They’re having a #ParityParty! Love this. Check out WorksbyWomen.org if you don’t know them. (Stage Source in Boston holds Parity Parties, as well, in conjunction with outings to see plays written by women.
Thanks to LA FPI Instigator Gina Young for keeping us Instagram fresh! (Are you following us?)
I had to compliment a man at the parking lot of Ralph’s because his tee shirt made me smile. “Doing It” with the Nike emblem discreetly below the words. It was simple, just like its progenitor “Just Do It”.
Doing it is what Nancy Beverly has been up to with her new play “Handcrafted Healing”. She is workshopping the play with her cohorts at Fierce Backbone. Nancy has a quiet and warm presence. She welcomed me and my husband at the door, then later directed us to sit at the chairs on the edge of the stage floor. We hustled with our glasses of wine to the area. I said to Bruno, “I wonder why there is sawdust scattered underneath our chairs.” I studied the ceilings to see if there’s some kind of construction going on and guessed that it was probably leftover from some props being built.
I scanned the stage and liked the simplicity and creativity of the set design. At the back is a window frame hanging in midair, and beneath that a countertop with shelves stacked with a blender, bottles of wine and whisky, a jar of marinara spaghetti sauce, tin cans, a pot, a trash bin and a hammer. Next to the kitchen is a dining table with 3 chairs, and at the forefront is the living room couch with a coffee table that would also serve as a seat for monologues.
The dialogue of the opening scene grabbed my attention quickly with a question by Evie – could we influence the outcome of an event (such as our illnesses and our death)? Whammy! hit me with that hammer. It’s a question that has been asked for generations in different situations. What a hook! In that scene the story opens up with the problem that faces Camm, a furniture builder, who has tumors in her lungs. She and her partner Meredith are embarking on a journey to live with Camm’s cancer.
Camm and Meredith as a couple is wonderful. I enjoyed their relationship and also the individual personalities. Camm is the male with her logical tendencies and attitude towards her illness. She is a furniture builder which is predominantly a male occupation. Meredith is the female with her holistic approach. She works as a teacher. Her nurturing personality never imposes her beliefs nor her practices upon Camm. Instead, she envelops Camm with a deep respect and so much love in every nuance of her words and actions by her presence at the medical appointments, and rearranging her life so that they are together in every step of the journey.
Among the many things that I appreciated in seeing this play is it made me ask myself about my capacity to be there for someone I love who is going through this crisis. I watched my father suffer chemotherapy and radiation when he battled with pancreatic cancer. I watched my mother live through the visits at the different doctors’ offices; the dialysis; the array of bottles filled with toxic medicine; the medical bills; the well-meaning visitors; the blisters on his feet; the sores in his mouth; the peeling skin of his finger tips; the needles (picking, probing, invading); his brooding moments; the storms of his anger; the mashed cantaloupe.
What I learned from that experience in watching my parents go through it together was that I’m made of the same stuff. I have their genes in my own gene pool. And this play exhibits our capacities to survive and live with illnesses.
It shows the litany of events that a couple engages in as they battle against the killer cells that are eating away at the life giving cells. As a couple they grow while they evolve as individuals reaching out to their potentials like the limbs of a tree that rises to meet the elements of wind, sun, air and rain. As individuals they are rooted to one another within their own skins.
Whenever Camm has an encounter with Meredith about the illness, there’s a break in the tension with a release to her subconscious. The play turns inward into Camm’s young adult memories of her relationship with her older brother Gary. She idolized him, and he perhaps influenced her decision to become a furniture builder. Camm has flashbacks to events of her first project – building a treasure chest for her mother who was absent. Her mother was also dealing with her own cancer. Replacing the physical bonds absent in her life, she handcrafts her relationships through her work with the treasure chest. The task asks of her to measure twice then cut the pieces of wood; she has to treat the wood and shape them and sand them before she can bind them together with nails, glue and hinges. Through this she handcrafts her relationship with her mother with the help of her older brother Gary. But Gary’s presence is inconsistent as he too finds his path through his fate.
