Part 2: Leadership, softball, and the theatre

Another thing I get from watching softball, (see “What can the arts learn from softball?”) is how all these egos can work toward one main goal: to play well and win the game. Yes, there are egos involved that may take a person to private goals such as striving for personal best statistics, but I think it is important to have a well-developed but realistic ego so you know what you are good at and where you need work. Yes, these sportswomen know they are excellent at this sport and part of their mission in life is to impart this fact to the rest of us in the world. Ego is a good thing, as long as you don’t get caught up in your own or anyone else’s drama that ego often generates. The ego is not you. It is only an indication of how you think of yourself.

What emerges from those whose ego takes them to something larger than how they played the last game, is to have some notion of keeping the game going. Not the individual game, but the whole notion of the game. In softball, it is important to win and to be the national champions and all that hoopla, but what is larger is that those watching are entertained enough to want to watch another game and then to watch next season and then to look forward to softball at the 2020 Olympics. Somebody, back in the day, thought more about football than college rivalries and so little by little, the NFL now hosts a huge audience and seeks to keep it as the all-American sport. Which, by the way, used to be baseball.

So our idea is to keep the theatre going. It has come this far, from back when cavemen might have enacted the day’s hunt, but there have always been times when some loudmouth declares “Theatre is dead!” It isn’t. It is still here because besides winning Tonys, the theatre people often see what they do as part of the larger picture: to keep the game of theatre going on. Tony awards, then, do more than give a person a statuette, it also celebrates the excellence in this conglomeration of arts and keeps moving it the bar upward and theatre, despite the terrifying ticket prices, is alive and well and thriving.

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What can the arts learn from softball?

I’m watching softball—the Women’s College World Series—and have watched almost every game that led up to the Championship. Even the one that went 17 innings. I’m a fan.

I like softball for many reasons, mostly because I get it, more than I get baseball. I can see what the pitcher is doing. People get more hits. When the ball leaves the infield, I can follow it right out of the park, because everything is closer in softball and the softball is big.

Best, though, are the backstories about coaching and players, why they play, what they hope to gain, and underneath it all, what leadership means in a way that really counts.

How do you keep a squad of people, each with their own reasons for playing, focused on a larger goal? Each has personal goals—an extension of their career in the pros, coaching a team of their own, going into sports management, or into a career in politics or medicine or whatever they can bring all they learned about working together to bear on changing the country and maybe the world.

There is talk by the announcers of “leadership” in the team. A pitcher usually has it. You’ll often hear a winning pitcher credit her teammates, that she was successful only because they “have her back.” They talk of loving the game.

A regular player often emerges as a leader, just by igniting the team’s enthusiasm for playing the game. Kaitlin Lee, Ole Miss’s ace pitcher, does this. Just watch her in the circle, smiling, even dancing, acknowledging everyone on the field, making everyone feel like they are really contributing, and they are, maybe even surprising themselves as to how far they came in the run up to the World Series.

The coaches, of course, are cited as leaders. Larger goals, those beyond winning the next game, may come from the head coach. Besides instilling good sportsmanship and developing innate skills, the coach needs to do it to enhance the reputation of the college for its commitment to sports as a way to develop students, and to keep money flowing in to support those efforts.

Some coaches, the really great ones, do it for something even higher: to keep the game going. If you win this season, loads of people will be watching next season to see how your team does, and then may look to the Pros to watch softball at an even higher level. The game gets its own webcasting channel you can watch almost every game on. Softball gets stronger and more popular. Even better players are then developed by even better coaches and the audience for the game grows. It is even going to be part of the Olympics in 2020.

So the performing arts? Keeping it going? Of course, every hit show on Broadway makes that the theatre capital in the USA. Every time there is a good production of a significant play or musical, it makes the theatre popular and thus, stronger. It doesn’t happen just in New York. Just as community theatre is a local place to see those same shows put on by your neighborhood talent, regional theatre boosts the non-Broadway appetite for theatrical excellence.

Everyone, pro or not, who pays attention to details that make the production memorable, keeps the game going. The theatre will be stronger in the community, in the region, on Broadway, in London or Delhi or Beijing, because of the care of the theatre coach who keeps everyone inspired and working to their potential by seeing how each individual contribution makes the whole better. The leader lets each person bring out their unique and individual talent for the good of the whole production.

