Photographs by Sarah Bloom, A White Pines Exchange Sponsored Artist.
Last spring my company, White Pines Productions, received grant support to produce two original plays. Our application described the plays we were proposing to produce in some detail. Both are by local playwrights, and so they fit the mission of my company, which is committed to “creating a place where community members and artists come together to create new work in the performing arts.” Creatively, my last six months have been focused on these two plays: The Music You Remember by Jerry Perna and Luckiest Kid by Martha Kemper. Today, a week after their closing, I am still grieving.
MYRLK is the name I gave my work on these two shows: the letters are the initials of both, minus the “The”, which would make the weird word pronounced “mer-lick” impossible. When my creativity has a project to work on, this blog suffers. When it’s an overwhelming one, it’s all I can do to show up and teach my classes, much less share random musings with a virtual audience. But I know that writing has always been a kind of therapy for me, and so here are some random musings based on my work on MYRLK about theater, performance, directing and community, in no particular order.
The primary relational paradigm for the director, and cast/staff, is parent-child. I attended a workshop once run by the great American theater artist Anne Bogart. “We all arrive in the rehearsal room determined to work on our families of origin,” she said to us “either by celebrating them, reinventing them or killing them.” It is bracing to hear someone you respect and admire say something out loud that you have secretly believed is true for a long time. I believe this is true: that all the baggage we carry around about having grown up in the families we grew up in is the primary fertilizer for our creativity in the theater. It’s not the flower, it’s what the flower grows in.
I was so angry at my parents for so long that sometimes, I took it out on my directors. Or I projected deeply internalized feelings about authority, gender and support on to my unsuspecting collaborators. In turn, my directors were often projecting their own internalized familial heebie-jeebies on to me and the other actors. Finally, everyone else in the room is also celebrating, reinventing or killing their families through their work with the rest of us.
Shakespeare knew it: “The lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact.”
Experience has taught me that – as ghastly as my description of the rehearsal room may seem – it was more often than not a deeply supportive room in which love and acceptance was the currency of relationship, not judgment or scorn. We are basically good, we humans. And we recognize in-kind damage when we see it. And nowhere do we in the theater see it more clearly than when we are thrown together to bring a dream to life. Love and acceptance are the currency in the rehearsal room because we are making something together. As we do so, we see each other healing, and we feel our own wounds scabbing up, closing, calming and finally, leaving only the slightest scar.
Over and over with MYRLK I felt like Dad. Does that sound patronizing and infantile? I don’t mean it to. I am an actual dad, and so I am well acquainted with the energy, nuance, grace and judgment it requires – relentlessly. I am also aware of how often, as a dad, I have no idea what to do. I am aware of how often my actual children surprise me, and I think – that’s all them, I had nothing to do with that. My work directing these shows leads me to this: a good parent creates a space where it’s safe to take risks.
It’s hard to get butts in the seats. I chose to run these two shows in rep. This means that for the first three weeks in October, each of them performed four times each week. My reasons for doing this were various:
- I wanted to offer some up and coming designers a showcase. They were able to share two different designs on the same stage.
- Each cast got a three-week run, allowing them to grow and develop in performance.
- I was able to save money as a producer, advertising both shows on the same postcards, etc. and renting one theater for two shows.
- The shows would cross promote. If you saw one and liked it, you might come back for the other.
- We were committed to a shared enterprise among both casts. I suggested that the success of one show was dependent upon the success of the other.
The theater was small – 60 seats. I made some estimates that I thought were conservative as goals for tickets sales. I didn’t come close. We got killed at the box office. Even using the time-honored tradition of giving away tickets at the beginning of the run to sell more at the end didn’t work. In order to assist final houses that were more well-attended than the handfuls we had become accustom to, I offered the final two shows as pay-what-you-can. Very few of my friends saw these shows, even when offered at a discount. It was humiliating and painful, made more so by the fact that I was proud of both shows. Imperfect as they were (as all shows are), I felt sure they each offered audiences something unique, entertaining, compelling. I know how hard everyone worked on them. There are few feelings worse in the world of the performing arts, than making something you want to share and feeling as though you are failing to draw people to see it.
