“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).

Daniel Is Always Wrong

An Ongoing Conversation between Joe and Daniel Kucan

 

 DANIEL: I’ve always been a little more into political theater than you have, I think. But I’m completely frozen in regards to the jackass who just shot up our hometown. Do we do something? Do we make a piece of theater? What role, if any, do we play in an event like this? Which, I guess, raises the question of what role does any type of theater play in the face of this kind of lunacy?

  JOE: From my perspective, the best that theatre can hope to do is tell the stories of everyone involved in the most honest, incisive, microscopic way possible. That being said, it’s easy to want to paint such pictures with broad, enormous strokes, over-saturating the work with the idea of a ‘big message’ or a ‘whole truth.’ I think that type of theatre runs a great risk of appearing to be nothing more than self-serving posturing – trying to make a statement because of the over-whelming feeling that a statement must be made. The only way such ideas are ever successfully delivered is by presenting the experiences of people in a way that allows for personal connection, reflection and identification. That’s how stories are delivered; that’s how minds are changed.

  I don’t know. Le Mis felt like it painted in pretty broad strokes; Evita, Rent… I think a certain amount of grandstanding is sorta expected, isn’t it?

  What was Les Miz created in response to? What about Evita? Neither exploded on the scene in dramatic reaction to a traumatic event. Rent? Broad strokes about homelessness among the disenfranchised, AIDS stricken youth of NYC – gee, how long has THAT been going on; it’s hardly reactionary. Your examples prove (and miss) my point – specificity in story-telling allows for big themes, big ideas (and big production numbers!) without being overtly reactionary. I think it’s the notion of ‘reactionary theatre’ that I instinctively reject.

  Okay then, the Laramie Project. I think this is a really good example of a show that was born out of a true and honest sense of curiosity. How could such a thing happen? What sort of community can produce a person capable of such a monstrosity? But maybe this is what you are saying; that the work can’t BEGIN from a place of prejudicial political bias, but rather from where all good stories come, which is generally curiosity and a quest for truth. If that’s the case, then why can’t the same be said about the Vegas shooting?

  Because to me, it still feels reactionary. What was the first thing you thought when you heard about the event? “Gee, I wonder what makes a man do such a horrible thing? Was he crazed? Deranged? How can I get to the heart of what creates that sort of violence?” I don’t think so. Those certainly weren’t MY first thoughts. For me, anger, confusion and political nausea aren’t enough to spur interesting theatre. I think it takes time for the elements to present themselves; reaction to an event just isn’t enough.

 

More to come…

 

What do you think? Leave us a comment.

I know a guy who likes to gleeful pronounce that “Theater is dead!” in the rounded tones of his fake, transatlantic speech affectation.

He thinks it makes him sound hip and cynical, I suspect. Whatever, man, he’s a theater guy.

But a new article in Forbes would, um, support otherwise.

Forbes is doing what Forbes does; basically breaking everything down to dollars and cents. But when the numbers are this big, it’s hard to argue with the details.

It has long been my view (as anyone who has been unlucky enough to get cornered at a party by me after a couple of lip loosening cocktails will tell ya) that theater is more popular, more widespread, more culturally significant right now than at any point in history. That doesn’t mean it’s better or more vibrant, those are questions for another blog.

But lemme just drop this tidbit from the article: Phantom of the Opera has made to date just over 6.2 billion dollars. I wrote that correctly, “Billion” with a big ole “B”. In contrast, the largest movie of all time, Avatar, has made 2.8 billion. Do the math.

How here’s the real kicker that keeps the struggle real. The price of keeping a show on Broadway is like 700 thousand bucks a week, so even with those astronomical numbers, the profit margin is pretty slim. But you can’t argue with the reach and cultural significance of a show that’s pulling that kind of attendance and getting those ticket prices.

So I would simply add that even though theater’s reach is gigantic as shown by the box office numbers, it’s not putting a ton of money directly into the pockets of the folks doing it. And in fact for the most part, it costs money, especially for the little guys.

But it’s never been more important and more influential.

Now go stand in front of people you don’t know and make them listen to you sing “To Dream the Impossible Dream” or, hell I don’t know, “Yorktown” from Hamilton. Maybe they’ll give ya a couple bucks.

 

 

 

JR Reed is One of Those Guys Making a Quiet Career in the Arts

JR is a Las Vegas native, Bonanza High School graduate who now and for the last 20 years has been working exclusively as an actor, writer and musician in Hollywood. He’s been a zillion TV commercials, done gobs of prestigious LA theater, and worked with a who’s who list of celebrity actors and directors. On top of all that, he’s been happily married for 8 years and has a 5 year-old daughter.