And the leader can come from anywhere. It isn’t always the person being paid to lead. You could be a leader by doing your job well and communicating your intentions to make this the best show you have ever done. It happens when you set an example by listening and seeing and understanding what those around you are doing, cheering them on by picking up where they leave off. You know it isn’t all about you, but what talent you bring to the production makes the whole better, especially if everyone else “has your back,” which they will when they see you have theirs.

The game of theatre goes on, way past an individual ambition to be a Broadway star. It becomes timeless because of the efforts of those who see beyond.

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What are you doing this summer?

Something to do with theatre, I hope. What? You haven’t a clue about how to include the performing arts with all that hanging out and chilling you plan to do?

Check out these four short but pithy (and inexpensive) handbooks for performing arts students (and their teachers) that have suggestions and ways of looking at ordinary summer things with your real goals in mind. These are things you might be doing anyway, so why not turn them into a learning experience that won’t feel like you are still in school. Like how hanging out with your friends can be an acting exercise. Like how arranging your sock drawer can be an exercise to develop your talent.

Here’s what you should do

Get a jump on summer right now. Even if it isn’t summer, there is plenty of information and inspiration to get going with your performing arts career right now. Go to Kindle and buy all four handbooks. Buy the handbooks and get your brain synapses firing before too much leisure time gets you stupefied.

Need to know more?

Here are the handbooks and their descriptions. There are also audio clips of me reading a short sample. Click “Listen to a sample . . . .” Click the title link or the “buy now” link to go directly to the handbook on Kindle.

Coming soon: MP3 audio versions of the four handbooks.

  1. Making your Summer Count

The structure of school breaks down in the summer, and many of us are left adrift. Here are ten practical things you can do to bring some of that structure back and to put focus on your art. Turn your summer reading into insight and inspiration and what you do outside of theatre into artistic exercises.

Listen to a sample . . .                                                                                 . . . buy now on Kindle

  1. Turning the Corner this Summer

So here you are. Another summer. And you are facing crossroads. You may already know you’d like to move on in the performing arts. You’re the person who shows up at auditions, volunteers on Saturdays to build and paint sets, or you help to hang and focus lighting instruments. You even bring costumes home to sew (or foist off on your poor mother to sew), or maybe even direct scenes for your actor-classmates. But how to prepare for what’s next for you?

Think about turning all those fuzzy ambitions into something focused. How will you choose which path to take? If you know where you are going, you’ll know which corner to turn to get there.

What can having focus do for you? It is knowing what you want to do with your life and having realistic goals for getting there.  It is planning. It is developing healthy habits. It is recognizing your strengths and building on them.

In this handbook, you’ll find some easy things you can do in your free time, this summer, or whenever you have a block of time, to help you focus on moving toward a career in the performing arts. Things like setting goals, making lists, setting up a portfolio or résumé, developing artistic taste, and other activities that will point you in the right direction and get you out of the crossroads and on to the path that leads to your right destiny.

Listen to a sample . . .                                                                                 . . . buy now on Kindle

  1. Zen and the Art of Summer

Summer is more than working and relaxing for the up-and-coming artist, and I want to give students a different perspective, one from a higher plane. Sort of as Yoda in Star Wars said: “There is no try. Only do.” Very Zen.

The idea behind the short handbook, Zen and the Art of Summer, is to give young artists a way to see what they are doing on a more mindful level. No, it isn’t a lesson about Zen or eastern philosophy, but it does clue you in that what you do today matters for a future career. That you can chill with your friends, but if you do it mindfully, you may all be contributing to each other’s artistic well-being.

Listen to a sample . . .                                                                                 . . . buy now on Kindle

  1. Using Summer to Get Ready for Fall

Fall, for the performing arts student, opens whole new possibilities. There might be the fall musical to try out for or work backstage on, to help choreograph or design. Maybe this is your last year of high school or college and you are seriously facing that Big Transition into the world of finding your place in it, perhaps making a living while you search for work in your field. Or you may already be in the Big Transition.

This can be daunting, or it can be part of your Grand Plan. I guarantee it will be daunting, especially if you don’t bother making a Grand Plan.