I wonder what changes will come from the workshopping weekend. The play is already budding beautifully and Nancy is doing it! I can hardly wait for her to reach the point where she can be wearing the words “Did it.”Tweet
It was before 8 o’clock in the morning. The sun was up and the temperature was rising slowly. I was walking my two dogs around the neighborhood when we met with a couple walking towards us. The logo on the woman’s tee shirt read “Cunt Works”.
I felt uncomfortable. I wondered why she chose to wore this tee shirt. Maybe I was offended, but I didn’t want to judge her. I needed to understand what was behind the words.
Does it mean her cunt works? Does it mean that calling her ‘cunt’ is fitting? Did she buy it at a concert by a band called “Cunt Works”? The logos on our shirts are like sandwich boards advertising something about us. Was it an overstated way of letting others know she’s a lesbian? What is the appeal of wearing this shirt this particular day? Maybe it was a dare?
In 10 minutes I had all sorts of thoughts and feelings about the words and the person who could’ve been of any gender and any age and of any race. Today the wearer was a black woman in her late 20’s to early 30’s. Her hair was cropped and dyed blonde. She wore spandex pants. She was stocky. She was talking and walking with a man. They could’ve been taking a break from working out at the LA Fitness.
After the dogs finished their business I turned back. The man and woman had turned around too, and I had another opportunity to cross paths with them again. This time, my younger dog Goliath seemed to be sporting for something so I moved her to my other side, furthest away from the couple. I stepped aside to let them pass. The man looked suspiciously at the dogs. I looked at her curiously. Then I turned my attention to Goliath to harness her down as she started to lunge and bark at them.
No harm done, as I had checked the dog in time, except for the barking. The woman reacted by saying “Oooo. I’m scared.” Upon hearing her I put the last period at the end of my character study. Within 15 minutes of walking the dogs I encountered a part of me that I had not faced before. It was the word ‘cunt’ paraded by a woman.
What I tried to avoid is judgment based on my own feelings. The initial impulse was curiosity about the words, and that they were brazenly printed on a shirt, and the shirt was worn by a woman walking in public. When I put it in that context it removed the offensiveness of ‘cunt’ which is generally considered rude – ‘cunt’ is harsher than ‘bitch’. But I suppose if a word is thrown out there often enough then it de-sensitizes peoples’ feelings and consciousness that they let the words go by like litter on the streets.
Imagine if your drawer only had tee shirts in different styles and colors with the same logo. You don’t have a choice except to pick the style and color and what attitude you’re going to wear with that shirt. It’s how you say it. Words are words and the power comes from the meaning we attach to it. It can command respect or draw degradation.
I think of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues” and how the stories in her play elevated the anatomical word to be acceptable in conversation outside of a medical lab or biology class. It awakened peoples’ hearts to the tragedies and comedies about women’s vaginas. It’s not about the hole but the whole of it – in other words, what meanings we attach to this part of the woman’s anatomy.
I’ve only been called ‘cunt’ once by a man who was very angry with me. He felt powerless over me so he could only resort to calling me a name that he thought was the most degrading thing he could offend me with. Calling me ‘cunt’ didn’t hurt me. However it gave me the opportunity to understand his sense of helplessness. Like this woman today, I see her. In my mind, despite her comeback to the dog’s aggression and the words on her tee shirt, maybe she’s really a pussycat and wears a tough exterior to protect her tender parts. There is a story there, and I’m curious about it.
“ – imagination to me is not the capacity to invent what is there but the capacity to see and develop what is there.” Samson Raphaelson
This spell of hot temperature is conducive to crawling under a rock and sleeping. Call me a lounging lizard. Despite my thoughts flaying my mind “write”, I sit by the opened window on the bean bag and snooze for a long time. When my eyes open, my mind is cloudy from dreams and my skin sticks to the faux leather. I go back to sleep.
This is alternated with sleepless nights. I lie with legs and arms splayed wide. That works for a little while then I need to find under position to cool off the sweat of my back. Finally, I retreat to the bean bag and wait it out. The next day at work, I’m not the only one weary from another sleepless night.
