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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.​

 

Meet Michael Bunin. Actually, you already know him; you just don’t realize it.

You can’t watch thirty minutes of television without seeing Michael Bunin a couple times. He shoots a zillion commercials a year. You’ve seen a bunch of them, trust me. They are very funny.

Michael has an uncanny ability to mix a likable guy-next-door vibe with cutting humor and the sort of insight that only the best stand up cats display. He grew up in Vegas and is one of those guys who knows everybody in town, theater or otherwise. On camera, his skill is so sublime that he can turn invisible (I’ve seen him do it.) in a crowd, or with a turn of his head, take all the focus for himself. He is one of the most capable and consistently working actors I know in Los Angeles.

Also, if you are foolish enough to sit down at a table with him to play some cards, he will keep you laughing the entire time he is emptying out your wallet. Seriously, it’s like aikido or something.

We were chatting about entertainment the other day, and theater, and storytelling.

Me: In the past few years, LA has felt to me like this giant machine that just churns out content. It’s like this factory that assembly-lines out as much stuff into the multi-platform universe as possible. Where does the modern, classically trained actor fit into this?

Michael: That’s one way to look at it and I think it’s accurate to a point. A lot of the content it churns out is very good, so to quote a very famous acting teacher… This is the business we’ve chosen.

Me: How do you balance doing those jobs that pay the mortgage with those jobs that bring you genuine fulfillment? Like, do you make a conscious effort to do say, a little Strindberg once in a while, or do a Shakespeare festival every couple years?

Michael: I’m an actor who is very simply looking for an acting job. Like any profession some jobs are better than others but I’m an actor and it’s my job to act. I am always looking forward to being on stage doing long form improv, that said whether it’s commercials, TV, kid shows, a movie, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s all acting in some shape or form and the more that you think it doesn’t satisfy some sort of need the harder you have to work to make it so. I’m not perfect…

Me: Whoa, whoa, let’s not get crazy…

Michael: There are some gigs that I just don’t necessarily enjoy right away but you have to try to find a way. That’s the job. At the end of the day I’m very lucky because I get to do what I like for a living.

Me: Many years ago in New York, an agent chastised me for wanting to work in the theater. He insisted I make a choice between the theater and what he called “show business. What’s the difference to you?

Michael: I don’t know that there is much of a business difference. I remember early on talking to some agents and managers who didn’t want me to pursue theater. I took that to mean that it’s less money. Each business has its ups and downs, good and bad so for me finding representation that is on the same page as me erases having to make that choice.

Me: What do you think about theater in Vegas?

Michael: I’m a big fan of what A Public Fit is doing. There are a lot of talented people and theaters in my hometown. As a Las Vegan it’s very exciting. I would love to see all the Vegas theaters get together to create a community that helps new theaters open, and pushes for the success of the whole community. If all these theaters can grow together, could be one hell of a scene.

SUPERSTORE — “Back to Work” Episode 203 — Pictured: (l-r) Michael Bunin as Jeff, Mark McKinney as Glenn — (Photo by: Brandon Hickman/NBC)

Me: What are you working on right now?

Michael: I am lucky enough to be back playing the role of Jeff on NBC’s Superstore again this season. The cast is great, the writing is great. They give me really fun things to play. This is a very fun gig! I also have a recurring role on the Amazon show The Last Tycoon.

Me: That sounds like a busy year. Final word?

Michael: This isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon. There is no such thing as a short game here.

Me: Aint that the truth. Otherwise, where would a couple of codgers like us be at this point?

 

Thanks for the sage words, kid. See ya on the flickering light box.

Have you met Rebecca Reyes?

Nobody has ever accused APF of being the strong, silent type. Not gonna lie, we’re really the talk-to-much, therapist-on-speed-dial type. So, yeah, here’s a talk I had with Rebecca Reyes.

