Archive for February, 2009

Ragtime at the Astoria Performing Arts Center

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , on February 23, 2009 by travsd

apacragtimeimage

New York is a city of such abundance that you can clatter out to the farthest reaches of the W line, to a church auditorium in Astoria, and discover to your bewilderment a massive local production of a Broadway musical, with a cast of 25 extremely polished singers, dancers and actors; staged with panache and intelligence; and delivered with 105% energy. There’s a lot of joy in this production of a rather serious musical (which was adapted directly from the E.L. Doctorow novel, not the movie). But it’s not the stupid kind of joy, the superficial kind that misses the whole point of the play its supposed t be serving. No, the necessary gravity is there in Coalhouse Walker’s (D. William Hughes) almost divinely ordained rampage…but it is all the more enhanced by the lightness in his step as he when he first beholds his own illegitimate baby. The entire production is like that, tempting the critic to give big credit to director Tom Wojtunik. But then, he wasn’t working with potted plants either. The producers did an awfully good job of casting this ambitious undertaking…out here, so close to the Arctic Circle .

Too bad for you — it just closed! But you can learn more about the Astoria Performing Arts Center at http://www.apacny.org.

VIRTUES AND VICES OF THE KALEIDOSCOPIC TREADMILL

Posted in Indie Theatre, ME with tags , , , , on February 17, 2009 by travsd

ed-wood

In the Tim Burton film Ed Wood there is a scene – wholly fictional – in which the title character, the world’s worst film director, sits in a bar having a heavy conversation with Orson Welles, the world’s best. What’s odd about the pairing is how easy it easy it to associate the two men – categorically — in the mind. Sure, the differences are obvious. Wood was a naïf, whose ignorance of the laws of dialogue and cinematic grammar combine with an obsession for the lurid and outlandish to create a kind of unintentionally humorous folk art. Welles, by contrast, was an erudite world traveler, well-versed in every art form; he combined his knowledge from all these areas to reinvent cinema, after having conquered the theatre and radio. Yet both men were possessed of strong, highly idiosyncratic visions which they pursued farther and farther into the fringes of Hollywood. When Hollywood turned its back on them, they proceeded undaunted, making films on shoestrings, piecing together financing in pitifully small, hard-won lumps.

Why was it so hard for them to get their films made? They were individuals. Their works were the product of a single imagination. Whereas, almost from the beginning, Hollywood has been about group-think, rule by committee, audience testing, and a multi-layered approval process. The product overall is generally pleasant, entertaining, diverting. In a word, mediocre. Brilliance and ineptitude are equally rare in the industry. The spectrum of quality consists of a fat band in the middle and two skinny ones on the sides. Wood and Welles stand at the extremes of that spectrum, like tempestuous poles on an otherwise Edenic planet. Ah, the poles. Who but a reckless and arrogant madman — a Shackleton, a Scott — would be drawn there?

For years now, I have been associated with a sort of loose theatrical stock company. Interestingly, this company has no formal existence. It is actually comprised of several micro-companies, many of which are “companies” only in the megalamaniacal imaginations of their founders, since they technically each consist of only one or two members. The loose confederation of these micro-companies, the mother company, if you will, adds up to the real company, which, like the Hydra, has many heads.

Like I say, it is informal. There was no moment of foundation. It has no name. There is no paperwork to verify its existence. While it is strongly associated with a certain venue, (as it was strongly associated with another one before that), many of its members just as often work at other theatres. And the membership itself is fluid. No one can say who is “in” or “out”. It has evolved organically over time, its members drawn together by a mysterious force, just as gravity once pulled together random bits of matter to make the solar system. Likewise, it has organized itself spontaneously, the various members taking on particular tasks according to their natural gifts. Onstage, the company is represented by various useful “types”, whose appearances are anticipated by a devoted (if small) audience from performance to performance.

Many different glues bind the group together: mutual admiration, shared interests, a consonance of professional and artistic philosophies. Among the thousand connecting capillaries I do note one that is particularly robust and perhaps unique. Our organizational model and working methods seem less derived from examples drawn from the arts or even from the professional theatre than from low budget commercial cinema.

By observing this, I do not mean merely (though it is often true) that we draw our inspiration for our content from movies. Certainly we have done productions that are literal adaptations of films, or ones that simply ape the aesethetics of film and television, and others that are parodies of, or homages to, or smash-ups of genres. While we may be vastly more expert at these types of sprees than most, such outings are neither exclusive to us, nor represent our own exclusive interests. We all periodically return to our various high-brow wellsprings, almost to “keep a hand in”, as it were.

