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)

Monday, May 8, 2017

Accents and Dialects

Accents and dialects are one of the fun things an actor gets to do. When you do it, you always get the question "how did you get that accent?" It's probably one of the most common questions asked to actors, second only to "how did you memorize all those lines?" The answer, of course, is the same for both questions:

Hard work. Lots of hard work.

But there are some specific steps one goes through when one has to do accent work, so I thought I'd talk about it. 

Before I start, I want to acknowledge that there is more than one way to do this. Some people get someone with an accent they want to mimic to record their lines. Some people just watch a lot of TV or other media that feature the accent. This post is about how I approach it. It's not the "right way" or the only way. Also, I want to mention that I'm not a dialect expert. I have a fair amount of experience, and I know what works for me, but if you're looking for a technical discussion using the phonetic alphabet, well that's not me. I'll probably use some terms that describe things the way I think about it that will make experts cringe, so be warned.

Another preliminary matter - what's the difference between a dialect and an accent? Short answer is that an accent is defined by how words are pronounced and how they sound. A dialect also includes a system of speech (word choice, grammar, etc) usually associated with a specific geographical region. A slightly longer (and better) explanation can be found here.

So, let's get started.

My most recent role was Paravicini from Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap. It's a fun role, and the character is described as "vaguely European" which leaves lots of room for interpretation. Partly because I liked the character choice, and partly because I was lazy, I decided that my character was faking the accent, so I didn't feel compelled to get it right (since my character wasn't getting it right, after all). It was fun, but my director Tim Wiest, probably wisely, told me to pick something more specific, since most people would just think I (the actor) was bad at accents rather than I (the character). 

So I decided to give him an Italian accent, principally because the name seems Italian, and we had decided to pronounce the name with a "ch" sound (as an Italian would), so it fit. 

The first thing I did was get a photocopy of the script so that one script page took up an 8.5xll piece of paper. This gave me room to make notes on pronunciation. I seem to have already thrown this away, so sadly I can't show you a copy of the notes I took. 

Once I had my large script for working on the accent, I started with the general points. The internet is great for that. Just google "Italian Accent" and pull up some videos. This is a pretty good one:

That's a great place to start. All the major sound substitutions are there.

1) Diphthongs (we'll come back to this)
2) Dropping the "h" sound.
3) Rolling the "r" (don't over do this, just a little tap or short roll)
4) Vestigial schwa (Use this where the rhythm of speech requires it. "Allow me to poke (a) the fire for you" was one of my lines)
5) The "i" to "ee" (for example - the word "hit" sounds like "heat")
6) The TH sound (or rather it's absence - she describes it as dentalized, but it's a bit more than that. Italian doesn't really have the sound, so it usually becomes more of a "d" or "t" and sometimes "s" - you have to play with it a bit - for example "this thing with" sounds a bit like "dis ting wis")
7) "ah to "eh" (the word "mat" becomes ... sort of "met" basically just soften this "a" sound a bit)
8) the UH to OOO sound (oo is always pronounced like "choose" not like "book")

That's a pretty good summary. But keep in mind, that's just one person. Here's a video of a real Italian making fun of the above video.

Notice that she seems to object that the video sounds fake - keep that in mind - because IT IS. The key here is to realize that the first video is exaggerating the changes to emphasize them so you notice them. But you don't want to sound like someone doing an accent demonstration.

So... once I had the basic sound substitutions, I went to my clean, full size copy of the script, and I made notes. Find each example of each sound and notate it (underline, circle, strike through, different things for different sounds usually). Then you need to start practicing. Practice, practice, practice so you memorize the sound and the oral movements with the words. It needs to feel natural.

And keep looking for more sources. One great source is the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA). This is a great resource because you can hear audio samples of the people from that country or region speaking English. It's great because (depending on how many recordings exist) there's a range of ages, sexes, and regions. It's really nice to hear the variety. This is especially important if you're doing a dialect rather than an accent (or rather a dialect accent rather than a foreign accent) as place and social status can have a huge influence on sound - think Cockney vs. RP - both British dialects, and both found in London). The Speech Accent Archive is also a great resource, very similar. Listening to a variety of the same accent can give you ideas and help you hear gradations (maybe this person doesn't drop their H, that one can pronounce the TH sound more cleanly,etc).