There is no one answer or one way that fits everyone, but this handbook will give you ways to prepare for the next step. From help with planning for tryouts, how to plan for being on your own, or how to find the right college, you’ll get some serious tips in the fall handbook, the last in the summer series.

Listen to a sample . . .                                                                                 . . . buy now on Kindle

 

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Even your agent rejected you? That could mean you’re on your way

OK, so here’s the thing about rejection. We all get rejected and some rejections are worse than others. We get picked last for the volleyball team in phys. ed. Big deal, since we could care less about sports, but we feel the sting anyway.

We don’t get picked for the lead in the school play. Bigger deal, but we understand that there were other kids with more experience.

A boy or girl you like asks someone else to the Prom. Bigger deal still, since you had dated and you had every reason to think it was working out.

You are the experienced kid who everyone thought was a shoe-in for the lead in the high school play, but you ended up in the chorus. You are devastated. Bigger and bigger is this deal, and more painful the sting.

The love of your life leaves you. Biggest deal yet. You are heartbroken. Recovery time is gonna be long and painful. It is way past a mere sting.

Your agent no longer wants to represent you. Devastating, like falling off a cliff. And while you are in free-fall, you here those damned voices again, your Furies forcing you to agonize over all sorts of awful things. What did I do wrong? What is it about me? Am I not talented at all? Will I never have a career in theatre? Will I really have to get a full time job in some stuffy office where I’ll never be able to laugh or cry or be at all real?

Well, yeah. Sometimes life sucks. But here’s the thing I promised that could make it easier: WE ALL DEAL WITH REJECTION. If we didn’t experience rejection, we wouldn’t know the joy of being picked.

The other thing is: Don’t look around for something or someone to blame. Blame has nothing to do with it. Blame only keeps the downward spiral going and you and those damned Furies hounding you into the bowels of Hell!

So what do you do now?

You hurt. You experience the hurt, but without blaming yourself or your agent. Your agent needs to make a living and you, by not landing any audition he sent you to, are not helping his career.

The other side of that is, you need to make a living and by not landing any audition he sent you to, you got to see that maybe he isn’t the right agent for you.

So what do you do now?

Allow yourself to feel as bad as you can. That’s right. Scrunch up your eyes, make fists, and bring up all those bad feelings. Got it? How long can you keep your focus on that bad black hole? Not long.

It is too hard to keep that level of intensity going. All you can keep going is to make up stuff, letting your Furies think all sorts of made-up thoughts about the incident. These Furies would like to keep you thinking all sorts of things–true and not true–about the rejection, anything to keep it going, and sure enough, you can conjure up even more terrible feelings just by thinking more terrible thoughts.

Or.

  1. Take a deep breath. Take another. Dismiss the very next Furies thought and clear your mind of everything.
  2. Next, take this rejection and see what you can do with it. Look at it to understand how it wasn’t working.

You can only move on when you recognize this is a crossroads, and that there is no going back to business as usual. You need to do some things differently. Your job is to find out what you can tweak or change outright. For instance, if you were going on auditions for cute-young-thing parts and you were showing up with torn tee-shirts or bad makeup, try dressing for the part you are trying out for.

Maybe the material you are working with (scripts, monologues, special acting/workshop appearances) isn’t right for you. See if someone you trust can give you an honest assessment and change the material.

Maybe if you get who you are and what you are going for, you will realize the agent you had was not right for your goals. Find one who is. Do your research. Ask around.

Maybe this rejection is telling you what you have already glimpsed about yourself, deep down away from the blinding light of reason. Now is the time to bring it up. Should you be working in regional theatre instead of trying for a Broadway role? Do you need more acting classes?

Maybe you should consider that acting isn’t right for you and that you could, with a little more experience and education, be a stage manager and then aim for directing? Maybe your talent and interest really lay in design?

This is your golden opportunity to find other ways of breaking in. Talk to people who have done it. Read Martha Beck’s Finding your own North Star. Get a new direction to go in.

Oh, yeah. And wipe those tears. They are clouding your vision.

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Is higher education right for you? How to find the best fit

o mind here, as well as Viola Davis and many others. But don’t start writing your acceptance speech just yet. First, get the skills and practice you need, and that may mean higher education.

What is right for you here and now, based on what you’ve achieved so far, what skills you’ve mastered, and your temperament (are you outgoing or a bit of an introvert like me?) may work fine in high school, but college will most likely be a different experience. And you may need even more skills to hold your own.

How does that translate into where to get a higher education? Here are some things to keep in mind as you look for the where you belong:

  • Large or small?
  • Are you sure about what your specialty may be? If not, maybe a large performing arts department will give you the chance to dabble a bit before landing on what is right for you.
  • If you are sure about your talents and interests, do you know which of the colleges you are considering will give you the background to become your kind of professional? If you don’t know, now is the time to:
    • Research what professionals in your field actually do, and what courses they suggest you take.
    • List courses that you have to take. Then list courses you’d like to take.
    • Compare your course list to those offered at the universities, colleges, and conservatories you are considering.

Not sure whether a university, college, or conservatory is right for you? Read on.

University

You like crowds? You like being surrounded by loads of people who are either as competitive as hell or think higher education is a marking time device? Or large departments with lots of research, taught by people who have worked in the performing arts? A large and maybe prestigious theatre, film, dance, and music departments with plenty of people to compete with for the lead role? I’m sure Jessica Chastain could hold her own in that environment, but what about what you need? Is it too big, too impersonal? Too competitive?

College

College. Something smaller, with more personal attention, where it isn’t about competition but rather about picking up the skills and techniques you need. Now we are going from the large university, to something smaller and maybe more manageable: colleges within the university or stand-alone colleges.

Colleges—maybe something called the College of the Performing Arts—might be part of a large university, where you can get the university life along with personal attention. Or, as was my college, a liberal arts stand-alone college with a major in theatre.

With either a university or a college, you can earn a four-year degree, such as Bachelor of Fine Arts.

Don’t forget the two-year college, but if you want to go on to a four-year degree, be sure you know what courses will transfer and what courses are required for the degree from the four-year college you’re thinking about.

Conservatory

A conservatory is a place where excellence in the arts is at its core and it’s smaller than a university. You’ll take some general education courses, but nowhere near the requirements of the university and college degrees. A conservatory concentrates on the arts and the skills you need to achieve a career in the performing arts. Jessica Chastain and Viola Davis both went to Julliard, a conservatory. You get a degree, but your education is pretty much condensed to what you need to be a good artist. You spend more time on your art and less on academics. My niece, Sara, went to a conservatory (SCAD), and she is a bright, outgoing, talented, educated person, and has gotten the skills she needs to not only act, but to get into the profession of acting.

Liberal arts

Here comes my bias. A liberal arts college with emphasis on your art, is something any artist ought to consider.

At the heart of art, of making something that asks people to think about their lives, to feel empathy for other people’s trials, and to feel emotions in perhaps a stronger way than most people do in the course of their daily existence, an artist has to understand about the civilizations humans have created and evolved over time and why. Why do they change?

How do you make art that moves people? How do you capture someone’s soul, then recreate it for others in the way that moves them? By knowing what it is to be human. That takes education, observation, empathy, and thinking. Now we are talking about the kind of courses that takes in history, literature, music, science, psychology, philosophy, and the host of achievements and failures of human existence. A liberal arts–generalized studies–helps enormously in understanding what you are creating, why, what form it might take, how it fits in today’s civilization, and where it might be tomorrow.

If you found that last sentence out of your realm of expectations, maybe you are aiming too low. As Les Brown (motivational speaker) said, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

Get the wisdom from choices already made

Ask your coach/teachers, guidance counselors, and people who have gone ahead of you what you need for the next level. Ask them to help you see things realistically.

I follow Sara and some of her friends on Facebook, and am able to see where the twists and turns their choices take them, and it is enlightening. The point is, ask for help in deciding what comes next. Ask others about their experiences and see how that might affect your decisions.

Your decision: are you up for it?

My liberal arts bias aside, what your authentic person wants to do is personal. It is up to you. At the heart of this kind of decision making shouldn’t be: What would Jessica or Viola do? But what do you need, right now, to get to the next level? What do you want to do? What is your next level?