What I find more significant and unique among the group is a tendency to emulate the production methods of cinema—especially the low budget cinema. A very no-nonsense, results-oriented approach: a landscape defined by hitting one’s mark, delivering the right line reading, classical Hollywood triangulated lighting, the building of soundtracks out of pop songs and stock FX, and the staging of plausible fist fights and gunshots. There is the embrace of the sensational, of course. Not unrelated to these qualities is the sheer volume of product, a number of productions delivered in such profusion, with such turnover, that the phrase “assembly line” would not be unjust.

The obsession with cinema as subject matter requires no explanation. It has been the most important art form and cultural force in the world for the better part of a century. Yet this group is far, far beyond campy, dilettantish “film buff” dabbling, the sort of thing that has been common in the theatre for close to 50 years. More remarkably, the key players in the group are all either trained film-makers and/or encyclopedic film scholars. The cinematic skills and knowledge represented here are significant – certainly significant enough to actually make some films, which we only occasionally do.

And yet we make theatre. Why? I suspect (and I can only speak for myself) it is some combination of A) convenience, and B) a certain romantic tradition that links the two art forms.

The convenience part is easy to explain. As hard as it is to make theatre, even at the bargain basement level, its apparatus is accessible. While few of us are given to rolling around the floor in leotards, there is one important message we have taken away from Grotowski: people and space are all you really need to make theatre. Cameras and editing facilities have traditionally been expensive investments. On the other hand, you can produce theatre out of thin air. Like stone soup, I have made shows happen when I was so broke that even food, the rent and subway fare were a struggle. On one occasion, when some unexpected New York Times publicity was actually pulling in audiences to my vaudeville show, the only performers who showed up were myself, a clarinet player, and my crazy friend who does ventriloquism with a towel. Somehow we made a show happen. I’ve gotten to where I don’t even need the ventriloquist or the clarinet player. It’s part of the ethic of trouping. I don’t claim that the results always (or perhaps ever) satisfy an audience, only that there’s something to be said for soldiering on. In the bleakest moments, I always remember that quote from Beckett: “I can’t go on…I’ll go on.” This is where we can look at someone like Ed Wood and see the virtue. (The vices of Woodism are obvious; we’ll get to them.)

From Welles I think we take the notion that true excellence is only possible with a proper grounding. As actor and director, Welles had conquered theatre first, then radio, then film. On the side, he knew about art, literature and music, and he even did magic tricks. The payoff of all that experience was in the richness of his films. Welles represents an older tradition, the stock company tradition. The operative word: tradition. There is the very old school idea that the real trouper must pay his dues by doing it all. At least once in every actor’s career he should have the experience of ripping tickets, sweeping the stage, serving as propmaster, running lights or sound, and on and on. Just as a decent painter knows how to stretch a canvas and mix his own pigments from raw materials, the theatre artist should be intimately familiar with the entire apparatus of the stage. Not for us this Adam Smith-derived concept of specialization: arm-chair playwrights and masturbatory Method actors. When I first met one of my favorite actresses in our little set she was the costumier. Only later did I learn of her myriad other abilities.

One very good reason for embracing this tradition: prior to the advent of cinema, the theatre WAS the cinema. I don’t just mean the well-known fact that audiences attended live theatre several times a week before movies, radio and television displaced it. I mean the PRODUCT that they saw was the direct aesthetic ancestor of Hollywood cinema. The melodramatic formula remains intact to this day. This is not to say that certain directors of art cinema didn’t and don’t ape documentary techniques, or don’t derive inspiration from dance, music or visual art. But on the whole, as a social phenomenon, storytelling in film and television – even silent film – evolved from the formulae of the stage.

A common strategy for dealing with that fact since the early twentieth century has been to attempt to discover what unique properties the theatre possesses that differentiate it from movies. Direct address, improvisation, the alienation effect, street theatre, and movement theatre are all attempts to do that. Another strategy for revitalizing theatre has been to make it mimic cinematic technique: e.g., the scene fragments and time shifts of expressionism, and the increasingly popular use of projected video. Both of these techniques may be said to be modernist gestures. They are part of that 20th century mania to find “new forms”. They regard the techniques of the past as an embarrassment; it is “horse-and-buggy”. But artistic movements work cyclically. From where I stand, ALL of these forms represent the past. Not having been part of those earlier eras, I have no baggage about 19th century melodrama. On the contrary, it shares so much with the movies and television I have been steeped in my entire life that it speaks to me directly and without irony. On the other, the experimental techniques of the twentieth century don’t strike me as being new or vital or daring or any number of those other virtues they were once reputed to possess. They are merely techniques: some of them valuable, some of them as antiquated as the melodrama. As I have said, many of us still do experimental work. But we do it much as many of us love to do radio work, or variety, or movement, or film. It is simply part of being the holistic theatre artist. It is one of the tricks we do, it is not the whole magilla. Like Welles, we tell ourselves, we can do it all.

