I just opened my latest production, Alan Ayckbourn's comedy thriller COMMUNICATING DOORS. It runs through October 5th, do consider adding it to your busy schedule.
Hedgerow's Marketing department asked me to contribute some articles about the directing process to their blog. Now that the show is open, I wanted to gather them all in one place. They're written for a general audience, who hopefully appreciates theatre but doesn't necessarily participate in the industry. It's been a useful exercise to articulate what exactly it is we do.
In chronological order:
~PRE-PRODUCTION, in which I overheat my library card before rehearsals start.
~WEEK ONE, in which we start blocking and build the characters who should live in this world.
~WEEK TWO, in which we finish blocking, add a missing cast member, and add fight choreography.
~WEEK THREE, in which we move from the rehearsal room to the stage, and start putting our scripts away.
~TECH WEEK, in which we add lights/sound/costumes, tighten the show and switch stage managers.
~PREVIEWS and OPENING, in which I say goodbye to a talented group of people, who no longer need me (which was the plan all along).
Thanks for reading.
In 10th grade, my American History teacher (Ms. Roach) led a simulation/role-play dealing with “company towns”. We were all workers who took a job mining or manufacturing or whatnot in a remote location. We all worked for the Company, lived in Company houses, and shopped exclusively at the Company Store. During each round of the game, we might get pregnant or injured, choose to marry, or our rents/prices might go up.
The point of the game, of course, was to realize it’s rigged. The Company controlled wages and the price and supply of goods. Almost everyone quickly fell into debt-slavery, unable to leave while owing the Company money, unable to afford the ticket (on the Company train) back to where you came from. The only worthwhile strategy was to marry immediately and consolidate to one household. If both spouses worked, avoided injury and pregnancy (both random events in the game), you could break even for a little while.
A pretty weak “best outcome”.
Lately I’ve been thinking about that “worthwhile strategy” in regards to making a living as a theatre artist. Too many of my colleagues can’t afford to get sick, and certainly can’t afford to start a family. An interview with Charlotte Ford (revealing she’s stepping away from theatre to go back to school for speech pathology) seems to have sparked a vigorous public debate about how difficult it is to make a living as an artist, and what can be done about it.
I’ve seen an understandable response of “this is new news?” on Facebook from older artists. That it’s always like this.
That we all have to do something else for money.
That there’s a long history of people walking away from the arts, especially at major life milestones.
I’m not sure what’s different this time. Perhaps it’s the tightening and changing funding landscape(part of Charlotte’s motivation), or the fact that some Philadelphia institutions are in the news for financial challenges as well (specifically, Philadelphia Theatre Company and the Prince Music Theater). But whatever the reason, we’re getting press about it (both about those of us who are leaving/transitioning and those who are staying and forging ahead). More people will hopefully read and understand. The conversation is out in the open. And I have to believe that a public, collective conversation will get better results than not having that conversation.
When I was a senior in college, the Northwestern Theatre Department realized that they weren’t doing much to prepare us for the “Business” side of Show Business (a lot of colleges still fall short on that, it seems). NU’s stopgap solution was to invite some industry professionals to a few salons on different topics. The most memorable one for me was on unions. The three-person panel represented SAG, AFTRA, and Actor’s Equity Association. There was talk about the possible SAG/AFTRA merger, and explanations on how to join each union and what their roles are in an actor’s career. Like you'd expect.
But then the AEA member dropped a bomb on the conversation: for the last year he had data for (probably 2003 or some fiscal year around then), the average earnings for an AEA member from union work only totaled $6,000.
Now that average figure includes Equity members who have little or zero earnings because they mostly do film and TV, or mostly direct, or they’ve basically retired or moved on to other careers but haven’t given up their union membership. But even if you shave those data points off the bottom, how much could that average possibly rise? Even if it doubled, that’s still only $12k a year.
When I first moved into Philly after college, I ushered my ass off. I wanted to see who was doing what kind of work. It was a necessary education. I saw a lot of talented performers, many of whom I saw regularly all over town, including at the larger theatres. Years later, I’d meet and befriend some of these talented, hardworking folks, and be puzzled that they (sometimes) lived in a crappy house with 4 other people and complained about being broke all the time. “But you’re successful”, I thought to myself. “I saw you at the Wilma. How can you be broke?”
That was also a necessary education.
Clearly I had forgotten the $6000 figure. And I’d forgotten that the “show at the Wilma” was four years ago. I’m no longer confused by talented, locally-famous people being broke. It’s hard at almost every level, I realize now.
It's still a bit strange to look up to and envy the careers of people who are still struggling, though.