I began to wonder what if this spell of hot temperatures is a continuous trend, and not a cycle of El Nino. Living in LA, we’re used to sunny days throughout the year. We can detect nuances of slight variations in the weather such as the Santa Ana Winds and June Gloom. There are even some trees that change in the fall.
Last night I seriously considered that this drought might be a direct effect of the global climate change. What if we really have tipped the balance towards a climate change that is irreversibly detrimental to the planet? Scientists have been warning us to ease up on burning up fossil fuels. Even Pope Francis has been moved to include the climate change in his encyclical. He spoke in Ecuador urging its citizens to be sage guardians of its natural resources:
The goods of the Earth are meant for everyone. And however much someone may parade his property, it has a social mortgage. In this way, we move beyond purely economic justice, based on commerce, toward social justice, which upholds the fundamental human right to a dignified life. The tapping of natural resources, which are so abundant in Ecuador, must not be concerned with short-term benefits. – Pope Francis on his visit to Ecuador in July 2015
How would I cope? Would I consider moving to a more temperate climate? Or do I change now and have more kindness and consideration for the planet and other people?
This weekend I started to lessen the frequency of flushing the toilet. I learned this practice when vacationing on Pender Island in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia. The fresh water was from a well and the sewer was a septic tank. During my first visit I took long showers and ran the tap without reservations. Others who knew about island living made me aware and told me to conserve the water; reminding me that we all shared the same sources. I learned to practice “if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down”. This is probably extreme for some people, but it’s my little tithe towards the cause to heal the earth.
The ocean, king of mountains and the mighty continents are not heavy burdens to bear when compared to the burden of not repaying the world’s kindness. – The Buddha
#16. The Wrap—Lessons Learned, Settling Accounts and Moving On
Eventually, closing night will arrive. Your actors will take their final bows and the people who worked so closely with you to bring your play to life, will go their different ways. All the work, all those sleepless nights, the worry, the bleeding of money, will cease. And when it’s over, you’ll be left with a sense of accomplishment, even if it’s tinged with a degree of sadness.
You’ll also likely realize a few things you wished you’d known before you started. That’s what this post is about. It’s the cheat sheet of the whole Self-Production series with some “if only I’d knowns” tossed in. If you went to school for theatre management, all this may be overly simplistic. But for those of you who came to theatre production via an alternate path, here’s what I can tell you after having self-produced:
- The Show – Choose a show to produce that you believe in, one that people will want to see and for which you have a marketing plan to get people in the seats. If you’re an actor/producer, select a playwright who has a reputation that will entice audiences and critics to come. (Like these actors in Denver did with Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries) http://www.denvercenter.org/blog-posts/news-center/2015/07/29/a-gruesome-introduction-to-self-producing-live-theatre).
- The Budget – Put together a reasonable budget, based on recent research in your area, talking to others who’ve produced and by getting bids from possible hires. Figure out where you’re getting the money to pay for your show and have most of it raised before you begin rehearsals. You shouldn’t count on selling tickets to cover your late-in-the-run costs. And worrying about how you’ll cover your commitments instead of your play will only lead to misery.
- The Where – Select a theatre—in budget—which suits your play viz a viz the size of your set and cast, as well as for its geography. Make it easy for your audience to come see it. Think about a non-traditional venue for a non-traditional piece—a museum or a restaurant. Audiences enjoy novel experiences. LA based writer/producer Eric Rudnick suggests selecting a theatre where support is offered in the form of staff and equipment, and “Make sure you get names and numbers of everyone—box office, technical directors, concessions people, etc.— and establish communication early on.” Will they help you strike the set when your show closes? Make sure that’s in your contract.
- Hiring your director, co-producer, stage manager, designers and builders—Rudnick says make sure you get hard quotes from all the members of your team or you might suddenly find your budget blown on one line item. Playwright, Mary Portser, goes further saying, “Make sure you get solid commitments from all your hires for the time period you need them or you may find yourself scrambling at the last minute.” Ask questions—even if you feel silly doing so. Once rehearsals started, Rudnick discovered his otherwise fantastic stage manager had neither a car nor a smart phone. So she couldn’t be reached, nor could she be counted on to bring snacks and water to rehearsals. “Take nothing for granted,” he says.