But I sometimes wonder if ours isn’t like the delusional gentility of Blanche DuBois. Yes, our work is unsullied (or, if you prefer, unprettied) by the hated “producer” (I picture him with product in his hair, the sleeves of his suit jacket pushed back). Constantly working in this manner may make us stronger, but only in the way that “whatever doesn’t kill you” can. With independence, comes compromises. The Show Must Go On, and it does, but often with all sorts of amazing limitations. Actors who never meet each other until opening night…hand puppets filling uncast parts …shows going up with only 2 or 3 rehearsals…shows with no sets. All of these and more have made it before audiences of paying customers, in hopes that the production’s virtues (usually some combination of great writing, direction and/or lighting) will offset the minor – and always unavoidable — drawbacks. Our visions are the battered slaves to the cruel exigencies of the ticking clock and the empty wallet. There are many in the field, after all, who would rather make no work at all than work this way. Personally, I have nothing but contempt for someone who would let ANYTHING stop them from creating art, even imperfect art, and nothing but admiration for the rather insane productivity of my friends (in the case of my own work, let us replace “admiration for” with “satisfaction with”). How often have I paraphrased William Jennings Bryan in the confines of my Messianic interior monologue: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of professionalism!” I detest the American Idol mentality. I’d rather make community theatre with two dozen decent human beings than submit to the herd-like aesthetic Fascism that governs mainstream show business. And yet —

Theatre, like all art, as a form of communication, is a two part equation. The other factor, one sometimes neglected I fear by this method of working, is the expectations of the audience. Not our own audience (which knows the drill) but the wider one – some of whom, after all, we occasionally admit we would like to attract. The virgin eye has been known to look at all this hard work of ours and see more of Wood than Welles. A successful producer friend once cut me to the quick with a remark along the lines of “Oh, yes, you do all those cheap, awful shows” – as though one means to make those awful compromises that fate has supposedly imposed. One doesn’t set out to make cheap, awful shows. One sets out to make shows. If the resources aren’t in place it’s either “Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!” or Reconnoiter, and Live to Fight Another Day. There may be virtue in the former, but on the other hand, reputation is like napalm. It both burns and sticks. Now: I have presented work at Joe’s Pub, a fairly respectable gig. I once directed a play of mine at HERE Arts Center which featured an incredible set – the entire side of an exploded ocean liner – which had been designed at a professional scene shop and hauled to the theatre in a trailer truck. But my producer friend hadn’t seen those productions — and the audience only knows what it sees. Reputation, reputation.

As traditionalists, as showmen, we resist those words “process” and “workshop” and laboratory”. Ultimately, though, I do think that is what we are generally about when we present compromised work. If the visions we have in our head are still unrealized, then the work we are presenting is unfinished. We would be serving ourselves and our audience far better if we were to admit it and articulate it when it is the case. Either that, or resolve to discipline ourselves to get off treadmill from time to time, to produce less frequently, only with adequate resources, and to only present our finest finished work to a paying public. In uttering these speculative heresies, I of course employ the Royal “We.” These sentiments are among my New Year’s Resolutions, broken annually.

Everything from Nothing

Posted in BUNKUM, Indie Theatre, ME with tags , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2009 by travsd
Company of American Vaudeville Theatre, Todo Con Nada, 1999

Company of American Vaudeville Theatre, Todo Con Nada, 1999

I ran into an important figure from my past a few months back. I can’t refer to him as a friend, for we never were that; let us call him a very dear colleague. Indeed, I’ve long thought of him as the Father of All I Hold Dear in Indie Theatre, or as we called it in those days, “Off-Off Broadway”. So delighted and surprised was I to see this individual on this recent occasion that I actually used those words in greeting him: “Hey, It’s the Father of All I Hold Dear!”

The remark produced snickers. (Too often is my earnestness mistaken for irony; it often got me my ears boxed as a child. This is how comedy is born.) Yet it was true. The person I greeted is flawed, no doubt, but so much of what I value, so much of what I am able to do, so much of what and whom I choose to surround myself with, would be impossible without his existence that I can’t help but think of him as the progenitor (if a partially unwitting one) of it all. Old friends already know who I’m talking about: it’s Aaron Beall.