So it’s always been tough, and people leave every year. So what’s different this time? Perhaps one thing is there seems to be more of an effort to change things for the better than I was aware of ten years ago. I just finished reading a new local book “Making Your Life As An Artist”, available as a free PDF. I don’t agree with 100% of its contents, but I highly recommend it. I plan on reading it once a year, and I hope to take action and change myself from it. It challenges the standard poverty narrative and busy-busy-busy narrative of many artists.
Also, some Philadelphians organized a large conversation on Sustainability on June 23rd that was directly sparked by Charlotte Ford’s interview. I went, and was inspired that different ways, better ways, are possible. I hope the initiative can gain momentum and solve some of these problems. The video of the 2-hour conversation is available, along with links to other resources (click the square with three lines inside in the Upper Right corner to open the menu).
Reading the book and attending the event on Sustainability has made me think and dream about what actionable steps could help the community. Hopefully that will be my next post. But I’m off to sit outdoors and enjoy some Shakespeare.
“Sense & Sensibility” closed on June 1st, with nice big responsive crowds the final weekend. Thanks to all who came out. I haven’t had time to miss Hedgerow, however. I’ve been here all weekend directing a three-reading series titled “RECKLESS ENTERTAINMENT: The Humor of Noel Coward”. (Below is an example of the humor of Noel Coward that we did not include:)
[THE BACKSTORY: Hedgerow is making major improvements and renovations to the 1840 grist mill they perform in. They’ve already added a glass atrium to eventually become the new lobby and welcome center. And within hours of the final “Sense & Sensibility”, the theatre was stripped bare so the stone walls can be re-pointed with fresh mortar. So:]
For the month of June, Hedgerow is throwing a party up the hill! At the Farmhouse Studio (containing the costume shop, scene shop, offices and housing for the resident Fellows), a large room off the kitchen is the main space for rehearsals and classes. In 1985 the theatre burned down to the walls, and for years the “Big Room” was the only performance space they had. Last summer the Big Room hosted some short runs of solo performance and scene showcases, scheduled when the mainstage was dark. It was successful enough that they’re slowly rolling it out as a regular second performance space.
Last weekend I had the privilege of directing concert readings of Coward’s three best-known plays: “Private Lives” (Friday night), “Blithe Spirit” (Saturday night) and “Hay Fever” (Sunday matinee), featuring the Hedgerow company. The Farmhouse has a lovely porch on two sides which makes a charming and rustic open-air lobby, and there are obvious advantages to having a kitchen as your “green room” (even if the audience is constantly tiptoeing through to the shared bathroom). Wine, cheese and dessert served at each show. Each event was a cozy, casual party with fabulous actors speaking fabulous words.
Prior to rehearsals, I was tasked with bringing all the readings in under two hours, and cutting props and physical business from the dialogue. I’m rather pleased with the results. “Hay Fever” didn’t need a single stage direction announced, other than “Curtain” to button each act. I was the reader for the other two. I only read a brief description at the top of each act for “Private Lives”, and then contributed some Foley sound effects for the bits of domestic violence required by the plot (just a few slaps and a few shakes of a “crash box”). “Blithe Spirit” needed table thumping and more crashing, and one or two internal stage directions, but otherwise flowed just fine without much interruption from me.
You might be alarmed at the thought of doing Noel Coward without cigarettes or martinis or gramophone records. But the props are just the trappings. The heart of the “style” comes from the attitudes of the characters, and how they respond to their problems (or their brief moments between problems, ha). You remember the cigarette floating between the actor's fingers, but the real "style" was their hand on their hip, the arch of their eyebrow, and the way they dealt with their scene partner. And of course, the icing on top of the style: that perfectly poised wit that Coward is famous for (in some lines you can feel Noel accepting the mantle directly from Oscar Wilde).
I’m always a fan of cheeky titles. Both definitions of “blithe” are equally applicable to “Blithe Spirit”: “showing a lack of proper thought or care: not caring or worrying” and then also “happy and without worry”. And as a seasonal allergy sufferer, I see “Hay Fever” as absolutely being a reference to the annoying parts of that otherwise lovely and mood-lifting season, Spring.
It’s been a whirlwind process, with one four-hour rehearsal for each. Fortunately with such sharp casts I was able to end each rehearsal early. We basically had time to read through each scene, and choose a few moments to try again, where there was either some physical moment essential to the plot (=figuring out how to make that clear while standing at music stands with scripts), or the speech pattern wasn’t making the argument or the joke clear. But the maxim “Directing is 90% casting*” is never truer than with a concert reading, and I must say these readings were cast extremely well for the dual purposes of sharing these plays clearly and showcasing the Hedgerow company.
My “blocking” was basically an Excel spreadsheet, assigning the music stands as logically as I can (based on who talks to whom most), sometimes shuffling characters around based on exits and entrances. It also has the virtue of being a built-in “French scenes” character plot on the same single page.
