Tag Archives: theatre

Energy is essential, especially when you don’t have it

 

One common refrain among peers before shows is that they find themselves in a “low-energy” state. Part of their nervousness or apprehension about an imminent show is that they suddenly find themselves lacking the high energy they would prefer to approach the show with.

Many carry their apprehensive, tentative sluggishness into the set, and it adversely affects their participation in the set. Whether or not they do jump in as needed, their choices often lack alert tenacity, and frequently fall flat.

I strike many as a high energy performer, and many wonder what my secret is. I don’t take any drugs, and at most I’ve had a cup of coffee shortly before the show.

It turns out I’m probably just as tired as they are. I’ve stepped on stage for shows often feeling like I’d rather be in bed. But I refuse to let that keep me from making the strong choices I want to make and being as present as I want to be. Once we’re on, that show and the moment are all I care about. I refuse to feel any exhaustion.

The secret is that I’m also tired during practice or rehearsal or class, and because of that I make a point there to give my best within the reality of not feeling so hot. I have spent years getting used to giving my best and pushing myself to play the way I want to play when I’m feeling far from my best, knowing that someday I’d need to perform shows in that condition.

An improv show or any theatrical performance requires a higher plane of energy. An audience will frequently turn against a show if they feel the performers are not giving their best.

On a 7-point energy scale, 7 being full speed ahead and 0 being still, most of us live anywhere between a 1 and a 3. Theatre, improv, any performance, requires at least a 4, and frequently demands you incidentally push yourself to a 5 or 6.

There are going to be a lot of days where you feel like a 2 (1 is akin to laying down and relaxing). Pretty much everyone who says they’re feeling “low-energy” is around a 2, where living at a 3 feels like an effort. There are a lot of days where I walked into a space feeling like a 2, but I gave my work a 4-6 anyway because that’s what it demanded, and what I demanded of myself. I got used to meeting those expectations, and now I can give that level of effort even when I feel “low-energy”.

It takes more than going through the motions of a warm-up to find energy when you’re “low-energy”. You need to be actively present and aware, play with purpose and a sense of urgency. A good warm-up can get you there if you as a player are focused on connecting to that state of awareness, presence and sense of urgency. Warmup scenes can get you there. Shadowboxing, a run around the block, or a great conversation can get you there if you’re seeking to connect to that state.

However, it’s easiest to reach that state when you routinely find and perform in that state during practice, on a regular basis. The more often you play with presence, awareness and a sense of urgency, the less trouble it’ll be to do a show with “low-energy”.

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Keeping A Calendar and The Value of Commitment

Last week I saw someone hang a colleague out to dry on a work shift at the colleague’s theater, because she had double booked herself. Though I take or leave many faux pas in the performing arts community without a fuss, I was aghast at such a failure.

Never mind that she hung someone within a work commitment out to dry. I could not believe she didn’t keep a calendar. Because if she responsibly did, there is no reasonable way this happens.

If you’re going to be a busy performing artist, or other person working in the performing arts, or really just anyone with a schedule in general… diligently keeping a real-time schedule and calendar is an absolutely mandatory minimum, right up there with paying your rent or mortgage. If you don’t diligently keep a calendar of your appointments, that’s an indictment of your character and reliability.

Google Calendar makes this very simple and easy to do, and anyone with a remotely recent mobile device, or at least in possession of a computer with a working internet connection, should be able to readily access it at any time.

I have kept a Google Calendar since 2010, shortly (and fortuitously) before I dove back into theatre after a long hiatus. I color-code and log every commitment with a short detailed description making it clear what I’m doing. I’ll even log things I haven’t committed to but am considering, and will only take those off if I decide I’m not going.

I log shows I plan to attend or am considering attending. I log proposed and planned meetups with friends, and even log time to do laundry and run errands, just to make sure I make the time to do it. I not only note appointments, commitments, anything noteworthy I did. There is never a point where I don’t remember an appointment, because I look at the calendar daily and each one is clearly noted there where I can see it. I go into greater detail than most probably need to, but anyone can keep a basic calendar online of their gigs. I’ll probably write another detailed post later (with pics) on how I set mine up.

Anyway: Double booking should not ever happen under any circumstances. Even if you’re asked to do something and don’t have ready view of your schedule, tell whoever to wait for you to check your calendar and confirm before you commit.

I don’t know how the colleague who took the pipe on this faux pas dealt with this, and beyond what I was told that’s not my business. But I consider such an offense one of my few blacklist-worthy offenses. I won’t work with people who do it.

———–

I am dead serious about the value of commitment.

If you’re an artist, this is going to sound I’m ripping you. Not only am I not ripping anyone in particular, but I know I myself have been guilty of what I’m about to describe. This is a common habit and I only seek to point it out so we can all work together to avoid the pitfalls.