I just saw him in a production by his current theater company called The Next Arena which used a bunch of Vonnegut Short stories called Vonnegut U.S.A. It was great. JR has this great vibe to his performances that I love: it’s a sort of presentational aspect, a certain theatricality. It’s as if the characters know they are being watched, even though they remain completely genuine to the moment. And he does it without a trace of irony or self congratulation. Really cool and fun to watch.

 

DK: I’m flummoxed by the entertainment machine lately. I feel completely lost in the morass of youtube, cable, live streaming, whatever. You and I go way back and we each have a super traditional training background. Are we relevant anymore? Where do folks like us fit in?

JR: I think he/she fits in as one always has in terms of having really useful tools, skills and training to draw from. Fortunately, those things are always positives for the performer and respected and acknowledged by creative types in all facets of the biz. However, this business is extremely hard for someone to break into that’s not-well connected through family or well-positioned friends. That has always been the case, I’m sure… but the amount of people trying to compete and the catch-22 of not being able to get ahead without a powerful agent and not being able to get an agent without big credits… which are nearly impossible to acquire without top-drawer representation… makes it an often frustrating and unforgiving pursuit. It took me about 10 years to get a commercial agent and then another ten to get theatrical representation. I now have a manager and an agent. Neither of which are very well-positioned and so I mostly go out for co-starring roles, which are usually just a scene or two and a handful of lines. I also think it takes a certain personality to make big strides in Hollywood. I’ve never been one to do the social scene much, and yet I see friends that do and it works for them. Plus you gotta be ok with about 98% rejection. Seriously. And of course, for many it only takes that one successful gig to propel them onto a path of career stability. But for every one of those I know about a hundred more, like myself, who are and have been continuously hustling and clawing to make a decent living here, one gig at a time.

DK: What are the rules for you in terms of what gigs you will or won’t do? What types of jobs make you happy?

JR: Easily- I’ll do about anything acting-wise for money. Within reason, of course… haven’t done or plan to do any “adult” entertainment and I have a few deal-breaker positions with certain companies that I wouldn’t do a commercial for. But otherwise, I have carved a decent living out of being a commercial actor that has kept me from having to have a day job for the past 18 years. Knock on wood. If you had asked me coming out of UCLA if I was going to be doing mostly commercials to support myself, I would have either laughed at or slapped ya. And fortunately I belong to a theater company that I really enjoy working with where I get to do developed performance work that does bring me that genuine fulfillment you speaketh of. Of course, we aren’t doing theater 365 days a year, or even a third of that time, so those periods of fulfillment are spread out and thus I have to find other means of feeding my soul enough to stay afloat in these murky waters. I hike locally, backpack in the High Sierras, meditate, and for the last 5 years, chase my daughter around many a playground. I think to survive in Hollywood you need to have a balanced existence that includes many hobbies and activities, family-life, friends that exist away from work pursuits. Being a human first and an actor thereafter seems to work well for most in my eyes.

DK: About 25 years ago in Manhattan, Bob Duva (is that guy still around?) and I had a meeting in his fancy uptown office and he really belittled me for wanting to work in the theater. He insisted I had to make a choice, either theater or show-business. What’s the diff?

JR: Well, I think NY might be a little different in that regard as there are so many more theater opportunities. And paid ones. Here in LA, that’s just not the case. Equity-waiver theater here puts a whopping $15 a show in your coin purse. There are only a handful of Equity theaters and they are mostly filled with people that come with the production from NY or a household known actor. And here if you are doing a show it is really never frowned upon if you get a pro gig. Most productions have understudies and/or will cancel the show that night if one of the leads gets a gig… really, they do. So, yeah… I’ve never really had that be an issue. And while we’re on that subject, I must say that in recent years theater has become less and less a showcase for MP/TV casting opportunities. It’s really hard to get casting directors out to see shows as they are busy working on a job and have more than enough people to consider for them. The talent pool here is vast and endless. One must really stand out to get noticed in these parts. I recommend trying to act in Hollywood like I recommend riding a motorcycle in SoCal… it’s a thrill, but you might not survive and many don’t. And now, I’m too old to do anything else, and don’t have another skill set, so here I am pounding the pavement, doing the shuffle, trying to keep swimming in these choppy waters.

DK: What do you think about theater in Las Vegas?

JR: I think it’s truly wonderful and about time it starts to be taken seriously! It only makes sense that Vegas could and should have theater with a well-supported and respected presence. I think historically the opportunity for theater has been in the shadow of what happens on the Strip and for a long time that was dominated by variety shows and sexy revues. It’s like trying to do Swan Lake next to a nightclub. But I think Vegas has become big enough and thus cultured to the extents of it being able to appreciate theater. And I’m so psyched for A Public Fit and what you all are doing to contribute to the presence of truly quality theater in Vegas. More power to ya and I hope to join in on the fun for a production in the not-too-distant future. I wish you all the very best and I know that what I have witnessed happening is grounded in the desires and fruitful results of bringing thoughtful, passionate, resonating theater to the Vegas scene.

