Making Theater Personal

Two recent posts tie into something I’m extremely interested in: breaking down the weirdly formal atmosphere that accompanies most theater.

I’ve worked front of house quite a bit — taking tickets, working concessions, standing around not doing much of anything (a.k.a. “ushering for a large theater”) — and always went out of my way to engage with the patrons.

I may have picked it up from M, who, when we ushered together, once noticed a woman running in seconds before the doors were about to close and took a moment to smile and say, “It’s okay. You made it.”

You could see the woman make an instant mental shift from her awful commute to “This is a fun night out,” with two seconds’ worth of a genuinely human connection.

As a patron, I find I have two distinct experiences. At the cool little indie theaters, there’s generally a festive atmosphere, a cheap beer, a community of people who know each other, and oftentimes a member of the cast taking tickets, selling drinks and handing out programs.

The play starts and hey, there’s that guy who sold me Two Buck Chuck, and now I’m pulling for him because he seemed like a nice guy and gave me the broken cookie for free.

At the larger institutional theaters, on the other hand, I’m usually the youngest person in the room, surrounded by a bunch of strangers all quietly staring at the closed doors and waiting for them to open — not unlike my experience in the elevator at my grandmother’s nursing home.

That’s why Travis Bedard’s experience at Robert Faires’ one-man Henry V struck a chord:

On arriving at the OffCenter and receiving my complimentary champagne… I was informed that I would be seated. This is odd for our fringe spaces, but what the hell… not my show. I waited. And Robert greeted me and showed me to a seat of his choosing.

On setting out to perform a one man version of Henry V, Mr. Faires wasn’t pacing out back trying to find his inner Dionysus, cramming scene 4, or opening his 4th chakra, he was personally greeting and seating all 60 of his guests.

Did he then run out back to compose himself 10 minutes before curtain? No. He simply stepped on stage, surrounded by 20 of those guests, adjusted his props and began when his lights shifted.

If you want to do plays that “emphasize the liveness of theater,” this is where to start.

Why? Well, Ken Davenport says it’s because we have a “natural instinct to want to interact . . . especially with things put on display. It’s so much of the majority’s curiosity that we have to put up signs telling us not to, when it’s not appropriate or not safe.”

I also went to see a show on Sunday. This show took advantage of our natural curiosity and had actors handing out programs, had the star talking to the audience, and even had a couple of audience members on the stage. And a better time was had by all as a result.

It’s simple, and not ground-breaking, but it works every time. Why? Because it’s part of who we are.

We want to feed the animals.

Look, not every show allows for this kind of stuff. I get that. I can’t imagine helping to sell beer and hand out programs and then flipping a switch and starting to play Hamlet. Then again, I wouldn’t have imagined helping to seat people and then flipping a switch and starting a one-man version of Henry V.

The point is…well, the point is what Travis said:

That, my friends, is what we should strive for in the aura around our storytelling, that personal touch. That will curtail the feeling of entitlement on both sides that enables the behavior that we bitch about at the bar and keeps them from showing up in the first place.


Notice: World Premiere Play From World Premiere Company

hellafreshtheatre_penguin.jpgI’ve seen every play that Sleepwalkers Theatre (SF Weekly’s “Best Theater Company of 2009”) has produced — except one. I was traveling during the premiere of John Rosenberg’s Use Both Hands, a play that was praised as “hilarious” and “gripping” and “one Tim Bauer will kick himself for missing.”

Now Rosenberg has started his own theater company called Hella Fresh Theatre, and tonight is the world premiere of both the company and Rosenberg’s newest play: Jericho Road Improvement Association, a play about “race, law enforcement and east bay celebrity status in Oakland, CA.”

Or, in two sentences, it’s a play about “a veteran police officer determined to change the neighborhood where he fought the Black Panthers 30 years ago.” He buys a bar and slowly befriends a young man he thinks can be the new Bobby Hutton, a 16-year old Black Panther who died in a shoot-out with police.

As befits a theatre company that grew out of Sleepwalkers, beer is $2 and tickets are $10. So you have no excuse and several good reasons to check it out.

Jericho Road Improvement Association by John Rosenberg, from Hella Fresh Theatre at Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason St, San Francisco, through Jun 27. Tickets at

NPR Story About ‘LYDIA’ By Octavio Solis

Just found out Octavio Solis was on NPR a week or two ago:

Director Juliette Carrillo says one of the things that distinguishes Solis’ work is what she calls his “in-your-face emotional rawness.” He’s provocative to the point that some producers are scared off by his work, she says, and by his darkly hilarious subversive streak.

Solis says the literal border between El Paso and Juarez has its own presence in Lydia, but the border is also a metaphor he explores in much of his work.

“That’s so much a part of my fabric now, the way I see things,” he says. “There’s always a threshold one crosses, between dark and light, life and death, between one country and another, between one consciousness and another.”

Listen here (about 6 minutes).

Daisey/Olson Correspondence Continues

The Mike Daisey and Todd Olson correspondence I mentioned earlier continues with a second letter from Olson and second response from Daisey.

