Teatro Jornaleros Sin Fronteras

Tuesday, June 30, 2009 0 comments

A cool article in the Christian Science Monitor about Teatro Jornaleros Sin Fronteras, a day laborer theatre company whose founder, Juan Jose Mangandi, we met at the NET summit. This company grew out of a play created by Cornerstone Theatre Company. Read all about it, and congrats to Teatro Jornaleros for the good press! (h/t Thomas Cott) Read the full story

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The return of Have Another: Wednesday, July 8th

After so long...
It's finally happening...
The return of bar staged reading series at Jimmy's #43, Have Another!
You might remember Have Another from its previous incarnations. But it's been over a year since we've held this event. Why are we bringing it back, besides the obvious fact that theatre over beer is fun?

Because we want to open up our play development process to you, attractive audience person. Another thing that came out of the NET summit was a movement from theatres to share the process of making theatre with an audience (a post on that anon), and while we've been dabbling with that through past HAs and Food:Souls, we want to move further in that direction. Have Another is our attempt to bring you into the process of what we're developing through our Flux Sundays in a non-traditional theatre setting.

And the line-up of scenes is looking great! Check it:

Lickspittles, Buttonholers and Damned Pernicious Go-Betweens
by Johnna Adams
Directed by Jason Paradine
Featuring Brian Pracht, August Schulenburg, Marnie Schulenburg, Isaiah Tanenbaum, Jane Taylor, Ryan Whalen, DeWanda Wise

by Mary Fengar Gael
Directed by Peter Boisvert
Featuring Ryan Andes, Matthew Archambault, Nancy Franklin

We Are Burning
by Aaron Michael Zook
Directed by Alexis Williams
Featuring Jake Alexander, Tiffany Clementi, David Ian Lee, Nick Monroy, Ingrid Nordstrom

So see you this Wednesday, July 8th at 7PM. at Jimmy's #43, located downstairs at 43 East 7th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue! Read the full story

Congrats to nytheatre.com!

They won!

Thanks to everyone who voted, and congrats to Martin, Rochelle and everyone at NYTE. Read the full story

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On Quality, Value and Criticism

Monday, June 29, 2009 6 comments

We have returned from The National Summit For Ensemble Theatres, sponsored by NET for five days in San Francisco, and there is MUCH to unpack. Each day had enough material for several blog posts, and while I don't expect to have time to get it all down, I will try and focus on the bigger questions and idea that emerged for us from the conference.


One of the most exciting discussions that emerged from the conference was regarding quality. Often, the conversation seems to be that with better marketing, younger content, cheaper tickets or deeper funding everything will be fine and theatre will thrive. Left unspoken is the reality that a lot of theatre is boring or confusing, and even competent theatre-makers often wind up making mediocre art. It doesn't matter how hip, how young, how free and how supported bad theatre is - it is still bad theatre and no one wants to see it. But the question of how to make better theatre is often unexplored - why? And how do we use that question to make higher quality theatre?

This post will focus on five ideas that emerged from the conference and ensuing discussions:

1. The difference between quality and value
2. Understanding the rules of form
3. Critiquing from within
4. Sustaining the conversation
5. Clarity of intent

Hopefully, these five points will encourage you to post your own thoughts on quality, and even better, your practices for making your own work better.

1. The difference between quality and value
I think the primary reason we have trouble talking about quality is we so often confuse it with value. Artistic quality is excellence in an established cultural tradition. That tradition has a form with a set of rules and expectations, a unique physics of engagement, a shared language; and from that tradition, excellence is expressed.

You do not need to like or value that tradition to recognize when its expression has quality.
You only need to be familiar with the rules.

An example: I don't know much about the tradition of ballet. However, I know enough to recognize excellent ballet dancers from merely competent ones because I have had enough exposure to the form. Some cultural traditions have very simple rules: others are more complex. It may be that complex cultural traditions require more but give more in return because their complexity provides a greater range of expression. But whether that is true or not, if you have enough exposure to a tradition, you are able to discern, even without being able to articulate exactly why, variations in quality.