- Casting – Select actors who are committed to their careers AND to your project. Vet people. Choose actors who ideally come with their own fan base who will be a draw to audiences. It’s a little sad but having an actor of some renown in your show will sell tickets. And if you’re a no-name playwright, self-producing your own work, this becomes even more important. You’re competing with so many other plays, TV shows, movies—you have to give people a reason to come see your show. If you’re using Equity actors, familiarize yourself with the union rules in place in your area.
- Promotion – If you can afford a publicist, hire one—ideally someone with social media savvy who knows how to use Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. And whether you have a publicist or not, establish your show’s social media presence at least as early as the start of rehearsals. Get your cast and crew onboard with promotion and sharing posts, tweets and any videos or pictures. If you’ve selected your play and team wisely, you’ll create a buzz through the exponential power of the Internet. Don’t forget to GGG—get good graphics! Have a visually provocative campaign with an intriguing logline to put on posters, postcards and ads.
- Ticketing – Register with all the ticket outlets to maximize visibility across all the possible platforms where tickets can be purchased. Develop creative strategies and synergies to sell those tickets. Offer discounts and giveaways, and develop cross-promotions with local businesses and restaurants. Try to get local business to have a stake in your show.
- Critics – Try to get critics excited about your show and to promise they’ll see it as close to opening night as possible. If you have a publicist, he/she will be working on this for you. However, if it’s looking like the only way you’ll get a review is to pay Bitter Lemons, decide if it’s worth it to you. A lot of reviews and reviewers don’t carry much weight. You might be better served using that money to draw audiences in a more creative way.
- Prepare for the unexpected because it will happen on the way to Opening Night. Rudnick suggests things will go smoother if producers keep the channels of communication open, “You don’t and can’t know everything so remain open to possibilities even while having a vision. Listen and try things before saying, ‘no.’ “
- Know it’s likely to be stressful. If you’re the type who gets stressed, figure out— ahead of succumbing—how you’ll deal with it. Playwright Portser says she didn’t realize the amount of work there would be the month before opening. “Between being at the theatre–for rehearsals, letting tech people in, cleaning the place, contacting people online, and then hunting for props, picking up flyers, programs, etc., it was full time.”
- Surround yourself with kind, competent people with good follow-through and take care to be kind to EVERYONE who is helping you. The corollary to this is: If you are unkind, apologize immediately. It’s unlikely you’re paying people what they deserve. So if you go berserk on your production designer because an actor quit on you, say you’re sorry for taking it out on her. As Tiffany Antone says in her Little Black Dress Blog http://www.littleblackdressink.org/for-kendra-and-all-the-other-playwright-producers-in-the-room/ sometimes you’re the pain in the ass so be nice.
- Lastly, keep good financial records (or hire someone to do it). Hopefully you made money or at least broke even. But if not, and you’re facing a loss on your production, you may be able to write off those losses, particularly if you are a financially successful writer or actor in some other medium. But don’t quote me on that because I’m not a tax professional. A tax professional would probably advise a less risky venture.
For myself, I had a blast self-producing my show, and in recounting for you my experiences doing it. Would I do it again? Absolutely. I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride.
When I was a kid, I was a great speller. I’m still a great speller. I remember having trouble with two words in particular: Tennessee and Playwright. Tennessee just has too many double letters and is a word I don’t use enough to care how its spelled. Playwright, on the other hand, was confusing because you write plays. I didn’t know what “wrighting” was.
It wasn’t until I was much older and learning how to be a playwright that I learned that the word wright was an archaic word for builder. I wasn’t just writing down words, I was building a world. It was a comforting way to think about it. These weren’t my thoughts and ideas being written down for all to judge – it was a world I had built.