It’s easy to recall the history of the Lower East Side theatre Beall founded in the late 1980s, Todo Con Nada. The reason it’s easy is because it was recited to the audience in every curtain speech before every production. Aaron, like many of us who grew up around him, saw himself in the great American entrepreneurial tradition. The word “entrepreneur” initially came from the theatre; only later was the word applied to other enterprises. In this sense, the entrepreneur is an impresario. The Adam of the type is P.T. Barnum. In this tradition, the self-mythologizing begins BEFORE the course of action is even undertaken. Hence Nada was “legendary” from the beginning. As with Hercules, Paul Bunyon, Gargantua, Romulus and Remus, Superman, and Jesus of Nazareth –the myth began in the crib.

Aaron had actually gone and done something many of us had dreamed of but never dared. He’d rented a storefront and started his own theatre — on a credit card advance. As far as I know he was aided by no grants, no backers, no inheritance, no bank loan, no nest egg. He risked all. Blind, stupid, reckless, arrogant, breathtaking, glorious faith in himself. Art and entrepreneurship are metaphysical gambits. You stake your very existence on your enterprise. You need, and you ask, no one’s permission. Despite what common sense tells you, despite what friends, advisors, “professionals”, “experts”, tell you, you simply know. One believes in oneself – despite all evidence to the contrary — or one ceases to exist.

The business model on which Aaron created his theatre – though age-old — was radical at the time. No fund-raising was done. As a professional fund-raiser for many years, I can tell you: don’t bother. For the first few years, it’s pointless anyway, and it takes up a great deal of your time. Furthermore (and this is a subject I shall likely return to), there is no such thing as a free lunch. Grant money comes with just as many stifling “strings attached” as the backing of commercial investors does. It’s out of the frying pan, into the fire. (Had enough clichéd metaphors?) Instead, Aaron had used the same technique as the one I had envisioned when at the age of six, in emulation of the Little Rascals, I wanted to have a puppet show in our basement: simply open the door and sell tickets. Rent a storefront; present attraction; open door; sell tickets. Barnum started this way, Keith and Albee started this way, this methodology goes back for centuries and centuries.

Did folks in the original Off-Off Broadway do it, too? Some, no doubt. But there’s an important difference of philosophical orientation. In rebelling against commercialism, the sixties radicals, also tended, overtly or by implication, to reject capitalism. Inspired by Grotowski and so forth, they initiated a Poor Theatre. They often did shows outdoors, did them for free, or passed the hat. The money part was a necessary evil, but an evil.

By contrast, though the product at Nada was every bit as non-commercial, challenging, and strange, Aaron would have made money by it if he could. He called himself an entrepreneur, an impresario. Where the hippies had merely been anarchists, he was an anarcho-capitalist. He would have built an empire—and he briefly did, expanding into a modest Lower East Side chain that included House of Candles, the Piano Store, and Nada Classic  (an ironic but eloquent reference to the Pause that Refreshes). He’d been one of the founders of the New York International Fringe Festival. When he split off to start his own ill-fated splinter fest, he named it Pure Pop. Pop – as in Popular and Populist. He had ambitions. And when the Lower East Side situation crashed for him, he went right into the heart of the beast; the last iteration of his enterprise was in a porn theatre in the Times Square area, the very front porch of Broadway.

But Aaron was a visionary, not a businessman. Empires such as he was attempting are usually partnerships between evangelical nutcases like himself and bean-counters. For the beans must be counted. They must be jealously guarded, sometimes planted, occasionally traded, but they can’t just be tossed around like Mardi Gras beads. When he launched Pure Pop he’d won my confidence by telling me he was going to John Jay College and learning how to write a business plan. He then lost that confidence when he boasted that he was in the midst of cranking out 40 business plans. It is an extremely difficult thing to write ONE good business plan. There’s no possible way to write 40 unless you have some army of monkish accountant-scribes grinding away at it for months on end in some business-hatching cave someplace. My confidence was further eroded when Aaron blithely announced that he’d quit the classes at John Jay, having learned everything he needed to know.

But—

I come not to bury Caesar, but to praise him. (More details on the Nada saga can be found in my Village Voice encomium at http://www.villagevoice.com/2003-03-04/news/exit-stage-lower-east-side/) I vouchsafe to say that Aaron’s example inspired numerous other venues created along the same model, and scores or hundreds of theatre companies.Thousands of artists plied their trade there.