An anecdote: Back in the day, I played with college basketball simulators, where you coach and manage a college’s basketball program. During the offseason, in the game, you recruit players to play at your school.

If you recruit one good player, you will almost certainly get that player to sign with you. But if you try and recruit more than one player, then the chances of successfully signing any of those individual players go down. There is a law of diminishing returns that kicks in quickly after two players, where on average it hurts you more to try and recruit three, four five players and beyond than it would to try and recruit two.

The lesson of the game is simple: Like anything in life you have a finite amount of energy and resources, and once you’re devoting too few resources to any individual, the effectiveness of your work in each instance decreases to an unworkable, ineffective level. So, especially when it comes to a specific goal, you are better off focusing on 1-2 commitments at a time then trying to meet several more.
To bring this back to performance art, a schedule with a high volume of gigs, groups and opportunities can begin to hurt you after a while. Every new opportunity you take diffuses the focus and commitment you can regularly give your existing commitments, and not only does the quality of your participation and availability to those commitments suffer, but your work suffers as a whole as the busy schedule frays your discipline and you develop bad habits.

Bad habits:

– Showing up at the last minute before call or late because you book yourself to rush from thing to thing on a tight schedule.
– Leaving as soon as the meeting/show is over and never having time to talk, or get to know anyone new.
– Never having time to spend outside of meetings/shows chatting and commiserating with colleagues (no, this does not need to happen over food or alcohol).
– Doing the bare minimum that is asked of you while working, because that’s all your divided energy and attention will allow.
– Going into auto-pilot due to fatigue, stress and time constraints, which reinforces any relevant bad habits since you will default to those patterns of behavior. More so, it inhibits your growth and development.
– Promotion without building relationships, e.g. typically spamming Facebook posts and invites for shows to people you never spend time with or communicate otherwise. When done to excess (which is sadly common), this comes across as quite rude.
– Not attending other people’s shows, often because you’re overbooked.
– Terrible diet, which in the long run makes you look and feel like shit.
– Tunnel vision: By only caring about what you personally are doing and what your closest colleagues are doing, you shut out everything else going on… much of which might have otherwise presented you with rewarding ideas, experiences, relationships and opportunities.
– Lack of self reflection, which drastically reduces your personal development.
– Lack of rest, which accelerates burnout.

It’s a lot like depriving yourself of sleep to make more time for things: As your sleep deprivation adversely affects your energy and health, it (to say the least) reduces your ability to make the most of that extra time.

Book your schedule solid and eventually you begin to flake whenever possible. Young performers tend not to realize the reputational damage it does to repeatedly back out of and miss meetings, practices, rehearsals and shows. Almost everyone will incidentally have to miss one from time to time. Sometimes you have to take some time off, and you can work that out ahead of time. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the people who repeatedly message the day of and say they can’t make it. Or the people who are always running from thing to thing, and treat you and your group more like a half hour errand appointment than a true relationship or a commitment.

And culturally artists (inaccurately) learn that this pattern of behavior is good for their careers and development, that a large quantity of gigs and resume line items will inevitably lead to a higher quality career. The idea in principle is at best conditionally true, and only loosely so.

Yes, practice and reps matter. Yes, experiences can be useful. However, the key to any of these experiences being useful is *committed focus*. You have to be fully invested in these experiences, and give yourself space outside of them to reflect and grow for them to maximize your development.

Otherwise, you’re simply mastering the ability to relentlessly burn both ends of the candle, lean on your existing habits within that schedule, and little more. And, as someone who has done that in his life: While that can be a useful skill, you need not commit to that so greatly than any of the individual commitments comprising that schedule suffer at its expense.

I cannot emphasize this enough: Nobody is keeping score of how many shows you do, let alone judging you on how many or how few shows you are doing. Literally no one worth a shit cares.

It’s about not just what you do within those individual commitments, but the quality and active interest you provide your relationship with the people you’re meeting those commitments with.

——————-

Now, the working actor may find this idea of finite commitments a bit ridiculous, because most actors go gig to gig. They audition for and get cast in a role, they spend a few weeks rehearsing, then they perform, then it’s done. They constantly hustle for gigs even as they’re currently working through gigs.

I’m talking more so about ongoing commitments: Being on a team, being in an ensemble, committing to an independent group, meeting with a fellow writer to mine material every week or two. Also, friendships, intimate relationships. These relationships matter, and they atrophy when you neglect them (as a lot of performers tend to do). Often, overworked performers think their relationships and connections are a lot stronger than they actually are, having neglected them for so long.

