What do you do when you lose an actor after you’ve painstakingly built your cast? You take a deep breath, and take a big risk.

Don’t let the smile fool ya…

 

 

Coco Lane Rigbye is an Aussie studying theater at UNLV. She has a couple degrees already from CSN and is a staple in the local music and theater scene around town. I spoke with her about joining us for The Elephant Man. Here is what she had to say.

 

DCK

 

 

A few weeks into The Elephant Man’s rehearsal process, Ann-Marie called me saying she needed an actor. As a new actor, to have the opportunity to work with the company of such caliber as APF is exciting and I happily accepted.

Working on the show has been an extraordinary process of discovery, exploration, and self-actualization. We each took weeks to explore who each character is, though we constantly discovered new ideas about each one even still. We explore their class and location, how they speak, stand, and move. But also: who are they?

A candid shot from our last board meeting…

I play four roles that interact with Joseph “John” Merrick and/or Dr. Frederick Treves. What is important in playing multiple roles like this is to remember their job in terms of the play, but also the idiosyncrasies that make them wholly who they are. Are they air-headed, bird-like, weighted, strong, scared, childlike… Then, many would say one person can be all of these attributes at once sometimes. Just as Joseph Merrick can be hideous and beautiful, wise and naïve. We find ourselves by what’s around us.

 

My characters see part of themselves in John, and he is looking for himself in all of us.

 

I thank Ann-Marie and Joe for trusting me, and I thank the entire cast for welcoming me with open arms. I am very proud of this production and to be part of this company.

Buddy of mine is 21 and has never seen a play. I took him to his first. It did not go well.

 

We go to school together; he’s a 21 year old engineering major and I’m an old guy who needs help with his calculus homework. It’s an 80’s buddy-pic in the making.

 

(“Why are you in this class?” he asks me all the time. “You went to school already. What’s the point?”

“It’s part of my artistic process,” I tell him. “Some artists abuse themselves with violence or alcohol or tumultuous relationships, I do it with Craig’s Interpolation Theorem.”

“Yeah, but don’t you also abuse yourself with violence and alcohol and tumultuous relationships?” he says.

“Shut up,” I explain.)

 

The theater department of our tiny community college had posters up everywhere advertising their spring production and I’m a Support-Your-School kinda guy, plus I thought it would be fun to bring my buddy to his first ever play. And to make things even sweeter, it was Twelfth Night.

Perfect, I thought, little Shakespearean gravitas, but a raucous comedy… good first play.

He got all dressed up. “If I’m the only brown dude there, I gotta represent.” That’s a young person expression. I’m pretty sure it means, “I’m hoping to score some artsy chicks.”

“Why do you think you’ll be the only one?” I asked him.

“Theater is a white people thing,” he said completely without irony, something that still rattles the soft bits of my skeleton. I opened my mouth to argue with him because I’m also an Argue-With-Anyone-About-Anything kinda guy. Still, I knew right away that I’d lose this one, but that’s a different blog altogether. (I know, I know, I’ll get to it one of these days. Calculus, man. Cut me some slack.)

So we cruised into the campus theater on a sultry night. It was one of those ginormous theaters that exist only either in the high falutin world of fancy-pants subscribers and Broadway ticket prices like the Taper, or on a campus. 90 percent of the theaters I’ve worked in are two rats away from being bulldozed to the ground, but you walk into a university theater and it’s like you just got a job at the Palladium. Big, well-equipped, comfortable, like a gazillon seats, the whole bit. Even at about half full, there were more audience members that one night than saw my entire run of Coriolanus at Shakespeare Santa Monica and that’s a shame because I was the balls in that show. Just sayin. THE BALLS.

Anyway.

Lights out, hush falls, off we go.

And it was awful.

I mean staggeringly, mind-numbingly bad. This show was so god damn fetid that at one point I wanted to lean over and ask my buddy to punch my eyeballs squarely in the dick, because I deserved that for bringing him there.  Not just Undergraduate Theatre Bad (which I generally appreciate) this was “The Last Airbender” bad. It was Trump at Langley bad.

It’s not just that it wasn’t funny; it’s that it was the opposite of funny. Not dramatic, because it was the opposite of that, too. It was the opposite of theater, the opposite of storytelling. It was a non-thing. The actors were like fat southerners at a Vegas buffet, hungrily eyeballing the text that they were gonna gorge upon so they could vomit it back at us later. It was a fiasco of bad pacing, misunderstood text, mindless zombie direction and totally unrealized potential.

 

***WARNING: MASSIVE DIGRESSION AHEAD, BUCKLE UP, BEEYATCH***

Here’s the thing: I like bad theater, not gonna lie.

I like a little off-key singin, unglued mustache, too old ingénue and too young dad, inappropriate costuming and poorly constructed foam brick walls in the service of storytelling; the ambitious overreach of sophomoric don’t-tell-ME-how-to-play-Chekhov histrionics that serves for technique in this age of over-trained and under-experienced actors.

