Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Truth and Artifice, Language and Earthquakes

Contributed by David Sedgwick

Theatre is a strange undertaking. As performers we “strut and fret” upon the stage while the audience willingly forgets (or tries to) that they are watching a performance. But the ultimate goal for both groups is to feel that what is transpiring is “real.”

It reminds me of an assessment tool that a friend was taught at her acting school. When giving feedback to classmates, they were to describe their own emotional/mental state as being “at zero” if they completely believed what they were seeing on the stage. If, however, they still liked what they were seeing onstage, but were aware of the acting (e.g., if they noticed and appreciated a specific choice), they described their reaction as being “at positive.”

I believe that this technique was mostly used to give feedback on scenes and short pieces. When watching an entire play, it’s very rare as an audience member to feel completely transported for the entire duration. Even a truly bravura performance, say Mark Rylance’s in “Jerusalem,” contains moments when, however excellent the acting, you can’t help but notice the technique at work (you’re “at positive”); then there are also many moments when you absolutely forget that Johnny “Rooster” Byron is fictional and he isn’t really standing in front of you (you’re “at zero”).

It’s a handy way to talk about performances, but reminds us of how very fragile the illusion is that we’re creating on stage. And its destruction often occurs because of the actors’ behavior. For example, when I see an actor giving an otherwise totally true performance suddenly “reset” and retrace his verbal steps after fluffing a line, I am instantly reminded that what I'm watching is pure artifice. My friend would describe my reaction as “being at negative”…!

These two competing drives of artifice and truth are frequently on my mind as I rehearse Three Sisters for The Seeing Place Theater. The company’s goal is not to “present” the play, but to live through the moments of the story in such a way that the audience feels they are witnessing real human interactions. One way we attempt to do this is by focusing not only on the character’s lines and their objectives, but also on their physical behavior at its most basic level. For example, we improvise and experiment with what the character might be doing in the circumstances of the scene, were nothing else happening. This helps us to stay in the world of the play and to share the story non-verbally as well as verbally.

This part of our process reminds me of those times in my life when I’ve had the opportunity to see theatre in languages I didn’t know. Years ago, my theatre school classmates and I were invited to travel from Sydney, Australia to participate in an international theatre training symposium hosted by a Turkish university acting program; the other guests were performers from theatre schools in Sweden and Poland.

The Swedes presented The Tempest - in Swedish, the Poles, a Greek tragedy - in Polish, and the Turks, a Greek comedy - in Turkish. All the actors and staff from the four very diverse countries spoke some English, but as the representatives of the only “English native” country, we Australians presented … a piece that was primarily movement- and song-driven, had gibberish in place of English speech, and incorporated folk-songs from around the world in languages such as Swahili and Japanese. Yet our piece was perhaps the most easily understood of the four, even though we hadn’t taken advantage of the one common spoken language amongst us. Conversely, I found watching the performances of my Greek, Polish, and Swedish colleagues absolutely riveting – I wanted to see how much I could glean just from their behavior, since I had no idea what they were saying most of the time.

Sometimes, an absolutely unique shared experience between performers and audience is created that exposes the fragility of our theatrical illusions in an extreme way. In 2005 in Tokyo, I performed in a production of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” playing the insufferable Bernard Nightingale. I had just about finished tearing strips out of Valentine for daring to suggest that scientific knowledge is more important than artistic creation, and for questioning my paeanistic speech about Lord Byron…

As I'm about to finish Valentine off, the whole building starts to shake slightly – this is Japan, after all. We actors attempt to proceed with the scene, but the quake intensifies and doesn't die away. Several members in the front rows of the audience make a beeline for the door, worried about a large chandelier swinging threateningly overhead. The actress playing Hannah backs right out onto the thrust, worried that a light might drop on her (she is 6 or 7 months pregnant at the time). From the wings, I can see the stage manager ready to leap to my aid should something fall on me - I'm standing dead center-stage – but he doesn't come onstage because he's still fervently hoping that somehow the show will go on.

The quake, seemingly so terrible and frightening, but in reality only a minor rumble by Japanese standards, passes and subsides, and the front row audience members sheepishly return to their seats. But the show has stopped, the fragile illusion that something real was happening on stage has been absolutely shattered by Mother Nature. There is a palpable sense of expectation both on stage and in the auditorium – how to get back on track? Since it is theoretically still my line, I pause theatrically, look to the heavens, and cry apologetically in Bernard's posh RP accent: “Sorry, Byron!” It made absolutely no sense - but everyone in the room - audience, actors, and crew - laughed in relief, and somehow the scene proceeded. About two lines later, the shock finally hit me and I totally went up.

I hope that no primal forces of nature will interrupt our performances of “Three Sisters,” but we nevertheless hope to move our audiences in other ways. We have the 19th century Russian, Anton Chekhov, one of the keenest observers of humanity's strengths and failures, as interpreted by the 20th century Irishman Brian Friel, sometimes described as the greatest living English-language playwright, being expressed by a company of mostly American actors, trying to live through the story in such a way that it might be recognizable to anyone from any era or any nation.

All performers hope to share stories that are universally human, and yet specific and unique to every performance and audience. It's a tall order, and that's why it is so exciting to try.


David Sedgwick is an actor, ESL teacher, and occasional director. He is the Associate Artistic Director of The Seeing Place Theater, and is currently appearing in their production of Brian Friel's version of Three Sisters, playing Colonel Vershinin. Before moving to the United States, he performed extensively in his native Australia and in Japan; in the USA he has worked with several regional and off-Broadway companies, and has become a "regular" on the Off-Off-Broadway scene.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

It’s what I do

Contributed by Melody Brooks

I began my life as a Theatre Practitioner at the age of 8, when I joined a professional children’s theatre company in my hometown of Auburn, NY. At that tender age I was hooked. 40+ years later, Theatre is deeply embedded in my bones. “Why Theatre?” There was no other option. It is my life’s work—my avocation. Long story short? It’s what I do.