Every commitment is not just dates on a calendar. It takes effort outside of those dates, making time when applicable outside of those dates, giving thought when you’re away to the work you’ll do next time around. It’s about making the time to get away and rest, so you’re focused with energy and ready to go next time around.

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At the very least, make sure any dates you committed to meet are on your calendar. There is no excuse not to.

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Ruts, and how to get out of a rut

At some point during this past week, my comfort level on stage suddenly, inexplicably dropped. Whether or not my improv looks okay to the outside observer, I don’t feel comfortable with my improv, or feel like I know what I’m doing. This is what people generally refer to as a “rut”.

I’ve taken stock to see if something in my life’s out of whack:

– Life hasn’t been any busier or more annoying than usual.
– My schedule’s actually been somewhat lighter than usual, but still fairly active with things I want to do. So I’m not being overwhelmed. I do have a couple non-improv shows coming up but I feel comfortably prepared for them.
– Emotionally, I actually feel fairly good about where life’s at.
– I’ve been getting decent sleep (even naps!), my diet’s actually improved the last few weeks, I’ve been drinking plenty of water (especially with the rising temperature in Chicago), and I’ve been exercising regularly with good results. So health wise I’ve taken reasonable care of myself.
– I’ve felt tired at times, but no more than usual… and the occurence of those tired periods have mostly made sense, e.g. after a workout, or after a long and busy day.

You can blame Mercury in Retrograde, my Emotional and Physical Biorhythms being out of whack, or government radio waves or some other crazy thing. But I presume personal ruts randomly hit all of us now and then, like a basketball player who can’t hit shots, a baseball hitter who can’t seem to get hits, a bowler who can’t seem to string together strikes, a runner whose per-mile pace has dropped and can’t seem to pick back up, or even an everyday worker who can’t seem to stop making little mistakes.

The important thing about ruts, and what gets people down within them, is to realize you’re better than this. You know what you’re capable of doing well, and it eats at you that you’re in a stretch where you’re not doing them well.

How as a performer do you work through a rut and get out of it? Being in one right now, I gave it some good thought… and came back to six principles(, because I figured since this is a period of bad luck, I’d go to my lucky number six).

1. Stop caring (for now) about the results.

The negative emotions we feel in a rut are a product of letting the small sample size of our results emotionally affect us, which can create a vicious self-perpetuating cycle of more negative results. So stop caring if you’ll fail, especially if right now mentally you believe you will fail again anyway. Be in the moment and let the results of your actions happen without emotional judgment.

This will feel liberating, success or fail. The subsequent results may (pleasantly) surprise you a bit.

2. Focus in the moment on your practice of the basics.

In improv, I like to re-double my focus on what I consider the key improv principles: Relationships, attention to detail (in listening and in action), and commitment to the moment. Sometimes we get in ruts because we’re out of whack with one or more of the basics. Even if not, focusing on the basics gets your mind off being in a rut, while keeping your practice and focus on things that will get you out of it.

Other disciplines have their basic foci. Runners can focus on consistent breath and form as they run. Basketball players can focus on their shot/dribbling/defense mechanics and the correct range of motion to take effective shots. Baseball hitters can focus on the mechanics of their bat swing. In the workplace, you can (usually) double check or methodically work through your tasks.

In every case, one important point to remember is to:

2a. Finish every action before you begin another one.

This is a holdover principle from my theatre training (thanks to George Lewis and Geof Alm). Too often, sloppiness and poor execution comes from rushing our actions and not letting them “land”. You can’t take the next step without the last step hitting the ground. Ruts often come with a lacking attention to detail, and making sure to finish every action will force a restoration of attention to detail.

3. Take notes (and I don’t mean write ideas down).

Being in a rut during an improv class, practice or rehearsal, or if you’re on a sports team with a coach, may be a blessing. An instructor, coach or director watching you can give you notes on things they see you need to do or improve. When a mentor gives you a note, make a point to apply it as soon as you get the chance. With improv this is easy: Take the note and immediately endow your work with it in the next scene, and (if it’s a general note) the next scene. This almost certainly will produce positive results, even if merely a positive reaction from your mentor and peers. It may not clear the rut but it’ll get you moving in the right direction. Be open to notes, then make sure to apply them early and often.

The last three aren’t as relevant to your practice as they are to your life.

4. Get your exercise.

Do you do or have you done an exercise plan? If so, great. Do it regularly, whether or not you already have. Staying active and helping improve your body’s circulation will do wonders for your general outlook, which will also help break you out of your rut.

Oh, you don’t exercise? Now would be a good time to start. If you get no exercise, walk around the neighborhood or workplace for half an hour a day. If you already walk, consider something easy to break into, like jogging. Or the Hacker’s Diet or 5BX exercise plans, which are easy exercise plans designed to be done quickly each day.

