sometimes for months ahead of time. The actors put on their costumes, pick up their real props, and walk on to the set for the first time. And this is when the lighting team kicks it into overdrive and makes sure that the audience can see what’s happening on stage.

Of course it’s more complicated than that, but you get the basic idea. For a week, we sit in a dark room figuring out how all these disparate pieces fit together. It’s when a play ceases to be about one thing and becomes a conglomeration. Each department does their job so single-mindedly for so long that by the time we get here, it’s a struggle to let go and commit ourselves to the group process – but we do, every time. Art is all about ego, but theater has to be all about letting go of that ego for it to work.

As a lowly technician, I get to be pretty devoid of ego most of the time. I show up, I type like a madwoman on that weird computer for ten or twelve hours, and I go home so I can do it all again the next day. As a stagehand, your job is to sit on your ego as hard as you can in the service of someone else’s vision. And frankly? That’s ok with me, most of the time. I’ve worked on this end of things for about ten years and I’ve learned a lot about myself in that time. I’ve worked on the other end, too – the designer end, the vision end – and both have value.

There’s a certain kind of poetry in sitting back and facilitating the process for someone else. It took me a long time to figure that out. When I started this job as a fresh-out-of-college know-it-all in 2001, I was two things: cocky about my artistic ability, and terrified that someone would figure out that as a technician I was a fraud. In the intervening 10 years, I’ve flipped sides. I’ve worked for some of the great geniuses of American and European lighting design (as I am on this show), and I’ve learned something new each and every show. Sometimes I’ve been able to use those tricks in my own work and sometimes I’ve filed them away for later, but what’s become starkly clear to me is that there is still SO MUCH I have to learn, and so many amazing people to learn it from. At the same time, I’ve pushed and worked and struggled to become a better technician, a better programmer, and a better stagehand. At this point in my career, I think I’ve done pretty well. There’s always more to learn, new things to try, and new technology to get my hands on and tinker with. Still, I’ve developed what I’ll call the Stagehand Soul – the ability to sit with the same show day in and day out for 40, 50, 60, even 90 performances and make each one matter.

There’s a lot to be said on that topic that will wait for another post. My point is that it takes skill and care to work ten- to 14-hour days for two weeks straight creating something, and then relax into doing the same exact thing every day, exactly the same way, for the next six weeks after that. When I describe my job to other people, I tell them that it’s 90% boredom and 10% sheer panic. It’s not quite that stark, but the sentiment is there. It’s about being able to focus all your attention to a pinpoint and hold it there for longer than we humans are naturally inclined to do, and then turn all that intensity off and find a zen state from which to operate for the rest of the run. It’s very primordial in its purest form, very evolutionarily relevant. We undergo stress and engage our fight-or-flight reflexes for a period of time, and then we get to enjoy a period of relaxation. Tech is a bit like running away from a lioness on the veldt – you focus, or you get eaten. But you can’t stay that way forever. Eventually, the gazelle finds a safe place to eat, to drink, to rest. She stays there and gathers her strength, because she knows eventually the lion will come back. Both of those states are essential to the process. They create a normal rhythm that brings us artists into tune with the rest of nature.


Of course, I make all of this far more grandiose than it needs to be. Functionally, we’re all a bunch of kids who have somehow gotten someone to give us money to do what we love. We show up every day because we don’t want to know what the world would be like without someone to tell its stories. Or to tell it stories. We’re grateful to be those people.

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