In addition to cheap, low-time-commitment programming, there was another purpose to the weekend. Artistic Director Jared Reed (who also made a lovely Elyot Chase and Charles Condomine, and is one of my favorite brains in Philadelphia theatre: check out his podcast interview about the nature of comedy and Hedgerow's summer season) also wanted to test-drive all three plays for consideration in future seasons. The Wilma does this sort of thing regularly (especially useful for a theatre that frequently does unfamiliar work). I’m a fan of theatres involving their audiences in season planning (as long as it’s more useful than someone approaching you at an opening night and saying “You know what play you should do? [INSERT NAME OF PLAY THAT IS TOO EXPENSIVE OR OBVIOUSLY TOTALLY WRONG FOR THE THEATRE]").
I remember seeing a lovely “Hay Fever” at Hedgerow less than ten years ago, with Penelope Reed hitting it out of the park as Judith Bliss (which she effortlessly reprised in Sunday’s reading). “Private Lives” played so well at the Lantern recently and is also coming soon at the Walnut, so it’s getting a lot of exposure in the area. But I’ve never read or seen “Blithe Spirit” prior to working on this festival, and it made me laugh a great deal, so I’m hoping that rises to the top of Hedgerow’s pile in the next few years.
I actually meant to write this days ago, and post it in time to sell you intrepid “early fans” on attending all of them, but I was simply too busy. So I drafted this post late Saturday night after the “Blithe Spirit” reading, as I sat on the porch while the young company members stayed up arguing about baseball sabermetrics and whether Brick from “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof” is gay. But Sunday got busy and I didn’t post it until after the whole thing was over.
Consider this the part of the blog post where I tell you that it went swimmingly and you should feel mildly sad about missing out (unless of course you showed up).
Have you bought tickets for your next play yet?
*Or, if you’re frustrated, “Directing is 90% fixing the mistakes you made in casting”.
P.S. On a rehearsal break Saturday afternoon, Zoran (a veteran Hedgerow actor, set designer, and parking lot wizard) wondered aloud the origins of the surname “Coward”. It turns out it originally came from the job title of “cattle guard”, and they actually needed to be quite brave! BOOM. FACT-BOMB.
P.P.S. Even if Noel Coward wasn’t one of the greatest British playwrights and popular composers of his generation, he would still have a special place in my heart for his role in “The Italian Job”:
If you’ve only seen the remake (what remake? They stole the title and wrote a completely different movie set in the USA), you need a strong dose of Michael Caine, STAT.
I’m in the 5th week of a 6-week run of “Sense & Sensibility”, adapted from the Jane Austen novel. It’s a great group of people to put on a show with, and I’m always glad to be back at Hedgerow (a few blocks from where I grew up).
I read the novel (my first time reading Austen) without knowing which role I’d be. Normally when Jared Reed (Hedgerow's Artistic Director) is directing me in an adapted novel, I’m one of the actors frantically changing costumes and playing all the “character-y” supporting roles. I even tried to bribe Jared (with a dollar) if I was allowed to play Mr. Palmer, a hilariously rude minor role (hit out of the park by Hugh Laurie in the 1995 film).
But to my surprise he cast me as Colonel Brandon. Not only do I get to stay in the same character (and costume) the whole show, but I’ve never played a romantic role without also being some sort of comedic doofus. But, I think part of Jane Austen’s point is that (WARNING: VAGUE SORT-OF SPOILER ALERT) the dashing gentleman sometimes isn’t all he’s cracked up to be, and the awkward boring fellows might be worth taking a second look at. She’s essentially wrote some romantic roles for character actors. It’s been an interesting challenge.
I’m happy with the work we’ve done, and audiences seem to like it. We even had a review titled “I hated Jane Austen, But I Loved This” which made me smile. The adaptation (by director Jon Jory) is quite good, it streamlines the story and gives us these pulses of scene that drive us through this eventful period for the Dashwood family.
A few weeks ago we had a talkback with a group of boosters who help out Hedgerow, often above and beyond simply attending the shows. These are important supporters of the theatre, and we’re lucky to have them. Jared talked about his affinity for adapted novels on stage (which I absolutely share), and how Jane Austen in particular offers better roles for women than a lot of plays based on novels (my first ever experience with Austen in any form was seeing Hedgerow’s “Pride & Prejudice” a year ago).
Several other issues came up, and at one point an open call for feedback was put to the few men who stayed for the talkback. One cheerfully shrugged and said:
I believe his general point was to that it was well done, but not really meant for him. And, ok, I get it. I made a few remarks in response to that, but his comment stuck with me, so I’m going to include a revised version of what I said below, along with some other points that I didn’t think of at the time (but let’s pretend I did, and said it all with eloquence and panache).
So what exactly makes “Sense & Sensibility” a “chick play”? Merely that the main characters are women? I didn’t grill the audience member on this, but I bet that was a large part of it.
