Wednesday, 11 September 2013

New Theatre Done Right

I've said before that this is not a review site. I maintain that. Everyone else and their dog have a review blog.

However, as the concept of "new theatre" has come up many times here, in both posts and comments, I will say a few words about Home at the End.

I found this play, for the first production of a new play, brilliant. The subject matter was engaging, the differing manners of delivery were breaths of fresh air.  Were there some places where the cup of messages appeared to run over? Yes. Were there some moments of unnecessary philosophy? Sure. But you get that.

The important thing is that the play was new, directed by someone who knows theatre back-to-front and inside-out, and delivered with passionate commitment. If all "new" theatre were as engaging as HatE, (cool acronym, by the way), I don't see a reason for people to avoid the "new".

I suppose that what I consider to be the key to successful "new" theatre, and I'm aware that many people will disagree with me, is that you have to find an engaging way to send an important message, which Everyman did.

Being "new and innovate" for the sake of it, without any important message that the audience can access and relate to, is just artistic masturbation. And if you're just going to artistically masturbate for three hours, all you're going to be left with is sore arms, a chafing shaft and an unpleasant mess in the front row.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

"Good Old Fashioned Theatre" vs "Innovative New Creativity"

It's a common dilemma.

You want to produce a well-selling show, but nothing seems to sell. Do you join the plethora of other companies in using past success as a guarantee for the future, or do you take a risk on something new?
To clarify, do you trot out a classic again, a la Free Rain or Philo's 2014 seasons, or do you produce a new play, or new concept piece, and trust that if you build it, they will come?

There is much to be said for and against each option.

Bringing In An Old Favourite

Classics are classics for a reason. They have, for the most part, many more good qualities than bad. They have sold well in the past. Everybody knows them, so they are a safe bet.
If you trot them out that once too often, the magic wears off. Not only have your audiences seen it recently (within the last five years, in some cases), but most of the last cast to perform that show are still around. Depending on the individual, this can either lead to "I'm not doing it because I've done it before", which is fine, or it can lead to "I played this role last time, but THAT role is the one I deserve now". I have heard both phrases (or similar) used regarding repeated shows over the last few years.
More than that, do you produce it the exact same way? How many different ways can people direct the older shows, where the blocking is effectively in the script and the choreography is so ingrained into people's ideas of the show? How do you express individuality, when producing the same shows as everyone else has? If you DO do something original with it, it will upset the purists. If you don't, you'll bore the regulars.

New Theatre
I love "new" stuff. It's great, it's fresh and it often challenges whatever views I have of theatre at the time. It is an opportunity for new writers, directors, actors and techies to really come into their own, make a name for themselves and, more than anything, change the theatre scene as we know it. All the while, voicing a new opinion to current issues.
With ticket prices what they are, and the constraints on my budget (not to mention the surprisingly few hours in a day), I don't often want to pay to see something that could go either way. My money goes to a safe bet, whether it's an old show that I've seen/done before and know I'll like, or if it's a show that has many quality performers in it, who I know will do a great job. Even if it's a show that's been tremendously successful overseas, but never performed here.
Another problem with "new" theatre is that, like "new" theatre everywhere, it is not always great. In fact, it rarely is. Every piece has its moments, sure, but stunning and mind-blowingly great "new" theatre pieces are few and very far between.

So what do you do? My money (literally, in this case) is on finding new things to do with a classic. Not "new" as in "I'm going to produce The Sound of Music, but the Von Trapps are all drug-addicted transvestites, and the whole thing takes place in Auschwitz", but finding new things to do to a classic, things which make theatre practitioners and Average Joes alike think "Gee, that's clever. Why didn't I think of that?" or "How did they do that?". One needs only look at a few recent productions to see examples of this: Rep's Under Milk Wood  and Pride and Prejudice, Supa's War of the Worlds, and heck, even Philo's Les Miserables, while the direction, choreography and music were all a bit "paint by numbers", the multi-purpose, re-positional set was a looming, monstrous tribute to the newly industrial settings of the show.

What are your thoughts?
What shows would you like to see done? Do you have any coup de theatre's up your sleeves for them?

Friday, 16 August 2013

Everybody (and Nobody) is a Critic

"Your anonymity in this undertaking (reviewing theatre) is totally unethical...."

