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Theatre, community and audience engagement

Community and audience engagement are intrinsically linked. The community supports audience engagement, while the audience engagement creates community and further involvement in other pursuits. In the theatre, the audience engagement sets the stage for the performance or event to be unique, distinctive and valuable to the community at large.

For me, the community and audience engagement are some of the most exciting aspects to theatrical life. There are opportunities to have great products and inside the theatre experiences, and they can be memorable, but they all have to begin with successful community and audience engagement. Crucially, those qualities generate response and create conversation, amongst audience members, staff, featured artists, and even passerby who may be unfamiliar with the company or specific show.

Community and audience engagement brings results and experiences for the theatrical venue. The qualities also create lasting memories and continued engagement for the patrons and artists. For the company itself, there is an opportunity to be more than just “that building on that street” or “that theatre I’ve never been to.” With solid community and audience engagement, the relationships become reciprocated. The venue gives back to its community and the community supports the venue in multiple ways, not just through philanthropy or attending specific productions.

In the theatre as a whole, community and audience engagement are the keys to continued satisfaction and enrichment on all fronts. It is important to not forget about how the audience reacts to the theatre. Most importantly, the theatre is the nexus of community and audience engagement, and all crucial developments generate from that hub.

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The Cover Letter

… is not so intimidating once you actually sit down and write it.

Over the past 10+ years of theatre work experience, I have focused on positions that combine production and artistic engagement. In my current work at Wayne State, the experiences have built on each other in a satisfying and enriching way. My first year of the Theatre Management focused on building skills (in areas such as box office and house management along with general marketing and publicity) which then transitioned into leadership tasks in the second year. In the current third and final year, those duties have gone a step further to include mentoring of younger students and colleagues along with a more involved role in audience engagement, artistic and general management planning to ensure a successful season.

Some of my earlier theatre production positions centered around stage and artistic management, and as a continuing AEA member I am well aware of best practices for successful production. Those management roles occasionally branched beyond the theatrical realm, most satisfyingly in two years of involvement with a noted film festival in Marin County, California.

All of these theatrical positions stemmed from an earlier in life interest in acting and directing, and it’s clear that this position allows for a melding of many artistic engagements along those realms. The role of the theatre in its community has become increasingly important to me in recent years both as a patron and a worker, and I am particularly interested in ways that the theatre/arts organization can serve and interact with its surroundings, beyond just being a building or organization that presents material for the community and into a relationship that demonstrates genuine reciprocity and commitment.

Embracing the Unknown

I thought this would be a good excuse for a trio of posts with “unknown” in the title … because increasingly these days in the world it seems to be a contrast between an (induced?) fear of the unknown and embracing the challenges of the unknown.

I’m heading right into the unknown as it appears, consisting of a delicate balance between focusing on the nuts and bolts and processes of the last year of my MFA program … and looking ahead to The Unknown of what lies beyond that experience. As part of the challenge, I’ve begun regularly reviewing various job listings websites. The two most prominent ones for my theatre/performing arts fields are frequently updated, with the subscription-based one probably carrying a bit more cache than the open submission one.

Part of the challenge and opportunity of the unknown field of these decisions is simply within the art of embracing the challenge. That effort has become clear to me as two positions that I felt particularly interested in and well qualified for have appeared on either side of the USA. For me, seeing those jobs listed generated a positive reaction mixed with a bit of self-doubt … am I (are you) good enough for that position? That experience and choice? Going down that unknown road?

It might seem a little obvious to declare that it IS worth that effort and experience to apply, take the interview, step out of the comfort zone and so on … but I think part of this particular moment and process is embracing and striding forward into that unknown.

A New Play plays the provocation card

This weekend’s entertainment/arts culture vulture journeys led me to take in two stories that both explored the art and challenges of what is known and unknown in any given situation, and how individuals work around those issues – or not – and maintain a sense of awareness in their possible confusion.

I’ll save the movie for a separate post; here is a focus on the play:

Meadow Brook Theatre in Rochester, MI, is currently offering (just) the third professional production of Luce, a new play by JC Lee that premiered at NYC’s Lincoln Center last year. I learned that Lee had been a writer in residence for a year at my California hometown theatre, Marin Theatre Company.

The play is very much of the moment, with references to Facebook, mobile technology, teen obsession with texting, high school social dynamics and more. But the broad portrayal seen at Meadow Brook, while commendable, did not seem to fit with the ethos of emphasizing the smaller moments that the playwright was clearly going for.