That doesn't mean you LIKE it. Thus far, I have not connected with theatre devised primarily from Viewpoints. I don't value it (though I'd like to, and perhaps would with more exposure to its tradition). However, when I saw SITI Company perform, I noticed a clear difference in quality from less experienced practitioners. I knew it was very high quality within that tradition.

Which brings us to value, which is a moral judgement, not an aesthetic one. Value judges what kind of work is important - theatre of social justice, devised work, Broadway, Indie theatre - and in doing so, also judges what kind of work is not important.

Quality is concerned with the use of a medium within an aesthetic tradition.
Value is concerned with the role of that tradition within a society.
Quality looks at how art works.
Value looks at why.

What happens when the two are confused? An audience that loves the tradition of experimental theatre begin with a set of values, and when experimental theatre validates those values, that audience is far more likely to believe the work is quality. An audience that believes theatre for social justice is more important than the classics immediately turns off when the curtain rises on a traditional production of Shakespeare. And so on.

When theatre does not conform to our values, it is very difficult for us to assess its quality. Why? I think in part because questions of value are so deeply connected with self-identity. Broadway theatre isn't just bad, it's everything wrong with theatre today! Theatres should only produce works by playwrights under 35! We should ban Shakespeare! Behind those firey calls for revolution is often, I think, a real fear that the work we're doing isn't valued, and so we must devalue work from other traditions.

And of course we should advocate for the kind of work we value, but in doing so, we should never confuse that advocacy with a clear-headed analysis of quality. The mediocre play with the beautiful process of international collaborators concerned with peace is just as deadly to experience as the millionth production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. So while I think it is worthwhile for us to talk about what kind of theatre we need to see, a cooler-headed look at how to make better work across all traditions is increasingly important. Because audiences across all traditions are looking at all these different kinds of work we're doing, and deciding not to come back.

2. Understanding the rules of form
So let's leave aside the question of value for now, and focus on the question of quality. I think the way we make our work better is by deepening our mastery of a tradition, and then innovating within and beyond it.

Part of it is simply practice: dancers and musicians practice their technique for hours every day as a path to mastery. Sometimes we theatre folk do, too.

But I believe that engaging in discussion about the work itself is also essential, and it's here that I feel like the blogosphere has some distance to go. Sometimes it feels like we talk about everything but how we make artistic decisions. Often I have reached an epiphany about artistic choices when forced to articulate my process. We like to veil that process in mystery, and often it is more important to simply try a million things and see what sticks; but after the sticking point, why not speculate why it worked? Why not share that speculation?

Excellence in theatre is often a matter of a beat longer, a foot farther, a minute faster, a line shorter, a turn away, a word that echoes, a gesture that lingers, a blackout that came a moment too late, a sound cue a hair too loud, a gel just pale enough, a set piece that finally makes a scene playable. We see each others work and we make judgements about these decisions, but we often don't talk about these choices, even within our own company, let alone outside of it.

And so we stumble somewhat blindly and a little alone into what niche masteries we carve out for ourselves; instead of moving the mystery inch by inch forward into the light, as scientists sometimes do.

How can we talk about the work we do, across judgements of value, to improve the quality of theatre?

3. Critiquing from within
Conrad Bishop from The Independent Eye brought up an excellent point at the conference: the best criticism functions from within. If you imagine yourself as a collaborative artist in the company you're critiquing, your criticism becomes the question "What can I bring to this process?" rather than "How can I analyze this product?" It forces you to work within that artist or company's cultural tradition as best you can, and helps remove the blinders of value.

But how do we imagine ourselves within another company when it is so difficult to critique work within our own? Flux has annual and post-play post-mortems, but they focus entirely on the process of producing, not on the quality of artistic decisions. And this is, of course, because feelings get hurt. And yet we must improve the quality of work, and we can do that best by talking about it.

So how do you talk about it within your company? Do you use the Liz Lerman Critical Reponse Process? Do you just say the ugly truth and wound each other terribly and then recover over beers to do the whole thing over again, like Valhalla? How do you do it?

And how do we bring that process beyond our company's walls? How do we help make each other better? It starts, I think, from stepping back from value, understanding the tradition, and critiquing from within.