I love that stuff.

And honesty? Honesty is over-rated and trust me on this: that thoroughly modern notion that it all has to boil out from some cauldron of Stanislavskian veracity, as if earnestness is a sacrosanct virtue. What a bunch of hooey. I’ve never bought the long con of 60’s method-hounds that their real tears were any more effective than the ones Barrymore sprayed on before his entrance. (Twice as much for Hamlet, kid, let’s not be stingy with the glycerin; there’s paying customers out there!) Not for a second.

But there has to be a commitment to the storytelling, the deeply human shared joy that comes from traveling with an audience through a series of verbs that culminates in a couple of adjectives. If there isn’t at least some attachment to the clan-around-the-fire ecstasy of shared experience then I check out; when the actors are too involved in themselves and not enough in US. You know that guy at work who is so good at telling stories? What is it about that guy? He’s not wearing fancy costumes or using expensive magic tricks, but man alive does he spin a good yarn. That guy tells great stories, kid; not because the moment capstones in his own exultation, but because the story itself becomes elevated beyond the vocal gimmicks and wacky faces he makes. Maybe that’s it. I aint going to pretend that I know for sure.

We’re all in service. That’s what I’m saying. We’re all in service to the story, the image, whatever. We’re all scholars in the translation process that cyphers that cacophony through the brainpan of our writers or directors and rebuilds it into something discernible, something receivable and observable and watchable and ultimately, something fucking feel-able. (That should be a word: fucking feel-able. Fulable? Feeckable? Whatever.)

Simple really, take what’s in one person’s head, and put it in someone else’s. I’m pretty sure that at some point we’ll be able to do it with an HDMI cable, but for now we need artists.

More’s the pity.

But that’s what we are, we are scholars in service. In service to the story.

***WE NOW RETURN YOU TO THE RANT YOU ORIGINALLY SIGNED UP FOR***

 

After the play, without offering my opinion, I asked my friend what he thought.

“I liked it,” he lied. “It was cool.”

“No you didn’t!” I said. “You hated it! Know how I know? Because it was terrible. No one would like that show. The lead actor’s mom wouldn’t like that show. The guy who directed that show should be forced to watch “The Big Bang Theory” for ten hours a day until he beats himself to death with a copy of Aristotle’s Poetics. Don’t lie to me, ya ponce.” (I actually used “ponce.” I was feeling all Shakespeary.)

“Well, I don’t know…  What was it supposed to be like? What does a good play look like?” It’s a good question, actually. Mary Overlie could make an entire dance piece about that question. It would be boring.

“It doesn’t look like that,” I assured him.

He went on, “I don’t have anything to compare it to, I guess.”

Later, in the elevator, there were two freshmen girls who had sat near us during the show. I noticed them because they were conspicuously NOT on their phones and that gave me a spark of hope for humanity in the midst of that Shake-smear.

“What’d ya think?” I asked them.

“It was great!” one of them gushed. “Sooooo good.”

“Uh huh,” I said. “Who’s girlfriend are you?”

“Um, Manny.  The guy who played Orsino. Why?

“Nothing,” I said. “Glad you liked it.”

 

 

DCK

Early January 2019, we began our rehearsal process for Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl with a very unusual day of activities … unusual because they were all experienced in voluntary silence.

The premise of Small Mouth Sounds is this: six characters arrive at a retreat center to participate in a 5-day silent meditation workshop. All the characters are suffering and in pain; mental, emotional and/or physical, so they are looking for some kind of relief from their agony by leaving behind their normal lives and making the effort to enroll and participate in the retreat. The twist comes in the fact that since they have committed to practice silence during the workshop, there is almost no spoken dialog in the play. Instead, we (the audience) observe the characters reacting to the teaching sessions (we hear the lectures of the Teacher, another character, over a microphone) as well as interacting with each other intensely and intimately but mostly without spoken language. It’s a bit of a mind-exploding idea for a play, isn’t it?

Do I look like Smurfette in this pic? You’d tell me, right?

Our director, Anne-Marie, proposed a full-day optional experience of silence that she would program for us, to help with “cast bonding” (as it was right at the start of the rehearsal process) and to give us a taste of what keeping silent for a somewhat extended time period would feel like in today’s Las Vegas. We arrived and began with a yoga class, followed by a guided mindfulness meditation session.

Don’t worry, I’m a doctor.

After that, a very experienced hiker (and appropriately, also a doctor in theater) Dr. Ian Pugh arrived to be our guide on an outdoor hike that would take up the rest of the cold, beautiful winter afternoon. Ian made the inspired decision to keep silence along with us, but he had prepared some informational signs that he showed us to give us important background information about the hike, and along the way we learned some geological tidbits and were shown stunning and delicate fossils that I have no doubt we all would have missed had we been chatting in the usual manner of friends hiking together.

