Monday, November 24, 2008

Beyond Dinner (Tracy's new blog)

My wife, Tracy, has a new blog: Beyond Dinner. (One woman's exploration of sustainable food systems.) She's writing about gardening, farming, eating, cooking, and the systems that bind all of that together. She's just started--be sure to check it out.

Blank Horizon (but not quite)

I was planning to write about the scary feeling that comes up whenever I don't have anything lined up in the way of productions or publications, since that's kind of where I'm at. (It can feel pretty bleak.) Christmas Breaks is opening in Wisconsin, but I don't really have anything to do with that one. I do have a reading of Tornado Siren scheduled for December 4th at Brookline Booksmith (6:30pm) as part of a holiday festival (just 15 minutes) here in Brookline. I also found out that a broadcast of my radio play Love & Lightning that was scheduled for this week by Shoestring Radio Theatre in San Francisco has been postponed to March, and they'll also broadcast Tundra Games. So, it's not exactly like nothing is happening with my work. (And I'm sure more will be scheduled soon.)

Most importantly, I can see some writing time coming my way in December and January (I think), which should let me get drafts finished of my new play and my new novel.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

changeable lens

For those of you who are interested in maps and stats, definitely check out Worldmapper, a site that puts together various world maps, based on proportions of various statistics in different countries.

While you're there, check out the Books Published (per capita) map. China's bigger than I expected in this one.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My Fantasy Life: Boston Theatre Endowment

The discussion on Monday about the poor economic model of theatre in America brought back an idea that I'd had before but never really explored in depth: the idea of a Boston Theatre Endowment. There are foundations in our area that currently fund some theatrical work, but none devoted exclusively to funding theatres and theatres artists. In my ideal world, we'd set up a Boston Theatre Endowment that would do just that.

Part of this is just an acknowledgement that the economics of theatre, especially smaller, non-commercial theatre, just don't add up. In an economic world where growth and increased productivity is key to survival, working in an artform where it still takes the same amount of people to put on a play as it did a century ago, for the same sized audience, is not going to work without outside help.

The Boston arts community has proven that it's capable of raising large sums of money to build new theatre buildings. But what about money for the people who are to work on the stages of those theatres?

My fantasy also acknowledges the fact that the NEA is unlikely to return to strength, and unlikely to fund individual artists in a meaningful way (at least in my lifetime).

A significant amount of energy is spent raising money for small and mid-sized theatres around town. But most of these theatres have a relatively limited life cycle. They're around for a few years, the money raised got used for their productions, and is now gone.

What if some of that fundraising energy was put into raising money for a permanent endowment that handed out half its earnings to individual theatre artists and half to theatre companies? And the money received by theatres could only be used to pay artists--this would enable some small theatre companies to move up the food chain a little and have access to Equity actors that are normally too expensive.

For the individual artist grants, I'd want to see significant funds given out, rather than $1000 here or there, maybe $10,000, and maybe a handful of large grants ($30,000), so some of these people could really focus on their art for a stretch of time. They could be Boston's theatrical MacArthur awards, if you will.

The MFA raised what, $500 million for their new wing? Good for them. The new Arsenal Center for the Arts cost $7.5 million. The BCA cost a pretty good chunk. Various parties are putting $70 million into renovating the Paramount. It's great to have all these buildings, but we have a town where most actors can't afford to pay their rent by acting on these stages. What if we had a $10 million Boston Theatre Endowment, paying out $500,000 in grants to artists and small theatres every year? $20 million in the bank, giving out $1 million in grants every year? Fundraising for the Endowment could be a continuous process, trying to get it to keep growing.

I know the conventional wisdom is that buildings get built because it's easier to get people to donate when they know they'll see their name on something concrete. Too bad. Because the impact from funding artists directly would have the potential to affect hundreds of artists, hundreds of productions, and thousands and thousands of theatre-goers.

Anyway, that's my latest theatre fantasy. (There's no reason why this couldn't work for other cities. But I think it's important to have the Endowment focus on a local region, because theatre is an inherently local artform.)

Digital TV (very cool) (certain to ruin my life)

We're aware of the big switcheroo is coming in February (all broadcast TV will be only available in digital), so we were about to get a converter, but Tracy had a friend at work who gave us a spare (thanks!). We've never been willing to spring for the money for cable, so we get a handful of channels, very fuzzily, thanks to rabbit ears.

Plugged in the new box. Wow. Clear picture and lots of channels. Even a local weather channel. Something like four or five different PBS channels. It's like having cable, only free. Now when I watch the Patriots on Sundays I might actually be able to see the football on the screen.