For a while I was sure that everyone in my theater community hated me. But soon I understood that to be just another ugly form of the narcissism the “two-shows-in-rep” scheme was meant to dissipate. It wasn’t about me. It’s just really hard to get butts in the seats, especially for new plays, especially when you’re a new company with an unproven track record producing original work, especially when everyone you’re trying to attract is so damn busy making their own wonderful pieces of art.
And this leads me to the last thing I want to say about our dismal houses: the competition in Philadelphia is steep. Lots of very talented people are making a lot of noise and it’s tough for a little guy to get heard, and noticed. White Pines was not created to compete in this crowded field, but rather to sow new crops of audience in the ‘burbs, around where I live. It was created to make personal connections between people around the performing arts, and creativity in general. This is more likely when you are focused on a smaller demographic than Center City Philadelphia. Once, White Pines had a pretty spectacular venue out here in the ‘burbs, and all sorts of ideas about how to create a lasting relationship to the community around it. Perhaps our experience with MYRLK, as precious and extraordinary as those shows were, tells us that we need to re-focus on our original goal: making something new where there was nothing before.
I like my theater personal. Both shows are thinly veiled memoirs. As different as they were, they shared some remarkable things in common at their source. Both were performed by their authors. Both were confessional, and dramatized journeys of personal transformation. Each author was working out issues and events of deep meaning and consequence, drawn from first-hand experience. I believe that this is true of all authors, but some construct veils which are so ornate that the author’s identity is nearly concealed. For whatever reason, I am drawn to the more conspicuous authors – ones who stand nearly naked in the midst of the fictions and near-fictions they create, owning their own fragile landscapes.
These kinds of shows bring to the surface quickly the familial heebie-jeebies I was writing about before. But they also set the bar high for risk-taking. And that was part of what was so special about these shows: at their centers, two artists taking huge risks, and drawing other artists up and over the bar with them.
The older I get, the less patience I have with many of the pretensions in art-making. Most of them have to do with the illusion of goodness, and the mistaken notion that some of us make good stuff and some of us make bad stuff. We make the stuff we make, we all work really hard on it, and you either like it or you don’t. All the pretty postcards in the world won’t match a kind word from a friend about a cool show they saw. And that kind word has nothing to do whether something is good to bad. It has to do with something your friend liked. Of course, the reverse is true too. Your friend who says “Yuck!” about a show is a near guarantee you won’t see it. And this is another reason I like my theater personal – these shows are clearly what they are. They announce themselves: “I am a personal story.” In this, whether you like them or not, they have integrity.
Maybe lots of people who saw MYRLK said “Yuck!” But I kind of doubt it. I’m sure some did – we can’t be all things to everyone. But there weren’t lots of people who saw the shows in the first place. Which brings me back to point #2.
I said I was grieving. It’s not too strong a term. Ask anyone who has put down a show they’ve been working on for months, a show that has become personal to them, which went on against daunting odds. I often say the bravest people I know are in the rooms of recovery. The second bravest? They make art their livelihoods. My admiration for the artists I worked with on those shows is deep and lasting. We were the “family” we made as we worked on the ones we came from. And then we lost each other, which is the awful ultimatum we all face in the theater, over and over.
In my twenties this making of “families” only to lose them when the shows closes, this predestined collective self-destruction, nearly did me in. But I have been able to lessen my attachments to my “families” by having a family. And by creating a life in which I stay in one place, deepening my connections to those around me, learning to have faith in the resurrections of art families from show to project to class to workshop to late night binge to show. My grief diminishes each day. And I was right! The writing helps! Tomorrow I begin a new art journey: The White Pines Ensemble – an art family which is designed to last.
When a show closes, we grieve, then we turn to the east, where the sun rises, saying . . .
. . . next?