After the hike we returned back to the warmth of Anne-Marie & Joe’s house and had dinner all together as a group, still keeping silence, and then cleaned up according to our assignments that we had been given earlier.

Almost as old as Joe.

Only after the dishes were done, the food put away and the table wiped clean did we begin speaking again. At that point it had been somewhere around 7 hours of silence – not comparable to 5 days, but still a very unusual way to spend a day in 2019 with a group of 8 or 9 people!

Everyone had personal, unique things to share about their experience of not speaking for almost a full day. It was fascinating, and some people had very emotional responses, even shedding tears. The participants who have children seemed to experience a day of silence quite differently than those who do not, for example. I remember one person saying that if they were at home and the family wasn’t talking, it would immediately be interpreted as a “bad thing” or full of tension, but our planned voluntary experience was almost the opposite. So there was an emotional shift of perspective about the same circumstance (not speaking). This catapults right to the heart of the play itself, because one of the functions of mindfulness and especially a retreat situation is to take the experience and put intentional “brackets” around it, if you will, and when that is consciously chosen, a person may have an opportunity to change their perspective or their feelings about something that is causing them suffering.
Another way the “brackets” can facilitate change or relief is by taking away extraneous distractions (no speaking, no cell phones, no alcohol, etc are usual parameters for retreats of this kind). Often times, participants in multi-day silent retreats will experience their discomfort ramping up exponentially at first, to an almost unbearable amount, with none of the usual distractions available. Only after that does the chance for change, relief or peace appear. I think that even during an abbreviated day like we had together, we experienced a version of that progression! It was strange and uncomfortable at first, and yet by the end of the long & strenuous hike, I could feel everyone in the group sort of softened out and grounded in a way that was not present when we began.
My own experience of that day has a particular poignancy for me because of something I went through long ago, in the early 1990’s. I experienced a chronic vocal injury that required me to practice complete vocal rest for over 2 months, and limit use (no talking on the phone for example) for another 4 months, and I had to strictly observe this if I wanted any hope of recovery without surgery. That time was scary and traumatic for me, because I did not even know if the outcome would be a good one, but I had to try it if I even wanted a chance of success. It did turn out well in the end, but I got used to the idea of taking compete vocal rest (no talking whatsoever for a certain period of time) as a way of practicing radical self-care and taking control of my own health. So what had been associated with the worst time in my life, was consciously re-framed by me to represent taking the best care of myself, if you will. I thought about this almost constantly on the 3-hour hike, because it dovetailed perfectly with the subject matter of the play. None of the characters can experience any relief from their suffering unless they re-frame both their experiences AND their actions. Only then can change be possible.
And that is a deep and universal truth that both art and spiritual practice can help illuminate for us as human beings.
I hope you will join me at Small Mouth Sounds to experience the journey for yourself!
-Dina Emerson, February 2019
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  Small Mouth Sounds starts this Friday and runs through March 10 at The Usual Place. Call for info or to make reservations: 702-735-2114. Come join the conversation. -DK

“I’m not the same man I was, why can’t you let me be different?”

Branden Jacob-Jenkin’s play Appropriate is soon to be a new American Theater Classic. Like Long Day’s Journey into Night, Death of a Salesman, Buried Child or A Street Car Named Desire, its easily recognizable living room drama and authentic character dialogue eloquently encapsulates the American psyche of the time.

Set in 2018 on a former slave-owning plantation, three grown-up siblings sort out their late father’s estate as they metaphorically unpack each other’s troubled lives with quick-witted dialogue and laugh-out-loud conceits.

The Lafayette family is clearly the new theatrical American Gothic.  “Why can’t you let me be different?” Franz yells to his older sister Toni after a 10-year estrangement. The three Southern siblings, along with their children and romantic partners will struggle with this question throughout the night.  “Why can’t you let me be different?”

Their self-imposed metamorphoses, specifically shedding the exoskeleton of their respective childhoods, demands of the audience an investigation into the questions of potential and transformation; is such a thing even possible? Can one ever emerge as a respected and brilliant butterfly from the cocoons created by one’s family?

 

-Scottie Scott

 

 

Did you see the reading on Friday? What did you think? A new American classic? Tell us in the comments below.

-Daniel

“Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice. It is the view that humans define their own meaning in life, and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe.”

Don’t let the friendly smile fool ya…

 

 

Mark Gorman came to Vegas  about 3 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina where he had been the artistic director of a theater company called South of Broadway and the Board President for the League of Charleston Theatres. Before that, he was a performer and director in a bunch of fancy pants companies in New York that you’ve heard of but that I don’t wanna say because it will sound like I’m bragging. He’s also been in several APF shows and readings and directed some of them, too.