5. Eat some good (i.e. healthy) food.

Chances are your diet isn’t anywhere close to ideal, whether or not you make the effort to eat a healthy diet. If you practice a sound ans somewhat strict diet, then great. More power to you, and make sure to get a good share of protein and brain food (however your dietary choices allow you; vegans, cut down on the soy and eat some fucking quinoa. Way more vitamins!).

If you do eat a lot of processed food and assorted junk, try cutting it out for a meal or two. Mix in some fresh fruit, vegetables, lean meat or non-meat protein, some juice. And of course, drink plenty of water. Our diets can mess with us, both in good ways and bad. Eating a lot of crap over an extended period can leave you feeling worn down, which can contribute to a rut.

Likewise, eating more wholesome food than usual can do more for your outlook and energy than meets the eye… and can help you break a rut, whether the nutrients boost your energy and help flush the crap from your body, or the act of eating better has a positive placebo effect on your outlook.

6. Get as much rest as you reasonably can.

Chances are you’re not getting 7 or more hours of sleep a night, if your sleep habits are consistent to begin with. Losing sleep, whether over a day or over a long period, can start to wear on your outlook and everything else you do. If you can force yourself to turn out the lights at 10-11pm for a few nights in a row, or mix in a nap on a free afternoon, the extra rest can not only re-energize your body but it may improve a sleep-deprived dour mood and might help crack your rut.

Also, if you’re working a busy schedule, try to book some time to relax, not do anything and not feel guilty about it. Sometimes our work overload gets us in ruts, and clearing space to not work can help the brain reset. Often, getting away from a problem for a bit can help us solve it once we come back with a fresh, rested mind. When we memorize material, taking time away from memorizing helps the material settle in our minds. When we exercise, it’s the time spent resting and recovering when our muscles grow from the workouts.

Sometimes, even when we’re getting enough rest, some extra rest can help us break a rut.

******

So there you go, six points of focus to help break a rut. I wrote this as much for myself as I did for you the reader. I’m in a rut, but with some simple points of focus and self care, I expect I’ll either break out of it soon, or stop caring about it enough to notice either way.

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Make your own opportunities to practice and perform

When I called into question the utility of auditions, I alluded to but didn’t really discuss an important point: The ability of performers to empower themselves and create their own opportunities, rather than rely on auditions to get performance opportunities outside of classes and jams.

While forming a group to practice and play with isn’t a slam dunk, the real barrier is fear, a lack of self confidence and a resulting unwillingness to commit by players. You don’t do it because you don’t think you’ll have the commitment and the ability to a) follow through with a regular schedule on your own as players, and b) get better and challenge yourselves.

With classes and jams, you have an instructor or a leader buggy whipping you all the way, plus an audience of peers who (usually) are cheering your efforts on. If a group of you decide to meet and practice together, there is usually no experienced mentor leading the way. You are effectively directing and leading yourselves.

Without that mentor or leader to answer to, there to push you, there’s a great temptation to either flake and not attend, or to not try as hard as you would in class or a jam. People don’t have the respect for a voluntary practice among a group of peers that they do for a class they paid $200-350 for (and in some cases get punished for not attending), or for a jam in front of mentors and peers (which they often paid to participate in).

Don’t think I didn’t run into this challenge when a bunch of us formed Wonderland in Seattle, or with myself in everything I’ve done. It takes a collective commitment, as well as a bit of personal investment, to start a group and not only keep it grow but to continue growing and improving together. It was hard to keep the group on the same page, to have the lacking commitment of some not derail or bring down the work of everyone that’s committed to getting good.

Someone has to wrangle everybody. Someone has to find rehearsal space and (usually) pay to book it. And, most of all, people not only have to agree to participate but actually show up, almost every time. And that never minds that the success of the group from there is about how seriously everyone takes the practice. Or actually booking a show, paying for the venue, and somehow finding enough friends, family and word of mouth to fill the venue for that show. It’s very hard to be a leader of something so relatively nebulous.

I recalled this whole idea when I read Joshua Ellis’ piece this morning on empowering people to learn to code. The title and premise of his piece mirrors my point on starting a group: The trick is that there is no trick.

The barnstorming improv groups you see in Chicago, Seattle, NYC, LA, anywhere… there was no special requirement (like completing a training program) or magic formula to their success. They didn’t even necessarily have to finish their respective school curriculae (and many didn’t). Once they had a handle on what they wanted to do in improv, and once they discovered a group of people they liked practicing with… they formed a group, met and practiced regularly. Eventually, they developed the confidence in each other and their work to produce or appear in shows, and that was that.