There are a lot of stories in the world’s history. Most of them are by and about men. Women in Western culture are naturally able to identify with a male protagonist, because they’ve often had to their entire lives. Society has trained them to be okay with that. Men have never needed to spend much effort identifying with stories of women, because there are so many stories about men lying around. So when women latch onto books or other media that are about their experience and speak to them, it’s easy for us men to dismiss that as “chick lit” and go back to the rest of the bookshelves. [I realized I just oversimplified a very large issue. Welcome to the blogosphere.]
This is starting to change, slowly. A few months ago, TIME magazine had a worthwhile article about how publishers and movie studios are realizing that there are a lot of young women who will pay money to see someone who looks like them kick ass. Thus we have the “Hunger Games” books/movies, as well as the “Divergent/Insurgent/Detergent” trilogy of books/movies.
Representation is proving especially challenging in theatre. We know women make up more than 50% of theatre audiences, and are even more likely than men to be the “decision makers” for the couple/family to attend. So you would think that stories about women would be filling half our stages every year. But because men aren’t trained to go along with a female “journey” on stage, even female artistic directors and literary managers haven’t been championing new plays by women the way you might expect. And the classics are what they are: their unfortunate gender ratios are set, so your choices are to cast across gender or otherwise change the text or your concept.
Let me change gears and talk about a different show. Jared Reed has directed me in several shows at Curio Theatre Company, which he co-founded. One of my favorites was “Great Expectations”, which Jared adapted himself. He first directed it at Hedgerow about 15 years ago, but revived (with a few extra cuts) at Curio in 2011, and at Curio I had the pleasure of playing Jaggers, Orlick, and Bentley Drummle. It was a great ensemble, and I had tears in my eyes during the final curtain call.
So what’s going on in “Great Expectations”? Here’s a list off the top of my head:
Love, rivalries for affection, rejection and heartbreak
Money, class, and social status
Young people growing up and forming a more mature sense of the world and people around them
…sounds a bit like “Sense & Sensibility” to me.
But nobody goes around saying, “Dickens is such a ‘dude’ writer. ‘Great Expectations’ is ‘dude lit’.” It’s just a great work of fiction. It doesn't need a categorizing label (sure, okay, "coming-of-age story").
Yes, okay, Dickens has more “action”. Escaped convicts, manhunts, a fistfight or two, an old lady catching fire in her wedding dress, and far more characters die in it than in Austen. I’ll admit that the first seven or so chapters of “Sense” (mercifully slimmed down by Jory for the stage) were a slog for me, and I worried the whole book would be equally slow. I admit I cheered briefly when Marianne messed up her ankle (“Finally, something HAPPENED”).
But is “Sense & Sensibility” a “chick play” because it doesn’t have enough explosions and fistfights (which YouTube has SOLVED for you, by the way) or because it focuses on female characters? Or are both necessary? And by calling it a “chick play”, are we implying that most men don’t/shouldn’t value stories of women, or that stories of love/money/class/social status aren’t things men care about?
Perhaps it’s the order of priorities, since love and attachments are the main focus in Austen, while love is just one of many issues Pip works out in his coming-of-age story. Both books are about equally chaste (there's multiple out-of-wedlock births in the Austen, and none I believe in the Dickens), and I got through “Great Expectations” just fine without my gonads shriveling up, so a love story can be valid for guys even if there’s no sex included.
[SIDEBAR: I’ll admit I find Dickens the better writer, but let’s ignore any subjective gap in quality and call it a wash, since both have survived to be read to this day. So I don’t think we can excuse labeling “Sense & Sensibility” as “chick lit” to imply it’s inferior, or that it’s only popular because it appeals to women and not because it’s any good.
And even when that happens, when a play or movie is popular because of successfully targeting female audiences while the rest of us judge its quality and find it wanting, can we throw stones? When we still have such a dearth of stories about women, can we blame some of them for being so hungry to see themselves in a story that they embrace something we’d consider an inferior product?]
So let’s be mindful when we’re quick to call stories about women “chick lit” or “chick plays” or “chick flicks”, while stories about men are just “books”, “plays” and “movies”. It implies that male stories are the norm or the core, and the modifier “chick” segregates all of that as something other than the norm. And guys, let’s be a little more open to the huge chunk of our culture that sometimes gets that modifier.
Just don’t be this guy:
Men, start broadening your horizons today by getting a ticket to… “Sense & Sensibility”! [What did you think I wouldn’t finish with a plug?] It closes Sunday, June 1st. Parking is free, and if you call in advance we’ll even pick you up from the train. Come on out.
For the first blog post on this site, I needed an experienced hand at the tiller. So I'm bringing in a pro.
Just when I thought I couldn't be a bigger fan of this script or this writer, she goes and posts on her own blog about the script and its past and its present. Enjoy.