That's what someone wrote to That Guy Who Watches Canberra Theatre, in the comment section of his review of Repertory's Don Parties On.
Ever since the Canberra Critic (remember that thing?) became a reliable source for anonymous crap-slinging in the comment section, people have become incredibly sensitive to anything written online. More than anything, this creates a vicious cycle, in which people become incredulously outraged when people criticise them anonymously, and yet people choose to post anonymously because they've seen how well certain people react to criticism.
So why do people pick and choose who to be offended by? It seems that is Bill Stephens, Alana McLean, Peter Wilkins, Helen Musa or Joe Woodward give a show a bad review, nobody bats an eyelid. Some anonymous blogger writes a few comments (quite constructively in the case of the Canberra Dilettante and the Guy Who Watches Canberra Theatre), everyone goes into an uproar? I think it's because you feel there's a tiny chance that their criticism isn't backed up by any actual theatre knowledge. Which is absurd. Even if they're not theatre veterans, they're paying audience members and they know what they liked.
This blog, which doesn't even do reviews (I figure everyone else does) has already seen comment tantrums because of things that have been written, and the fact that when things are written namelessly, they are apparently more insulting. (You make ONE comment about a not-to-be-named-again company...)
If you're going to be upset about what people write about you online (with or without a name) online, you should be just as upset when it's in the newspaper or on the radio. Otherwise, you're another ethically-inconsistent keyboard warrior, either trolling or being trolled in a comment section because you're too insecure to take the criticism on board. And if you're not going to accept people's criticism, you definitely should not accept their accolades.

(I know GIF's are someone else's thing, but this seemed appropo, so I assume it's OK)

Logical and relevant thoughts?

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Turn of the Tide: Accentuate the Positives

What are your favourite things about the Canberra "Amateur" Theatre Scene?

They can range from the broad:
"So many great people" or "Such great show quality",
to the particular:
"Ian Maclean is a musical genius" or "Rep's happy hour has the best prices in town".

It's always important to remember that theatre in Canberra is not doomed. There are far more positives than negatives about it.

Let's get some love flowing. Not in a gross way.

Mine is:
1. Access to Worlds of Experience
Within most companies in Canberra, there are people who are exceptionally good at what they do. Whether they specialise on stage or off, they have the knowledge, and they're willing to share it with a younger cohort of theatre people. One production, with the right people, can teach you more than a semester of high-school drama ever could.
More than that, companies like Repertory frequently import directors who have taught for WAAPA and NIDA, worked for Bell, founded theatre companies in Canada, been stars of stage and screen. By bringing these experienced professionals into town, particularly the ones who have taught in Australia's major performance institution, Rep are providing its members with a legitimate learning experience. The quality expected by these directors then leads them to teach their cast to achieve it, which turns any production with them into a condensed WAAPA or NIDA course. This experience is vital to maintaining and encouraging talent.
This is also a benefit of Free Rain's Phantom. The cast and crew are not only getting the chance to work with a professional director, David Harmon,  but also work alongside seasoned and professional actors, Michael Cormick and Julie Goodwin. These two are not only working with the cast, but bonding with them, sharing stories and experiences, thoughts on the show and the rehearsal process; an invaluable experience. (Also, the teaching goes both ways, because Cormick and Goodwin have, according to themselves, never been in an amateur or pro-am production before. Talk about a learning curve!)

2. Work With Charities
Now this obviously won't apply to all companies, but for those to whom it does, credit should be given.
Many companies in Canberra , which are already not-for-profit, often donate to charities around town.
Rep's Calendar Girls, for example, sold actual calendars and raised a fairly decent amount of money for two separate charities.
Every Rep production also has a TPI night (Totally and Permanently Incapacitated), which is almost a preview's preview. Elderly and differently abled people are invited to watch a dress rehearsal of the production two days before opening night, for a reduced price. This provides the actors with an early audience, but also allows people to come to the theatre who might not otherwise be able to.
Philharmonic provided entertainment for the Camp Quality Supper Club last year, in which several actors became characters from Alice in Wonderland and kept the theme of the party going throughout the night. (Including Megs Skillicorn's poor rabbit suit getting her groped by obnoxious drunk ladies all night. What a trooper! That girl must just be waiting for an EverReady sponsorship.)
I'm aware that not every company is in a position to work with charities or donate to them, but when they do, they do it properly and they do it well. Kudos, Canberra.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Discussion: Canberra Theatre Genie

I thought I'd take a break from listing what I think are the issues troubling theatre in Canberra, and invite people to discuss their own.

So, if you've got a theory, and it hasn't already been listed and discussed elsewhere on here, feel free to throw it in the costume section for discussion.