Of course, similar statistics can be trotted out about many theatres. Here is where I begin to get partial to me and my own. I’m going to speak now about the sort of indie theatre that speaks to me, and I believe, to the pack I run with. It is the indiest of indie theatre, the kind that is independent to a fault.

I’m Scotch-Irish; contrariness is in my bones. My father was a hillbilly from the Smoky Mountain region; my ancestors fought genuine feuds, and ran revenuers off their property with shootin’ irons. My paternal grandmother was one of these hill folk. Once, when a cousin reached down to help her pick up a shawl she’d dropped, she smacked his hand down with her cane. No one’s gonna he’p me if I kin he’p it! I like crazy, perverse individualists. Frankly, I don’t exactly know how to talk to anyone else. I love show biz but hate the phonies who generally spread their legs there. Nada (and places like it that sprang up subsequently) were havens for “square peg” artists like me.

When I came to NYC in the late 1980s I had very definite, very eccentric ideas about the sort of theatre I wanted to make. (In subsequent posts, as part of this series, I’ll talk about a bunch of those ideas—for laughs). Essentially, the core of my belief was, and is, a desire to create a theatre that could be poetic, metaphysical, satirical and a little experimental – but still appeal to a mass audience. In other words, it would mix the best elements of the “art theatre” with the populist instincts of the commercial. “Our Becketts must write Las Vegas lounge acts!” I proclaimed, somehow without a shred of embarrassment. Gradually, I think this dream is slowly coming true, and there are large numbers of artists who share something like my vision. But 20 years ago and more when I first arrived there were few places for someone like me to go. It was the age of the Culture Wars. All the cutting edge work was identity-based and autobiographical. Without a contact in the world, I sent my plays blindly out to theatres, and occasionally self-produced my work at places like the Sanford Meisner over on 11th Avenue, and the old Village Gate (now known as the Village Theatre).

Having heard about Nada and seen a couple of shows there, I’d sent plays there as well. But no one ever answered my queries. It’s easy to imagine why, when you have a little experience under your belt. This is New York. Even a rat-infested storefront theatre like Nada receives enough scripts to fill a Volkswagen. Without a proper game plan, playwrights might as well mail in sections of the telephone book. (No doubt, some avant-garde playwright has.) At any rate, it wasn’t until 1996 that I worked up enough gumption to actually approach Aaron after some show and just do the pitch orally. And I was in. That was all it took. I’d already been doing theatre in the city – quite ineffectually – for eight years.

Fresh from my stint as a fund-raiser at Big Apple Circus, I’d recently started my own company Mountebanks, which would present my plays, vaudeville shows, odd exhibitions, performance pieces, and a ‘zine. All of these it would accomplish. I’d labored for the first half of the nineties on a 70-page manifesto and founding document; in 1995, I mailed it out to 200 friends and family members seeking their support. (I bumped into one of these on the subway not long after, an old school friend I hadn’t seen in years. “I got your thing in the mail,” he said, “You know what? You’re nuts!” Then he bolted for his train. I haven’t seen him since, although I did Google him recently. I rejoice to observe that today he remains relatively unaccomplished and obscure, and, furthermore, is now bald.)

While my eventual hope was to have my own physical venue from which to produce all that work, that was not fated to be. Funds trickled in, in three digit denominations, and never did grow beyond that. I was to be itinerant, hopping between venues. I was natural fodder for Nada.

My show, the American Vaudeville Theatre and New American Lyceum, was booked on Mondays, opposite a play by Kirk Wood Bromley, who was also doing his first production there. I also met for the first time Ian W. Hill, who had just started there as kind of theatre manager.

For the next couple of years I made Surf Reality, over on Allen Street, my base of operations, but came back to Nada in 1999 and worked there very frequently over the next couple of years with the likes of Ian, Frank Cwiklik and Michele Schlossberg, Bryan Enk and Christiaan Koop, Matt Grey, etc.  Art Wallace, like Ian, was one of the space managers. Other close and frequent collaborators, Jeff Lewoncyck and Hope Cartelli, I met at the Present Company in about 2000.

I mention these names in particular (to the exclusion of others, many dear and worthy friends) because I believe our work (and our work ethic) shares similar characteristics. It is the work I know best, it is my sort of work, and so it is what I will champion. Logic, not hubris. (Those Greeks had a word for everything).

What some of those characteristics may be is the subject of the next post in this series. Also to come: some relics from our first show at Nada in August, 1996.

%d bloggers like this: