At the LDI show in Las Vegas in late November, Dennis Varian of ETC presented a check for nearly $26,000 to Behind the Scenes, which reflected ongoing proceeds from sales of ETC’s iRFR and aRFR (Radio Focus Remote) application for iPhone, iPod Touch and Android. The donation, which brings ETC’s total Behind the Scenes contributions to date to just under $150,000, was one of several events that drew attention to ETC's presence at the show. Pictured here is Tom Littrell's Adventures in Light presentation.Add a comment
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Director Kate Powers talks about the transformative power of theatre,and the enduring power of table work
Director Kate Powers has been working professionally for over 20 years, and while her heart is in directing Shakespeare’s work, she has a strong balance of work, from classical to contemporary. The diversity in her career though is not only in the works she selects but also in where she works, from professional theatres to academic institutions to prison. Her recent staging of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town with the actor/inmates at New York State’s Correctional Institution Sing Sing prison in Ossining, NY drew praise and notice from many in the professional theatre community.
Playwright/directors share their advice and experience about putting your own work onstage
Mounting your dream production of Hamlet (or whatever thrills your artistic spirit) is wonderfully challenging—you want to honor the material you love by interpreting it accurately, and authentically, in terms of the writer’s vision. When you’re staging an original play of your own, your material deserves the same honest and care-filled treatment—but objectivity can be an issue. What’s the right way to strike a balance—separating yourself enough from your writing so that you look at the play’s strengths and weaknesses, and both emphasize the good and fix the not-so-great in terms of your staging? We asked three accomplished playwright/directors who’ve mastered this skill to share their wisdom for putting up a successful hybrid production.
To many theatre artists, the very idea of a writer directing his or her own work is a daunting concept. “I think there’s a common wisdom that writers shouldn’t direct their own work, but I don’t believe we should make those kinds of generalizations,” says writer/director Stephen Kaliski, who has worked with the Classic Stage Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and is an adjunct professor at Fordham University and Brooklyn College. “The first question I believe a writer should ask is: How do I see myself? If you’re a playwright, you may be used to writing in a vacuum, which happens in a lot of university programs. If you want to direct your work, however, you have to be willing to collaborate. Personally, how I see myself is NOT to think of myself as either a director or a storyteller—I focus on the material and how to present it honestly. So, my objective is bigger than myself.”
Separating yourself sufficiently from your own writing in order to identify your play’s strengths and weaknesses then becomes crucial. It’s easy to fall in love with a phrase, scene or character that isn’t integral to the play’s theme or plot—but you have to be ruthless. A great tip for seeing your work in its unvarnished form is to put it on its feet early. “One of the signposts in my career came when I met David Mamet,” says Charles Messina, writer/director of the hit Off-Broadway play Mercury: The Afterlife and Times of a Rock God (about Freddie Mercury of Queen) and A Room of My Own, which is currently being developed for Broadway. “I went to a reading he gave, and got to ask him for some advice on writing and directing afterward. Mamet said, ‘Get a group of actors together and put your plays up.’ Best idea ever. You need a solid core group of actors who will bring your piece to life as soon as possible. Being a guy who hates multiple drafts, I’m not shy about getting in a room with those actors that I trust early on, and listening to what they do with my work. Either the first draft will come to life, or it won’t. No matter what, I love that process of enlightenment.”
Also listen to, and accept without defensiveness, the creative opinions of your team members. “Collaboration is combustion when it works,” says writer/director Victoria Rue, whose socially conscious plays have been performed at the Mark Taper Forum and the Manhattan Theatre Club. “I learned a tremendous amount about it when I worked on a play called Lady Lazarus, about Sylvia Plath, with wonderful artists like Tyne Daly. We became an extended family—the experience was especially wonderful because it was a group of people who really put out their trust, back and forth, and we gave of our deepest selves, drawing from our own life stories as we worked. That’s the definition of power in creation.”
Making Constructive Change
Even though collaboration is an absolutely fruitful tool in the process of directing your own piece, it’s also vital to hang on to the basic concept of what you’re trying to convey. “You need to go into the rehearsal process thinking of the play as if it’s proven,” Kaliski explains. “You want to the work honored on the page. Sometimes, actors will try so many things that you’re no longer telling the story as fully intended—if you let that happen, it’s a sure sign you’re not trusting your own play. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try changes out in a rehearsal, but as the director, you’ve got to also be the one to say to your collaborators, ‘What we’re trying is just not working.’ It’s great to appreciate others’ suggestions, but you ultimately must decide when changes are not functional.”
At that same time, it’s important to look at directing your work as a fact-finding mission. “I think as a writer, you’ve got to come in with the rib cage of the story, and then as a director, give yourself time to establish a vision,” says Rue. “As a director, my goal is to create a culture of understanding in regard of my original material. For my piece about the Koran, for example, I felt it was very important to have cast members who were Muslim. My eye, my sense of what the arc of this story was going to be, needed to be informed. A Muslim member of our company one day informed me that Mohammad’s face should never be shown—of course, that changed how we depicted the character. It was so helpful, and that education of my vision really helped me to let go of the material. It’s such an honor to watch the growth of the work you began.”
A smart writer/director will take in constructive input, divine whether it’s warranted for the material, and be confident enough to make needed changes quickly and decisively. Messina exemplifies this kind of self-assurance: “I know I have to hear my play out loud. Then, if I trust the actors I’m working with—and I do have a handful of great actors I trust—then I listen to what they’re telling me. Most likely, I’m on the floor laughing at how they’ve interpreted a line in a way I never thought of. I feel like it’s a 50% situation on both sides—the text is what you bring, and then the actors equally feed that draft.”
Learning About Your Work—And Yourself
What’s the greatest lesson you can learn by directing your own material? Art comes from gut instinct, for one thing. “As a writer, I don’t really take longer than three weeks to create a play,” Kaliski explains. “I’m not the same person three weeks later! So I go with my first thought—I write it up, then see the next day if it works. As a director, though, you’re wearing a new hat. In rehearsing original work, I feel that we, as a group, have to push against the play, try different things, and not be afraid of happy accidents.”
For Messina, it’s knowing when not to let go. “I’m very happy to leave the direction of a number of my plays to others,” Messina says. “There are a few situations, though, where I know I am the right person to interpret the material. Ralph Macchio, who’s been with me on the journey as an actor in A Room of My Own from Off-Broadway, said, ‘It’s so great that the producers who optioned the play for Broadway agreed to let you direct.’ I agree, but who else would be right? This piece is so deeply and dearly me, and I’m so proud to be able to carry it through—it’s one of those times where I found my riff, and I’m the right person to keeping playing it.”
Rue feels that staging original work has given her insight into her own character. “I did a play called The Terry Project—it was based on the journals of a young schizophrenic woman I’d known. My goal was to look at the schizophrenic experience from the inside out, not from a doctor’s point of view. A month after I’d done the piece, I was talking with a friend who said, ‘I don’t think it was a play about schizophrenia—I think it was a play about you.’ I had never considered that—but I realized, yes, the play is really representative of my experience of coming out as a lesbian. I suddenly saw that within my staging of this new work, I was breaking down the interior process I’d undergone, as opposed to the exterior process of becoming who I was in the world. My life drew me to a topic which could be illuminating to others—that was an amazing lesson.”
Your ultimate reward in directing your own material just may lie in the experience of seeing the impact your art has on those who watch the finished product. “An audience will never lie to you,” Kaliski sums up. “If it felt right when people were watching it, you’re learning what works, and that’s generosity.”
A Broadway team and Newtown students produce an inspiring Seussical
High school presentations of Seussical: The Musical, the Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty musical based on the famed children’s books by Dr. Seuss, are not unusual, but a production this past August staged by the 1214 Foundation in Newtown, Conn., certainly was special. Bringing together several Broadway names with the town’s students, the 1214 Foundation presented Seussical as the inaugural production of what it hopes will become an annual benefit event. The group is raising funds to build a performing arts center in the town as an ongoing tribute to help the community deal with the tragic event at the Sandy Hook Elementary school through the optimism of the arts.
The Industry’s production of the opera Invisible Cities used wireless technology to transport the audio—and the audience—throughout L.A.’s Union Station
Los Angeles is a cultural capital. Driving through its many streets and highways, you can’t help notice all of the creative projects (large and small) that are happening all around you. There are light festivals on the beach, performances in parking garages, concerts on street corners and theatre in city parks. Recently, that list got expanded with an opera performed in a train station.
Measuring bandwidth, latency and hops for lighting networks—and why it matters
Over the past few years, the word bandwidth has become increasingly commonplace. Generally applied to Internet connections, your phone and broadband connection will be sold to you on the basis of a connection speed. Buzzwords emerge all the time: 4G, LTE, gigabit and so on. Where once a dial-up modem connection at 56,000bps was considered top of the line, now a 2,000,000bps connection isn’t enough to stream the latest episode of Game of Thrones in HD. But what does it mean? And, more importantly ... Why am I reading about bandwidth in a magazine dedicated to theatre?
To answer the second question first: Lighting data also requires bandwidth. And you might be surprised to learn just how much.
How can you comply with a ban on smoking in a scene that demands smoking?
How do you smoke on stage when you can’t smoke on stage? That’s the challenge we faced this fall as we started working on our production of Anna in the Tropics at Purdue University. If you don’t know the show, it takes place in a cigar factory in Ybor City, Florida, in the 1920s. The play includes an important scene in which a number of the characters enjoy a cigar together.
Looking over the Soundcraft Si Expression 2
The Si Expression comes in three models, the 16-input Si Expression 1, the 24-input Si Expression 2 and the 32-input Si Expression 3. For my review, I took the Si Expression 2, (the 24 mic pre version) for a test drive.
Plugging the Si in, a locking clip keeps the removable IEC plug from slipping out, a nice touch. The mixer requires a two-step power-up sequence that starts with turning on the main rear panel power switch. A power button on the top panel will start blinking. Pressing this button for less than a second will start booting the board’s brain. The touch screen display will tell you the progress. However, if you hold the button too long, you’ll enter a firmware update mode. And there is a similar power-down routine. To prevent accidentally turning the console off, hold the power button for about two seconds, then release it. When the button starts flashing press the power button again for a moment and the console will turn off. I found this to be a clever idea, considering that the top panel power switch on the board’s upper right corner is easily exposed.
Figure 53 has made an indispensible product even better
QLab from Figure 53 “makes it simple to create rich multimedia designs for live performance and installations.” This claim, from their website, has become more and more true over the last few years for sound and video designers. QLab 2, released in 2009, quickly became a “go to” for software playback for theatre and installation artists, thanks to its feature set, reliability and excellent customer support. With all of these assets, it’s no surprise the design world was excited for the latest edition of QLab (version 3), which was released earlier this year.
Kai Harada finds sonic love in his design for First Date
The peppy Broadway musical First Date explores the awkward moments, verbal slips and fumbled attempts at witty repartee that often go along with the titular situation. TV stars Zachary Levi (Chuck) and Krysta Rodriguez (Smash) make for a spirited yet contentious pair (set up by her well-meaning, if preachy, sister) who are trying to make a connection—even though at first it seems like they have nothing in common. Punctuated by a rollicking pop score from Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, the show moves along at a brisk pace and keeps the one-liners coming. Kai Harada created the sound design for the show and was tasked with finding a good sonic balance that accentuates the music while allowing the dialogue to remain crystal clear.
Books and recordings for everyone on your gift list
If you’re looking for gift ideas for the theatre people in your life, you might consider one of this month’s new books and recordings.
Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre, by Ethan Mordden, is simply the best one-volume chronicle of the art form. Mordden is always a good read, although sometimes a bit over the top, but here he finds the perfect mix of solid historical and artistic analysis with great storytelling. He discusses the great personalities—both off and on stage—as well as the composers, lyricists, librettists and choreographers whose work can make or break a show. [$29.95, Oxford University Press]
Want to use your tablet or phone for more than checking social media? Here's our round-up of vital apps for backstage
The multi-tool has become a standard tool for most entertainment technicians. When you need a pair of pliers or a screwdriver it's right there at your side. A new multi-tool may soon surpass your Gerber or Leatherman in how often you use it: the smartphone, smart device or tablet. Most of us carry one all the time anyways, so why not use it for something other than checking Facebook? Over the past couple of years apps for the TD have grown and matured into some powerful tools. I wrote about a few last year, here are some more worth getting.
'Tis the season to get together—and to learn how to make it happen all year round
Thanksgiving coincides with the start of Hanukkah this year—and with that the holiday season is off and running, with festive get-togethers and huge meals throughout the month. If your life is anything like mine you already have a fairly detailed schedule about where you’ll be for the next month, all the way down to when you’ll get to see your old cousin George. You also know the planning that goes into making all of these happenings, well, happen. You know because not only do you do it for family, you do it all year round for your shows.
Meyer Sound has expanded its on-stage solutions with the new self-powered MJF-210 low-profile high-performance stage monitor. The MJF-210 is the lightest stage monitor in the company's product line, and carries the sonic performance of its popular MJF-212A stage monitor.