I know first-hand that Theatre has enormous power for social and personal change. For 25 years I have worked in dozens of neighborhoods throughout NYC, in schools and community venues, as well as in my own theatre space, with artists from all walks of life. Theatre makes a difference under any circumstance. It can have a small impact on a few people in a particular time and place; or it can create a universal outcry for human rights and social justice.

This has always been the role of theatre. In the most repressive regimes, theatre artists have been on the front lines of resistance. From Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to the life work of Vaclev Havel, there are role models aplenty that attest to the WHY of theatre.

My company is named “New Perspectives” for a reason. Our mission is to develop and amplify unheard voices, re-visit the classics for contemporary audiences, and use theatre to strengthen communities in need. For 20 years the mission hasn’t changed, when often it would have been easier and much more lucrative to ignore it. When times are tough and it feels like NPTC will never break through budget and industry barriers, it seems that we must be doing something wrong—that we’ve made fundamental mistakes. And yet, the impact on our constituents is measurable and consistent. So, what’s up with that? I recently learned the answer.

In a panel convened for NPTC’s Women’s Work project, Harriet Fraad did a masterful job of explaining how the struggles of independent theatre artists are bound up in the financialization of all aspects of society. She introduced the concept of “emotional labor” (i.e., the care of children and elderly parents, mentoring, community service, the ARTS) and the fact that it is not VALUED in the marketplace.

As NPTC participated in ART/N.Y.’s Theatres Leading Change Initiative as well as other convenings on the state of independent theatre over the last few years, it became clear that the existing non-profit institutional model no longer works for small theatres (if it ever really did). Too many theatre artists have been toiling under false assumptions for a generation. We’ve been forced onto a ladder that we did not construct, and have been vainly scrambling to climb it for a long while.

But there is a silver lining. Once artists reject the status quo, we are free to refocus time and attention on the WORK; to make a virtue out of the lack of material resources and to stop apologizing for it. Small NYC theatres are certainly not alone in being overlooked and under-valued. There are thousands of artists working around the globe without frills—the bells and whistles deemed so necessary in commercial theatre. They are LABORING every day—sometimes at great personal risk, almost always anonymously and at significant personal sacrifice—to do what The Market will never be able to—bring a little enlightenment to their communities; challenge the status quo and advocate for justice; empower each individual to find their voice; salve emotional wounds through testament and transformation; shine a light on the forces that undermine collective progress; and continue to chronicle the human journey and guide its path.

No one will make a billion dollars doing this work. No one will pay very much to make sure that it gets done (unless of course there is a celebrity attached.) But this is the very definition of emotional labor, and why the bulk of theatre creation has always been at the “fringe”. It’s okay that it is. Until we get a world that values what truly matters, Theatre is more necessary than ever.

Note to all those on the fringe: let’s collaborate!


Melody Brooks is the founder and artistic director of the New Perspectives Theatre Company, an award-winning company created in 1991 as a multi-racial ensemble dedicated to using theatre as an agent for positive social change. She is a member of the League of Professional Theatre Women and a co-founder of 50/50 in 2020: Parity for Women Theatre Artists, as well as an educator and non-profit management consultant. She is currently an advisor to the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre new play development Lab.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Doing theater for the “right reasons”

Contributed by Mark Finley

When I was in college I got to work with Rosemary Harris. She’s one of the world’s best actresses. Period. She’s also the most gracious and classy person I’ve ever met. I wanted to be her when I grew up. When I moved to New York City, I started to idolize Charles Busch. Without question, he’s one of the funniest (and most glamorous) men on the planet. More importantly, he’s built his own unique place in the theatrical landscape. When I actually started to grow up – that is, realize that my way as an artist wasn’t going to be a traditional one--his work became especially inspirational to me.

Rosemary Harris is a huge star. I’d read about Charles Busch in the New York Times long before I ever saw him on stage. But my theatrical hero is someone I’d never even heard of before I met him; Doric Wilson.

I was introduced to Doric by a friend who knows I love theater stories. Anyone who knew Doric knew that he had millions of ‘em. He didn’t tell quite that many on the night the three of us first got together but we were up till 4 am at the Film Center Café yacking away. I knew what the Café Cino was, but Doric was one of its first playwrights. I knew about Circle Rep but Doric was one of the founders. Stonewall? Doric was there all three nights. (It was three nights?) Somewhere along the line, I’d told him that I was an actor and a writer but had just discovered directing and felt like that’s where everything came together for me. The next day he called me and said he wanted to me to be his director of choice. “The way Marshall was Lanford’s director”. I told him I was very flattered but didn’t he want to see some of my work first? Didn’t need to, he said. His instincts about people were always right and I was doing theater for the “right reasons”.

I didn’t know really that Doric was “somebody” when we started working together. I started working with Doric because he treated me like I was “somebody” –and slowly I started to believe him.

Doric passed away last May and the loss feels real to me now. I can’t adequately describe the many things I learned from him. As one of the pioneers of Off-Off-Broadway, we all owe him a debt.

Webster’s defines “hero” as “a man of exceptional quality who wins admiration by noble deeds esp. acts of courage”. Did I want to be him when I grew up? No. Was he my idol? Not exactly. But was he—and is he—my theatrical hero?



Mark Finley has directed Off and Off-Off-Broadway. He’s also a writer, an actor and the Artistic Director of TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence)—the LGBT theatre company he co-founded with Barry Childs and Doric Wilson.