As a woman I feel like it’s my duty to build worlds in which women are celebrated and treated with equality and respect, but I don’t always do that. It’s a weird pressure to write this way all the time; if I actually did it, I think everything I wrote would feel a little bit like science fiction. So, what’s the line between writing a positive representation of women and representing the realities that we as women face. I believe in being the wright of a world in which women are respected and and celebrated, but I also think it’s important for playwriting to be current; currently, women face a lot of adversity.
I don’t have an answer yet, but I think that sweet spot I’m looking for lies somewhere in conversation. When I speak with other women and I hear their stories, I know more clearly which stories I want to tell, what worlds I want to build. As female playwrights we owe it to each other to build a community, to talk to each other and to make plays in our own wright.Tweet
by Jami Brandli
For those of you who may not know, the two-month long Women’s Voices Theater Festival in the Washington D.C. area has officially begun. Over fifty of the region’s professional theaters (including Baltimore and northern Virginia) are producing over fifty world premiere plays written by over fifty female playwrights. This is an unprecedented event, and I am beyond thrilled to be one of the female playwrights to have my world premiere of Technicolor Life produced at participating theater REP Stage (which is producing an all-female season by the way). I also had the good fortune of being able to attend the invitation-only kickoff gala on the evening of Tuesday, September 8th at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. You can read about the seven originating theaters here, but I first want to give a huge, heartfelt shout-out to the festival’s producers, Nan Barnett and Jojo Ruf. Without these two rock stars, this monumental event would not be possible.
Here’s how my day went:
I arrived early in Washington D.C. with my director and co-AD of REP Stage, Joseph Ritsch. He had some meetings, which meant I had most of the day to myself. I decided to check out the collection at the National Museum of Women in the Arts since I knew that I’d be schmoozing and cocktailing later that night. I thought I’d spend about an hour there, but I wound up spending nearly three. Their all-female permanent collection is simply mind-blowing, as some of their paintings go as far back as the Middle Ages when women were not allowed professional training in the arts. Rather, a female artist was seen as a curiosity (why oh why would a woman want to create art?!). And if she did get any training, she received it from male relatives. These are female artists I have never heard of—Lavinia Fontana, Louise Moillon, Clara Peeters, Judith Leyster—and their paintings are absolutely stunning. As I moved from the Seventeenth Century to the Eighteenth to the Nineteenth, absorbing breathtaking landscapes and Vermeer-like portraits, I became angry. Strike that. I became really f’ing pissed. Women were still mostly excluded from professional training, and if they were accepted into an institution, they couldn’t study the naked human form until the end of the Nineteenth Century. Because of this patriarchal fear and ignorance, we—the collective human we—have been denied our female Renoirs, van Goghs, Picassos and so on. Because these female artists were denied their fair share of the art “real estate,” we have been denied paintings and sculptures that could have transformed individual lives and influenced cultures. Which brings me to…
Female playwrights’ fair share of the American theatre real estate.
Since the birth of American theatre in the 1750s, white male playwrights have successfully dominated the stage and won prestigious prizes with their white male (mostly straight) stories. This is fact. The more a culture sees and experiences a particular kind of story, the more it is considered the standard. This could be deemed as theory, but let’s get real here, this is fact. But I want to be clear. I’m not bashing the white male experience—so many plays that have moved and inspired me have been written by white males. (Our Town and Death of a Salesman kill me every time I read them.) BUT the result of white male stories taking up all the prime real estate for the last 260 or so years is that all other types of American voices and stories have been marginalized. The only way for parity to be gained is to give the marginalized voices center stage for as long as it takes for them to no longer be marginalized. This is where the Women’s Voices Theater Festival comes into play. ALL of the theatre real estate is going to be given to female playwrights for the next two months. Which means our stories will be the standard. Yes, it’s for two months in the D.C. area, but the festival is getting national attention and there is great power in this.
As I left the National Museum of Women in the Arts and made my way back to the hotel, I kept thinking about this power and all the future possibilities it holds. One possibility is that the festival will be insanely successful and cause a ripple effect where twenty cities hold their own women’s voices theater festival over the next few years. This would then inspire ALL theaters to make the conscious effort to share the prime real estate in their upcoming seasons. But my dream? My dream is that ALL theaters will actually want to do this and there will no longer be a need for a women’s voices theater festival. I’m not sure if this dream will happen in my lifetime, but I know as sure as I’m typing this blog, I will proactively work toward making parity happen.