And before you start, "Self-righteous, anonymous bloggers" comments will be deleted. Because that's the power you'll have just given me as a self-righteous, anonymous blogger.

If you want to reply to someone's theory, hit the "reply" button directly under their post. That way they're all easily comprehensible chains. It's obvious stuff, but sometimes you need to say it.

Don't name companies as problems, eg "Philo, as it ________", of "Free Rain, because ______________".

The Problems with the Canberra Theatre Scene* #3

Before I get this one started, I feel I should clear the air about a few things.
Firstly, someone on Facebook felt the need to say they thought I was only thinking about the Canberra AMATEUR Theatre Scene... This is an accurate assumption, for two reasons:
1. The amateur scene is the one in which all of the production companies I mentioned exist. Well done.
2. The "professional" scene in Canberra is so ridiculously minimal that it barely warrants consideration.
Perhaps I should adjust the titles of these posts to reflect this focus, but then I figure that I didn't have anyone complain to me that my article has nothing to do with a subsection of an act of a show currently performing on the Canberra Theatre stage, so not everybody thinks "Canberra Theatre Scene" is too vague.
Secondly, I don't claim to be objective. It's impossible for anybody to be objective. Especially in theatre (AMATEUR theatre for nit-pickers). My opinions are mine. If I say that I think a company is full of butt-pimpled hippopotami, I've said it. You're welcome to disagree with me, and tell me why I'm wrong. If you raise a good argument, or a perspective I hadn't considered, I will change my mind and probably remove the comment. If, however, you decide to go militant on my comment thread as if I've just insulted the very principles by which you govern your existence, I will merely poke the fire, and probably make my claim louder.
Seriously, that one person on my first post acted as if I'd eaten a steak cooked by my naked slave-girl in front of a vegan feminist. And yet I kept the comment gone (I'd removed it after Jim had civilly put forward an explanation of why I was wrong), and warned both the commentor and whoever it was who tore strips off them. I probably won't be as open to your rants in future.
Ranting at me will get you nowhere. I'm going to liken it to a literalist Evangelist barging into Questacon and shouting at everyone for worshiping false idols and believing in sorcery. You're entitled to your opinion, but if you're in someone else's space, you act civilly and respectfully. You do not start acting like a drunk and tasered chimpanzee, frantically tossing feces around.

Anyway, we'd just finished #4...

6. Expecting Professional Commitment
Amateurs love to look professional, and professionals hate to look amateur. Hence the drive from some production teams and companies to expect/demand the commitment that professionals would give. I get that. You want an awesome show. So do your cast/crew.
But almost everyone in your cast has a full-time job, unless you're casting teenagers, at which point they're at school. So you can't expect five-night weeks of rehearsal, plus weekends. Before I get forty tantrums, I know that not every company does this, and many companies are quite relaxed with their schedules. I'm just saying that those companies who DO demand this, need to step back and remember that pushing your cast that little too much works against you. Not only does it physically and mentally exhaust them, it takes them away from their loved ones that extra bit (creating frustrating amounts of tension... No dirty jokes, please) and they (and their families/partners/cats) resent you for it. They may not say it, they may not show it, but they do. They resent you and your stupid show that you're not even paying them for. They hold YOU personally responsible for taking their hobby and passion and turning it into something that adds stress to the rest of their lives.
Bonus points go to people who aggressively voice frustration that their casts can't give availability for a media call when they don't know what time it will be, let alone the date, and whether or not any media will actually show up. And then make them feel awful when they have to go back to work, and you've been faffing about for so long that you're out of time.
Basically, my thought is that you have to be happy with the time your cast/crew can give you. If you want full-time commitment, pay them a full-time salary.

