Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Soundtrack Series

On Thursday April 22, I went to the third edition of Sean Williams' and Dana Rossi's The Soundtrack Series at Waltz-Astoria. (Between this evening and Coffee Black Productions, I feel like I only see theater in coffee shops these days.)

On the third Thursday of each month, six writers present a ten-minute monologue about "the memories, stories, or tirades triggered every time they hear a particular song of their choosing."

Back in February, Jennifer went to the first evening with our friend Kate Erin Gibson. Unfortunately, we missed the March evening because it fell on the same evening as our Intellectual Property table reading. Jennifer also had a great time that night, talking about our friends in the area who would really enjoy the format.
Hosted by Dana Rossi, the monologues I saw represented a great mix tape of music and writers. Ben VandenBoom, Tabitha Vidaurri, Kate Spencer, Kevin R. Free, Tammy Oler, and Sean Williams.

I'm a wallflower, and I tend to feel like an outside in my own circle of friends. Before the show I did manage to speak briefly to a gentleman who told me that he was the owner of the Munch Cafe. He asked if this was a karaoke thing, I told him that I wasn't sure what to expect but that I didn't think there would be any singing. What we got was an evening of reminiscences about a variety of experiences, car accidents, trips to London, and may other topics that ran the emotional gamut from depression an humiliation to triumph and just out and out laughter.

There was a ten-dollar minimum, and while I have no problem paying for a wonderful evening of entertainment, I have to admit that it is hard for me to find $10 worth of tea to drink. (Mind you Waltz-Astoria sells sandwiches and desserts, but I had arrived having just had dinner with my family.) A few tall cups of tea into the evening, and with a full bladder I ultimately just handed one of the owners the rest of my money and told him, "Let's just say I spent ten dollars."

I measure the success of a work of art mostly by one question; does it provide inspiration? I am able to consider our show Perfectly Natural a success because an audience member told me that not only did he have a good time, but that his wife left the show talking about being inspired to return to acting. By that standard, The Soundtrack Series is a tremendous success because Jennifer and I have both talked about being inspired to reflect on the soundtrack of our own lives. Who knows, maybe we'll end up with a monologue of our own.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

In the Works: The Velvet Gentleman

On Tuesday we gathered again at Theatre Row Studios to read and discuss the latest draft of Jon Steinhagen's The Velvet Gentleman: Being the Unusual Life of Erik Satie.

A year ago when we had our first table reading, the script had a cast of eight. This latest version has come down to a more manageable group of five. Back with us were Ted Schneider, Molly Garber, Bob Leeds, and Jonathan Wiener. New to the mix was actress Dale Soules. Also on hand to provide her thoughts was Jess Hooks.

I cannot begin to articulate how excited I am to have this group of artists reading and discussing the show. When working on an independently produced show you have to be prepared for inevitable casting challenges. People get paying acting jobs or become unavailable for a variety of other reasons. It is a fact of life and there isn't much you can do about it. But for at least this evening I had assembled exactly the group of people I would want to take right on to the stage.

The script still has stripped away the interaction of the theater company performing the play. It had been my hope to build this troupe from the ground up with the cast. I saw that based on the discussion after the reading with the actors that I could spend a year fleshing out the Altoona Dada Society. I am afraid that I haven't the skill as a director to accomplish this, and am going to have to change my approach to the material.

Jon Steinhagen has become increasingly enthusiastic about creating the cast of characters that make up the small town Dada Society. The plan now is that he is going to spend the next couple weeks working on the group dynamic, creating scenarios that will play out around the edges of the performance of "The Velvet Gentleman." Jon had worked out a short introduction to the show where we meet the Dada Society's members and find out a little about the origin of the show. We didn't get to read the introduction out loud because of the animated conversation after the table reading.

We will be hearing from the New York Fringe Festival in the next couple weeks so the next time everyone gets together we should not only have a new script, but we should know if we will be asked back to participate at FringeNYC for a second year.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

What We Eat? Building the Successful Theater Company

Welcome to What We Eat where we take a look at the books, movies, and plays that have influenced the direction of Playlab NYC.

Building the Successful Theater Company

by Lisa Mulcahy

I don’t think I am the intended audience for this book. Fifteen years ago when I was just coming out of a small Ohio college, I might have found a lot in Building the Successful Theater Company to inspire me. Today though, I found little in the book that was useful.

Lisa Mulcahy has complied her book from interviews with the heads of fourteen different theaters from around the country. The companies offering practical advice and from the trenches stories include Steppenwolf Theater Company, The Pasadena Playhouse, La Jolla Playhouse, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Mixed Blood Theatre Company, Jean Cocteau Repertory, Bailiwick Repertory, New Repertory Theatre.

The whole book follows a structure that Mulcahy sets out on on page two.

“So, what makes a theater company successful? Primarily, the formula for success is a combination of a sharp artistic focus, a smart objective business viewpoint, a fully operational venue, and a big-picture plan.”

I don’t think she spends nearly enough time exploring the development of a theater’s mission statement. A successful mission statement is difficult to create, and is important for finding board members, programming shows, and raising money. She talks only in very broad terms about fundraising, suggesting that companies hold fundraisers. What she does spend a a great deal of time talking about securing a permanent home. This is a fine goal I suppose, but we’re independent theater producers in New York and it is not likely that Playlab NYC will ever be in a permanent home. It honestly isn’t even a long range goal, although my managing director might disagree.

The seven and a half years since the publication of the book have been very hard on some of Mulcahy’s “successful” companies. The Jean Cocteau Repertory dissolved in 2007. Bailiwick Repertory Theater closed in September 2009. The Pasadena Playhouse closed in February 2010 and is looking into filing bankruptcy.

The book seems to be written for a young people who have no experience in the day-to-day realities of regional theater, young people who dream of establishing a theater in their small town. I would like to see a volume that was focused on building successful independent theater companies, with interviews from successful companies like The Civilians, Les Freres Corbusier, Keen Company, or Vampire Cowboys. That would be a practical from the trenches book that I could recommend.