DK: What are you working on right now, and what are you hoping happens next for you?

JR: Just shot a commercial for Bridgestone Tires last week. Have an Audi spot currently airing— it’s the one about the race horse Secretariat and how his heart was twice the size of his competitors… not unlike the Audi engine, they propose. I play the vet that discovers Secretariat’s enormous heart… and I’m in the spot for about 2 seconds. But fortunately I was on a principle contract which means I get paid the same whether I was in the whole spot or just the 2 seconds that I am. Funny how these things work. Love the unions, folks. Otherwise, I’m auditioning often. It has been a purty slow year for MP/TV stuff thus far, but hopefully that will start picking up as series shows go into production in the early Fall. I’m also developing a pitch for a TV series with a couple well-positioned actor friends. I can’t elaborate much on that right now as we’re keeping the idea under wraps… but I will say that it is set in the high-desert (not necessarily Vegas, but perhaps). One must diversify in this town if you wanna make opportunities. My music, and writing endeavors have made me money and connections to people in the biz I would not have otherwise gotten just being an actor. So what I hope happens next is that I get this idea optioned and made into a pilot… with myself as creator, actor and on the writing staff. Shoot for the stars and you’ll land somewhere in that direction… or whatever Casey Kasem said.

DK: How is the acting business different when you have a family to take care of?

JR: Having my eyes focused in the directions of making money, I suppose. Before I had a family it was much more about doing fun work, doing more theater, being the part of a very active theater ensemble where I made no money (The Actor’s Gang that is). Now I know I need to pay bills. Fortunately my wife also works. She is a realtor and is doing quite well. So we’re a team in supporting the family and that’s about what it takes here in La La Land to maintain a reasonably comfortable existence.

DK: What do you wish was going on in the theater world that is currently lacking, or conversely where do you think it’s strong?

JR: I wish there were more straight-up and dark comedies. Seems that it’s mostly musicals and revivals these days. And I get it— they are answering to the mighty $ and what people are going out to spend $100+ a seat on. And don’t get me wrong, I do like me some musicals— Book of Mormon was amazing. I’m going to see Hamilton when it comes here to the Pantages. But I wish there were more comedies like Neil Simon did … but original ones! It seems to be a dying breed. But then again, I’m not in NY, so maybe they have a life Off-Broadway. But I’d like to see some comedies break out into bigger realms… onto Broadway stages, touring and then having lives in smaller theaters. And I think it is getting stronger and more fun in the realms of musical theater. Out of the box shows like Book of Mormon and Hamilton are hopefully paving the way for more progressive, newly inventive forms for musicals.

Calling Pat Benatar: Shakespeare, Rock and Roll, and the Young Irony of Old Age

This weekend, I went to two separate events in Los Angeles that were linked in a way that I hadn’t anticipated.

The first was a production by Independent Shakespeare of Two Gentlemen of Verona at Griffith Park. Shakespeare in the park is a dicey proposition under any circumstances. (Personally, I’ve done many “Free Shakespeare in the Park” productions, ranging from insanely good to utterly, tragically, comically bad. So I understand completely the inherent obstacles therein.) And Independent Shakespeare, despite their near perfect venue, is about as hit-or-miss as they come. Two Gentlemen is problematic as well: all those simplistic two-person scenes full of rhetorical humor, the anti-Semitism, the sexism and downright rapey apologism.

In this production, they did a 50’s style rock and roll overlay that was sweet in its way. There was a power quartet on stage the whole time, drums, vocals, lead guitar, and base, with some characters stepping in and out of the band to play scenes. I appreciate all the pompadours and poodle skirts and hip gyrations and the cutesy wide eyed faces that hearkened back to a “simpler moment in America.”

But the whole time there was something else at play that bothered me and I didn’t understand it until the following night, which leads me to the second thing I saw this weekend.

The second thing I saw this weekend was Pat Benatar at the Greek and she blew the doors off the place. Here’s this 64 year old woman that comes strutting down the deck rocking shiny black stretch pants and still able to effortlessly glide between a whisky growl and sudden, soprano explosiveness. And within moments of her plaintive wail, “We’ve got the right to be angry, what are we running for?” I got it.