7. Too Many Cooks Spoil The Broth
This one is, I know full well, a common rant about most companies. Again, there are some companies that this doesn't apply to, but there are many more to whom it does, so I'm writing it.
Imagine you're an actor. You're in the wings, preparing to go onstage for your first dress rehearsal on the stage. You walk onto the stage floor, to the props table to grab the important book/telescope/bottle/whatever that you have to carry onstage. Upon reaching the props table you notice that it is missing. Which is bizarre, as you put it on the props table, and checked it last time you came offstage... You begin looking around frantically, before a crew member asks what you're doing, before explaining that a different crew member placed it on the props table on the other side of the stage, despite the labeled and outlined space for it on this one.
Regardless, you sprint around and get your prop, and rush back to your entrance wing. Just as you're about to take that step, you feel a tugging on the back of your jumper. Thinking it's just someone trying to share something funny, you offer a quick, nonchalant nod and focus again on the stage. You lift your foot and your weight suddenly goes backwards as one of the costume-sewing assistants continues to pluck those little bits of lint off of your sweater. You shake her off, stumble onstage two seconds late, and hear a loud and frustrating groan from the auditorium. Don't worry, it wasn't the director. It was the company president, who's sat in on today's run to point out every flaw in the production directly into the director's ear.
This is all, of course, hypothetical, but the point is that at a certain point, there is no need for everyone in the company to interfere in a production. And I'm not just talking about the cast. The amount of actors I've seen telling the techies how to do their jobs, or the box office staff, or the other actors, or the costume ladies. Everybody steps on everybody else's toes.
I know that this doesn't happen in every show, for every production. And it certainly (usually) doesn't happen to the exaggerated degree I've just demonstrated. My point is that if you want people to do a good job, show them that you believe they will. Otherwise they'll just stop trying.

Again, not everything in this post applies to every company. Just most for most. I'm also avoiding naming any companies this time, lest people get precious again.  Feel free to name them in comments though. As long as we stay "civil", I'm happy to let you do whatever you'd like.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

The Problems With the Canberra Theatre Scene #2

Firstly, thank you to everyone for such a warm and constructive reaction. There are already many positive discussions going on, both in comments here and on Facebook, and I think that is the next step in solving the problem.

4. Repetition, Repetition, Let's Sing It Again
I love the classics. They're classics for a reason: everybody can relate to them and enjoy them. But I also like things I haven't seen before, which is apparently too big a gamble for many theatre companies in Canberra. We see the same shows re-produced in what appears to be a seven year cycle, and nobody seems to bat an eyelid.
I get it, why would you chance a new show that people might not like, or may not even come to because they've never heard of it. I understand that in order to survive in their already difficult financial position, theatre companies need to bank on "sure things". But why do they always have to be the same "sure things" over and over again.
I think that once something begins to get a "Oh, we're doing THAT again, are we?" reputation (like Philo doing Les Mis), it should be retired for a decade. This has nothing to do with the quality of the productions or the good intentions of the companies; it's about keeping theatre interesting. While Philo's last Les Mis gave us no data to support this, I worry that repetition of other shows may drive off audiences, because they, like the actors, may not want to experience the same show again.
This is where tremendous kudos go to Repertory, Everyman and Centrepiece, and even the Q, because they are willing to follow their artistic interests and trust enough that audiences will come along for the ride. And by closing, they're usually right.
I think there will always be a place for the classics, both done as classics and "re-imagined" (if done well), but I'm suggesting that maybe some companies need to broaden their horizons a little.

5. Ticket Prices
A night out for two at the theatre isn't cheap. By the time you've paid almost $80 for tickets, purchased some drinks at the bar, got the programme, had dinner etc, you're nearing the $100 mark.*
There are MANY reasons why this happens. Production costs, costume budgets, set budgets, theatre hire (and all the extra staff you have to pay for if that theatre is the Q), show rights etc cost money, and that has to come from somewhere. It is arguably a necessary evil.
But it places tremendous strain on the production. In the first place, hundreds of people look at the theatre price and decide that they don't want to pay that much money to see amateurs perform (unless they have friends in the cast). Lower ticket prices and student rush nights have proven to be effective in attracting and re-attracting crowds.
On top of that, as That Guy Who Watches Canberra Theatre has pointed out, there is the huge strain on the performers. Inexperienced and "untrained" (either formally or simply through experience) performers get stuck with a slightly-resentful audience before the house lights go down. They then get to fight the uphill battle to curtain call. I think companies need to look at the calibre of what they're producing and adjust the pricing accordingly. That or, heaven forbid what this may cause, look at the ticket price and use that as a marker for what the quality of the show should be.

*Pricing not 100% accurate. For purists out there, if tickets are $45 each (a standard), it's actually $90 for two (obviously), but I was being generous. Followed by a trip to the bar, you've reached $100. Programs and dinner cost extra, obviously. The pricing provided in the above section is meant purely as an example. That fact that it is lower than the actual cost of a night at the theatre speaks volumes. Regardless, anyone actually understanding the point of the article can figure that out... A hint is that it is in the heading...

As usual, comments welcome (as long as they're not a pedantic waste of everyone's time) and more posts to come