Experienced and versatile local actress Serab Kamoo carries the show as Amy, Luce’s adoptive mother who wants nothing more than the best for her son. The rest of the cast gives strong effort to their roles, but I felt that only Kamoo truly convinced in her part. As Luce himself, Leroy S. Graham fares best with a monologue partway through the show, which is the only chance that the character has to truly speak for himself.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the show would have played differently on a smaller stage and with a more unified sense of direction. The script never spells our Luce’s specific intentions when his actions are called into question, but it never allows the character to get to the heart of the matter, either. Meadow Brook’s stage is well used in the design, with a clever conceit of a downstage area doubling as two locations thanks to some lighting maneuvering, but some of the intimacy of the drama is also lost in the wide space.

The play is performed without intermission and suffers from a sense of anticlimax. Several scenes close to the end could easily be the end, and when the last scene comes around, the resolution feels less satisfying than if the story had closed on a more ambiguous note. Similarly, since Luce’s true intentions are never made clear after his actions are called into question, a note of uncertainty might have driven the plot home in a deeper and more direct way.

All this isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the play. I am always grateful when a theatre presents a new piece, and especially if it is something that stimulates a feeling of engagement and discussion.

Good Men and True

Last Friday night I enjoyed a belated first visit to Hamtramck, Michigan’s Planet Ant Theatre, a small venue that has an ambitious slate of provocative plays. As sometimes happens, I’d wanted to go to this theatre earlier on and didn’t. But it was rewarding to be able to make the time to attend the Opening Night of this particular production.

The publicity materials for the show take care to spell out the basic premise of the play (what if a trio of protagonists from some of Shakespeare’s well-known works meet up in a single story?), but, delightfully, don’t give a sense of the creativity and free spiritedness of the production. The play has received additional press attention in a positive review by John Quinn of Encore Michigan and a feature article running in The Detroit News.

For me personally, the show was a delightful mash-up and reminder of a more creative side of theatre that I sometimes feel sad to not see very often in the professional world. This approach that I speak of is one that is not afraid of taking risks, rolling with the possibilities of a prompt or suggested activity, and being comfortable with the dramatic ambiguity or simply not knowing how a creative exercise might turn out. This was a hallmark of some of my most memorable improvisation and creative discovery based courses over the years, and in some cases, audience attending, such as at San Francisco’s BATS Improv.

In Good Men and True the four actresses (Jaclynn Cherry, Kez Settle, DeAnnah Kleitz-Singleton and Jackie Strez) perform confidently and comfortably as their roles undergo various switchups and moving of layers, literally and figuratively. Their vocal and physical inflections and character choices from the first moment on stage show a strong command of the material and willingness to take risks. I look forward to remembering the fresh and exciting feel of their play – and the associated creative confidence they project with the material – for some time.

Throwback Thursday: Theatre Commute

In early 2009 I commuted for a few weeks in “figure 8s” around the Bay Area from the East Bay into San Francisco and down to San Jose, then back to the East Bay. I compiled a few highlights for LiveJournal on several of the days, and here’s one of them.

I resumed my temporary routine of (total) 125 miles driving and travel from Richmond to San Francisco to San Jose and back today, a geographic figure eight around the Bay Area. Things were pretty smooth today, though here are some episodic highlights:

10:45am: Leave the house. No traffic on 580 East.
11:03am: Pass the Bay Bridge toll. Am surprised by the fact that the metering lights are on and the traffic is backed up after the morning commute.
11:25am: Am detoured from my usual parking spot by today being a “street cleaning” day. Instead I go to a completely different neighborhood where I know parking will be free and non-stickered.
12:00pm: My MUNI trip inbound from Noe Valley is free when the conductor waves passengers past the non-working ticket machine.
12:05pm: During the MUNI trip, I see an intense panoramic view from the top of Dolores Park that I had never seen before.
4:05pm: Near the end of my work shift, I step outside for a few minutes and have an experience out of an action movie. I’ve arranged to give a black suitcase filled with laundry to the show’s costume designer. Instead of stopping, she pulls up to the curb and wordlessly gestures for me to drop the suitcase in the open bed of her truck. I do, and feel like it should have contained lots of money, or we should have been filmed, especially since it is right on Market Street.
4:50pm: During the MUNI trip back to the parking spot, two high schoolers near me decide that they will make the biggest PDA possible while jointly blowing smelly bubble gum.
6:05pm: Arrive at the theatre in San Jose and am pleased that there was no traffic going south on 280.
11:20pm: Leave theatre and begin the trip home on 880.
12:00am: A CHP car suddenly begins to weave across the highway just a few cars ahead of me. Turns out there’s been a minor accident, and that was this officer’s way of alerting the drivers.
12:25am: Arrive home.