Yes, it certainly helps to be well trained, to have a knowledgeable and strong-minded leader, to have an uncanny sense of cooperation among the group and the right people, to know people that can hook you up with space or gigs in improv shows, etc etc etc.

But so many groups came into it sort of trained, with no hookup other than a space they could afford to rent, with a rough idea of what they were doing and maybe one or two people confident enough to steward the ship.

And that’s the secret. There’s never going to be a right time, when you’re ready. You’re never ready. And yet, you’re always ready. You’re always going to be learning, and always going to feel to some degree uncomfortable.

You’re never really going to figure out what works and what doesn’t until you actually, seriously attempt to do it… much like you were never going to learn improv until you made the effort to sign up and come to classes. And often times you not only won’t have that expert assistance, but you probably don’t even need it. You can learn how to do it yourself, and can learn a lot more about being a practicing improviser from actually trying and failing and learning to do it better than to go to class and then hardly get to practice at all unless you go back to class, become addicted to jams, or somehow score off an audition.

If you take nothing else away from this post, and my audition post, it’s that you and your peers have the power to create your own opportunities. And that rather than wait and hope that someone will cast you in something, all of you should get together and just make your own opportunity. Take that $5 you’d have spent on a jam, pool it with 6-8 other people, and rent a rehearsal room for 2-3 hours a week. Find some exercises you want to practice, or just do some scenework. If you want to do a show, practice scenes for a couple months, then get in on a show or find another group to split the bill with. Just do a 20-30 minute montage if all you want to do is scenes. Just do it, see what happens and learn from it.

As with many things, 80% of the challenge is just making yourself do it.

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Deliberate practice, focused practice, and a better rule of thumb than “10,000 hours”

Let’s talk about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours postulate, and performance art.

Let’s never mind he referred specifically to mere practice, when it’s honestly deliberate practice that improves your ability.
The bigger issue is there is almost no one who can amass 10,000 hours of active improv experience, or such experience in many other performance disciplines.

Let’s say the average skilled, hard-working improv performer, between shows, jams, practices, even classes when applicable, can reasonably expect to get in an average of 10 hours of active, feedback-available improvising a week. There are weeks where they can get much more, and weeks where they get little to none at all, but it averages out to 10 a week.

Over a year, that totals 520 hours. At that pace, without a break, it would take about 20 uninterrupted years to amass Gladwell’s mythical 10,000 hours. And again, that’s hours of active practice, not time spent sitting and watching improv, or sitting in class or practice watching teammates, or any moment spent not physically practicing the task.

Even long timers like Del Close and Joe Bill have spent far more time observing, analyzing and discussing improv than they have actually doing it on stage. If we somehow had a transparent view of every moment of their lives, and added up all their time spent actively improvising scenework, they’d each probably fall well short of 10,000 hours. Yet they and many others have undeniable expertise as improvisers.

(While one may attempt to theoretically call observation practice, and there is value in watching the work of others, your act of observing does not necessarily develop your ability to do the task you’re watching… certainly no more than watching 10,000 hours of baseball on TV, even with a trained eye, makes you a great baseball player. You may develop your ability to listen, observe and analyze. But you’re not really developing your ability to *do* what you’re watching.)

There is one time based rule I feel may be more valuable, but it operates on a micro level than a macro level.

The rule is: For every minute of performance in a show, you need to put in one hour of rehearsal. For a five minute piece, five hours of rehearsal on the piece is good. For a sixty minute piece, 60 hours. Even with improvisers, a 20 minute set goes well with at least 20 hours of practice for that show by the team.

As someone who has fallen on his face many times in many performance situations, and prepared pieces with both far more and far less time working than 1 hour per minute of show, I’ve found in my experience that this is largely true. Exceptions aside, pieces thrown together in less time tend to come off slapdash. Once that threshold is crossed, the piece/set feels solid and I feel confident about what I’m doing, whether what we’re doing is a prepared piece or improvised.

Why is this true? Why is this the threshold?

One tenet I’ve found helpful is the notion that you forget 90% of what you’re told. You may remember main ideas or key things said, but you won’t remember most every other word.

Let’s cross apply this to reading a poem you have to memorize. The poem takes about a minute to recite. You read it aloud off the paper, start to finish. If I had you put the paper down and recite as much of it from memory as you could, you might remember 10% of it. That’s not a far fetched assumption for most.

Let’s say I had you read the poem off the paper twice in a row, and try to recite from memory after that. The first recital, you’d forget 90% of it. The second time around, you’d remember the first 10%. And of the 90% you didn’t remember the first time, you still wouldn’t remember 90% of that the second time, but you’d pick up 10% of what you forgot the first time. The parts you remembered the first time are strengthened, plus you also pick up parts the 2nd time around.