The only problem, of course, is that it's likely to ruin my life. Before, there was really not much point in watching TV, besides a few favorite things that felt worth watching through the static. But now, it's all clear and bright, and even Entertainment Tonight is sparkly and ready to go. There's a home and garden PBS channel on all the time, so maybe I can learn to make Norm Abram's latest bookcase or armoire.

Of course, it's all just temporary, because the whole notion of broadcast television is doomed. In a few years, we'll all access TV through the internet, because it doesn't make any sense for content to be only available at one specific hour on one specific night. We've already seen most of the networks gradually open up and offer shows online. In the meantime, I guess I'll be able to rot my brain over the air, though.

thoughts on directors

No, I'm not writing to complain. A few of my best friends are directors (and I even direct sometimes, too, though rarely).

One thing that really struck me in the symposium on Monday was when directors spoke up and said that they were pretty much doing it all by the seat of their pants, and that they weren't sure what everyone in the room was talking about when actors talked about various problems within the process, because they never get to see other directors at work.

This makes sense in some ways because I know how busy directors are, and when they move from job to job, they barely have time to eat and sleep, let alone drop in on rehearsals by other directors. On the other hand, theatre is certain to suffer if directors, both old and new, are not taking the time to observe how other people attack the same job. Again, it comes back to my same concern--how do we improve what we do, unless we are consciously trying to define and evaluate how we make plays for/with audiences and how we can do it better.

There are, of course, certain difficulties with other directors sitting in--ego and innate competitiveness between the two directors, and an understandable shyness about sharing what can be an extremely intimate process. Observers can be deathly when it comes to vulnerable human beings up on stage feeling willing to expose themselves and make mistakes, to look stupid and slow and ugly, if necessary.

This may be something that StageSource can address here in Boston, to try to set up some sort of director-to-director exchange (it may already exist for all I know). It's certainly something that directors themselves could do on their own. It would certainly require a fair amount of trust on the part of everyone concerned. But, to be honest, Boston is a small theatre town (as are most cities) and most of the directors and actors all know each other anyway. The actors are all aware of how various directors work. Maybe the directors should suck it up and see what they can learn about themselves.

(on a side note:)
Personally, I adore rehearsals. I like watching how directors work with actors, and I love watching actors stumble through discovering the story and characters of any play (especially mine). I watch directors intently, trying to understand how they do what they do. The question was raised a bit over the weekend about how much time the writer should spend in the rehearsal hall. While I think it's important for the playwright to get out of the room, for everyone's sake, I'm always reluctant to leave, because I just like being there.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Brain Overflow (and gratitude)

The last two days of a theatre symposium here in Boston have definitely left my mind a little overflowing. The topic was Actor as Collaborator, and featured actresses Olympia Dukakis and Lynn Cohen as leaders/instigators of the discussion. The talk dealt a lot with the feeling of marginalization (and infantilization) that actors are feeling in the theatrical process, a lot of the time (not in every case). Though the focus was on actors, directors, playwrights, designers and others were invited to be part of the conversation (100 people were invited, plus students from Emerson).

Some of the talk was emotional, with people sharing horror stories from their careers. Some students expressed their confusion about what path to take out of school--starting something small and underground or heading to commercial theatre. On Monday, we sat in a big circle, of probably more than 60 people, and went around for hours, with each person having a chance to speak. A lot of it was just about getting ideas and pent up emotions out there, but what I really appreciated was the strong sense that no matter who was speaking, the assembled crowed really listened and thought about what was being said (which gets hard after multiple hours of this).

Late in the day on Monday, we split into breakout groups, and I was in the playwright/actor group. We had about ten people, split evenly between actors and writers. The conversation was warm and generous, and confirmed yet again how much I enjoy working with and talking to actors. I think we all recognized the importance of the director in the process, but all hope for the ability and opportunity to work more closely together in the future. We talked a bit about how collaboration depends upon possessing a common vocabulary and a respect for each other's artistic process. In Rhombus, our rule is always "impressions not suggestions," which I think could be amended to say "impressions and questions, not suggestions." Trying to rewrite someone else's play is a tough impulse to resist, and the same applies for playwrights wanting to give actors easy answers (thereby short-circuiting their discovery process).

So much was said on both days, it all tends to sort of blend together into a buzz in my brain. I was struck over and over again how much we all want to work together better. However, when I spoke on Sunday, I brought up that one thing I feel is lacking in our process is a better formal (or at least semi-formal) process for when the show is over to assess how we did. It's extremely rare to be invited to a post-production post-mortem, where the entire group of people who were involved in the production gather to say, "the way we did this really worked for me." Or else that it didn't and why. Directors don't say to the actors, "how did this work for you, when I did so and so?" Or does the director ask the playwright, "How was our communication? How could it be better next time?"