Keep at it. You don’t make this kind of decision overnight. Know yourself, what makes you get up in the morning, what feels right, what you need to get where you’re going, and what kind of environment you need to get there. This is not about what your friends need or even your parents or teachers. This is not a right or wrong decision. It is a decision that needs self-knowledge, self-awareness, and mindfulness to make.

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5 How the audience responds to focus

The audience sits. Waits. Lights come up on a group of actors, some sitting on stools, some standing on platforms of varying heights. All have scripts in their hands. The audience leans forward in anticipation. Let the scene begin! It does. The audience leans back. The characters aren’t looking at each other. There is a narrator. What is this?  they think. Yet another version of Our Town?

The scene progresses. The readers aren’t really reading but it isn’t like a play where they look at each other and speak memorized lines. Instead, they glance briefly at the script and look up over the audience’s heads. Not at each other. What is going on? Why aren’t the characters looking at each other the way they’re supposed to?

What is going on is that in Readers Theatre, most often, the actors use an offstage focus to better let the audience know that this is not a staged play but a reading and that the text is what matters and is what they are recreating for them. It is a genuine tool of this art form that what the author wrote, the context, the ideas, the themes, the vivid characters, setting descriptions, all must be recreated in the minds of the audience.

Onstage focus, the kind where character talks to character by looking at each other, lets the audience know that the action is happening on the stage.

In Readers Theatre, we want what is happening to be pictured, not reenacted. Theatre of the Mind. Offstage focus.

Presentational theatre

In many plays we’ve seen, the audience needs to believe what is happening on stage is really happening. Call it realism. Or naturalism. Suspend all disbelief for a few hours. You came in through a lobby, down an aisle, maybe music playing to get you into the right frame of mind. You sit. You wait. You are in some halfway house, being prepped to accept what is coming. The house lights go down and the stage lights come up. You already know what your roll is. You paid good money to be lulled into another world, one that is unraveling right in front of you. You believe that you are peering into someone’s life and that you get to see and feel and hear what they are seeing and feeling and hearing, and that you believe, for the length of the play and until the house lights come up again, that it is happening right here, right now. In front of you.

Representational theatre

In a conventional play, in presentational theatre, you know the audience’s role. But what if, just as you get into the scene, one of the actors bursts into a cowboy song? Now the game has changed. We were just in someone’s living room, but the walls fade away and one of the characters, a woman, puts on a cowboy hat and sings a lullaby to the other character, also a woman. But she is looking out over the audience, not at the other character. We know who she’s singing to by facial expression, movement, and how the other character is reacting, even though both are looking out over the audience in the same spot, visualizing the scene in their heads and from their character’s point of view.

Realism is gone with representational theatre. Presenting an actual, naturalistic scene is no longer desirable in representational theatre. Here, the audience is forced to come out of its conventional complacency and to actively take part in what is happening. To make sense of it. They are reminded that this is just a play, but one, apparently, that wants to shake them up. To make sense of what they are seeing, they have to participate.

Readers Theatre as a representational art form

Readers Theatre wants to recreate a literary work in the minds of the audience. It does not ask the audience to believe what is happening on stage is really happening, that a fourth wall has been removed so that the audience feels like it is eavesdropping on a reality show.

In Readers Theatre, we don’t ask the audience to believe that what they are seeing is really happening. Instead, we want them to see what is happeningꟷthe scenes, the plot, the charactersꟷis all happening in their minds. We don’t want them to look in on it. We want them to participate in what we, the actors/readers see in our minds and are recreating for them.

How does focus work?

Pick a logical spot out over the audience, where each scene is going to be played. When characters interact or the narrator comments, it is done looking at that particular place. Every time the scene changes, so does the focal point. Here are simple pictures of onstage and offstage focus:

focus

Let’s try it. I’m still working with The Charge of the Light Brigade and I have three groups of actors who are the soldiers. Group 1 is sitting downstage right. Group 2 is on a platform upstage center. Group 3 is sitting downstage left. All three groups are looking straight ahead, focusing over the audience.

No one sees the whole valley and what is to come, yet, except Lord Raglan, off by himself. The soldiers are about to realize they are surrounded. They don’t even realize they are in a valley yet.

I am going to help the audience picture just when the soldiers do see they are in a valley and that they are surrounded. I’ll do it through focus.

