As is usual in the arts biz, I'm entering into another of the seemingly endless cycles of "feast or famine", but with a decidedly upward trend for the next few months.
In addition to my normal duties as Equity Liaison, VITA income tax site coordinator and reviewer for TheatreSeattle.com, yesterday I was offered the director's chair for Nanawatai! at A Theatre Under The Influence, which will open the end of April. It's a very timely play written by William Mastrosimone, dealing with a Soviet tank crew pursued by Afghan Mujahadeen during the early part of the Soviet-Afghan War in 1981. I read the script about 12 years ago, and it really knocked me out, but it had one seemingly insurmountable problem in that it requires the presence of a Soviet T-62 tank onstage, something that most theaters lacking a multi-million dollar annual budget would just find too difficult to tackle. Fortunately, ATUTI hasn't let something like this get in the way of deciding to produce the show anyway.
I had originally submitted a proposal to direct the show when I first heard about it being on Influence's schedule, but was passed over for another director. As a consolation, I was offered the position of "dramaturg", an opportunity upon which I immediately jumped.
For those not in-the-know, a dramaturg is a peculiar sort of animal in the theatrical jungle, someone who can wear a variety of hats, depending on the needs and circumstances of a particular production. Essentially, they serve two functions; to act as an advocate for the playwright (living or dead) to ensure the production seeks to fulfill the writer's intent, and secondly to develop a body of research that assists all the various people involved in the production reach the fullest understanding of the world in which the play exists. This may include research on a certain period of history (in the case of Nanawatai! this would mean specifically the period of 1979 - 1989), background material on the playwright themselves, references to specific events and issues dealt with in the play -- among other possible avenues of investigation. There are several other possible functions the dramaturg can serve, but these would be the most relevent ones for this production.
All of which boils down to the fact that for the past two months I've been compiling information on the Soviet-Afghan War, Pashtun tribal customs and social structure (Pashtunis representing the largest ethnic community in Afghanistan), historical and geographical data, down to nitty-gritty details like how to operate a Soviet-made Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) and what types of military uniforms would have been worn at the time. Needless to say, all this gives me a pretty good handle on the world in which the play is set.
So, I was surprised, but not unprepared when I got an email from one of the producers yesterday informing me that their first-choice director had bowed out of the production and would I be interested in taking over? Well, I thought about it for about a nanosecond before firing off an affirmative reply.
Which made the phone call I got from Village Theatre about three hours later a bit of a problem. They want to see me for a role in a developmental production (sort of a try out of a script that may or may not be in some final form) that naturally would go up at exactly the same time as Nanawata!. And despite the fact that I haven't been onstage in a major production in more than TWO YEARS, I'm now put in the unfortunate position of having to turn down the callback, because there's simply no way I can do both of them at once -- nor would I even want to try. It's going to be tough enough scheduling around six weeks of income tax preparation, my regular spate of weekly meetings, plus one or two shows to review each week, without adding yet another four solid weeks of rehearsal and performance into the mix.
And guess which one would pay the most?
So, for those of you who've ever wondered -- this is just one of the many manifestations collectively known as, "suffering for your art".
I have a lot of trouble saying, "No" to things, especially when it involves volunteering my time for some cause or event. But occasionally, the "Yes" that escapes my mouth before my brain can put the brakes on yields some surprisingly interesting and satisfying episodes.
Case In Point. Last night I adjudicated a "Declamation and Interpretation Competition" for 5th through 8th graders at a local private school in the northend, which rather than being the wretched experience I anticipated, actually turned out to be quite enjoyable.
Myself and two other local theatre types comprised the panel, and we watched about 30 students show their stuff. The thing that first struck me was the variety of material; everything from Shakespeare to J.K. Rawlings to Tennyson & T.S. Elliott to Stephen Crane to Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Not bad for a bunch of kids, most of whom were obviously on the near side of their teens.
Now granted, many of these were presented in what could charitably be described as "adequate", but still there were several actual standouts, including my personal favorite, the boy who did Jimmy Stewart's Senate floor speech from "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington". It was evident from the start that the kids took their assignments very seriously, and the judging criteria we were handed further indicated that we were expected to take our end of thing with equal sobriety, which judging from the outcome, I think we did quite well.
It's always good to get out a bit into the "real world" outside my narrow confines of work/theatre, just to get a glimpse through the window of what normal life is like for normal people, and this was one of those instances. Parents actually taking an evening to come to school to support their kids in an endeavor that, as someone who still gets the willies at an audition can attest, isn't the easiest thing in the world to do -- stand up in front of a room full of friends, family and fellow students, recite a speech, while three strangers sit in judgement of your efforts. Every kid, regardless of ability got at the least a polite, heartfelt round of applause, and the general atmosphere was positive and encouraging the whole way through. And parents came to thank us afterwards for taking time to do this for their children, and I got the impression that they were genuinely appreciative of the fact we made the effort.