 

Most recently he directed our last staged reading, No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre. Big affair, standing room only actually. Went well.

Sartre is a tricky one and make no mistake. Big ideas; lots of, you know, words and stuff. Mark and I were talking about the whole thing the other day and here’s what seeped into my brainpan.

Me:

What’s the scoop on this play?

Mark:

3 characters of very different backgrounds and beliefs are thrust into a confined space and left to search for the meanings of their eternal lives.  All the walls and defensive barriers that they have built around themselves to give meaning to their lives become false and fall away. Only then are they left naked.  Mirrors reflect only their pretenses; not anything real. But through the eyes of each other, they can truly see themselves.  When they reject how the others see them, they are never truly naked and thus live in a constant Hell.

Me:

I wonder if the notion is that we are incapable of actually forming truthful and valid opinions about ourselves, devoid of outside influence.

Mark:

I think there is an overwhelming sense in No Exit that the characters know exactly who they are.  It is through social interaction and real life existence that they put forth a persona, or an image if you will, of who they want to be seen as.  Perhaps a grand game of deception that lies so deep within themselves that they have truly convinced themselves the deceit is actually real.  Thus the outside influence becomes a stimulant to maintain the deceit.  In No Exit, Sartre forces his characters into a room where the eyes of others are not fooled by the deception and they are then judged solely on the truth.    The struggle then becomes not one of formulating or creating a truth but rather living with or accepting the truth of who you are.

Me:

How do you approach a play like this as a director? I mean, there’s no big dance numbers… I can’t remember a single swordfight in Sartre…

Mark:

Yeah, no. The major difference between an existential piece like No Exit and a normal “narrative” play is action and plot. Most plays have a simple plot line, Character A wants something and Character B wants something, and when they stand in each other’s way…  Conflict and Plot…  For the most part linear.  No Exit leaves much to the interpretation of the director and the cast.  Many productions of the play focus on the characters outward expression of themselves in the real world. I like to focus more on why each character is placed in the room with the other, what is the dynamic of each relationship.   Basically taking a step back from who they were and focusing on what they must have from the other despite obvious intentions. Two of the most powerful emotions that Human Beings possess are Love and Guilt. Love defines how we treat the world while Guilt defines how we treat ourselves. The exploration of these two states is what I tend to focus on in each of these characters as they are the dominate forces each tries to avoid.

Me:

Why’d you stage it the way you did?

Mark:

I believe a play like No Exit is perfect for being staged in the round. One, this allows the audience to be much more intimate with the cast. Subtle moments can be explored and the richness of life actors are living in “quiet” moments is beautiful to watch. Each audience member will have a unique experience based on the side of the stage they are sitting on. Two, there is no position of power; there is no upstage or downstage in the round, the actors are constantly on the same plane. No one character’s story or actions becomes any more important than the others. They must all exist equally at the same time.

Me:

So what’s next?

Mark:

I would love to focus my attentions on new works.  While it is important to produce known plays and bring that art to people who might not have had a chance to experience it yet or to experience new interpretations of known classics, my true enthusiasm lies in not producing what was on Broadway yesterday rather what will be on Broadway tomorrow.

Me:

Let’s get to it…

There’s No Real Culture In Las Vegas

Today’s guest blogger is David Adler. David does all the show art for APF and has been an integral and valued voice in our company for a long while. I’ve known David since we were about 10 years old. He’s a dear and valued friend.

He’s an art director, designer, costume designer (Rainbow Company, UNLV, New West Theater, Actors Rep, Caesars Palace…) and has won a bunch of industry awards for some pretty big name entertainment and resort industries for his advertising and retail design. He’s lived in Vegas for like a bazillion years and has a one-of-a-kind insight into this town and its evolution.

I asked him about the idea that Vegas is an artistic wasteland, that there was no culture in Las Vegas. Here’s what he had to say.

 

David:

Growing up, this was a superficial view I frequently heard from people arriving in Las Vegas. (No one ever said this in front of my parents, of course. Most people were far too polite. My parents were both noted classical musicians who had opted to live in this apparent cultural desert.) But worse yet, this view seemed to be the consensus from many people who already lived in Las Vegas.

 

When my parents first arrived in town, Las Vegas had no concert hall and the only theatre spaces were the showrooms on The Strip. (This was way back in the mid-sixties when cars burned leaded gas, you could get across town in fifteen minutes, and every musician in Vegas knew each other by their first names.) Back then Las Vegas must have looked every bit a cultural desert as it was a literal desert. But this again would just be a superficial view.

 

Artists have a need to create.

 

Artists – whether musicians, actors, writers, painters, sculptors or designers – are feisty creatures. They can’t sit still. If you leave them alone for too long, they’re bound to do something – draw, write, build or fill an empty space with sound and movement.