90% x 90% = 81% forgotten = 19% remembered

So basically, each time you read the poem off the paper, you further ingrain the parts you remembered while picking up about 10% of the parts you didn’t fully remember.

If you read it three times, it snowballs accordingly.

90% x 90% x 90% = 73% forgotten = 27% remembered

By this rule, you would need to read the poem aloud six times to memorize 60% of the poem. To remember 80%, you’d have to repeat the process 16 times. 90% remembered? 23 times. The more you do it, the more of the poem you remember, but the less new information you pick up each time. However, obviously, your knowledge of the parts you first picked up strengthens with each repetition.

Calculations based on this logic indicate that it takes at least 52 read-throughs to round up to 100%, i.e. 99.6% mastered. Reading the poem off the page an even 60 times gets you to 99.8%. Assuming a minute each time around, that adds up to about an hour to fully memorize than one minute poem. Boom.

You can easily cross apply this logic to scripts, storytelling, whatever. And it’s not even a matter of memory: We can swap out ‘memory’ for ‘mastery of the show’, e.g. blocking, artistic navigation of the material, how you perform it. Maybe I can read the text of Drawn Dead in 25 minutes, so it would take me 25 hours to memorize the script. It would take me 3 hours of physical work to perfect the blocking of a 3 minute physical theatre scene in the show (and that’s not necessarily a 3 hours rehearsal, since rehearsals do have downtime to rest, discuss or analyze).

Part of my difficulty with Drawn Dead is that, once the show’s script was fully fleshed out in 2013, John Leith and I didn’t have 55 hours to perfect this 55 minute show. We had a handful of rehearsals, and shortly before the show I had to shoo him away so I could memorize and practice the revised script and our rehearsed blocking. I’d imagine that, if we had three months (meeting twice a week), we would have felt far more confident. The show still turned out good (thanks in part to the low pressure of small supportive audiences, and some artistic engineering on my part), but it would’ve felt far better for both of us had we had another couple months to prepare.

Meanwhile, my Seattle improv group Wonderland slogged through a ton of rehearsals, but by the time we finally headlined our first show with a 30 minute set, we had been practicing as a group for well over 30 hours. Our show was pretty awesome.

Rather than clocking hours of work towards overall experthood, clock hours towards full preparation for your next performance.

Truth be told, every show is a new situation. Whether or not you’re an expert at a subject, generally you’re never an expert at your next project. You have to develop your knowledge and skill at that project before you perform it. It may be better to focus on preparing for your next piece or show than to clock hours towards a mythical, and unreasonable, expertise.

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On Handwritten Productions’ play Vitriol

The cast and crew of Handwritten Productions' Vitriol

Much like the company’s 2010 offering Troilus and Cressida (under their previous name One Shot Productions, a name that clearly isn’t accurate now that they’re taking a 2nd shot)… you walk into the Odd Duck Studio for this year’s Handwritten Productions show, Vitriol, and are asked to drop a Pay What You Will offering into a metal chalice while being handed a program. Look in the program and you’ll see a lot of the same names of helped produce last year’s show: Jake Sherman, J.H. Welch, Tom Dewey, Stephen Scheide, Jeremy Thompson, et al.

What’s also clear up front is the growth from last year’s show. Welch’s set, while still a painted wood two step backdrop fronting a spartan stage, has a much more polished design. Emily Leong’s lighting is less dusty, more clear and sharper despite utilizing many of the same instruments. Even the program and its bios offers a prouder, more confident presentation. They even learned from last summer’s heat wave (which rendered the space a sweltering sauna) and had a network of fans and open doors throughout the Odd Duck give the space a surprisingly pleasant coolness.

From what little intel I’ve gathered from previous runs of this show, they aren’t cramming the house like Troilus consistently did last summer, but the turnout is consistent and the audiences are engaged. Having caught exiting patrons en route to a couple 10:30 Odd Duck shows, the audiences have walked out enthusiastic and pleased with the two hour show, an encouraging sign as I came in Friday night to catch the show.

Jake Sherman’s play itself centers on written accounts of the Munich Post during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1920’s-1930’s Germany. The company was focused on telling a side of the Nazi Germany that gets lost in the main story of WWII, Hitler’s dictatorship and the Holocaust: HOW a guy like Hitler was able to sell himself to otherwise sane and rational German citizens and ascend to power, how advocacy journalists at the Munich Post saw warning signs in Hitler’s movement, and how the Nazis rose to power anyway and the press was eventually suppressed and (literally) railroaded to the same fate as the Jews, gypsies, gays and other perceived enemies of the party.

