This So Called Disaster, part 2

Posted in Running the theatre, The Seagull on January 17th, 2011 by kellinewby

When last we left off, Frank had just convinced me that we should do The Seagull.  He wanted to set it in the present in the Northern Berkshires and maybe even play around with the gender of some of the characters.  We spent a week or so on the phone brainstorming and getting more and more excited.  Meanwhile, play suggestions kept coming in.  I realized, at that point, Frank had not convinced everyone else.

So why not The Seagull?

One e-mail from a concerned artistic committee member mused:

My only trepidation is that I don’t think it will attract much of an audience.  Especially the local uninitiated who might be intimidated by this type of play.  And to be honest, the Seagull is, well, very depressing and a bit full of itself.

But it’s such a funny play, Frank and I kept saying.  Well, not the end, but it’s funny and we’re going to make sure it’s funny and not dreadful, staring, boring Chekhov.  It will be the Chekhov that Chekhov wanted we he sent the actors little notes telling them not to do what their director, Stanislavsky, was telling them to do.

Truth was, I was a bit afraid of all the things the committee member had pointed out.  I think Frank was too.  We’ve all seen or done really, really boring Chekhov.  I was on the running crew for a production of Three Sisters and had to listen to those women whine about wanting to go to Moscow, but not try to go to Moscow, for three weeks.  I also saw a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Seagull in London that lost half of its meager audience at intermission.  The RSC, for God’s sake!

The board, who had been excited about the prospects of raising awareness about Alzhiemer’s with Memory of Water looked at The Seagull and asked how we could reach out to the community with a play about self-absorbed artists.

So, why The Seagull?

Here’s my take on the situation.  I’m hoping I can get Frank to write a post as well.

Most importantly, we have a director who loves the show.  He thinks about it in every spare moment, talks about it with everyone he meets; it creates a certain energy amongst everyone working on the show.  It doesn’t feel like work to be part of that kind of show.  In the past, we have tried finding directors for scripts that we liked, and while the shows themselves turned out well in the end from an audience’s perspective, things went less smoothly leading up to the show but it’s a really big commitment to put up a production when you’re not getting paid and neither are any of the other people helping you out.  It’s just different when there’s a fire in your belly.

And even though the show is about self-absorbed artists at a surface level, emotionally it’s about something we all feel, especially lately.  There are four main characters.  The first pair is an established writer and successful actress who take their success for granted.  The second pair is two young people who aspire to have the same kind of success.  They think about it, and strive for it, and talk about, and the fact that they have relationships with these successful artists creates a false sense of possibility.  Their jealousy and the disappointment resonate for anyone stuck in a part time job with no hope of being hired full time, or for young people entering a workforce that is not as secure, stable or hospitable as it was for the generations before us.   It’s about people who want success and acknowledgment very, very badly because they think it’s the answer to all their problems and frustrations.

So Frank and I went before the artistic committee and argued that this was a great script, that actors would come out of the woodwork, that we would make sure it was funny and alive. We have months to rehearse, so all the actors will be reading many translations and we’ll be doing structured improvs.  By the end of the conversation, they were excited, too.

The board’s Treasurer came along to the meeting to remind us about budgets, etc. (we get so very excited talking about projects that we can forget about budgets, etc.) and because he said we had “landlord issues” we needed to discuss.   I thought “landlord issues” meant we needed to repair something immediately, or the rent was going up, some small disaster that is always expected and unexpected all at once.  I wasn’t prepared for what came next.

The Seagull, he informed us, will be the last show we do at 57 Main St.

This So Called Disaster, part 1

Posted in Running the theatre, The Seagull on January 12th, 2011 by kellinewby

There’s a documentary of a Sam Shepard production titled This So Called Disaster...that I often show my students to give them a sense of both one of our great living playwrights and how theatre works.  The “disasters” in the case of the production are minor and are mostly related to Sean Penn and Nick Nolte not getting along, and Woody Harrelson not really knowing how to be a theatre actor.

Poor Sam Shepard, I sometimes think, all these famous actors falling over themselves to be in the play he’s both writing and directing that seems to have no budgetary limits.  But then one looks at the plot of the show–Shepard trying yet another way  to deal with the damage caused to his family by an abusive, drunken patriarch.  He promises in an interview that this will be his last play about a drunken, abusive patriarch.  As the interviews continue, we learn that the actors are dealing with various personal tragedies–debilitating sickness, dying family members, dearly loved children that are more than a couple hours away by plane ride.

In the end, despite all the odds that are (or are not) stacked against them, the play comes off to tremendous success.  Perhaps the title means that all human stories and collaborations are a series of small disasters that, when taken as a whole, when shaped by a common goal, can be turned into something great, hence “so called.”

There’s another show I love because of the way it deals with theatre and humanity: Slings and Arrows.  The lead character, Geoffrey Tennant, is a disaster most of the time, but each time it seems that the show cannot go on (and he is incapable of separating the show from his own life, something that his sometimes-girlfriend can’t stand) he declares that the best things happen just as the string is about to snap.  It’s television, so most of the time the magical theatre music kicks in and everything rights itself and becomes transcendent.

So why do I write about this here on this blog?  Well, we’ve been presented with a series of challenges recently that we are turning to our advantage and I keep coming back to these two films.

Four years ago, as I was first getting involved in the company, we got together and read a script that we all loved.  We have spent the past four years trying to find a director for it, to no avail.  Then, after On the Verge, Frank,  a former company member resurfaced and, inspired by OtV, declared that he would like to direct.  We handed him the script we’d been carrying around and…he loved it.  Loved it.  He gathered together a crack team of designers who met in November (the play is scheduled for May) and they all loved it and had design concepts.  We planned a second meeting.  We scheduled auditions.  It was just the sort of energy we needed after the disappointing turn out for On the Verge had disheartened us.  The board loved it; the show is about the effects of Alzheimers, so we were going to try to find a way to raise money and awareness for local organizations.  I proudly announced the show at the first weekend of the Red(and Green)room and bragged about how prepared, how ahead of schedule we were.

Then, one week after I announced the show, Shakespeare and Co. announced their season.  Yep.  They were doing the same show.  Which explained why we had never heard back about the rights.

We went through all the stages of reaction–disbelief (of all the shows in all the world, this one?  This fairly obscure one?), frustration (but we’ve done all this work, waited all this time…why don’t they stick to Shakespeare), denial (what if we just do it anyway….) and finally, acceptance.

So Frank, the artistic committee, and everyone Frank knows sent lists of plays.  In one of his early e-mails he wrote “Why not Miss Julie or The Seagull…something classic?”  It was one of many, many ideas.  I helped him sort through the suggestions.  It was a week of long phone calls, constant e-mails and a lot of wikipedia dramaturgy and then, just when it seemed there was no answer, that we’d never find a play that spoke to him, that worked for our space and our company and was about something that mattered, he called me.

“I have this crazy idea,” Frank said.  “Why not The Seagull?”

We hashed it out–Chekhov is scary/boring/you are not allowed to do it wrong/there are so many places to go wrong/it needs men/so many people have had bad experiences with it….and on and on, but throughout he threw out ideas, and so did I.  We both agreed to re-read the play and see what we thought.

Years ago, we decided to choose between Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest.  We all wanted to do the Tempest with masks and movement training and (etc., etc.,), but when we had a community workshop to test the waters, the scenes from R&J just worked.  Magical theatre music worked.  We all left that afternoon, sat down with a Complete Works and a glass of wine and realized it was crazy, but why not Romeo and Juliet–if we did it right.  And we did do it right, and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever been in.

So why not The Seagull?