Friday, March 12, 2010


History is important. Without a sense of it, we take too much for granted.

I had the privilege of listening in when the upstairs studio theatre at Victory Gardens was renamed after Richard Christiansen. The guests were a pretty impressive whos who of respected artists: Harold Ramis, John Mahoney, Deanna Dunagan, Jeffrey Sweet, Rick Cleveland, Frank Galati, and William Petersen, to name a few.

Oh, and Chris Jones was there too.

The night was charged beyond belief. The simple but overpowering respect that this theatrical community holds for Richard is nothing short of inspiring. Mr. Cleveland brought tear to many an eye with his attribution of his current success, his wife and kids and home included, to Richard believing in him.

But believe it or not, the speech that really got me thinking belonged to none other than Mr. Jones. (And after typing that, I think I will from this point forth refer to him as "Mr. Jones.")

Chicago theatre is a special entity in itself. One can go on for hours about what sets this artistic community apart from all others in moving and inspiring ways (and god knows, I have spent hours doing just that). That being said, one point has always struck me more than most others about this city and its theatre scene: the fact that damn near every show in this town (and in the surrounding areas too) gets reviewed. Not only that, these shows are reviewed with the same sensibility and consideration given to Steppenwolf, Goodman, and other "big-player" productions. There is a simple understanding that bigger is not necessarily better, and that a small show in a small venue can make waves just as large and affecting as any Steppenwolf production. This is appreciated by our critics, and thus allows for small companies to make the necessary strides to grow, develop, and attract. The beauty of press is outreach, publicity - look, more people can know that we exist now! We're here, we're a theatre, get used to it! (or something like that). And nothing helps growth like people noticing existence. And hey, if the press is good? Well, now we're cooking!

And this is where history comes in. As Mr. Jones spoke that evening, it became clear that in talking about Chicago's remarkable critical sense of storefront theatre and recognition of what that realm is capable of, one man could be identified as the point of origin: Richard Christiansen. Mr. Jones could look back, as could everyone, and see that it was Richard who started making the same effort to see the shows in the backs of bars as he did to see the big players. It was Richard who recognized the potential of a storefront scene. It was Richard who realized that size didn't matter, and that incredibly powerful theatre could happen anywhere. Most importantly, it was Richard who took all this and wrote it down in the Chicago Tribune so that everyone else could know it too.

Mr. Jones eloquently and warmly pointed out to everyone in the room the roots of this special relationship between critic and theatre in Chicago. After all, you do see Mr. Jones spending a lot of his precious time in storefronts, and suburban theatres, and writing scathing reviews of some shows while bearing his soul for productions like "Harper Regan" over at Steep. And to be fair, you so rarely see anything like this is the primary New York City publications. Why is that? Where did Mr. Jones get this idea that it is important to get out there and see the back room experiments, the mid-size productions, AND the large-scale extravaganzas? Who taught him that all of it is equally important to an artistic community.

Oh yeah. Richard did.

Richard has no idea who I am. And yet, if I could, I would tell him that I cannot express the level of gratitude that I have, the level of appreciation I feel as a direct result of these choices he made. His impact on Chicago theatre is immeasurable. Because he believed in Chicago and embraced the true variety of artistic exploits this community has to offer, we - the young and naive and overeager artists who have not yet been jaded by harsh reality - can feel like we can actually achieve our dreams.

Because of Richard, we CAN achieve our dreams.

Thank you, Richard Christiansen.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Willkommen - Oberlin Live Cast Recording

I've decided to post a song each week from the Oberlin production of Cabaret that I directed back in '08.

Listening to these, all I can think is... GOD I miss everyone from that show!

From Youtube:

The opening number from the Oberlin production of "Cabaret" (directed by Josh Sobel, music direction by Ian Axness, choreographed by Micheline Heal)

Emcee: Raphael Sacks
Sally Bowles: Samantha Boyd
Rosie: Holly Heidt
Fritzie: Caitlin Brown-Romtvedt
Lulu: Alia Syed
Helga: Rachel Saudek
Bobby: Sean Lucius
Victor: Aaron Kokotek

Saturday, December 5, 2009

On Your Own Terms.

NOTE: I want to thank Joe Mazza for the inspiration for this post.


This has been one hell of a week. Lots of ups, a bunch of downs - exhausting, to say the least.

It has also given me a lot to think about in terms of how I go about making the art I want to make.