Finally, the last thing I did was listen to a lot of one particular person. I googled "podcast italian accent" and found History on Fire. It's a wonderful and entertaining podcast. I would recommend it based on content alone. But best for my purposes, the host Daniele Bolelli has a strong Italian accent. Listening to him for hours and hours - his rhythm and cadence and his idiosyncrasies really helped cement the accent for me. It also helped me become very specific. Accents share a lot of characteristics, but they are not uniform. They often depend on where the person is from within the country (which affects their sound choice and natural voice), their level of proficiency in English, and perhaps just how good their ear is. Listening to his particular accent enabled me to create an accent very like his.

One thing I noted - Diphthongs (see video). Contrary to the video, rather than replacing the diphthong with a single sound, I found that Daniele would instead pronounce both vowels (or pronounce the single vowel diphthong as if there were two vowels). So the "I" diphthong in a word like "right" (slow it down, or say it with a southern accent, you'll hear that there are two sounds "ah-ee") really becomes "ah-ee" almost two syllables. Similarly, the "ou" in words like "about" - you would hear both vowels "ahbah-oot." I also noticed that the sound would drop in pitch on the second half of the diphthong.

Another thing I noted - Italians pronounce each letter if at all possible (except "h"). The word "several" bedeviled me particularly - because the American pronunciation is really "SEV-rel" we elide the middle syllable. But an Italian speaker wouldn't do that. Multisyllabic words in general are tough, you find extra sounds you typically don't pronounce as a native speaker. My best tip: try to sound everything out as if you were reading the word for the first time to make sure you are making all the sounds, and put the emphasis on the second to the last syllable if possible. That helps a lot.

The other thing I really had to work on was keeping the accent "up" in my mouth. She talks about oral posture, keeping your tongue forward in the mouth. That's part of it. But I found I also needed to keep the sound in my mouth and nose, and not let it drop into my chest. The Slavic (Bulgaria/Romania, etc) accent has a lot of the same substitutions. Sometimes I would sound like Dracula if I let it drop into my chest resonances. The trick for me was keeping it light and forward in the mouth, and also not having a super wide variation in pitch. Going WAY up and WAY down slows the accent down and again sounded Transylvanian. Keeping the speed of speech up also helped create the right sound.

It is hard to do though! My tongue would actually be tired at the end of a rehearsal.

Ok, that's it. I hope you enjoyed this. I'll try to post a bit more regularly. It's a fun exercise, and I have a lot to talk about.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Not this again...

Yes. It rears it's ugly head again. "Why can't I get paid for my art?!"

I've posted about this before here and here. I think this will probably be the last time I deal with this on the blog. Not that the problem will go away. Wow, it would be awesome if my next post was like "hey, I have this awesome idea" or "this group found a great solution" or something. But I doubt that will happen. I doubt that the issues here or the solutions (or lack of solutions) will change much. I'm not saying it's impossible... I guess I'm just pessimistic.

Anyway, this came up again on Facebook, on an actor's page, as it does every 12 months or so. Someone says "hey, you wouldn't expect bakers to bake bread for free" or "accountants to do your taxes for free" or some variation, "so why do you expect actors to work for free?" Usually (though not always) this comes with a "let's all band together"/"if people didn't do it for free people would have to pay us" etc... (which often devolves into attacking/demonizing people who are willing to act for little or no money... but that's another issue).

So yeah. Every year or so, someone posts this, and generates a lot of support, but then also people saying "hey, we can't really always do that" and then it usually goes down hill from there.