Appropriate Behavior and Familiar Faces

For the second year in a row, I had an experience of watching someone I knew “way back when” act in her feature film debut that is attracting significant industry attention and critical praise. This year it is Desiree Akhavan, last year it was Lupita Nyong’o. Both connections stemmed from my undergraduate years at Hampshire College.

Improv ClassAkhavan and I were two of ten students enrolled in a highly memorable (IMO) semester long study of improvisation (pictured at right) at Smith, which maintains its official status as a women’s college but welcomes students from the other four colleges in the region (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) to take courses that might augment their studies at their home school.

In this particular class, taught by now professor-emeritus John Hellweg, the setting and the content were equally rewarding and challenging. We met once a week in the college’s boathouse, which doubles as a classroom, and went well beyond the familiar scope of improvising (comedy) into exercises that had considerably more meaning and depth. Elements of mysticism, storytelling, masks and inventive chose your own adventure were all part of the journey. We also expanded the role of the classroom, frequently leaving the boathouse for site-specific exercises such as seen in the photo above, near the college’s campus center. The class inspired me to incorporate elements of improvisation into my directing and character – building work, and I haven’t forgotten about that process today, even though my theatre work tends to be more in the front office than the rehearsal room.

It doesn’t feel easy to put into words what the experience is like to watch someone you knew earlier in their life on a big screen, though I am sure others have had similar feelings. Somewhere between awe, surprise, amusement, pride, acclaim, a little envy, some memory, and ultimately an appreciation. Those feelings all came to my mind as I enjoyed Appropriate Behavior, Akhavan’s feature film debut in a writer/director/lead actor trifecta. The film continues to play at Cinema Detroit this week and I’m pleased that my neighborhood cinema is one of a handful of theatres nationally showing the film.

Akhavan stars as Shirin, a 20-something Brooklyn resident struggling with personal identity issues after breaking up with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), an at times forceful partner whom she “met cute” at a New Year’s party at some point in the recent past. Shirin aspires for a career in the film business, but after taking on a promising lead from a friend of a friend, she finds herself serving as a teacher to an afterschool program of very young (five year old) aspiring filmmakers. The events, along with her ongoing debate on if and whether to come out to her immediate family, add to a continuing sense of questioning for Shirin. But, with an assertive and bold temperament, she doesn’t sit around and mope, and part of the fun of the narrative becomes going along with Shirin to see what she does next, and how Akhavan’s own fresh writing deftly navigates gender, cultural and social stereotypes and expectations while putting a new spin on them against a contemporary New York City backdrop.

The film’s low-budget backdrop is apparent in some technical aspects of the story, such as lighting and sound, but doesn’t detract from the narrative. I might have appreciated some more clarity in the time shifting aspects of the narrative, but am not sure how that would’ve been best conveyed. As it stood in the finished film, it was sometimes difficult to tell where the action was in the linear timeline, and so it became like a mental jigsaw puzzle to put the different scenes together. Not a problem for me, just could have been smoother. Akhavan showed a committed hand in the direction of the film, eliciting assured and sharp performances from the whole ensemble along with herself. She demonstrates no hesitation in showing herself/the character in a potentially unflattering light, and ultimately, that added to Shirin’s endearing appeal and relatability, and is surely connected to why multiple press outlets have picked up on the film and her current contributions to pop culture.

And so how could I be anything other than impressed to see someone I knew way back when receive acclaim, interest and curiosity for her long-form debut? Here’s hoping that Akhavan has more stories up her sleeves and continues writing and producing in her assured, distinctive voice.

Personal Blog: Seven years since I last left the North American Continent

November 19 has been a somewhat bittersweet anniversary for the last several years, as this day of the year (in 2007 – now 7 years ago) was the last time I was off the North American continent. This is significant primarily because the preceding 8 years saw a wide range of international travel adventures for me… but nothing since 2007. I’m happy the extended hiatus will be ending next March, and, obviously, to be continuing with domestic travel in the present era.

Nonetheless, the anniversary made me recall blog writing before and after that 2007 international flight, and so I turned to LiveJournal to look at the entries again, and re-post them here. It’s worth noting that my theatregoing on that visit included War Horse, which went on to be an international smash, acclaimed film, and is still playing today in London.

November 19, 2007 – “Country Coda Prior to The Journey Home”

It’s a misty morning here in the suburbs of Surrey. The view from my family friends’ house — of thatched brown roofs, tiny streets, and wide swaths of greenery — is suitably “English” to be visually comforting and a relaxed coda for this trip. I’ll be making the journey over to Heathrow via train and bus in time for a 7pm flight that’s due to return to MA at around 10pm EST.