When the poem gets to the third stanza each group reacts by changing the offstage focus:

Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them

Volleyed and thundered;

Now Group 1 looks off over the audience left and they look up and down at the valley walls and react to the bursts of cannon coming from that place. Group 3 looks off right, and Group 2 stays with the center focus. The actors/readers show fear and confusion through facial expressions and body attitudes and we begin to see the walls of the valley betraying the soldiers.

The audience is now able to picture the valley and can see in their minds the soldiers are surrounded. This, without the actors having to move from their stools.

We are asking the audience to picture what we are reading in their minds, not on the stage.

There’s more to staging Readers Theatre, of course. Next time: More about movement.

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Working hard this summer

Yesterday, I published my third summer handbook for you performing arts students who want to do something toward building a career.

The handbooks are funny, chatty, and full of practical and maybe even spiritual things to do that will make your summer mean more to your future than only hanging out would do.

And I realized that the opposite is true, too. That working all the time to establish yourself as a theatre and performing artist, is kinda out of balance, too. That’s when I said, “Aha!” because here I was, publishing the handbook, writing this blog, planning my next podcast, and wondering when I’ll have time to get to the grocery store. (My two dwarf rabbits are almost out of greens! Call 911!)

So what should I do? Cut back on my work? Yes. Do less? Yes. Do work in the morning? Yes. Shop for bunny food in the afternoons? Clean the house? Yes, yes.

But what is missing from this self-assessment is that nowhere do I list what fun things I can do every day. I need to relax every day. Smell the roses (if only I had time to plant any). I need a good way to Chill that doesn’t involve food or Candy Crush.

Hmmm. Can I count television? Probably not. Much as I enjoy television, I watch it from a drama critic’s point of view. Same for movies. More work.

So what to do? Any suggestions?

Meanwhile, check out my work: the handbooks on Kindle.  The one I just published is called Zen and the Art of Summer, where you can get laid-back helpful hints on arts activities and what to do to relax. They could help you out of whatever funk you may be in.

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The Blame Game and the Playwright

I’d like to blame it all on the person who is in charge of our readers theatre group. She tanked my play reading.

We all love to place blame and who can blame us? Blame must be found somewhere and it surely can’t be heaped on ourselves. Blaming ourselves would make us less than perfect (human, in other words) and would attract all sorts of negative vibrations lurking about the universe. Can’t have that. So let’s blame someone else.

Blame for what?

My group staged a reading for the board of directors of the community theatre that has agreed to produce it. My play had a very bad reading for the board. We read the play so the board could decide whether to produce it next spring. We read the play after a work day, after a two-hour board meeting, and in a room so dimly lighted, you could barely read the scripts. Also, (back to blame) it was miscast, un-directed, under-rehearsed, and just plain boring. Very little acting. Very little expression in that dim light. I was mortified. Poor me! And I wasn’t to blame!

Or was I.

My first take, blaming myself after all, was that how did I not know that I wrote a play that was too boring for words?

But wait.

How did blame get into this at all? Nothing to be gained by placing blame. To cast about to find culprits to heap blame upon, even myself, does absolutely nothing but make everyone feel bad. In this blame game, there are winners. If there are winners, there are also losers.

Winners and losers does not make the play more producible.

First, it wasn’t a successful reading. Second, the audience was bored to tears. That is the truth of it, and to acknowledge it, is not the same as placing blame.

Why didn’t it work? Is a better question than trying to assign blame. Because if I ask that question, it all comes right back to me. But not to blame me, but to see what I can learn about this magnificent failure.

Why?

Because I lost control of the project and I gave it away willingly. I knew down deep where I live, that reading the play without much rehearsal in a dimly lighted room, by a cast who had no experience with this kind of thing, to a handful of people who had just had a two-hour meeting also in this deadly dim room at night, after a their day jobs, was never a good idea.

Nor was me directing it a good idea. I needed to learn and see for myself what a director might make of the play. The thing is, the person who insisted on taking the directing away from me and direct it herself, did no job at all: called two rehearsals, had two read-throughs, and dismissed everyone without so much as a note for improvement.

