Sunday, July 8, 2018

Playing Hooky

That's actually what I'm doing right now. Ok, it isn't a huge obligation that I'm skipping... but at the very time I am writing this I did intend to go to Tamara Kissane's event for Artists Soapbox. By the way, if you are a Triangle artist, do your self a favor and subscribe to that podcast. It's an interesting cross section of local artists (mostly theatre makers but artists of all kinds) in thoughtful conversation. This event was a followup to her excellent "What I learned from 40 years of not being famous." I really wanted to go. But today (Sunday July 8) is just SO beautiful, I couldn't bring myself to leave my back yard. So I'm playing hooky.

Actual photo of a blog post in progress. Basil whiskey ginger optional but recommended.

Here at South Stream, we have been playing hooky big time. I'd call it a hiatus, but that doesn't quite cover it. We took time off. Ok, a LOT of time off. We didn't do a show in 2018, so that meant our usual series of show posts, was off the schedule. My random noodlings about theatre topics isn't dependent on a show, but they took on less urgency in the absence of ongoing work.

So, to atone for skipping out on my self-imposed social and artistic obligation, I decided to use my time to return here. Coming back to this blog, and to South Stream itself with more focus and more intention has been a goal of mine. It's been something I keep "meaning to do." And honestly, writing this blog has often been fun, and a great outlet I don't otherwise have access to. It's my own tiny forum where I can express myself to the void. Will anyone notice any of it? Very few people I'm sure. But it feels good to do it. But these joyful tasks can become onerous if we freight them with too much "ought to be" or "should be" doings. I saw that I "needed" to write more, but the more that thought became present, the more I avoided it. Even when I had an idea that I wanted to express, I would avoid it. Because "it's been too long since I updated the site," "what will people think" etc... The very idea that I was guilty of neglect made me avoid something that would otherwise have been a pleasant and passionate task.

And this comes full circle to Tamara. The general message of her podcast is so encoraging. Grow where you're planted. Make the art you need to make with what you have. Your measure of success doesn't have to be someone else's. Tamara is great at letting people in to her own confusion, self doubt, and struggle with being "an artist" (whatever that means to you). So, while I am not currently at your event (sorry Tamara) I am, in some sense, benefiting from it. So thanks.

Oh, and yes... South Stream will be returning as a producing entity in the near future. We will be announcing our next show soon... so stay tuned.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Recognition for South Stream!

So South Steam Productions was recognized by local critic, actor, director, and man-about-town Dustin Britt in his Britt picks. From our last Production - Blackbird - both our lead actors, John Honeycutt and Katie Barrett were recognized for Outstanding Lead Performance, and I, your humble blogger, was recognized for Outstanding Scenic Design.

You can read the full list here.

Thanks to Dustin for producing this. I don't agree with the whole list, but over-all it is a good one, and we're lucky that he puts in the work to assemble this every year. I hope he keeps it up. It adds some context to the discussion. Congrats to everyone who was recognized!

It's nice to be recognized for hard work. It is gratifying to see that we connected with critics as well as our audience. Dustin is, IMHO, one of the better reviewers in the triangle. I like the fact that he uses the extra space provided by the online medium to be more comprehensive in his discussion than others who work with word limits can be (through no fault of their own, of course). He takes the time to make critical evaluative statements on aspects like light and costume design that sometimes have to hit the cutting room floor in other reviews. Also, in general, I tend to agree with his criticism (not everything of course, but most), so that's a plus.

On a personal level, seeing Blackbird's scenic design recognized is gratifying because I worked my ass off to get that set right, and I think it came out pretty dang well.  Now to be fair, some of that work was created by me due to poor planning and communication. Todd Houseknecht was amazing as always, and I probably tried his patience a bit. Jeff Nugent was also invaluable in bringing the set to fruition. But I did work my butt off to get that set looking right, and I think the finished product really worked. It was what I envisioned in all its drab and despairing glory. So it's nice to see someone else thought so too.

I am also glad for my lead actors, Katie and John. I directed the production, but I take no credit for their work. They REALLY nailed it. And to be frank, I think any list of the best theatre performances of 2017 that left them off would be flat wrong (I'm biased of course but really...). They deserved it.