4. Sustaining the conversation
Another good idea that emerged from the Summit was the idea that any critical process should not be a drive-by snooting but a sustained engagement. This happens, of course, in the ad hoc way we form trusted alliances with artists whose opinions we respect. How can we make that alliance a daily practice rather than an occasional interaction? How can it happen across companies?

5. Clarity of intent
There is perhaps nothing more important to this process than clarity of intent. At the beginning of the process, understanding why you are doing this play now, and how you think it might work, is essential. That doesn't mean you know everything, nor does it mean you don't ceaselessly revise everything throughout the process. But it is impossible in the heat of a rehearsal process to assess your work if you don't begin from a place of clarity and relative consensus. It makes it extremely difficult to talk about the play at production meetings, in rehearsals, and over beers after rehearsals if everyone has a different idea of what this play is, why we're doing it, and how it works. That does not mean conformity of opinion, but it absolutely means a destination with a map and compass and some wind in the sails.
That goes for companies, too. Flux is reaching the point where we need to start talking in language as clear as water about where we're going aesthetically and how to get there.
Where is your company going aesthetically?
How are you going to get there?

That was a longer post then expected. But there's a lot to talk about here. We'll be bringing these questions to our Annual Retreat, and we'd sure love for you to post your ideas here. Read the full story

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Flux Sunday, June 7th

Tuesday, June 9, 2009 0 comments

What is Flux Sunday?

While not quite the groove fest of last week, our last Flux Sunday before our short summer break was solid. We heard scenes from Johnna Adams, Jeremy Basescu, Mary Fengar Gail, myself and first time (as playwrights) Zack Calhoon and Anthony Wills Jr. Some Sundays, each play speaks to the other, but this Sunday, they carved out their own unique territory.

Zack's new play Paint was up first. In it's first scene, Paint takes time to let the complicated relationship between a recently divorced middle-aged couple (Ray and Sarah) unfold. The pacing of this scene is lovely: fights break out, only to be dodged through another glass of wine, a deft change of subject, or a simple touch, still erotically charged in spite of time and spite. Because of the length, Ray was split between David Crommett and Ken Glickfeld, and Sarah, between Nora Hummell and first-timer Lynn Kenny. Lynn and David especially found the uneasy but unavoidable attraction between these two difficult people.

Later in the day, we returned to Paint to read the next scene, where David (Sarah's son, and a major source of trouble between her and Ray), is trying to convince his older girlfriend Christina to treat him seriously. Isaiah Tanenbaum and Ingrid Nordtstrom found the darker currents under the happy banter, and we ended excited to hear more from this play.

...in this Sunday's read of Jeremy's Onion Amnesia, the subject of comedy was the internal warfare of the office. Fen, sweetly and posionously played by Hannah Rose Peck (she was back visiting, yay!) squares off against the sour (and equally poisonous) Annalee (played by Marnie Schulenburg). This scene showed off Jeremy's talent for sustaining the furious rhythm of farce.

You've heard that one before. But you've definitely not heard anything like Mary's trippy murder mystery Opaline, where intrepid forsenic anthropologist Hargraves may be up against a power that exceeds his own sure-handed intelligence. Watching Matt Archambaults's disheveled delight of a Hargraves match wills against first-timer Ryan Andes' seductive force of nature abysnthian painter Gaston was thrilling, and Nancy Franklin's mysterious Opaline and Johnna Adam's hilariously precise Celestia made this my favorite read of the day (and perhaps my favorite of Mary's contributuons to our Sundays). Can't wait for the next scene!

Then we turned to Anthony's absurd spin of Pirandello, Eddie Falls. The dizzyingly fast word play was disorienting, but the actors' surprisingly naturalistic take on the material gave it some sea legs; and I was especially drawn to Ryan Whalen's guru like Peter. This is a play that will be well-suited by our return to playing on our feet in July.

We also looked at the fourth act of Johnna's rhyming Alexandrian verse play, Lickspittles, Buttonholers, and Damned Pernicious Go-Betweens. The sheer verbal energy of this play is intoxicating, but what was really exciting about today's scene was the darker, human turn her play took when rival go-between's Guthbert (Anthony) and Candine (an excellently fierce Cotton Wright) explain their tragic histories. An additional treat was seeing Marnie and Brian Pracht reunite after Pretty Theft to play the sniveling Lickspittles, Christienne and Peder.