But I gave it away, all because I didn’t want to direct it, with all the work that brings. I wanted to be finished with this project, to move on to writing the next play, which already has a good start.

The administrative side to the arts has to ask, “If I make this choice, what will happen to the product or service? What will happen to the customers or clients?”

I didn’t ask that and that is at the heart of this failure. Not to direct it, to make it as good a performance as we were able, was to let it fail.

Playwright’s responsibility

My responsibility, if I am going to bring a new art work into this world, is to give it the best launch possible.

The thing about writing is that the writer’s administrative responsibilities flow all through the process and the process consists of much more than writing. The writing, the product, is only the beginning, because what good is that product if it doesn’t do what it was meant to do. A car is made to get a person from place-to-place safely.

A play is meant to be acted and be seen, to hold up some kind of mirror to what it means to be human.

And all of that means, you must follow the whole process, all of it, pleasant or unpleasant.

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Absorbing the slings and arrows

My play is getting a reading and maybe even a full-blown production. That’s nice.

I am getting criticism at every turn. That’s nice.

The play is still being tweaked by my readers. One fellow, a natural-born fact checker, found two historical mistakes. I welcomed that. Things can get by an author.

There were more comments, of course. These generous people were helping make the play better by pointing out what didn’t work for them and what did. For the first time ever, I allowed myself to hear the good, as well as the bad.

I also realized these comments weren’t directed at me. In other words, I am not the play. It is a thing “out there” and is a kind of product that I brought into being.

But lately, some comments have been sharp and seemed to be aimed at me, personally. “Oh, you can’t direct like that. Our people just want to do it the way we always do it.” These weren’t the exact words, but how I interpreted them. What our leader who said them meant that she would direct the play herself. I felt the usual shame and inner dialogue: “Why didn’t I get it perfect! What’s wrong with me! I can’t write worth a damn!” Notice how “I”, or my ego has gotten right in the middle of this. It is “me” who isn’t worth a damn, etc etc.

And outside the play criticism, I have taken hits. We are to give a kind of holiday performance. “Something entertaining! Skits!” our leader urged us. “Something fun!”

I had always wanted to read A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. The language is so rich and flowing, it is perfect for oral interpretation. “No, no,” sternly, and giving me the up-and-down look reserved for a fashion faux pas. “Too highbrow.” Said like no matter what I suggested, it would go right over the audience’s heads. Said like, “I’ve got your number, you… you intellectual!”

Again, I felt shame. Why couldn’t I be just a regular person and like what everybody likes? Nothing wrong with skits except they bore me silly.

Again, I put “me” right in it.

And then, talking to a non-theatre friend about the play and the rehearsals and how I’m designing a new web site for my plays and novels, her cheery comment was how much she admired how “busy” I kept myself. I was some poor creature who needed a good pat on the head for staying out of trouble.

Good grief! “Busy?” I am dealing with meaningful art, I hope, and have set about inspiring others to pursue their goals in the performing arts, and to have some success of my own in the arts.

But once again, “me” got right in the middle of it.

But even as I felt bad, I had to admit that things are changing. I wallowed in my misery, all right, but this time it didn’t last. In the past, it would be weeks, months, a year, before I could bring myself to write anything. I wasn’t cutting it. I was being ridiculed as a pretender. Poor me!

No matter what my ego was whispering, I could not sustain the misery of feeling ashamed and believing I had no right to a life in art. It went away, even as my ego struggled to keep it going. Instead, I had to wonder if I was clairvoyant or something that I was so sure I knew that people were talking about my shortcomings 24/7. Am I really that important to people? Nope. That’s just storytelling.

But being told I kept “busy” forced me to reconsider my goals. I read them over and even my ego couldn’t dismiss any of them as “busy.” Therefore “busy” has nothing to do with my true self and Martha Beck’s North Star that I’m following. But this episode did prompt me to strengthen my goals and my resolve to see them through. And to see there can be a good side of criticism.

I have come to realize that I am an artist, maybe not a household name, but I am creative and can write fairly well and am getting better all the time. For every writer (even the great Steven Sondheim) knows it could always be better, which inspires one to get on with the next play or novel or blog or whatever.