Like I said, sometimes it's good to, "just say 'yes'".
That's how one regular describes the recently concluded first-round of the semi-annual 14/48: The World's Quickest Theatre Festival at Consolidated Works [Sorry, this link won't work right -- just type in "www.conworks.org" in your browser window -- CPC]. As a participant, I tend to think of it more like "Theatre Boot Camp", but either appelation probably only gives the uninitiated the barest hint of what the event entails.
For those of you out of the loop (or out of town), it goes sort of like this: On Thursday evening, the whole crew -- seven playwrights, seven directors, about 20 actors, some musicians, designers, staff & volunteers meet for a brief orientation, at which point everyone throws a theme into a hat. The theme that gets selected will be used the following evening, and each playwright is randomly given a cast breakdown; X Men & Y Women. Then they immediately scurry off to various homes, coffee shops, smokey bars or where ever it is they do their thing, and over the course of the next 14 hours each crank out a ten-minute script based on the selected subject.
At 9:00 a.m. on Friday, each of the seven directors picks one of the playwrights out of a hat, then they "cast" the piece by pulling the names of the actors out of another set of hats (traditionally, it's actually a pair of oversized clown shoes -- one each for males and females). Once this is done, each team splits off to an area of the cavernous (and this time extremely cold) ConWorks space, where during the next 10 hours they will read, rehearse, tech, score, costume, design and finally present a fully-mounted production of the script for two paying audiences.
During the first performance, the audience has a chance to submit themes for the following evening, one of which is selected at the end of the show, at which point the playwrights again retire to their various and sundry writing dens, and the whole process repeats on Saturday.
Sounds insane, no? Well, the fact of the matter is -- it is. But, it's a feverishly creative form of insanity that has usually had remarkably strong results. By compressing an artistic process that at normal speed can often take years to get from idea to production, the entire focus of the exercise becomes about trusting ones instincts and the instincts of others to both support your choices and improve upon them. The 14/48 motto: "Always say 'Yes!'".
This is what theatre is in a nutshell; a collaborative process where everyone who participates has a share of the responsibility for the success of the project, and where everyone's input contributes to that success. And it's the way theatre should be in its most ideal form, but which all too often tends to succomb to politics and dogmatic notions about who's in charge, and whose voice is most important. In the 14/48 world, EVERYONE'S voice is equally important, necessary and vital to pulling off such a risky and audacious stunt -- and as often as not, it DOES get pulled off, quite well.
My personal experiences with 14/48, while generally positive, have nevertheless been somewhat of a mixed bag. Sometimes you get a a rather uninspired script, or a director who doesn't quite know what to do with it, or actors (including myself) who may not be quite "right" for the roles -- it's all part of the intentional randomness, and it's to be expected. This time, however, while there was certainly potential for mediocrity, both days everyone I worked with rose to the challenge, and I personally had one of the most satisfying performing experiences in a long, long time, which of course must be considered with the fact that I haven't had much time at all onstage in the last couple of years.
For actors in particular 14/48 can be a grueling experience, because just as in normal theatre, we're the ones stepping in front of the audience, and they will judge the overall quality of what they see primarily by how well they think we've done our jobs. In the end, it doesn't matter so much in their minds how well the writer, director & designers have done their jobs, even though that does naturally have a direct bearing on the final product. But, we're the ones ultimately left to sink or swim, and so we feel the pressure more keenly. And when you consider that the entire event is designed specifically around the concept of an artistic pressure-cooker, well that sense of dread and anticipation that is a normal part of the actor's psyche gets dialed up a couple of notches. And always in the back of your head is that little prayer, "please, oh please don't let me be the one who screws it up". Most people outside of our business probably find it incomprehensible, why we would want to put ourselves into that kind of situation.
But, boy when it works, it really is like no other feeling in the world. Maybe bungee-jumpers, sky-divers, test pilots or other adrenaline junkies can relate; suddenly, time compresses into what seems like a few brief seconds when it's going good. Conversely, when you forget your lines, or something unexpected happens, time seems to slow to a crawl; seconds can feel like hours. Usually in a typical 14/48 piece, both kinds of time distortion will occur, so that by the time you walk offstage after getting through your 10 or 12 minute piece, you feel completely disconnected from reality; you have no accurate perception of how much time has elapsed since you took that last deep breath, recited those last few troublesome lines to yourself before walking out into the dim lights for your turn to ride the ride.
And when things go really well, as they did for me this weekend, particularly on Saturday, it's a feeling I wouldn't trade that feeling for anything in the world.