Couple things up front:
1)  I am not going to offer solutions. Some people are. Some people think Patreon is a new model that is going to solve (or help solve?) all this (to me it looks like just a new way to sell season memberships but, hey, if it works...). Others will tell you that kickstarter or gofundme or [insert possible solution] is the answer. So far, the solutions I've seen seem to fall short. Put me in the "skeptical a solution exists but hopeful it does" camp.
2) When I say "the arts" I'm mostly, but not exclusively, talking about theatre arts. This is just because that is my art form thus my perception and knowledge is skewed to that art form. Often I may use broader language, and what I say may be applicable to more art forms, but if I make a generalization that makes you go "well but in painting.." or something, just understand that's where I'm coming from, so that's mostly what I'm talking about, even if I don't explicitly say so every time.
3) Let's remember where we AGREE. Look, we all agree that artists work deserves more compensation in the philosophical sense. I've seen some OK work, and I've seen some excellent work, and I've seen some bad work. But everyone, EVERYONE I know involved in the arts thinks, as a general proposition, that artists should (as in "ought to") be able to get a living wage. Does that mean they offer a living wage? Hell no. But what I'm saying is that it's not because they don't want to, it's because, usually, they can't.

OK, on with the show.

SO - why can't artists get a living wage. There are three, intersecting forces at work here, and any approach that desires to understand the problem needs to be cognizant of all of them. They are: supply, demand, and community.

First - supply. The beauty of art, the magic and the democratic power of art, is that anyone can do it. I'm not saying everyone can do it with equal skill, but everyone can create art.

This fact is immensely powerful. That's why underground theatre and subversive music is a force that threatens capitalism, totalitarianism, and autocracies. You can limit it's dissemination, you can deride and attempt to discourage it's creators, but there's no lever you can apply that can prevent it's creation. All you need to create theatre is a story, actors, and an audience. Try and ban it, and you have to patrol every municipal park, church basement and empty storefront. Good luck.

But this very democracy means that you can't limit the supply. There is a stage actors union, of course, and if you want access to equity houses you typically need to be a member (not always, but it helps a great deal). But the vast majority of theatre in america today does not take place in Equity houses or under equity contracts. The truth is that the vast majority of Equity actors (theoretically, the "professionals") do not earn the majority of their income from acting (according to the '15-'16 AEA report, the average Equity member worked 16.6 weeks/year, and at any given time, only about 13% of AEA members are working - in acting). Why?

Well, making art, creating, telling stories, these are activities that nourish the soul. The bring a sense of community, place, wholeness to their participants. Humans need to create, to be a part of something, and to build together. And some of us need to act. We can't not. This reward, this need, means that the supply can't be limited. Because if a group (a local union, a rule, whatever) tried to prevent people from acting for less than $X per week, hour, whatever... well people would not obey. Look, I'd rather get paid than not. But if you told me I couldn't, I WASN'T ALLOWED to act for free if I wanted to, I'd laugh in your face. Try to stop me. And not because I dislike solidarity. Look, I'm not much of a joiner, but I generally support unions and their goals. But, there is something that is, for me, part of being alive. It's necessary for my happiness and well being.

Is that fair? I don't know. But it's a fact. The fact that art brings non-tangible rewards, the fact that people will paint or write or draw or act for their own satisfaction and personal fulfillment, plus the fact that the barriers for entry (cost of materials) is, or can be, so low means that you will be hard pressed to create any economic solution that focuses on supply.

Now, again, this doesn't talk about quality. The supply of good actors is not unlimited. The supply of good actors that meet your current specifications of age/sex/ethnicity/etc... is even smaller. And sometimes, when something is in short supply the cost can go up. This is definitely true with projects that are anticipated to MAKE MONEY. We need this person to make sure this project has the best chance of success! But if it isn't going to make much money, if the marginal difference in ticket sales between one actor and another is small, well, that brings us to the second point:

And the other side. Because I act and I produce, I'm familiar with both sides of this coin... or lack thereof.