Wildly different plays, and no theme to unite them; all the same, the Sunday was satisfying. Much work awaits us when we return in July! Read the full story

Support nytheatre.com!

Friday, June 5, 2009 0 comments

If you're reading this blog, chances are you already know the extraordinary leadership that nytheatre.com has shown New York City's theatre field, indie theatre especially. They are currently applying for a grant, and they need our votes. To learn more, check out Martin Denton's blog here.

According to Tech Soup's website, the voting deadline has been extended to Monday, June 8th at noon. Warning: I voted, and was a little confused by the process, but it's worth persevering to support a company that has shown such generosity to so many. Read the full story

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Fluxers Out and About

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Tiffany Clementi, Gregory Waller)

Just because Flux itself doesn't have anything cooking in June, doesn't mean our Members and friends aren't busy.

This Sunday the 7th and 7PM, check out Core Member Tiffany Clementi at the 48 hr Film Festival. There is a judges vote and an audience vote, and she needs your vote, as the 10 best films will be screened at the Cannes Festival. Click here to purchase your $10 tickets - her team's name is Goose & Bunny. And click here to learn more about the event.

That very same day, support Pretty Theft director and Member Angela Astle's next production by attending this cool event at 4PM.

Have you got your tix for the Brick Theatre's Anti-Depressant festival yet? We're excited for this, this, and this. Of course, your safest bet is to see them all. Read the full story

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Bright Side for the Broadside?

Thursday, June 4, 2009 7 comments

Given the layoffs in arts journalism - a 50% decline in four years - is there any light up ahead in a life spent writing about theatre? Well, it's hard to argue with those terrible numbers. But a few things recently have made me wonder if we're simply in the hard part of an important transition that will leave us stronger than we were before.

Thing #1: A Managing Director reaches out to fans of a critically panned show to voice their own opinions. The result? 30 responses on his blog, 80 responses on the paper's comments section, and all sorts of discussions about the pros and cons of the idea of the effort, its execution and the results.

Thing #2: A fascinating impromptu discussion between two critics about a director's work on a production in context of not only the director's body of work, but the director's contemporaries, as well. (Read down to the comments).

Thing #3: An organization dedicated to theatre bloggers begins to figure out what all these online advocates of our theatre might do together.

Thing #4: One critic engages another about the unspoken politics of their reviewing, and a discussion with strong voices from the Right and Left engage in the comments section.

Taking these 4 things together, it is possible to see a silver lining through all the economic flat lining: critics are now able to engage more immediately, more substantively and more openly with other critics, artists and audiences; with those others now able to respond immediately, substantively, and openly. A discourse about what theatre criticism should be functionally, aesthetically, organizationally and politically is happening; a conversation that anyone with a computer and idle hour can contribute to; and while it may be terribly wishful thinking, I think it is possible that professional theatre journalism may emerge stronger from this process.

We may be reaching a time where a critic gains power because of the quality of their reviews, not the pedigree of their masthead. Audiences will feel a greater connection to that critical vision because they will able to engage with it directly. The advertising dollars that supported arts journalism in print media may find a logical home in that dedicated following. Supported by that revenue, and with that audience engaged, we may be reaching a time where a theatre journalist, solely through a persuasive critical vision and a computer, can help lead our theatre to higher ground. Read the full story


Income Sensitive Tickets

Tuesday, June 2, 2009 0 comments

Some great ideas for improving audience access to the arts from Ian David Moss at Createquity (h/t Isaac). Ian proposes an 'Art Card' that would give income sensitive pricing on tickets for participants. Based on your annual income, you would pay an adjusted price on your ticket at participating arts organizations - essentially replacing the blunt tool of student and senior discounts with an income based scalpel.

Ian proposes the idea here, and then refines it here.

While I think the 4th issue he addresses is a BIG one, and though it would take a fair amount of resources to persuade the implementation and then carry out such a program; it is exciting to see an audience development idea that says "all are welcome" in such a tangible way. Check it out. Read the full story