A lot goes on in this convoluted story so I’ll do my best to summarize but may miss or misstate some points: The story centers on Martin Gruber (David S Klein), editor of the Post, working with right hand man Erhaud Auer (Ryan Spickard) on their journalistic efforts to turn the tide of public sentiment against the counterculture Nazi browncoats movement during the 20’s and 30’s. Key reporter Edmund Goldschagg (Stephen Scheide) forms relationships with Nazi informants during his investigation while at odds with his more conventional peer, Julius Zerfass (Jeremy Thompson). Brenan Grant slips into and out of several necessary side characters during the performance, while Spickard during one moment slips out of Erhaud into a Swastika armband for a very impassioned cameo as Die Fuhrer himself.

– Jake Sherman’s play impeccably flips back and forth in time, acting as a mystery and knowing how much to tell us and when. Flashbacks often suck but I didn’t even realize this was a flashback-themed play until close to the end. The story is very well shown and the use of time jumping is smart. Even when it seems like it just told us too much too soon, it turns out there’s enough left unsaid that you later realized that’s exactly how much you needed to know.

– The production utilizes a latticework of split scenes, narrative speeches to the audience (4th wall speeches), and Glass Menageriean narrative breaks into and out of the action. Switches between scenes and monologues were subtlely indicated by faint fading of the lights. Whether written that way or a directorial decision by Tom Dewey, having narrators sliding into and out of scenes was an excellent choice that helped the production maintain a brisk, crackling pace as a whole.

In fact, I don’t think a single scene dragged in the entire two hour show, and that’s something I can’t say about a lot of shows I like, let alone most shows in general. Pace is a big part of a good show, and this cast does an excellent job of keeping us on a ride while keeping the integrity of the important moments.

– Though all the key characters shared the space, Klein’s curmudgeonly growling Gruber was the thematic constant, the lecturer to the audience that explained to us the importance of the Post’s efforts. The consuming passion of Klein’s 4th wall oratories captured not just your attention but an illustration of the spirit and moral purpose that motivated the paper’s actions, showing why the paper didn’t just take a knee in the fact of sociopolitical threats on their lives. Klein’s verbal crescendos snuck up on you, at times more well placed than others: In his speeches they were gold though sometimes during dialogue it seemed random and misplaced. Klein also at times garbled some phrases that we lost.

But that overstates two minor quibbles on a bold performance that stood toe to toe with a set of bold performances.

– On the flip side, Ryan Spickard’s crystal clarity of voice, motion and dramatic choices as Erhaud is strikingly commanding. His Erhaud is presentational, sure, a choice lending itself to those qualities. But many try and few are able to do so as inambiguously clear as Spickard does here, in a play no less that with so many convoluted angles and storylines makes it very easy for an audience member to get lost in the details. Sherman’s writing does a good job of keeping the ideas clear, but Spickard’s Erhaud keeps our focus at ease with such polished majordomo-like skills.

– As Edmund, Stephen Scheide’s 4th wall speeches and his Edmund’s relationships with key characters are a big lynchpin to this entire show. Scheide’s greatest strength, his iron clad focus in the moment, hooks you right in. Scheide’s Edmund stands his ground like a man, but the emotion in key moments clearly tries to overtake him. Scheide’s control and commitment as an actor in such a dichotomy is excellent, finding drama and grabbing our attention in moments of stillness and control rather than flying around the stage. All these performances are solid, but it’s his that will probably stick with you most after the show’s over.

– Jeremy Thompson’s Julius was a somewhat emotionally understated version of Edmund, though with a more youthful enthusiasm that gave the newsroom scenes a colorful contrast and, in some cases, foil to the veteran caginess of the other characters.

– Brenan Grant had the tough job of playing not just several minor characters, but characters that all had key emotional moments in the play: A paranoid Nazi informant trying to keep his emotional walls up as he forms a kinship with a reporter, a butthurt plaintiff in a heated slander court case, a ruthlessly compliant Nazi soldier making an arrest, a one-time friend turned Nazi soldier now commissioned to arrest his friend, a vengeful mugger, and the like. Grant took to all of these with a startling focus, in each moment making you completely forget the other characters he just played, finding the form, M.O. and attitude for his new face and fitting right into character as he takes stage for his next task.

Yes, any good ensemble supporting actor should be able to do this, but Brenan’s job in this show is particularly exemplary in that none of his characters looked too much like his others.

– True to form from a group with a taste for stage combat, there are a lot of brief fight scenes in this play. The play has no official fight choreographer but given most of this group’s experience it’s likely they put their chops together and crafted those moments as a unit. The smattering of punches, struggles and moments of physical restraint are very clean, very well placed and (sometimes literally) really hammer home the dramatic tension. Every such moment looked, from our angle, strikingly real.