It is nice to be recognized. But. We (and here I'm speaking to theatre artists) should leaven praise with caution. I like Dustin. I think he is one of the better critics in the area. But as much as I do like him and agree with him frequently, I don't always. His recognition is welcome, but it's not why we do this. I wrote a similar response to Byron's list in the Indy some years ago. Welcome praise! Put it on your resume! Use it to promote your company! But be cautious about believing it. And DON'T think that recognition (or lack of it) does or does not make your art worthy.

Your art is there for you and your audience. It lives in the room. And if it is good, you know it.

Go. Make art. Be happy when critics praise you, but be happier when the audience applauds.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Coming in January from South Stream: Nothing

This decision was made a while ago, and I haven't made a secret of it to my personal acquaintances, but I thought I'd make an official announcement here.

Each year, for the past five years, South Stream opened local theatre's calendar with a production the first weekend in January. This year we have decided not do so. 

Why? Lots of reasons. But the central answer is exactly that question - Why? Why should we do a play? What story do we feel passionately about that someone else isn't presenting? What connection do we want to make that we can't? What can we feasibly produce given our practical constraints of money and time? What are we called to do? And at the end of the day, we didn't feel the answers to this question - Why? - was compelling enough for us to produce a play. 

Now I want to be clear: this absolutely has nothing to do with Sonorous Road. Josh and Michelle have been great to us and supported our efforts tremendously.  I have made no secret that our shows have not made money, and part of that is venue cost, but Sonorous Road is not over-charging us - they need to pay rent like the rest of us. Having a theatre space that is charging less money than they pay out and goes out of business doesn't help anyone. In addition, they were very accommodating when we had a discussion about finances. They truly want to support good theatre, and they have been tremendous partners for us. So money, in and of itself, was not an absolute barrier. 

I think part of it is simply demand. Not in a monetary sense, but in a sense of "who will come to this show?" Blackbird was amazing, and I am incredibly proud of that production and glad we did it. But sadly, not that many people attended the show. And theatre is a collaborative art form. And one of the collaborators is the audience. At the end of the day, if people just don't want to share our work, maybe we need to re-evaluate if the area really wants it. 

Another factor is the fact that there are so many other theatre producers in the area. Four itinerant theatre companies formed in the past year alone. This area does not lack for theatre voices doing work they find compelling and important. So if we are going to produce in this environment - what are we going to bring to the table that is different? What is our perspective and why is it important that we present it? At the end of the day, we just couldn't answer those questions to our satisfaction. 

But ultimately it really comes down to what we were driven to do (or not driven to do). As I intimated in a previous post, we agreed that, in order for us to put in time, effort, and money for a production, we needed to be absolutely on fire about the show. We really needed to be passionate about the story, to the point that we would be willing, and happy, to do it even if we knew in advance that the show would not generate anything but artistic fulfillment. And we frankly didn't find that thing. South Stream started with Copenhagen, because John and I had a script that we loved, it was a story we really wanted to tell and had roles we really wanted to play. So we thought "Hey, rather than hope someone else produces this, and hope they cast us, let's just do it ourselves." And it was great. Each of our shows since then has been something we personally feel excited and compelled to present. But this year, we didn't find that story. We did find some stories we thought would sell, but we didn't love them. We found some stories we loved, but were beyond our means to produce. And at the end of the day "we need to produce a play in January because that's our time slot" is just not a good enough reason to do something we didn't feel strongly about. 

Now - is South Stream dead? No. It is not. I have some project ideas I'm mulling over and hope to be doing soon if the pieces fall together. But we're not producing a show in January, and we don't have plans to produce a show in the near future. 

I plan to keep blogging, so keep tuned to our posts here on the website for future details.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

In Defense of Critics

I was considering writing this post a while ago, after a previous post raised some discussion, but I felt it was probably best to leave it alone at the time. Besides, critics (good critics, veteran critics) can take some abuse. They have to - it comes with the territory. Like umpires, critics have to anticipate that people giving them shit is just part of the job, and if you can't handle it, mabye you need to choose something else to do. Critics don't need me to defend them.

