Sunday, January 29, 2012

some thoughts post-Othello Project

Nothing like laying around in bed until noon (actually closer to 1:00) the day after an opening. That was my Saturday, followed by a ‘Six Feet Under’ marathon and finally reaching the Acceptance phase with my pet cold--I shall name him Iago. He has been threatening doom this past week, whispering in my ear of betrayal as the stress of tech week loomed.

Acceptance that one is sick is something one cannot abide during tech week--I usually stick with Anger and Denial. Deny, deflect, and apply Emerg-N-Cee powders internally and externally as needed. (Rubbing orange powder all over my face and forehead, paying special attention to the sinuses? Why not. Might work. I shall weep tangerine tears all week.)

Of course the sad thing about this opening weekend for this phase of ‘The Othello Project’ is that it is also closing weekend. One night only, for this incarnation of the show, which is somewhat frustrating and feels like a triumph in the same breath in which it is a bit of a let-down. But of course this is only Phase One, so there is more to come. And it is my first time working with the wonderful people of Visionbox--a nascent theatre ensemble and studio--but hopefully not the last.

The project is the brainchild of Visionbox founder Jennifer McCray Rincon, and the piece we put on was just the bare-bones version of what will eventually be the first act of the completed project. As Jennifer points out, Bill Pullman’s similar (but not similar at all) multi-media project on which she worked took over five years to develop from a thirty-minute staged reading piece into a full-blown three-hour, fully-performed event.

So it’s all good, and it’s really good to be on board at this stage of the project, because I can see it developing into something amazing. In this incarnation of the piece, Jennifer has inter-cut scenes from Othello with pieces from Simone de Beauvoir’s writings on gender, as well as some truly harrowing scenes taken from police interviews and court transcripts documenting a convicted murderer’s account of the stalking, rape and brutal slaughter of his ex-wife.

We had a house of maybe 80-100 people, and I definitely heard some laughter in certain spots, as well as sniffles and uncomfortable shifting around during the recounting of the murder. Also, with an audience--as always--the performances took on an extra heightened urgency; some parts of the Othello text were ‘en fuego,’ as they say.

It has been a great group to work with, and I look forward to working with Visionbox again. Jennifer is trying to set up a true ensemble, a group of people who work together on various projects, readings and shows, as well as in classes and doing studio work together, something I have never been a part of.

And which is sadly lacking in the area. Aside from Buntport and LIDA, as far as I know, there aren’t any true ensembles who put together original work--and I don’t think either of them have studio-type classes and workshops for actors. (I do NOT count any of the various improv groups. Generally speaking, calling improv groups and their performances ‘theatre’ is akin to referring to Applebee’s as ‘fine cuisine.’)

One big problem with the way things are done in most smaller to mid-level houses in the Denver/Fort Collins area is that actors are treated as the lowest life-form in the theatre biosphere. We come in for auditions, wide-eyed and hopeful, grateful for any scrap we are tossed, just happy to be cast. And if we are cast, we are brought in as freelance cowboy gunslingers from show to show, expected to devote and donate weeks and weeks and hundreds of hours of our time to put up a show that benefits only the theatre. You may be helping to ‘build a brand,’ in terms of helping a given theatre and director put on a quality show and build an audience, but once the show closes, you get...what? The opportunity to audition again? To go straight to callbacks? To again work for nothing? You as the actor are not truly part of the theatre, not their success nor their failure.

(SIDEBAR: I grant that there is invaluable learning that one absorbs working on any show; that is where I got the bulk of my theatre education, working on shows. But there comes a breakover point where being expected to essentially pay for an education in the form of time and effort is no longer a bargain for the actor.)

After a show closes, we are tossed aside--once we’ve helped with strike, of course--then left in the cold until the next round of auditions, having been sent on our way with a check that usually pays us something on the order of 25 to 50 cents an hour, including time spent rehearsing and learning lines on our own outside of rehearsals.

And of course, we are referred to as ‘family.’