The last few days in London continued to be jam-packed, between seeing two more plays (War Horse, a family drama, and The Country Wife, a raucous Restoration comedy), going around to other parts of the city I hadn’t visited before, including Speaker’s Corner and the area around Spitafields’ Market, and spending time with friends. It concluded with some souvenir shopping yesterday morning and while it was slightly disconcerting how easy it was to $pend (as is often the case in London…) I’m confident I made good purchases of mostly books. I was struck by a wave of sentimental nostalgia, since I’m not sure when the next time I’ll be back here in England will be. However, as was the case when moving out of London in April, it’s double-sided by the reality here of high costs of living, high taxes, vast difference in standards of living and an increasingly tight-knit government…but overall, it’s intriguing to ponder, and I did devote some research to possible theatre grad schools back here, just to consider.

I’m grateful to have been able to take the time for this trip and, as always, to have made the most of the endless artistic experiences here.

November 20, 2007 – “Home in Massachusetts and Staying for Awhile”

I got back to the States around 10pm last night and had a remarkably easy travel/flight process – the speediest airport check-in I’ve ever had (at Heathrow Airport of all places), a cordial customs greeting, somewhat tasty airplane food, and decent films to watch. Even an hour’s delay in taking off from Heathrow didn’t make the flight late getting to Boston.

Am experiencing the usual slightly surreal feelings of being home again, especially where I was walking around rural England yesterday and am in rural Beverly today. I’m sure the adjustment process will ease over the course of this week…

jp london bridge 2007

An old-school (pre-camera phone) selfie

Theatrical Throwback: the enchantment of Cinnabar and the charms of modern technology

In the fall of 2010 I had one of my most spontaneous theatre experiences ever. This memorable evening took place in the bucolic setting of the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma, CA.

Cinnabar is just like that warm and cozy family member’s house that you wish you could stay longer at. Set high on a hill, with a very narrow driveway and sweeping views down to the Petaluma and greater Sonoma countryside, it invites guests to enjoy a wide array of theatre, opera, musical, dance, and other types of performances.

On this particular evening, the theatre offered a double – bill of one act performances. The first production, “We *Heart* U, Nosferatu!”, stood out more for me in the audience. The elaborate stage set – a husky interior with a random large screen for the benefit of the audience – felt like stepping in to someone’s home.

The uniqueness of the staging, where the primary actor (Keith Baker) was the only one seen onstage, while Allison Baker and Mary Gannon Graham appeared via an offstage and live Skype feed, certainly contributed to the memorable experience. As a backstage theatre person, I was excited by the risk taking and unknown of the production – what would they do if the feed failed? were the two actresses going to appear in the flesh? how did they manage to connect all of that technology?

The show was revived the following year at Main Stage West, using the same cast. I would have liked to have seen that production and am sure it maintained the same commitment to comedy on an even more intimate scale.

Birdman impresses but also overrates

I eagerly joined the first preview crowd to catch Birdman at the Main Art Theater last Thursday night, but it took me awhile to write it up here. Probably because the film felt like it fell victim to its own hype, while still being a solid and impressive feat.

Michael Keaton stars in a role with deliberate parallels to his well – known Batman alter ego. “Has – been” actor Riggan (Keaton) has chosen to adapt the Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for the stage, in a bid to restore his artistic creed to a variety of audiences and prove that he can be a triple-threat actor, writer, director… plus financier and more. He is backed up by a motley crew of associates, including a troubled daughter (Emma Stone), an ex who seems somewhat still interested in him (Amy Ryan), a loyal assistant (Zach Galifianakis) and a trio of actors supporting him on the stage: Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu stages the film in almost one uninterrupted take, a choice that initially was disorienting, exciting for awhile, and ultimately felt like it wore out its welcome. Apparently the actors had to match choreographed movements in order to maintain the fluidity of the visual story. Iñárritu is one of several credited writers on the script, and the story can’t seem to decide if it wants to focus solely on Keaton’s character, Riggan, and his challenges, or show the side of a satirical backstage drama, casting attention on the strong egos and challenges coming from every direction within a theatre production.

The film also includes numerous fantastical elements that initially seem to be a homage to Star Wars, but later take on an unclassifiable approach. Eventually the film itself seemed to become a male – led version of Black Swan, where Keaton, like Natalie Portman’s character in the earlier film, continues to feel competition and torment coming from a wide variety of sources, and struggles with a way to achieve balance. I might have appreciated the film more if it had dared for a darker ending than the one it contains, which felt tacked – on and overly hopeful.

Ultimately the film stands out as a technical achievement and a return to form for the esteemed Keaton, who has called it the most challenging performance of his career. While the supporting cast is not given much time to shine, especially as the film goes on, they do make impressions, especially Norton, Stone and Watts, leading to an ensemble feel and knowing acknowledgment of the challenges and rewards of show business.