But then this happened.

And then - well the comments have been removed, but apparently someone left a series of vulgar, threatening, and anonymous comments on this review which sought to demean Byron with sexual, homophobic insults.

So. Maybe critics do need us. Maybe they don't need me particularly, but they need us generally - to testify that they are members of the artistic community as valuable as artists and producers (sometimes more valuable). Maybe it's a worthy exercise to write something on this topic.

First let me address a couple issues that came up in response to or near the time of my previous article.

1) Who is qualified to be a critic?

My opinion: Anyone. Everyone. Do you have an opinion? Do you want to express it? Great. Do it. You have that right.

The idea that one needs a certain pedigree or education to have an opinion about art is, from my perspective, foolishly limiting. And now, there are no gatekeepers - you can literally set up your own website for ZERO dollars. If you want to start reviewing plays or movies or pudding flavors, you can do that. So go do it.

Does that mean that all reviews and reviewers are equal? Should we treat all reviews as equally valid?

Hahahaha. No.

Reviewing well takes skill, thoughtfulness, awareness of larger cultural contexts, and hard work. Most reviewers and most reviews don't have this. Even reviews from experienced reviewers fall short (hey, nobody's perfect). What I'm saying is that everyone has a right to express their opinion, and those opinions should be judged on the merits of their expression, not the resumes of their authors.

2) Reviewer or critic?

I use these terms interchangeably. I realize that "critic" often implies some higher level of skill, some dedication or goal to not just review the performance, but to place it in a larger cultural context and artistic dialectic.

Frankly, while that is a fine thing to strive for, I'm not sure it's really possible given the word limits of publication. The popularity of online-only publication should not, theoretically, have that limitation (this blog certainly doesn't) but some still seem to stick to word limits. And those that don't aren't uniformly more interesting or in-depth. The better uses of the extra space leave the reviewer free to comment on all aspects of the work - the comments on costumes or lighting don't get cut for space - the worse uses tend to be "ah good I can recap the entire plot!"

So I use these words interchangeably. I hope no one is offended.

3) What is fair game for review?

Everything you perform in public.

That said, different types of production should not all be judged on the same scale. Staged readings should not be subject to the same scrutiny as full productions. And works produced by students or younger people should properly be seen as educational opportunities for the participants in addition to entertainment for the audience. It's simply not fair to hold all production to the same standard. As long as a reviewer takes this into account, and INFORMS his readers about that context, it is totally fair to review anything you put out there. Producers don't have to comp reviewers, and can even tell reviewers they do not wish to be reviewed. But producers simply do not have the right (legally or ethically) to prevent a reviewer from providing their opinion. You don't want it to be reviewed - don't do it in public.

4) Lack of diversity.

I think that a lack of diversity among critics is a totally valid criticism of society as a whole, or any particular publication (print or online) as applicable. It is a real problem when "critical feedback" is only coming from one demographic perspective.

That said - it's not a valid criticism of an individual reviewer. Well, it's not a valid criticism in and of itself. It's totally valid to say "reviewer X can't see past his [and yes, it is his] bias/experience/etc..." But hey, people can't help who they are. I get people being a bit sick of hearing white male voices as critics, but that's not their fault. At least someone is actually putting the effort out to show up.  The solution to a lack of diversity is in (1) above. It costs you literally ZERO dollars to start a review blog (this website costs me zero dollars). If you say that "hey I run a review blog" and I can google your blog and it exists and has reviews on it, yeah, I'll give you a comp. It would be AWESOME to have more diversity in critical voices out there. Go do it! Don't let anyone stop you!

So all the above said - 

I wanted to say that I really value critics. I appreciate their work, and we are better off as a community and as individual artist if there is a robust critical component in our scene.

Reviews are not, strictly speaking, necessary for good art. But they help. Hm. Good (as in well written and thoughtful) reviews help. At a minimum they serve as publicity and recognition. I've said before that I'd rather get a negative review than no review at all. Even a bad review means that people thought your art worthy enough to consider, to spend time with and reflect on. Getting no review at all seems to me as if it is considered not worth engaging with.