But back to the gala…
The night started with all the playwrights, artistic directors and other VIPs opening up the gala’s program and seeing Michelle Obama’s welcome letter. Alas, Ms. Obama, the festival’s Honorary Chair, couldn’t attend, but she was certainly there in spirit as you can see from my photo below.
Next, NPR’s Susan Stamberg interviewed the Tony Award-winning force of nature that is Lisa Kron. In case you missed it, you can watch it at Howlround TV. (Please note: You absolutely should watch this interview.)
Here are three of Lisa Kron’s gems from the interview:
“Unless you believe men are better writers than women, there’s an inherent bias. This isn’t a feeling women have. The numbers are there.”
“Women playwrights have the same authority to write about the world the way male playwrights have authority to write about the world. But we see the world from a different vantage point.”
“The definition of parity is that there will be as many bad plays by women as great plays…that women will produce great plays in the same proportion as everyone else.”
That last one really made me think. Because it’s the truth. As much as I hope for this to not be the case, there will be less than successful plays at the festival. But as Lisa stated, true parity means women should have the same opportunity to fail as well as to succeed.
After the interview, we all made our way into the main space of the museum where the rest of gala attendees were festively drinking champagne and eating creme brulee. They were waiting to celebrate us, our plays, and this revolutionary collective achievement to highlight female playwrights. I was filled with pure exuberance as it finally hit me. This festival is actually going to happen and history is about to be made! So I grabbed a glass of bubbly and celebrated with this fabulous group of women and men until last call…
And I would like to think that the spirits of the female artists in this museum—the ones who were denied to fully express their creative selves all those years ago—were celebrating with us, too.Tweet
It’s been five months since my last post back in April; I was talking about setbacks then. In October it will be 2 years since what I considered at the time to be my biggest setback…I moved back to Springfield, MO from Los Angeles, tail between my legs, and no money in my pockets. It is also 2 years since I started blogging for the LA FPI. These blogs have been rest stops for me that have forced me to be constantly taking stock of a bigger perspective, and by narrating my own story I’ve become more conscious of the good things that have happened and been tasked to find growth in the challenges. So, here we are again, another year in…
This Summer I created, wrote, directed, produced, starred in and edited a webseries called LANDLOCKED. You may recall I was taking lessons from my research on panic attacks and applying them to the creative process back in April while in pre-production for the series. We did 10 episodes shooting and airing one per week for ten weeks, juggling two sets in different time zones, directing over Skype, mailing footage back and forth, encountering a slew of frustrating technical difficulties, and finally, creating a season finale that has become the creation I am most proud of (so far). Here’s a four minute wrap up of the Season leading up to the finale:
And here is the series finale:
Watch all ten episodes and learn more about the series at www.landlockedthewebseries.com
I feel like, more than ever before, this last episode achieved the vision, tone, and quality I wanted, so I feel like whatever I do next needs to be BIG–balls to the wall, crewed up, funded, my soul on a platter stuffed into film…something I can take and show at prominent festivals that says, “I’m here. I’m ready. I’ve earned a spot at the table now.” Ultimately, my goal is to create a television show that I write and act in, so I am working to create a film that clearly shows my voice as a creator. It’s hard to create when you are putting so much pressure on yourself though, so it is important, I find, to actually not think about the big picture SO much and just try to enjoy each small moment, betting on yourself (instead of listening to the doubt) each step of the way.
Before we put away the big picture, however, I want to acknowledge something that 2 years ago me would never have believed…since moving back to Springfield, MO from Los Angeles I have worked constantly, become an EMC, and made more money from Acting in the past 2 years than I did from Acting in all 6 of my years in Los Angeles (not counting background work). That’s pretty insane to me. I never saw that coming. So, here we are again, another year in and I am getting ready to move out of my Mom’s house and into my own apartment here in Springfield. I’m still recovering financially and I’ve still got a long ways to go and even though a part of me feels anxious about having my own apartment here–feels like I’m settling in somehow into a place I never wanted to call “home”–the rest of me is able to acknowledge that maybe this is the best place for me to be right now. I can enjoy a lower cost of living and stay plenty busy taking advantage of all the acting opportunities afforded me while continuing to write and create my own projects with the hope that one day one of them will lead me back off to the big cities I know and love.