Which is great, don’t get me wrong, and not unappreciated--the family part, that is. But the 'family' designation is also a bit disingenuous; one is 'family' only as long as the show is up. And the truth is it isn’t a sustainable model, not if the true intent is to create not only quality shows, but also a real family, a solid, core group of talented people who will and do and are capable of coming together and putting up consistent, quality shows. If you only pay directors, and costumers, and set designers and administrators anything even remotely approaching what their time is truly worth, then what are you left with?

You are left with actors who are expected to work for nothing.

And of course there is a place for free, unpaid theatre. People can only learn so much from college theatre productions. And I’m not suggesting I or anyone else should or could get rich doing theatre.

But think about this: at the next level, something above community theatre, somewhere where you charge people two or three times the price of a movie ticket to see your shows, why on god’s green earth would you put in all that time and careful effort, spend all that money on sets, design, direction, publicity, and administration--not to mention rent, lights, and insurance--and then completely neglect one of the main pieces of what it takes to put on a truly great show? You’re going to cheap out on the people who are actually going to PERFORM? Why would you scrimp on the last line of contact between your theatre and your audience?

It is insanity.

Because I can tell you from experience, you get what you pay for. Oh, sure, you can get some wonderful performers and performances out of people who will work for nothing. You can and often do. But not always. And not consistently, and never across the board.

So what’s the result? You end up with a board of directors sitting around bitching about how they never get the respect and coverage the larger theatres get. Well, if every other show you put up is great, top-quality and all that, you should be very proud. But if every other show you put up is amateurish because you are using, well, amateurs, because you are too cheap to pay for quality actors, then you have no one but yourself to blame.

And by the way, the money spent on the people who harangue and harass and beg the public for money through email and phone calls and pre-show announcements? Who organize an endless, ongoing string of fundraisers using donated items and donated talent and yet more donated time? You might not have to work so hard at that part if you put up consistent, quality shows. If that were the case, people might be coming to you and offering to help in whatever way they could.

What invariably happens is theatres of this size become temporary lily pads for quality actors who are not only talented but also devoted to doing the work necessary to get better. These smaller theatres chase these actors away, eventually, through not only a paucity of pay, but also through a lack of investment in actors in the form of making them a part of a company, not just treating them as hired guns.

Instead, the theatre must go back to the tedious annual ritual of weeding through the awfulness of open auditions to find the odd unpolished gem on whose back they can ride for a season or two, before he or she too bails out for greener climes.

Hint. At auditions you are not the one holding the leash.

(SIDEBAR 2: I fear I say all this at risk of sounding like an ingrate. Understand: I love and adore many, many people and theatres I’ve worked with. I am not angry, nor am I resentful. I am in fact enormously grateful for the gifts I have been given by people I’ve worked with, as well as those gifts I have discovered within myself through the efforts of people of the theatre and through working on shows. I merely wish to point out that the accepted way of doing things is askew; it’s very weird and twisted when you think about it. And we never look at it as such, we just accept it. Maybe it’s time to think about another way of looking at things.)

If you want to play with the big boys, pay like the big boys. Or at least start approaching the problem from a different and more equitable direction. Treat your actors like something more than meat props, as something easily replaced by the next warm body that comes along that stands at a similar height, has the requisite genitalia, and can remember more than two lines of dialogue at a time while not breathing through his or her mouth. Because the current model does a disservice to everyone: to your actors, your theatre, and your audience alike.

If we can agree that quality and depth and breadth of support for a given theatre is directly related to the quality of the performances they put on, then it follows that said theatres should do whatever they have to do to ensure they get the best performances possible.

We all know you get what you pay for. If you spend all your money on administration and set design, don’t be surprised if that is what you end up with: administrators standing before lovely sets begging half-empty houses for more money on top of the overpriced ticket they just bought to the half-assed show/debacle they are about to witness.

For you will have no one of quality to perform, and your audience will go home disappointed.

Make an investment in your actors. Make them part of something larger than the next show coming down the pike, and I guarantee they will make an investment in you. As will your grateful audiences.

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