 

Well, Las Vegas had plenty of artists way back when. For example, the musicians – when they were not playing show tunes on The Strip – would gather together in each other’s homes and hold small classical concerts. Paul Harris had by that time, already established a growing theatre program at Nevada Southern University (now UNLV) with theatre productions inside a small room in Grant Hall. So by the time I came around, Las Vegas had already established a growing cultural community. (No culture. Indeed!) But the cultural desert idea persisted.

 

Not starving artists, but starving audiences.

 

Actors, musicians and designers are all pretty self-sufficient people. In truth, they don’t really need you. (I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s true. They like you, but they don’t need you.) Despite what you hear about artistic egos, most artists find joy in the act of creating art and music. And because they’re such nice people, they are happy to share their creations with you. (See. I told you they like you.) And that’s where you come in. Well, you and lots of other people like you – the audience. Las Vegas audiences slowly sought out the plays, concerts and art exhibitions. Eventually the small recitals outgrew the living rooms and the plays needed bigger stages. Classical concerts were given in the showrooms at the Stardust Hotel and other resorts. (Classic music on the Las Vegas Strip! Really. I didn’t believe it myself until I saw the pictures of my parents on stage and their names on the marquee.) And by 1968 plans were being drawn up for a new theatre along Maryland Parkway and Cottage Grove Ave. The Judy Bayley Theater opened in 1972. Around that same time, the 7,500 seat Aladdin Theatre for the Performing Arts opened on the Las Vegas Strip. (Beautiful theatre. Terrible acoustics.) That opening was followed by the Artemus Ham Concert Hall at UNLV in 1976. Each of these facilities scheduled full seasons of locally produced theatre, ballet, and music as well as a long list of Broadway shows and international orchestras. With three professional-class venues and UNLV as the defacto cultural center of the city, Las Vegas could finally shed its image as a cultural wasteland!

 

Except it didn’t.

 

What the heck will it take?

 

By the time I began performing and working in theatre, Las Vegas had added the Rainbow Company, a nationally recognized and award-winning children’s theatre, the award-winning Nevada Dance Company (now Nevada Ballet Theatre) and The Las Vegas Little Theatre regularly producing fantastic work. The Super Summer Theatre line-up of plays became a summertime staple. Still, I would hear people say, “There’s no real culture in Las Vegas.” Every time someone would malign my artistic community with that tired trope, I’d hop upon my rickety soapbox and shake my finger at them. (They all bit their tongues and kept silent. But I suspect that was just in the hope I’d stop talking.) But the same old idea kept repeating itself.

 

This cultural view of Las Vegas had even spread all the way to Europe! When John Napier, the Tony Award-winning designer of Cats and Les Miserables came to Las Vegas in 1990 to design and direct Siegfried & Roy’s new show at The Mirage, he spent three months living on the Las Vegas Strip. A few days before he left town, he accepted an invitation to speak to the UNLV Theatre Department. After touring the Black Box and the Judy Bayley Theatres, he looked around in amazement. “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this? These theatres are amazing! I’ve been here three months and nobody told me this was here!”

 

Yeah. Why didn’t anyone tell him?

 

Over the years I was fortunate to work for several theatres in town. And I can honestly say that the actors, directors and technical staff of each and every one of them were incredibly dedicated and professional people. They were not only talented artists and supportive of their own theatres, but also of the community. Most importantly, THEY PRODUCED GOOD WORK! The same was true as I watched the growth of the The Las Vegas Symphony, The Henderson Symphony Orchestra and the Las Vegas Philharmonic and more art studios and galleries than I could begin to count. Still, Las Vegas can never seem to shake the old trope that this is a cultural desert.

 

30 years later…

 

Today, Las Vegas is home to more than 20 working theatre companies, at least 7 dance companies, 9 classical symphonies and chamber orchestras, and dozens of jazz, pop, country, and rock bands. As a theatrical space or concert venue, The Smith Center is the equal of any cultural center in Chicago or Los Angeles. And I dare you to count up the number of art galleries and public art displays across town! (No. Really. I want to know. I couldn’t count them all.)

 

And yet, from time to time, I still hear people say, “There’s no real culture in Las Vegas.” Why is that?

 

I don’t think you can blame it on the Vegas Strip. If I’m going to be fair, the Las Vegas showrooms have had some of the best musicians around. The shows, while big and splashy, have some of the best singers and dancers in the world. (If you don’t believe me, just try dancing up a wall – sideways in a harness – twice a night!) And the productions boast the most incredible scenic, costume, and lighting design of anyplace on Earth. New York is now trying to compete with Vegas. Just take a look at the new Frozen musical on Broadway.

 

It’s all about you.

 

So why then do some people like to say Las Vegas has no culture? Perhaps it gives them an excuse for not looking…or thinking. Artistic culture requires active engagement and thought. You make a decision to leave your house and see something new. As an audience looking at a painting, listening to a concert or watching a play – you are an active participant. You are deciding if you agree with the actors on stage; feel touched by the music or just like the painting.