And if they are well done, critics place a work into the cultural context and landscape of the time and location. They provide valuable feedback. They help people access the work, or provide context for the audience to reflect or consider aspects of it that they may not have on their own. And they say yes, the work is worth the time to engage.

They can also help shape the artistic landscape (hopefully for the better) by providing encouragement and exposure to new artists or ideas, and really exciting projects, and by providing negative feedback where it is justified. Every show does not deserve a rave review. Whether or not one agrees with their opinion, a critic that is willing to be critical and consistent (in a thoughtful way) can provide a service. Not as a gatekeeper, but as a barometer. They are not always right (far from it) but if they are at least consistent, they can serve as a useful reflection for creators, telling them they reached or did not reach this type of person for this reason.

Having reviews of theatre run along side movie reviews and music reviews keeps the theatrical art alive in the community at large. A publication's dedication to producing them is a vote of confidence and a work of faith that they see plays as equally worthy of column inches (or virtual web pages) to other forms of artistic expression. And this placement, this faith, keeps that alive in the minds of the community.

As many have pointed out, reviews can help build long-term projects by providing proof of an independent evaluation of a company's work (and its body of work over time). Grant applications and other large scale fundraising techniques often rely on having a body of critical evaluation. For better or worse, whether or not such reviews appear in print does matter for these purposes. So losing space for print reviews hurts the community as a whole.

But most importantly, let me say a few words about two people in particular: Roy Dicks and Byron Woods. These men are goddamn heroes of the local theatre community. There are probably 5 or 6 people who can legitimately say they've been more influential in creating an maintaining the local theatre scene in the triangle than these two men. MAYBE 5 or 6. That's it. Honestly. They've gone to hundreds, probably thousands of shows between them. They've been doing it consistently for decades. And they've seen a lot of bad theatre. I mean, A LOT. Look, I love y'all, but every show isn't a winner, know what I mean? And they've maintained their ability to be passionate and excited about new works or fresh productions.

Is every review these two write brilliant? Of course not. Do I always agree with their opinions? No way. But they are almost always professional, respectful, and thorough. And when they fail to be so (and I have had occasion to call out one of them for a rare lapse in that regard), they take that criticism with respect. Their ability, their dedication, and their apparently iron tuchuses drive them to go to multiple shows every week.  And they have both produced consistent quality writing for DECADES. That is something that should not be taken for granted.

Losing Roy's reviews is a major blow to this community. He will not disappear - he's already begun appearing in CVNC. We will not lose his critical voice. But losing his place in the paper is a blow. Like it or not, reviews that appear in print are simply seen as more "real" more "valid" than online reviews. Is that fair? Perhaps not, but for grant applications, building a reputation, etc... these things matter. And of more concern to me personally, is that it signals that the local paper for Raleigh sees theatre as simply not sufficiently important enough to its readers - not a sufficiently important part of the cultural landscape - to spend time on. And that fact more than any other concerns me.

The kind of comments Byron had to put up with,* well that's simply inexcusable. Representatives of Honest Pint/Sweet Tea made clear that the poster was not associated with their production (I feel certain that they are not, or if they are, there is no way that Jeremy or David know who it is, they simply would not tolerate that kind of behavior). I feel like the theatre community has universally condemned the statements of this poster. Which is good. Because disagreeing with critics is fine. Disliking them is fine. But threatening them, demeaning them, or making them feel unsafe is absolutely something this theatre community needs to condemn (and as far as I know, has). When that sort of thing happens, we all need to stand with the critics.

We can't take our critics for granted. And we need to remember this as well: Roy and Byron (and really, most reviewers) do it for one reason: because they love it. Because they passionately care about local theatre. Because THEY think it's worthy of their time, effort, and attention. Even if you don't agree with their reviews EVER, if you love theatre, you should at least respect both of them for their love and their dedication to it.