I’ve often said that the modern theater needs more rock and roll. I don’t mean the music, although that’s fine too, I mean the spirit, the guts. To my mind, the spirit of rock and roll, the rebelliousness, the anger and frustration with the betrayal of our world leaders, the pissed-off, never-surrender, fuck-you-and-your-expectations-of-what-I’m-supposed-to-be, the out-of-your-seat elation and electrical thrill of sexual freedom that floods the arena shows and gut-pounding bar gigs goes hand in hand with live storytelling. Don’t get me wrong, I like intellectual theater as much as the next guy, but it so often misses the undercurrent of subversiveness that has made the theater not just important, but compulsory.

Likewise, both the theater and rock and roll used to be professions of the outsiders and the impoverished. They were a kind of church for all the losers and rejects and gender deacons and night-carnival scenesters, the dope fiends and black sheep and don’t-tell-your-mother-or-I’ll-give-you-a-smack broken wing superfreaks.

Ozzy Osborne was the son of broke-ass factory laborers; Eazy-E sold drugs on the streets of Compton. Boy George changed the way we view gender by doing nothing more complicated than wearing a dang dress, which at the time, could land you in the hospital.

But lately, both the theater and the music scene have become the hideouts of the secretly wealthy. They are no longer sacred callings; they are hobbies for the fucking rich kids. Taylor Swift, talented as she is, is the daughter of wealthy oligarchs, an NYU theater degree will set you back about a hundred K. What exactly would motivate these folks to tear into the soft flesh of the status quo when the status quo has been treating them just fine, thank you very much?

Maybe that’s it. Maybe I just need a backbeat of post-world war II English anger in my productions of The Goat, maybe I’m missing the pink-haired, punk rock snarl in the subtext of Hot L Baltimore. And it should be there. Once upon a time theater WAS rock and roll. Make no mistake, theater WAS the raised middle finger to the patriarchs and indoctrinated economic gatekeepers.

It’s all saying the same thing: rock and roll and the theater are way more alike than they are different, but a hundred years ago the theater became the refuge of septuagenarians and turtleneck wearing intellectuals who read Opera World as they vape, the pages carefully turned outward to make sure you can see them as you pass by him at the Starbucks.

The Two Gentlemen I saw understood this, but they misfired. Their cocksure cast of diverse and attractive millennials was charming to be sure, but they no more understood the volcanic rock and roll fire than did their audience of picnicking suburban voters (and these are the folks that need it most.) They sang all the songs and did the dances, they preened and posed and gave Shakespeare a 4/4 beat (unsyncopated…) that was likable enough, but it felt like none of them has ever lived the blues enough to sing ‘em right. And moreso, they didn’t even know that it was required. They all figured, not unlike Jonathon Larson, sing sweetly and hit the power notes; boom, done. Tony.

Pat Benatar got it. Pat Benatar shrieked it out with the passion and experience that only a scarred-but-smarter chick can. And, sure, it’s easy to look back at the 80’s with a superior tilt of our ironic glasses and smirk at the over-the-top bombast of the music, in particular the punk and heavy metal sub genres. That music was written when Reagan was god, when they told us that greed was good, when the Moral Majority laid the foundations that would later make a blowjob an impeachable offense. It was then that Corey Hart told us to never surrender, when Robert Smith said that tonight was for dancing like you can’t hear the beat, Queensryche released Operation: Mindcrime, and Grandmaster Flash wrote about rats in the front room, roaches in the back, junkies in the alley with a baseball bat.

That’s the rock and roll that the modern theater needs; not the glib whitewashing and gentrification of the stuff our parents said would make us all Satan worshipers; it needs the fractious anger that seethes within Public Enemy when they say: “our freedom of speech is freedom or death.”

Our freedom of speech is freedom or death.

There are Nazis in the white house; banks are writing the laws. The ocean is damn near sterile.

Now is not the time to let rock and roll become just another design element the theater has softened so much that it becomes palatable to the silk-skinned folks who are flush enough to afford the tickets. Even if our younger performers don’t get it, one of our priorities should be to keep that fire scorching.

Pat Benatar inspired me two nights ago; she rocked my shit as hard as the first time I saw Eric Bogosian or Eve Ensler or that time I was hammered and lost my breath when Julie Taymor’s 30 foot tall Bread and Puppets masterpieces took over downtown Manhattan on my first Halloween in the city circa 1989.

But Pat did it two nights ago. Not four decades ago, she did it on a sultry Sunday night at the ferocious age of 64. So maybe her righteous anger never died, maybe people just stopped paying attention. (There is certainly another blog here about ageism and its straight line correlation to sexism. I aint got time for that right now because Love is a Battlefield.)

But if Pat Benatar can do it after four decades of smashing the spandex ceiling, if she can still muster the meteoric howl of emancipation and anger and revolution, then those of us still making theater have no excuse.

DCK