 

You make the choice to be part of the culture. And once you’ve seen it, you know it’s there.

 

What do you think? Am I taking out of my bottom? (Maybe. It wouldn’t be the first time.) Do you think there’s no real culture in Las Vegas? If so…Why?

 

David Adler

Theater and The Strip; Like Ships Passing in the Night

 

 

Today’s blog is from Timothy Cummings.

Cummings sorta came with the slab. He was in our first full stage production and I’m pretty sure he’ll be in our last, right before we lock up for good and toss the keys back over our shoulder on our way to the greener pastures of obscurity working as a greeter at Walmart. He’s a strip guy as well: Caesar’s Palace, the Excalibur, the Flamingo, Stratosphere, Venetian. Most recently he was with Cockroach’s “Still Dance the Stars” and he emcee’d for our last super badass Outburst.

I asked him about the theater in Las Vegas, as well as the Strip: Do the two coincide? Intersect? Overlap?

Whatever, man, you pick. Here’s what he said. Tell me what you think in the comments; I’ll probably pick a fight with you and if I don’t, Joe certainly will.

It’s sorta what we do.

-DCK

 

Here’s Tim:

When I first moved to Las Vegas 22 years ago there was no intersection between strip performers and local theatre artists. Or, rather, the only intersection was local performers would go and see Strip shows  – when they could afford it or if they received a comp – ​and Strip performers would – if their performance schedule allowed – look in at theater performances. And that was the only intersection between the two.

Contrary to popular belief, Las Vegas is a city with a lot of history! Or, rather, a lot of performance history.

Sarah O’Connell of Eat More Art Vegas recently documented the rise of local theater performance in Las Vegas from the 1960s to the present in her presentation at the Clark County Library. Her oral history documented how theatre in Las Vegas rose primarily from the efforts of a few like-minded individuals at the University of Nevada Las Vegas Theatre Department in the 1960’s and spread outward.

It took time for this intersection between Strip performance and local theatre performance to increase and become more, well, intersectional.

In my experience, it started with Super Summer Theatres’ efforts at Spring Mountain Ranch.

The annual offerings in June, July and August, afforded Strip performers of different degrees of pedigree the possibility to appear in something different than what they were doing nightly.

And why would a Strip performer want to appear in a show for little or no pay way ​out at Spring Mountain Ranch?

Notoriety​? S​ure.

Celebrity? Well​,​ maybe a little.

I believe the answer is simpler.

It has two intersections.

A recent conversation with Mindy Woodhead of the Las Vegas Theatre Alliance may shed some light.

We spoke of many things and one of the topics we touched on in a long and wide ranging conversation,​ was the difference between “entertainment” and “art.” She and I agreed that “entertainment” is performing the same show every night, night after night, often more than once a night.

Although this can be financially and psychically rewarding, it may​ be unfulfilling ​to a performative artist ​after a time.

Once a performer or entertainer ​has mastered the many variables of a set performance, ​it may prompt the performer to question their validity and worth as a performing artist. This is when entertainers begin to look to other performance opportunities to express their artistry.

Witness the recent limited flights of Strip performers to local performance venues. Jonas Woolverton of Cirque du Soleil in “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” at Cockroach Theatre. Christopher Brown of Blue Man Group Las Vegas performing in “Foxfinder”, “A Summons from the Tinker…” and “When the Rain Stops Falling” at A Public Fit. Dina Emerson of Cirque du Soleil performing in “Iphigenia 2K16” and “Antigone” with the LAB, “The Seven Deadly Sins” in a co-pro with Sin City Opera and Cockroach Theatre and, most recently, in “Animal Farm” at Majestic Repertory Theatre.

Why would these artists seek out these opportunities?

I believe the answer is artistic expression.

As stated previously, once a performer has bumped up against the limits of their artistic expression in their Strip gig, they will seek ways to express themselves more fully, even if the expression is limited to a relative handful of audience members and performances.

Art finds a way.

Art always finds a way.

And although this artistic expression may be limited in quantity in terms of audience and performance dates, the artist feels a more immediate bond with their audience in these smaller, venues with these close ended runs.

That’s one intersection.

The next intersection is Money.

For perspective:

Stand at any of the four corners of The Strip and Flamingo Boulevard. Regard the traffic and activity. Contemplate crossing it on foot. (I used to do this nightly, before the lanes were widened and the pedestrian bridges were built.)

Today, it would seem a near suicidal errand.

And yet, that is the hurdle that many vibrant and thriving local arts communities in Las Vegas face.

How do we cross the street? How do we get there from here?

The answer, of course, is Money.

Lots of money! Coming from three sources; tri-level government funding – municipal, state and federal; Corporate funding – Hello, Target! Hello, Southwest Airlines! Hello Local Retailer! Restaurateur!; and personal – ticket sales and individual donations.