Losing a critical voice in the N&O is terrible. And the kind of bullshit that Byron had to put up with is inexcusable. Critics can write things that we disagree with, even things that hurt us. They are not infallible and they do make errors (in criticism and judgement). But we need to recognize that while we may disagree with them occasionally (or even frequently) they are a valuable part of this community. We need their voices, even if we don't always like what they say. And we need to stand with them when they suffer these sorts of attacks.

I personally do.

*I did not see any of the comments. Here is Byron's description of the comments left on the article taken from a post he made on Facebook:

None of the 15 posts had anything to say about the production, or my coverage of it.
Instead, the writer began with criticism of my "fat face and ratty dead facial hair" and a Grindr account I was alleged to have. My overweight physical form and presumed sexual orientation were of great concern to this individual.
So were what they alleged as my proclivities for exhibitionism, bondage and anal sex.
The writer also attached links to websites on suicide prevention (“Just incase").
And the treatment of AIDS.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Written and Directed By

Thalia (muse of comedy) and Melpomene (muse of tragedy). Statues cir. 500 BCE
In non-South Stream news, I will be directing The New Wizards, a play that I also wrote, in the Open Doors festival at Sonorous Road in September. It got me thinking about directing and writing and the intersection of the two.

I have directed several plays (once for 10x10 at the Cary Arts Center, and twice for South Stream - Seascape and Blackbird).  I have also written several short plays (around 15 or so) some of which have been produced locally and internationally (I had two in last year's Open Doors, A Gift From God and Interrogation). But this production will be the first time I have ever directed my own work. I thought it would be interesting to talk about why that is.

I have had the opportunity to direct my work in the past. When presented these opportunities, I have asked others to direct the work instead. This has been for three reasons. First, as a playwright, if I can't pass the script to a cast and director, if I personally need to be involved for the script to "work," then I haven't done my job really. The work should be able to have a life of its own, outside my imagination. Second, I genuinely want to see what someone else does with my work. Allowing other people in to interpret, produce, and perform the work is exciting. It's part of the magic of play writing. I know how it looks in my head, but what will it look like filtered through other people's creativity? Finally, I have avoided it because I worry that as a writer AND director, the cast will defer too much to me. Often in rehearsing a play, the cast and director will wonder what is meant by a word or phrase, they encounter the language and the characters without explanation. As an actor, that's part of the creative process that I enjoy. What does this mean? How do I make this mean something to me? I have always worried (and still do) that this exploration will be replaced by "hey, what did you mean by this?" I don't want there to be a short-cut. I suppose there might be a fourth reason as well. I worry that it would seem a bit egotistical to write and direct my own work.

So why did I change my mind? Well, for one thing, I had the time. I am not currently busy with another production, and rehearsing a 10 minute play over the month and a half between now and the opening doesn't seem terribly taxing. I also thought it would be a good experiment. While there are disadvantages, there are advantages too. This will be the first time The New Wizards has been produced so in some sense, the cast will be helping me fine tune the script itself. It's not a work shop production but the opportunity to see it on its feet will hopefully help me find areas that might need improvement. The flipside to the peril of being able to ask the writer "what do you mean?" is the freedom to ask the writer "can I say this instead?" I have also become quite a fan of the Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast. It provides a number of really insightful interviews with actors, writers, and other creators that are fun to listen to. But it also provides insight into their writing process (they've written 10 "reduced" shows in the 20 some years they've been in existence), and listening to some of these, they seem to get a great deal out of directing workshop productions of their shows as they are being developed. Listening to their experiences has made the idea seem like it might be a good one after all (albeit on a smaller scale).

So, that's what I'll be doing in late summer. If you want to see how it went, come check it out in early September.


Saturday, May 27, 2017

In Defense of Bad Reviews

Ok, the play was bad, but the hazmat suits don't seem necessary
I want to say something: We need more bad reviews.

I don't mean "poorly written reviews." We certainly don't need more of those. And I don't mean poorly thought out reviews that fail to understand and acknowledge what is being attempted. And I definitely don't mean "mean spirited reviews."

But what I do mean is this - we need theatre critics to be more, well, critical, in the fullest sense of the word. 