It’s a fascinating read, as both Daisey and Olson go deeper into their respective views and clarify some of the comments from the first round. Olson, for example, gives context to one of the paragraphs that caught a lot of people’s attention (including mine), explaining thusly:

And while I’m on the subject of preserving jobs for actors, can I get another thing out of the way…the notion that I disrespect or have contempt for actors. As it happens I just gave an interview around a production that I will be guest directing later this month where I was asked about my “concept” for this particular play. My reply is very like my larger philosophy of the actor’s place within the theatre organization: “a concept is only paper…it is actors that give those ideas life, so they are more than essential. They are the heart and the blood.” Any theatre has but two products: education/community engagement…and the product on stage. THAT’S how important and valued actors are to me personally, and to all of us at ASTC.

Mike, this is an easy one: I’ve directed three to six plays every year for about 20 years; I’m sure there are actors with whom you can speak who can either verify or contradict your knee-jerk conclusion after knowing me for all of…one letter. If I have a regret with my job it’s that I don’t get to spend more time in the rehearsal hall actually making art with actors and writers and designers. You cannot be “shocked” (“SHOCKED!”) that an AD would flippantly make a joke about the Equity cot and then conclude my contempt for those artists without whom nothing I write would get performed, and nothing I want for our audiences would ever take shape. If we ever have the opportunity to work together, I would hope you would see my respect and devotion to the actor and their process immediately.

And Daisey begins to spell out some of his ideas in more detail:

I’d recommend a capital campaign to raise money to create lockboxed endowments to pay for these ensemble artist positions. This insulates your artists against economic shocks, and since they will in time be the backbone of your theater it will help ensure that their salaries don’t get shaved down when times are tough.

The system is similar to endowed chairs at colleges, and development directors everywhere have ample examples and models to use in fundraising and structuring—they don’t currently do this because it isn’t a priority in the American theater. It must be.

You can read the second letter interspersed with Mike Daisey’s comments here, or if you have more time, you can read the letter as a whole first in my comments section and then read Daisey’s response, which might be preferable.

I really hope this conversation continues. It’s an important one.

‘OPPIE’ at Custom Made Theater

I forgot to mention this before I went off on a blissfully calm weekend up in the wine country, followed by a heat wave that is hitting me doubly because I live on the top floor of an un-air-conditioned Edwardian and heat, you may have heard, rises. However…

op.pngOn Thursday, my writer’s group got together to see one of our own star in Carson Kreitzer’s The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Ian Walker plays Oppenheimer himself, and he does a bang-up job of it. He’s a compelling presence onstage, and I’m not just saying that because he said good things about the last thing I brought into group.

The problem with the piece is that it’s essentially a one-man biography show. There are other characters sprinkled around in an attempt to disguise the episodic nature of the story, but none of them are very fully-drawn. The other scientists are pretty much interchangeable, and the women don’t get enough stage time to develop. So the dramatic through-line is difficult in that…there doesn’t seem to be one.

That said, there are some beautiful moments of poetry and language, and some really interesting parts when the biblical character Lilith (played by Jessica Jade Rudholm) confronts Oppenheimer and his guilt. She’s onstage almost the entire time, but whenever she and Oppie are actively dealing with each other, the play really comes alive.

The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Carson Kreitzer, at Custom Made Theater, 965 Mission, San Francisco, EXTENDED through May 2. Tickets at

The Mike Daisey Challenge

For the benefit of us West Coasters just settling in to our computers this morning, here’s what the East Coast blogosphere has been talking about for the last few hours:

Todd Olson from American Stage Theatre Company in Tampa has challenged Mike Daisey (author of How Theatre Failed America, as well as many, many other monologues) to balance his theatre’s budget according to the principles Daisey has been fighting for.

How Theatre Failed America talks about how years of well-intentioned decisions have gradually led to a focus more on institutions than on the art they create. This letter, and Mike Daisey’s response, sums it up perfectly.

If you’re an actor, you might be particularly interested in seeing what Olson thinks of you:

Because of the blood, sweat and tears of my staff (again read, “not actors”) we have nearly doubled our subscriptions and our overall attendance has increased 42%, in large part from young and diverse audiences…. With apologies to AEA, when I read Mike’s scoff that, “It’s not such a bad time to start a career in the theater, provided you don’t want to actually make any theater”, I had an image of going to my development staff and asking them to take a mandatory ten minute break every 80 minutes? Maybe I could supply the Marketing Director with a little cot by his desk? No wait, I’ll tell our Education Director to stop working after she reaches the 34 hour mark else she gets paid overtime. But I digress…

And Daisey’s response:

This anti-artist bigotry is getting virulent—”not actors”? The increase of your subscriptions has *nothing* to do with your performers? Or the work in any way?…. It’s shocking that an artistic director would show the level of contempt you have for artists so openly. I will give you this: you are bracingly honest about your bigotry. Most mask this…. You’ve also taken that quote out of context, but I’ll make it simple: all three directors you mention above have stability, salaries, and health insurance. You consider them staff and you treat them with respect…. Based on the way you speak about actors and artists in this letter, you do not treat them with the same level of respect. In a few short paragraphs you have mocked them over and over for the few protections they have, you are derisive, and you don’t consider them part of your institution and family.

A long but must-read.

Quote of the Week

“It is harder and harder for good work, certainly, to be done on Broadway and even off Broadway, and the regional theatres.

They’re falling by the wayside because nobody can afford this shit anymore.”

– Edward Albee

(Quoted in The Dramatist, which arrived in the mail today.)