Everyone has their strengths, and everyone has their weaknesses. We all have ways that work best for us in terms of doing what we love to do. And yes, we should all work and strive to able to do it all, attack work in any circumstances and deliver the best possible results, but the truth of the matter is, some artists will do better in one set of production circumstances than others, and those artists who do not do as well should not be dismissed as lesser artists simply because their strengths lie elsewhere, and have proven those strengths.

I have been learning a lot about myself as an artist over the last few years. I have been fortunate enough to have opportunities to both succeed and fail, and from each take away useful lessons about the work and about my own limitations and abilities.

In a conversation I recently had, I was able to step back and look at my own body of work. And something has become abundantly clear. The work I feel best about, the work that was most artistically fulfilling and that the audience was most enthralled by (Cabaret and Glengarry Glen Ross, for example) has been work that I have been able to give a good amount of time and personal attention to, even well before rehearsals began. They were works that I have allowed to grow inside of me, evolve and breath and take real shape that could then be brought into an organic rehearsal room and be given life. On the opposite side, the work I have been most frustrated and dissatisfied with has been work where I have felt rushed, or been in a position where I have not felt ready to give the work its due, whether because of prep time, rehearsal time, or any number of other factors.

Let me say right here, at this point, that this is not a post of me making excuses, and this is not me complaining about "not having enough [whatever]". I don't believe in that. Any difficulties I may have are mine, whereas others may shine under the same circumstances, and I will not work any less or any less passionately to deliver the best that I can. And, especially after being at the O'Neill, I have enormous respect and admiration for being able to put up work quickly and effectively. I recognize the necessity for that, and I do welcome the opportunity to continue challenging myself in those areas so that I can grow and develop skills in an arena where I currently feel less than my best (I may not feel good about the products that might result from me being in a Theatermakers-style directing setting, but damn I would savor each chance to strengthen myself and be a better artist under those conditions). All I am doing is examining my own strengths and weaknesses, and what I seem to need - at this stage of my development - to really do work that I am proud of.

What came out of this conversation, however, was an important realization. Even though I plan on involving myself in the future in "quick-fire" theatre opportunities and welcome the development and exercise opportunities afforded by them, at a certain point, I need to take a break from beating my head against the wall and wishing that I was like someone else who might excel at doing work this quickly. Instead, perhaps I should simply recognize where my strengths lie, and make an opportunity for myself to do work on those terms. My terms.

After my last two big productions, I know I have a place in this business, and I know that I am able to direct well. I don't believe that there is anything wrong with taking a step back and saying "this is how I work best. So, this is how I am going to work, at the very least, on my next show." I have a right to do that, to make work that I feel good about in a way that I feel good about. Just because I struggle with making my art in one set of circumstances, doesn't mean that I am not a good artist. Artists are known to have their specific ways and styles of working and "sets of demands", often to a comedic fault. These often arise through trial and error, discovering what elements provide for the best artistic result, and attempting to stay close to those elements. When you get right down to it, one is allowed to have strengths and weaknesses, and one is allowed to make opportunities to display their strengths.

So I may not be the best at short-rehearsal readings. No one can take Cabaret and Glengarry away from me. And I will work my ass off to get better at the short-rehearsal fare. But for now, its time for me to show this community what I can do. On my terms.

Ultimately, the result is (hopefully) great art that everyone on every side can feel good about, moved by, changed by, provoked by. What's wrong with setting oneself up to deliver that in the best way they can?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Walking The Line...

As a lover of text and language, one of the biggest challenges I face is finding the physical, visual, symbolic and metaphorical elements that provide the audience with that much needed "WOW factor" on stage. The words alone given truthful life spoken crisply and with exquisite and focused intention and timing may be wonderful as is. But audiences tend to want more. Which is fair. It's about using all of the theatrical elements available to tell the story in a unified way. It's about staging the action, not just the words; if it were the latter, having actors sit across from each other and speak might actually be enough. And, as we all can recognize, it is not.

On the flip side, it is just as easy to spot those directors who, for whatever reason, do not really trust the language of the play (and I would bet that they are not even really aware of it, at least not in those terms). They tend to make choices with regard to lights, sound, movement, and so on that, instead of providing a deeper understanding of the play, they rather act as a distraction from the text and the play as a whole, and provide the audience with a choice: either listen to the words cluttered by the "noise" and try to decipher the actor's intent, or pay attention to the "noise" and risk missing the truth and flair of the word itself, which is really carrying the message of the play.

The ideal, of course, is to find the stunning, inventive, and unique effect, appropriate to the style of the play, that blends together with the words themselves to create a singular entity: that of THE PLAY. This is in some ways a strong litmus test for a production - do you separate the words from what you see and hear around them, are do they strike you as one singular event that is being experienced in real time?