Look, everyone likes it when people say nice things about them. Lord knows I do. And there is no shortage of local theatre deserving fulsome praise. But there are some reviewers or outlets that seem to feel their proper mission is to promote local theatre, and they can best do this by writing glowing reviews of any and all theatrical endeavors in the theory that just getting people out to the theatre is the most important thing they can accomplish. And I get that. And that's very nice. But ultimately, it's not helpful. In fact, in my humble opinion, this behavior actually hurts local theatre. 

Giving positive, even glowing, reviews to productions that are mediocre, or even quite bad, that is not helping anyone. If someone reads that review, and thinks "this production is worth my time" and then they decide to spend the extra money to experience theatre, and get a babysitter, and all the rest, and they actually get out and see a show, well you have succeeded in the short term by "promoting theatre" - but if they don't actually enjoy themselves, you have hurt theatre in the long run. If the show is disappointing, they are likely to think "I guess this must be good for local theatre. Next time let's watch a movie." And boom, you have lost someone to the theatre market. 

There is so much you can do with your time. Movies, great TV, video games - lots of which you can enjoy from the comfort of your home for much less money than seeing a play. Actually getting someone up and out to see a show is an achievement. And it is absolutely the responsibility of a production (the company, the artists, etc) to produce something funny, touching, thought provoking, true ...  worth the time of their audience. But it is absolutely the job of critics to participate in this process by helping theatre companies get better.  And that includes being truthful about when they fail. 

I am not advocating that people be needlessly critical or thoughtlessly cruel. To that end, I think a few points are worth noting:

1) Student productions - Productions put on by educational instutions can often be quite good. Particularly the production elements, costumes, etc... can frequently be superior to most local offerings (nice to have a budget and room for a scene shop). And some of this work does deserve recognition beyond the University press. However - reviewers should keep in mind that these productions are frequently part of an educational process for the students. A student might be cast in a role they are not ready for, or for which they are not the best fit, because their educator wants to push them, or perhaps to give them the opportunity to play a character that they may not get to play outside of an educational setting. Also, these are young artists in the process of learning. Any criticism of these shows should be measured mindful of these facts. Again, this doesn't mean "don't be critical" but it does mean be thoughtful, gentle, and encouraging.

2) Reviewing "to the level" of the production. OK, let's be honest, there are some "Community Theatre" productions that have casts and production values equal to or superior to any in the area (again... a budget for costumes? Wow). There are also some productions that are really about building communities and letting voices be heard. About giving people the opportunity to express themselves and have a positive experience with theatre. It is 100% OK to take these things into consideration when reviewing a piece. I'm not saying crap on someone's first time on stage because they were green. Don't measure the set of a community theatre production on the same scale you do a production at Playmakers. That said, you have an obligation to the community and to your readers to be upfront about what you are doing. Hopefully not in a condescending way. Just in a way that is honest and acknowledges the limitations of the production and the company.

Overall though - if a play is bad, PLEASE, say it is bad. I have seen too many average or even actively poor shows praised with words I would reserve for maybe 2 productions in a year. And as a practitioner - let me say that I will be more than willing to accept my share of bad reviews. I don't mind if you don't like what I do (I will likely disagree, but that's fine). When reviewers feel it is their duty to praise rather than criticize, we all lose. Critics are critical to growing the quality, not just the quantity, of local theatre. Challenge the productions that fall short. Encourage companies to improve when they need to. Demand excellence and help your readers find it.

And helping your readers find excellent theatre means not just writing good things about good shows, but also writing bad things about bad ones. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017


So, I'm already well into the rehearsal period for my next play - Tea with Edie and Fitz. But since I had this video from the production of Mousetrap, I thought I'd go ahead and share.

I am not an expert in makeup. I am sure there are better tutorials out there. But if you're interested you can see what I did.

Also, keep in mind that this makeup is for a large stage (about 400 seats) where the distance from the first row of seats to the apron was about 30 feet. If you're doing makeup for a more intimate space, you will probably want to do it differently.

That said, here it is. Enjoy. (warning, it's about 12 minutes long)