– Despite the serious subject matter, the play has a surprising sense of humor, and though there were a few flattish moments that actors occasionally tried (in vain) to horse-whip laughter out of with stage laughs, there were several incidentally funny moments that naturally grew from the moments. I’m pretty sure Jake Sherman didn’t write any part particularly for laughs or anything more than, “Huh, that’s a kind of clever thing to say.” The actors’ commitment to the moment from wire to wire played a large part of making those moments funny and for that they deserve credit.

– I mentioned the general lighting, but I really liked the use of darkness of spotlighting in key scenes, especially some of the early undercover and alley scenes with Erhaud and Julius. It didn’t leave us guessing, and yet helped set an ominous mood for those scenes.

******

This is honestly a well done show, and though it not only doesn’t get a lot of press but is also about a somewhat sensitive theme, it may not draw the attention of a sexier or more popular local production. But I encourage you to come see Vitriol and don’t come in expecting a downer show. This production does anything but bring you down. Even though concentration camps and the Holocaust are inevitably invoked, it doesn’t dwell long on those subjects, realizing you already know full well about those realities and don’t need to be told what happened there.

Though it takes place during the rise of the Nazi party and explores the inner workings of how exactly Hitler grew to power (not with an iron fist but through persuasive manipulation of public opinion after his country’s humiliating defeat in WWI), this is in truth a story about the power of misinformation, journalists who battle against it, and the relationships that formed and grew as a group men tried to stop a political movement only to find out they were piling sandbags in front of a tsunami.

The show’s smart, the performances are smart, and you’ll get to see what theatre looks like when people ignore the egoism that theatre often falls prey to and focus instead on working together to tell a great story.

******

Handwritten Productions’ Vitriol runs this Saturday (7/16/11) as well as next Thursday through Saturday (7/21/11-7/23/11) at the Odd Duck Studio on 1214 10th Avenue just south of E Union St. Admission is pay what you will, and provided you’re not struggling I’d encourage you to drop them at least $10. Parking in Capitol Hill is always an adventure, and bussing in is always easy, though I’ll note the #2 bus stops just a block away.

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Welcome!

Last year, I returned to theatre after an 11 year hiatus, and to help reimmerse myself into theatre I took to reviewing shows on my personal blog. Little did I realize that I would not only end up reviewing over 75 shows in the following calendar year, but that my theatre blog would find itself a sizable following and gain me a notoriety I hadn’t anticipated.

I gave it up a few months ago to focus on working and training as an actor, feeling in part that the reviews consequentially hindered my ability to participate in the community, namely that my criticism may have produce a bridge-burning backlash. There was a discernible difference in how people treated me once they discovered I wrote reviews from when they first met me.

After a few months and some experience performing in and assisting with a few shows, I found the fear mostly unfounded. Switching from reviewer to peer didn’t really affect how I connected with the community. As I grew relationships I found that most were fine with me, and it was only a marked few who let my reviewing affect how they treated me. In fact, over time I made a more concerted effort to be honest with peers about my opinion of their work and that of others, and found that as long as my opinion came from a thoughtful, positive and constructive place, not only did I not hurt anyone’s feelings but in fact I strengthened a lot of bonds as peers realized I wasn’t going to pull the wool over their eyes.

A couple of peers have asked me about reviewing shows even though I had officially stated that I had given it up. Realizing there was a lot to see, a lot to discuss and a lot to learn (as well as appreciate) from the work of others… and realizing I hadn’t written as much as I used to and feeling the need to get back into practice… I decided it’s time to start reviewing again.

But there’s a bit of self-conscious embarrassment in mentioning that you write reviews, and then having to point people to a Livejournal blog, with all the sophomoric connotations such a domain comes with. So in deciding to get back in the game, I also decided to create a proper blog, complete with a proper domain, for the purpose. Welcome to misterstevengomez.com.

Below I have seeded the pot with a couple of old reviews, crosslinking to my original post. For now, I have left all my old reviews on the old blog. I would simply migrate all the old posts and wipe them from the old blog (to avoid ironic accusations of plagiarizing myself), but I’ll also disclose that I submitted an application to become a TPS Gregory Awards Nominator for 2011-2012 (I have to imagine such immerse coverage of the scene along with my requisite experience qualifies me for the job). For reference I linked the old blog’s posts. To migrate those posts away anyway, try to follow up and risk confusion with TPS simply isn’t worth the trouble right now, so for now I’ll leave the posts to make it easy on everyone, and wait for my application process to conclude before I move everything over for good.

Meanwhile, a new review or three is coming shortly. Enjoy! I hope I can help shed some light on what’s going on in the fringes of Seattle theatre.

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