Recent tax laws have dampened the flow of funds to local and national not-for-profit arts organizations and to many other not-for-profits.

And yet;

If we want the world to be a better place;

If we want Las Vegas to be the Arts Destination beyond the Strip, that we have proven we have the promise and the drive to become;

If we want to offer the opportunity for every “entertainer’ and every performer” to excel and exceed beyond what they have already become, to explore artistry and grow with their community;

We’ll need three things.

 

Patience.

 

Commitment.

 

​Money.​

 

The Birth of Atrocity (A response to “Daniel is Always Wrong”) by Lee Scrivner

Today’s blog post was kindly written by Lee Scrivner.

Dr. Scrivner is a writer and academic from Las Vegas, who has written extensively about literature, technology, and insomnia. He has taught at UNLV, the University of London, Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, and American University in Washington, DC. He currently lives in Amman, Jordan with his wife and children.

And when he and I were 17 years old, we made some of the most badass theater that Bonanza High School had ever seen. Just sayin.

Tell us what you think in the comments.

-DCK

The Birth of Atrocity

Lee Scrivner

 

(In response to Daniel and Joe Kucan’s discussion[1] about the role of political theatre)

 

 

 

The idea of doing political theatre in response to the Las Vegas Massacre is both tempting and problematic.

 

Tempting in the sense that we instinctively want to do something helpful and healing. Just as people with trucks rushed victims to hospitals and so many lined up to give blood, those of an artistic temperament will naturally feel the urge to respond in a way that makes sense to them and plays off their strengths.

 

But making overtly political art of any kind can be especially problematic when each side of our increasingly polarized polis has accused the other of “exploiting the tragedy.”

 

“Most people saw the Las Vegas shooting as a tragedy. Propagandists saw an opportunity.” Reads a headline from left-leaning Vox.[2]

 

“Uninformed Hillary shamelessly politicizes Nevada tragedy.” Reads a headline from right-leaning Fox.[3]

 

But what is it, specifically, about a tragedy that makes politicizing it so wrong, as these articles both imply? Let’s think about tragedy itself for a moment. It is, after all, a theatrical word—our word! Let’s see where it takes us for possible insight or answers.

 

Well, on the one hand, what happened on October 1st was decidedly NOT a tragedy—or so a Grammar Nazi friend of mine likes to remind me. He claims the word “tragedy” is more appropriate when describing the disastrous machinations of fate or natural phenomena—in other words, when describing things beyond human will or control.

 

This of course all stems from Greek Tragedy. There, a characters’ tragic flaw leads inexorably to his or her disastrous fate despite all attempts to resist or avoid it. Middle-school stuff. So a tragedy unfolds like a twister or a tsunami, that is to say “naturally,” without someone actually willing it. And the perpetrator is, in a sense, exonerated by that fact.

The better word is atrocity, insists my friend. An atrocity is a deliberate, malicious, cruel, and violent act. Steven Paddock committed an atrocity. Calling it a tragedy downplays his crime.

 

But something about the Paddock case makes me cling to the word tragedy. Maybe it is because we STILL know so little about his motive. He may have been ISIS, for all we know. But he may have had no motive. And without motive, he seems devoid of purposiveness, agency, will. He may as well have been a force of nature, lightning from a glass sky, acting dispassionately like some aloof Olympian, meting out divine wrath indiscriminately, on a whim. Just because.

 

And so, for no apparent reason, people died.

 

Turning what, to this day, appears to be an apolitical act into political art seems especially likely to arouse accusations of being exploitative or insensitive, for what its worth. But, then again, people are so easily offended these days that, if we always let potential accusations of insensitivity guide our actions, we would literally never leave the house.

 

Beyond not wanting to offend the easily offended, there is a danger that, in responding too overtly politically to this massacre, we might simply make bad art. Joe is right to condemn what he calls “reactionary” theatre. We’ve all seen it happen, where the understandable desire to make a for-the-moment “statement” supplants all other artistic desires, and the result is more or less predictable, cringe-worthy posturing.

 

Such efforts also tend to be politically ineffectual. I am reminded of Kony2012. Remember that? A viral, artsy video followed by a massive, nationwide poster/art installation? It was all done with the sole goal of driving out of power Ugandan cult and militia leader Joseph Kony—who remains comfortably in power to this day! Thus we find that such ham-handed political stunts often tend to draw more attention to the performer than the cause. My inner cynic says that’s their purpose.

 

Meanwhile, many very smart and even bearded individuals have encouraged us to take a different approach. Aristotle insists that poetry should describe “not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen.” So, while politics and history are reactive to explicit, real world, particular events, poetry and theatre and art must remain, in a sense, in their own world.