An essential lack in our theatrical process is this conscious intention to learn from our successes and mistakes, in order to intentionally mold the process that we use to create theatre. Effective collaboration requires more than just everyone dumping in ingredients when the soup is being assembled. Often folks are pressed for time and money and have already moved on to the next show, but our artform suffers for neglecting this final, crucial step. What I want is a theatre scene in Boston where audience members can't wait to tell their neighbors, "you must go see this show!"

Anyway, that's something that's been on my mind lately, and it mixed together with all the other theatrical goulash of the weekend.

One last point: Jaan Whitehead, a member of Anne Bogart's board (among many other smart things she's done) talked a bit about the economics of theatre in our society, and the fundamental conflict that the arts in our society face with market capitalism and popular democracy. Basically she reminded us, in very clear language, that the economic model for theatre in our culture stinks. I knew this, but I liked the way she explained it.

Several other actors in the audience talked a fair bit about finally coming to terms with the fact that they need day jobs in order to practice their art--and we're talking about incredibly talented, well-respected actors in the Boston theatre scene. Their comments, and the whole weekend, reminded me how much I appreciate my life, and all that I'm able to do artistically, even though it may not make me much money. I wouldn't trade it. I owe the assembled horde of actors and theatre folk a big thanks for that reminder.

Friday, November 14, 2008

I Have Not Vanished from the Face of the Earth

Really. I'm still here, but I've been on a freelance project for the past two weeks that is taking up all of my writing time. The money is good, so that's very helpful. I think I've got at least another week to go, maybe a little more, and then it'll be time to get back to my new novel. (My goal of finishing in January doesn't look attainable anymore--maybe February. And somehow I need to get something put together for Monday's Rhombus playwright meeting. Yikes.)

I'm headed to a theatre symposium on Sunday and Monday, nominally about actors and their role in theatre, and I guess I'm supposed to help provide some of the voice of the playwright.

I have a zillion ideas to write about in this blog, once I find a little breathing space (like the unequal role of the playwright in the theatrical collaborative process, the value of looking for quality actors in one's own back yard, and more).

Had a great meeting earlier this week with a few lighting and sound designers, in preparation for a workshop that I'm helping put together with StageSource, called Playwriting in 3D, which will seek to help writers better understand the role and desires of designers when it comes to working on new plays. With any luck it'll happen in April. (More to come about all of this.)

I met a writer yesterday, the sister of a friend, who regularly writes 2,500 words a day. Maybe as many as four books in a year. Wow. Just call me Mr. Glacial. I'm lucky if, when I actually get writing time, I can get through 1,000 words a day, and even then this current book is on its third major tear-down rewrite. I'll just try to accept that we all have different processes.

(In case you're wondering, the worms are thriving, and the garden is still producing greens.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Off to New York: The Sky is Falling

Tomorrow, bright and early (not actually bright, since the sun won't be up yet--6:30am) I'll board a bus for NYC. I have freelance work meeting all afternoon, and then I'm off to see the 7pm show of The Sky is Falling, which is part of EATFest at the Roy Arias Theatre Center, Off-Broadway Theatre, 300 West 43rd St, 5th floor, November 4-16. EAT puts on a really terrific festival (I had a play in it last year, too)--The Sky is Falling is in Series A, running Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm, Saturday at 7:30 pm, Sunday at 4:30 pm.

The Sky is Falling is a funny and poignant play about two sisters who finally reunite, just as one of them is about to go off into space for the Rapture (or so she claims). It's really a fun show and I'm excited to see it. I go with especially high hopes because I've had such good interactions with my director.

For some people, a five-hour bus ride doesn't sound that appealing, but for me, it's good concentrated reading and writing time. Normally I don't bring my laptop, but I have a freelance assignment I can work on a little bit, while still having some good reading and napping time left over. The napping might be especially important since I plan on watching election returns until pretty late tonight.


It was a beautiful day here in Boston. 60s and sunny, perfect fall day. I got to the polls around 11:15 and it took 55 minutes to get my voting in, which didn't feel too bad. It was the longest I'd ever waited to vote, by far, in Massachusetts, or anywhere else we've lived. This morning the lines were longer, up to 90 minutes (this is in Brookline). This afternoon, around 3pm, there were no lines anymore.

Folks in line were clearly excited about the vote, and no one spent much time complaining about the vote. Someone ahead of me gave up, but maybe she came back later.

At a social gathering a few weeks ago, a drunken argument was made to me that votes should be apportioned by the amount of taxes one pays. Perhaps, instead, voters who have to wait in line for four or five hours (as has happened in LA and Georgia), or who have to trudge through floods and snow, should get an extra bonus points on their votes. I felt like I didn't have to suffer much to vote today, but I did get a little satisfaction from at least having to wait a little. Often, voting can be discouraging, because no one is there, and I worry that no one really takes this all very seriously. Today's crowd definitely gave me cause for optimism.