One must take great care to treat the text with respect and careful craftsmanship when giving them life on stage - after all, one must consider the craftsmanship that it took to put them on the page in the first place. So, when one lays a lengthy sound cue over a monologue, in an attempt to "illuminate" the monologue but in reality effectively drawing attention away from a beautifully written passage, such a director is doing a disservice to the play, the playwright, the production, and to his or herself.

An example of it done right is the use of trapeze work in the RSC's Henry V a few years back. The French were in long flowing garments and suspended in air, doing acrobatic work, flips and twists, while the English, covered in dirt and dressed in muted colors, popped in and out of trap doors in the stage below.

It was breathtaking. Why? Because its a war, with a dichotomy to be drawn between the two nations at war. The text reveals this dichotomy, but it must then be given physical reality. The use of trapeze and differing clothing styles truly illuminated a key feature of the story itself - the DICHOTOMY, the two different sides at war. And thus, a stunning visual and physical choice was made that stayed true to the story and the text.

Paul Moser, former chair of theatre at Oberlin College and my adviser at school, spoke often about a director needing a finely tuned "bullshit-meter." That is to say, the director may really like an idea, but if it is not working on stage, they must be honest with themselves and adjust, rather than sacrifice the whole play on an idea that didn't pan out. The idea may make sense on paper - it does not mean it will work.

I have no problem with using trapeze, live music, puppetry, shadow-work, modern dance as a device within a straight play in order to provide insight into the text being spoken simultaneously. Just make sure that the two elements actually work together, rather than detract from each other. And as a director, it is OUR responsibility to make sure that they are working together instead of independently - a united artistic expression for the audience to see, hear, and experience. If the sound makes us miss the story being told, take the sound out and craft the storytelling itself. If the audience is watching the dance and not listening to the actor speaking directly to them, something may need some tweaking.

Don't cover the words up. Activate them. The writer wrote them so that they could be brought to life and have effect. Don't rob them of that capability.

"Suit the action to the word, the word to the action" - They exist to support each other; otherwise, the whole play loses its balance.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Star Wars According to a 3 Year Old...

This is brilliant.

Star Wars Episode IV According to a 3-Year-Old:

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Thoughts on Originality

So it occurred to me tonight that something that I thought was pretty well understood might in fact not be, and this seemed to need some addressing.

Artists have styles. They have things they like to go back to, elements that repeat themselves, themes that recur within their breadth of work, and so on. And that is fine.

However, at the same time, one can usually find variations on the theme from work to work. If the style is the same, perhaps the subject is different. If the subject is similar, maybe its presented in a different way. This is what keeps the work, even if it contains repetition, fresh and engaging, especially to an audience that becomes familiar with their work.

It may be said that it is disappointing and somewhat painful when one finds an artist not only telling the same essential story that they previously told, but in the same way, minus a different world setting. Changing the world of a piece is set in does not do enough to create variation so that the product feels new. It will still feel recycled as long as the message, structure, relationships, and shtick are exactly the same. And, to address the familiar audience issue, an audience that sees a new work years after the first work, and is met with a duller near-copy of the original that is passed off for new, is destined to be alienated. Change the subject, change the story-telling elements, even just change the shtick - CHANGE SOMETHING!

People can tell a Mamet play from a mile away. People can spot Pinter, Stoppard, Churchill, McDonagh, Beckett in a moment. These writers are recognizable because of elements that reappear, but are reinvented significantly enough or used in a new enough context as to make them feel like an anchor, a point of familiarity from which one can more comfortably explore the truly new parts of a work. This is the real skill - to make that which is in fact recycled feel good, feel fresh, feel engaging. As soon as the recycled feels recycled, you are most likely in trouble, and should probably take a closer and more critical look at all of your work, so you can see what keeps popping up again and again.

If you create a new show that is essentially exactly the same as an earlier show, but in a different setting, you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to really and truly create, and you make yourself into a one-trick pony. At that point, an audience can just see the first one, the original, the one that started it all, and then has absolutely no reason to see what comes after - THEY HAVE ALREADY SEEN IT!

Please don't do this. It just makes people sad.

Monday, October 19, 2009

I Agree With Most of This

Especially a lot of the ideas about how companies can operate as a business in the future - tools and programs that can make them financially sustainable without sacrificing mission, content or quality. There may be a lot of answers here as to how new companies can grow effectively and possibly even more quickly than usual...