You make art, and you expect to get paid. Great. So are you making art people want to buy? Because if you're not, how exactly do you expect to get paid? Shakespeare was writing plays for a commercial audience. Caravaggio wanted to paint the whores and musicians he counted as friends, but he was commissioned by the church, so he painted them... as saints and martyrs. Because he was producing work for money.

Virtually no art in the area, certainly no theatrical performance, can afford to pay people what they are worth, because the demand simply isn't there for live performance to consistently support paid, professional work. I went into detail about the finances of our last production here. As I point out in that post, even if I sold out every show at the maximum ticket price (and impossible task), I still could not provide people minimum wage (to say nothing of a "living wage"). And our last show was no better. In fact, it was considerably worse. We put up a show that I consider to be the equal of any show in the triangle, and in fact, of any show anywhere. A gentleman came to see Blackbird who had seen the production in New York. His response: where's the audience? All I could do was agree. And look, I'm not talking about just my own work. Many other production companies are putting on excellent work. Some have built a loyal following and a subscriber base. And even THOSE companies can't afford to pay people a real wage. The stipend is nice, but it's nothing that can support a career.

Speaking personally, we could make judgments about what to produce based solely on "will it sell?" I have plenty of respect for people who choose their season that way. Temple Theatre's slate of shows may seem un-adventurous, but they have an audience they know and want to please, and they are looking to sell tickets. Artistically - personally - I think it's unexciting. But I have nothing but respect for their choices. Frankly, IF we do produce again, we are going to think long and hard about if it will sell.

If artists banded together to demand a living wage, the result wouldn't be "producers pay a living wage for local theatrical productions." The result would be "no local theatrical productions." Because there's just no money there. That's why I'm saying this problem is complicated. Even if you had complete control of one lever (something that's impossible), you don't get the results you want.

I don't know if this is the right label, but a few of my thoughts didn't line up well with either of the other two.

What do I mean by community? Well, often the response is "well you should get funding" - apply for grants, seek donations, etc... But please know, that is MUCH easier to say than it is to do.

First - someone has to, you know, do that. Applying for grants is time consuming and costly (remember how you were going to pay a living wage? well that should apply to the grant writer too). They also, almost always, come with strings. They stipulate how you spend the money, what it can and can't be applied to, and reporting requirements to prove you obeyed the rules. These are real costs. Even the time and expense of obtaining a 501(c)3 status is non-trivial.

And the other thing: he who pays the piper calls the tune. Just as choosing a show or a season based on if it will sell is limiting - so is getting donations. Is this the kind of show our sponsors will like? Will our donors turn us down next year if we are "too controversial"? There's just as many (though different) issues with getting foundation money and donations as there are with picking "popular" shows.

And saying money - paying artists a living wage - is a requirement for art. That is problematic. Because what you are saying is that having enough free time to write grant applications, fund-raise, host gala events for supporters, sell sponsorships, etc... having all those things is a pre-requisite for making art. That's a problem too. Art isn't (or shouldn't be) just for the wealthy and the well connected. It should be for a group of people with a desire to tell a story and enough free time to make it happen. It should be for people who do graffiti as much as people who hang in galleries.

So where does that leave us? I don't know. I said at the beginning that I didn't have any solutions. I still don't.

For us, well, to be honest, I put in all the work of an artist. As much as anyone else could or would for my latest show. And I paid for the privilege out of my own pocket. Think about that. People are saying artists should be given a living wage (and they should!)... but I actually wound up paying money to create art. It sold for less than my cost of materials, so to speak, and that's WITHOUT paying my artists anything. (Note- we do pay money to artists if we make a profit, but we don't if we lose money, it's a collective endeavor on the positive side of the ledger, but not the negative one).

I don't like that. I don't like not paying artists, especially when my cast and crew produce work that is, in my opinion, of "professional quality." I don't like losing money either.

To be honest, something has to change for us to decide to produce more work. We will if we find something we are absolutely on fire about, but as it stands, I don't know if it's possible, if it's realistic, to expect to break even. And if that continues to be the case, I don't know if it makes sense to continue to produce.

We shall see. . .