Rebecca was born in Vegas, she’s as much a fixture of this town as the APF senior staff. Maybe that’s why we dig her; that and her sly grin, (which is clearly hiding a serial-killer mentality that is equal parts sexy and terrifying. Just sayin.) She’s also a paralegal at Lagomarsino Law Office, which means she manages to have a respectable career outside of the theater, sort of a must these days. She once told me that even with her full time job, theater is still a focus of her life. So she continues to audition or act in short films or even make her own. “That’s my next favorite creative hobby,” she says. “Other than acting.”

So I asked her what she was working on right now.

Right now, I’m performing in Clown Bar at Majestic. I get to play a killer clown in a tutu and bleed glitter.

Why does NONE of that surprise me?

It’s actually a lot of fun! I’m also at the same time rehearsing for Hair also at Majestic. In between that and work, I’m preparing for an audition with Public Fit.

That sounds like a lot…

Who needs sleep, right?!

 

Photo by Richard Brusky
Rebecca in A Public Fit’s The Realistic Joneses from last spring

So what do you think about theater in Vegas right now?

When I started doing theatre in college, I felt like there weren’t a lot of acting options outside of college, and if there were, I didn’t hear about them. Now, there are so many wonderful companies and I feel like it’s easy for actors to find information about these companies. UNLV is even working with local theatre companies, which I think is great. Right now, we have such a great mix of shows being produced. I feel like every theatre company offers something different. You don’t have carbon copy companies, everyone has their own thing and I think that is helpful to bring more people to the theatre, there is literally something for everybody.

As you see it, is that the big difference in the Vegas art community between now and years past?

It has definitely become more art friendly. I remember going to First Friday before Zappos was in town. It was a little scary, fun, but scary. Growing up in Las Vegas, I don’t remember downtown being such a hub for theatre, yes, there was theatre, but now it just seems more so than ever. Downtown in general has gotten a facelift and I’m really happy about that. A lot of people tend to talk negatively about Vegas, but it’s my home, always has been, and I guess I’m able to find all the things about it that I love and focus on that. I have met so many wonderful people here and I meet more and more of them every day. I’ve not only made friends through theatre, but family #rarity #ponylife.

I don’t even know what that last part means.

You’re like a thousand years old.

Excellent point. So what do you wish there were more of here in town?

Support. I wish we supported each other more. I also wish we could find a way to bring more “non-theatre” people to the theatre. I think a lot of people right now are worried about day-to-day things, such as existing, working, stuff like that. How do we make theatre important to someone who has other things to worry and focus on, how do we use theatre to help them? How can we use theatre as a means for community betterment, rather than a selfish way to have fun and experience catharsis? I guess that is what I struggle with the most.

What is?

Is what I’m doing as a performer important? Am I helping people or should I be doing something else to help humanity. Do I act for me or for others? And who is to say that acting for yourself is bad? I don’t know. I grew up in a practical house, acting was not viewed as a useful talent. I hope that we give something back to the people who watch our shows and I hope that in some way it makes their life better, otherwise why are we doing it?

Well, why ARE we doing it? What’s your favorite part about it?

The variety, the people, and the energy. This is a town that has a lot of different things to offer, the theatre community has a lot of variety. The friends I’ve made through theatre and their stories, the energy of the city.

I get it. In closing, let’s make a quick list. In no particular order, tell me the 10 reasons why I’m clearly the greatest director you’ve even had the outrageous privilege of working with. Okay, go.

  1. His hair
  2. Goth Night (This is a reference to the night I made our entire cast and crew, as well as the APF staff go dancing at a local Goth night after a particularly grueling 10 hour technical rehears. Good idea or greatest idea ever? You decide…)
  3. His hair
  4. Fancy coffee orders that come with a garden on a plate
  5. His hair
  6. Puppies
  7. His hair
  8. He can build things
  9. His hair
  10. His hair again

Thanks, beautiful Pony. We are lucky to have you as an APF actor, and Vegas is better with you in it.

 

 

If you want to see Rebecca Reyes wear a tutu and bleed glitter (and who DOESN’T??) then make sure you catch Clown Bar at Majestic Rep, opening tonight. Here’s the scoop:

http://www.majesticrepertory.com/shows-1