The important thing, I think, is to never stop; if you have a dream that beats through your heart daily and nightly, that makes you want to get up even when you’re dead tired, that puts a smile on your face even in your most trying times, then acknowledge that it’s there to be fulfilled, and whether or not you ever fulfill it in the way you think would be best, regardless of if anyone else thinks it’s what you should be doing with your life, no matter what circumstances you find yourself in…just never stop finding little and big ways to keep stepping closer to that dream, keep doing that thing that makes your heart swell. It’s there for a reason within you, and good things will be born of it.Tweet
NECESSARY EXPOSURE: THE FEMALE PLAYWRIGHT PROJECT opens September 1st at Dixon Place! This installation features portraits of 17 new female-identified playwrights along with interactive soundplays of their work, downloadable from iTunes. Search for Necessary Exposure on Facebook to stand behind their powerful words: “This is what a female playwright looks like. I want you to see them. When you seek plays to program, scripts to buy, curriculum to teach, I want you to remember.” #yes!!! #femaleplaywrights #wcw #wce #womenwriters #theater #theatre #writers #ladies #playwrights #nyc #nytheatre #nytheater #broadway
#15. The Critics – Should You Care?
Save a playwright, shoot a critic? Unwise; though many a playwright has thought about it. According to Bernardo Cubria, who helms a NY Theatre podcast called Off and On, “At some point in their lives, theatremakers develop hostility towards theatre critics.” To Bernardo I’d say, “Why bother?” One bad review doesn’t make or break a play, a playwright or a theatre; even if it feels that way sometimes and even if the person penning the review might like to think he’s got that kind of power. Similarly, a couple of great reviews won’t necessarily drive people to your play and turn it into a hit. And sometimes a bad review can even make people want to see a show.
If anyone remembers the controversial and often hostile New York Magazine critic, John Simon, now 90, you might know what I mean. His brand of theatre criticism was erudite but scathing and after reading a Simon review, I would often feel compelled to see the show that was the source of so much vitriol. A case in point was Joseph Papp’s Cymbeline. In Simon’s 1989 review of that show, he took apart (among other things) the actress, Joan Cusack, and her performance: “The heroine, considered by many, Shakespeare’s most golden girl and described right off as ‘divine Imogen’ is played by Joan Cusack, known from the movies as the low-comedy, lower-class, addlepated or wisecracking, homely sidekick of the leading lady. Here she looks like a travesty of Tenniel’s Alice after ingesting EAT ME (but having grown more sideways than upward) and talks in her usual proletarian accent and in that breathlessly breathy voice we associate with Saturday Night Live parodies… Miss Cusack remains ‘unimogenable.’” You can read the whole review here. Yes, it’s cruel but I think it’s also a case of so much hate being the flipside of love. To work up the passion to be so nasty, at least he cares! I think it’s way better to be hated than leave the likes of John Simon wholly indifferent. Personally, I miss this type of theatre criticism because as cruel as people thought Mr. Simon to be, he knows the English language and theatre history and, best of all, he was entertaining to his readers (unless of course you happen to be the victim of his ad hominem evisceration that week). As a playwright and novelist who’s developed a thick skin, I’d rather have a scathing John Simon review than a milktoast blogger spewing my plot back at me anyday.
But back to you… “I need to get critics to see my show!” you say. “If I don’t, people won’t come!” Possibly. But there are plenty of stories about shows by no-name writers, starring people no one knows, that somehow get traction, and go on to be successful. When these shows finally do get reviewed it’s almost embarrassing for a critic to admit he’s so late to the party. See it’s hard being a critic, too. Think about it, if she says awful things about the work, she’s accused of being cruel; if she’s too nice, she’s pandering.