 

And we do tend to look at theatre this way, right? We don’t look at Macbeth as reactive to a real-world event or ultimately concerned at all with a specific series of political murders 1000 years ago in the Scottish Dark Ages. Rather, the historical event falls by the wayside and the play becomes a metaphor for human universals—ambition, weakness—and the karmic nature of the universe.  Things like that.

 

Must we wait centuries, as Shakespeare did in the case of the historical Macbeth, to transmute base, ruthless killings into theatrical gold?  Nah. It only took 20 years for Marlowe to turn the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre into The Massacre at Paris. But, in all seriousness, I don’t think it is a matter of waiting for the requisite amount of time to pass. At any moment, I think, we can approach the Las Vegas Massacre artistically, so long as we have the right frame of mind—so long as it becomes, not a re-telling of a specific, horrific event, but rather a new perspective on the human event.

 

Even with this worthy goal in mind, however, there are hidden pitfalls. For example, a lot of people point to United 93 as a tastefully rendered artistic response to 9/11. Paul Greengrass’s film does not use A-list Hollywood celebrities; there are no over-the-top CGI special effects; there is no happy ending. The film is simply an honest, human-scale portrayal of the individuals involved, their emotions and interpersonal connections.

 

Yet even this apolitical film has critics—of its politics. Precisely by avoiding politicization, the accusation goes, the film politicizes things on a deeper, more insidious, meta-level. By removing the geopolitical context of the terrorist attack, Greengrass has been criticized, from the right, for basically trying to downplay or distract from the threat of radical Islam. Meanwhile, from the left, he has been accused of absolving westerners from politically inconvenient policies and activities. “Ah, yes, I see.” Says this latter critical voice. “Typical western apologist avoiding the real issues here: American meddling in the Middle East, oil imperialism, US support for Israel, etc. Instead you create this piece of feel-good heroism for suburbanites to consume on a leisurely afternoon so as to feel better about themselves.”

 

This is essentially Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s take on the film: “Recall how the large majority of critics unanimously praised the film’s avoiding of sensationalism, its sober and restrained style. It is this very touch of authenticity that should make us suspicious—we should immediately ask ourselves what ideological purposes it serves.”[4]

 

That’s his point. My point is simply that we can’t avoid making political art. Even making a de-policized piece will stir up politics in this age when everything is politicized.  By eschewing the political, we open ourselves up to accusations of spinelessness and shilling for the enemy camp! Damned if ya do, damned if ya don’t. So don’t worry what the critics will say and just follow your instincts.

 

***

 

Our current age has become the opposite of what it was promised to be. Twitter, Facebook, and endless comments sections on news articles and YouTube videos—they were all supposed to bring us together in a democratic group embrace. But depression rates are soaring. People are feeling increasingly isolated, increasingly friendless. Every political moment has to be commented on, countersignalled 24/7 by endless tweets. We have never been more polarized.

 

Maybe this steady stream of opinions and insults to pursue a political fix actually contributes to the problem we intend to fix? Perhaps our media-saturated, polarized, atomized digital culture had a hand in creating Steven Paddock? Just speculating here. But he did, after all, seem happiest in his own little hermetically sealed mental space, moving pixels around a video poker screen.  Perhaps, if he had more of a sense of community with his fellow warm-blooded humans, things would have turned out very differently.

 

And maybe all this sounds like utopian, airy-fairy, vain nonsense, but that oft-lost sense of community is precisely what theatre can provide.

 

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche describes how Greek tragedy in all likelihood grew out of Dionysian ritual. The god Dionysus of course has associations with drunkenness, festivals, revelry, and the afterlife—things that emphasize what we have in common as opposed to things that render us distinct. The Dionysian community would gather in their ritual space—not just the weirdoes and outcasts and freaks, but people of a variety of stations, high and low, tradesmen, senators and seers, stoics and epicureans. People who did not normally see eye-to-eye would let their differences fall away for a brief spell, a miniature and localized Saturnalia.

 

Such a frenzied, cathartic experience could only reinforce the feeling of common humanity and visceral togetherness that our civilization increasingly lacks.

 

So, regardless of the political or apolitical content of a given play, there is something basic to the structure of dramatic art—its collective nature; its intimacy with human feeling; how it takes on board a multiplicity of legitimate perspectives, etc.—that could potentially de-atomize us and reinforce, or create from whole cloth, this much needed sense of community.

 

All this is to say: make it however political you see fit. The important thing is that it gets done.

 

The play’s the thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOTES

 

  1. https://apublicfit.org/blog/daniel-is-always-wrong/

 

  1. https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/10/5/16400394/las-vegas-shooting-fake-news-propaganda

 

  1. http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2017/10/02/gregg-jarrett-las-vegas-shooting-uninformed-hillary-shamelessly-politicizes-nevada-tragedy.html

 

  1. From Žižek’s forward in Sociology Through the Projector. (Routledge, 2008).