The other effects of criticism

What has changed for me about these critical hits is that:

  1. I now find these comments only mildly annoying.
  2. The comments exist outside of my true self.
  3. I can make things better/different in some way because of them.
  4. There are just as many positive comments, but this time, I am listening to those, too.
  5. (DRUM ROLL!) The hidden good news underneath these comments and criticism, harsh or mild, have nothing to do with my true self, but all to do with the fact that I am in the game. I am a player. I have something “out there” that has gotten notice. I am creating things that other people have seen.

I win!

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The community part of community theatre

My community theatre is where I am thriving. After too many years trying to make a living away from theatre, now that I am retired, I’m back with a vengeance to make up for lost time. I found just the place to do it: community theatre. I act, direct, and write. What more could I ask for? And I get plenty of support and encouragement from everyone there.

Community theatre is a natural outgrowth of the Little Theatre movement (1930s-1940s). Little theatres sprung up all over the US in protest against formulaic plays, as the ever popular melodramas were (don’t knock ‘em – there’s plenty of pot-boilers on TV that are so much fun.) And the theatre Syndicate not only dictated what was produced on Broadway, but monopolized touring companies and owned most of the theatres these shows would play in. You see where the bottom line comes in.

Community theatres will often do plays that were hits on Broadway, but many of them, like my Flagler Playhouse, are open to developing new artistic endeavors. We have a group of over-50 that does readers theatre with a flair and with theatrical experience behind us. The Playhouse has an education program in the summer to develop young talent and is now expanding to develop new playwrights, just as many of the original little theatres did.

Enter me. I have written a site-specific play that the Playhouse is very willing to workshop so that I can finish it with real actors and directors contributing insight and comments. This workshop experience is invaluable to a playwright. And I am not the only one. Another fellow has come to the Playhouse to have his play read. I see a trend here.

This is exactly what a community theatre does. It doesn’t stagnate producing only popular musicals and hit plays from Broadway. It takes chances, because it can. Along with the traditional, it finds alternative theatre so that the audience gets challenged, so that young people feel like they have something to say that will be heard, and so that the local culture gets enriched and expanded.

And also, so that the older audience isn’t patronized. So many times I hear something like: “We have to do this play. Our audience expects it. They will withdraw their support if we do anything that isn’t popular.”

Who is this audience? They will answer that they have an “older” audience. I got news for them. I am a member of this “older” audience, as are my readers theatre group, and so many of us want something more than just hits. We want quality theatre, new theatre, challenging theatre, with traditional theatre sprinkled in. We want it all and we do not want to be condescended to.

I don’t mind things that I don’t agree with or things that will generate controversy. I recently brought some friends to see American Sniper and found it hard to watch in places and when it was over, I apologized to my friends for dragging them through the unpleasant scenes. My motive was to see a mature Bradley Cooper do what may be his most challenging work so far. It certainly was not to subject anyone, myself included, to the horrors of an actual war. But as we started to talk, I realized that even though there were scenes that were hard to watch, the movie brought out controversy about snipers and war and we were airing that out and having a real discussion about it that had transcended good movie/bad movie. Who cares that some of it was tough going? Having something meaningful to talk about afterwards was worth it.

Isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Show us the way we are and ask us if that’s the way we want to be? The Little Theatre movement, which turned into what we know as community theatre, led the way to producing quality plays locally, for developing new talent, and for letting the cosmopolitan community decide what is relevant. It took theatre out of the hands of some Syndicate producer in New York City, who had a bottom line in place of an artistic soul.

The older audience may want to be entertained but they are not alone in that. Lots of young people and middle-aged want to be taken away from their mundane cares for a few hours. Fine and good. Plenty of popular entertainment does that and does it well.

But what about that large segment of people who are ready for something more than mindless entertainment and want something substantial? What about those people who are drawn to theatre as an expression of ideas, concepts, and community, only to find theatre has nothing to say to them? Since when? There has always been theatre and it has always reflected the community.

Bring on the community theatre in all its glory. The production values are sometimes lacking the usual Broadway hoard of money being thrown at it. But what you do see is sincere effort and a will to do their very best. The play is the thing, not the special effects. That sincerity often trumps production values and what remains is something real and meaningful.

Flagler Playhouse isn’t stagnating. It is giving all of us in the community something to talk about.

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