Critics are just there, like your set, and they have always had a symbiotic relationship with theatre as well as the other art forms. They have just been opining longer and louder so we have elevated their opinions above those of every other person seeing shows or movies or museum exhibitions. Maybe we shouldn’t care so much.
Jonathan Mandell, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, has written about theater for Playbill, American Theatre Magazine, the New York Times, Newsday, Backstage, NPR.com and CNN.com, among other outlets. He currently blogs at New York Theater and tweets as @NewYorkTheater. HowlRound, which bills itself as a “knowledge commons by and for the theatre community” invited Mandell to answer the question: “Are Theatre Critics Critical. An Update.” In the post he quotes Mark Twain (along with several others of varying perspectives) on the value of critics and the future of criticism in general. Mandell’s been in the trenches and I recommend all aspiring producers read the piece. But in essence, Mandell thinks theatrical criticism no longer has the sway it once did.
As touched on in previous posts, our need to be reviewed stems from our fear that without good notices, our show will somehow not have the legitimacy needed to fill seats. But this isn’t true. There are other ways to get people to buy tickets and we all need to think more creatively about how to do that. There are too many tiny theatrical presentations, at least in LA, for the critics who count to get to them all. And even if they could, there’s no guarantee they will review your show with the enthusiastic pull-quotes you need to promote it on posters, websites and ads.
But don’t worry, the economics of supply and demand have kicked in—at least in LA—and, as a result, several things have occurred. The first is that the limited supply of what I’ll call the “power” reviewers has created a vacuum that’s been partially filled by bloggers and others who call themselves critics. They write for online sites like Stage Happenings that don’t have much clout with the LA theatre intelligentsia. Even a good review from one of these folks won’t motivate most of your potential audience to buy tickets. And yet, you may feel having a few of these independent blogger types review your show is better than nothing? It’s not for me to say. I would argue, however, that you should consider fresh ways to promote your show rather than grovel at the feet of critics, particularly critics with no clout. It’s a waste of time.
But if getting a critic or two to review your show is of utmost importance, there’s a sure fire way to get at least one person to write it up and this presents the next item on the list of what’s been spawned by the reviewer vacuum: since April 2015, producers in Los Angeles can pay for the privilege of being reviewed. That’s right, for $150, (or less if your show’s a “fringe” show) you can pay the creators of the Lemon Meter who run the online review-aggregator site known as Bitter Lemons to review it. I don’t think an artist should ever have to pay to be reviewed, but you can read all about what’s called the “Bitter Lemons Initiative” (BLI) in the BL boss’s own (and excessive number of) words and decide for yourself: http://socal.bitter-lemons.com/learn/article/2456
Even if you pay for your BL review, it’s still not going to have the weight of a review from the LA Times or NPR. That’s because a lot of seasoned theatregoers still don’t even go online. They trust their big local newspaper and nothing else. It’s also because another part of the theatre-going population goes to shows to support friends, damn the reviews. In 99-Seat theatre in LA, which I attend at least a couple of times a week, I see the same people in the house over and over. The new folks are usually friends of cast members I’ve never met. This is fine but it goes to the question of who the audience is for small theatre. I submit that most of the people in the houses of waiver theatre are not there because of the reviews. We all know each other. That said, in order to be really successful, one needs to break out of that womb, as it were, and reach an audience that might be interested in your play if they simply heard about it. This might mean getting a star in a lead role (see the casting post) or doing a play that’s particularly topical. So you see the problem isn’t really critics, it’s marketing and that starts way back when you’re considering what play of yours to produce.
As a group, critics are like any other. Some are good and some are terrible. Some have agendas they’re unable to put aside when writing a review. It rarely happens that everyone who sees your play, critic or not, is going to love it. What people think is out of your control. My advice: Don’t give critics that kind of power and just do your work. You didn’t write your play for critics and if you did, you might want to reassess your theatrical motives. Playwright and co-artistic director, Daniel Pinkerton, summed it up well in the comment section to Mandell’s post, “Does a bad review hurt some people? Yup. Is war hell? Yup. Next subject, please.”
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