Written originally for the Arts People blog. See original post at https://www.arts-people.com/neil-simons-lasting-influence/
I remember working on my first Neil Simon scene in drama class in high school.
I found the script and showed it to my scene partner and we were both excited to do it. I believe the scene was from Plaza Suite, with the mother and father of the bride trying desperately to get their daughter to unlock the door, come out of the bathroom, go downstairs and get married.
As with most Simon plays, the dialogue is rhythmic and fast with jokes landing and then returning later in the scene in Simon’s skillful way. I read an interview with Simon once in which he discussed his writing always using a yellow legal pad and pen. He said that the longer paper allowed him to scan over it to see the beats, the rhythm, in an almost musical way. This rhythm and patter to his dialogue was a signature. He was a master of dialogue.
I would assume that so many of us who came into the theatre as an actor or director were strongly influenced by Simon. I’ve worked on other scenes of his from high school to graduate school. I’ve delighted in productions of his work from boisterous comedies to his semi auto-biographical dramas, the Eugene Trilogy.
There’s a term that some writers use when referring to writing that is so good actors can’t really screw it up… “actor proof.” I’d say that his work may have helped to define that term. While nothing is ever completely actor proof, his writing was so solid, so pulsing with humor and humanity, that just reading it on the page can be affecting to those listening. So when performed by truly talented actors, his dialogue and stories can soar off the stage. They are buoyant, musical, with strong threads of truth running through the hysterical scenes. The characters are unique, individual, and so so fun to perform.
Some theatre people now are tempted to brush aside Neil Simon’s work as cliche, or outdated, or too familiar, similar to plays by Agatha Christie and others. Because many of his works are older and have been performed so many times they consider them less worthy of consideration and think they’ll be less challenging to work on and therefore less enjoyable. I would say that the works of Neil Simon hold a key to a certain style of comedy that can be very valuable for actors and directors to work on and develop the certain skills they require. The experiences I’ve had discovering his wonderful characters and working on the style and speed of delivery of his dialogue was remarkably valuable. I still use those skills regularly when working on comedies today.
Thank you Mr. Simon for your immense contribution to the cannon of contemporary American theatre, and to the skills of the actor and director. Your work, and its influence, will continue for generations to come.
Neil Simon – July 4, 1927 – Aug 26, 2018
Pulitzer Prize for drama 1991
Written originally for the Arts People blog. See original post at https://www.arts-people.com/equity-diversity-inclusion/
I recently attended the annual board meeting of Bag&Baggage Productions in Hillsboro, OR. I’m an Associate Artist with this organization and have been involved with them as an actor, director, former board member and more since 2008.
Last year they opened their new theatre called The Vault and launched into their first season. A few of the season’s shows very pointedly attempted to highlight problems in our culture with long embedded racism and silencing of people of color, women and other marginalized groups. It was tremendous to see these stories being told.
But the theatre realized that they needed to do much more. They need to actively work to bring about change within the organization, as an example to the community in which we share our work, and hopefully let that spread out by inspiring others.
At the recent meeting it was discussed as a key part of their new 5 year strategic plan, and a new committee of the board was created specifically for EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion).
Already the theatre has gone about launching programs dedicated to telling more stories of women and people of color. They have hired a number of new staff to oversee various programs from these groups and more programs are planned. Prior messages and policies already welcome and express support for people of different sexual orientations and gender identity. The organization, from the Artistic Director on down, is completely on board with these clearly defined plans and efforts and while this type of work will be very much ongoing, developmental and a great effort, it’s also such a great feeling to see these efforts taking shape so quickly, with such talented and passionate individuals joining the team to lead the way.
EDI is something that we as a culture must all work to embrace in order to uplift our community members that in the past have been silenced, ignored, belittled or worse. We as performing artists have a unique opportunity to bring their stories to light, to help educate our communities on the value and joy in the diverse members of our society and learn to welcome them to the team as equals.
Will we as the privileged make mistakes along the way? Of course. But if we make the effort with an open heart and with full intent on learning and improving our interactions with others, that effort will be appreciated and can create a doorway toward a richer community.
What can you and the organizations you work with do to become more equitable, diverse and inclusive? It starts with that question.
Written originally for the Arts People blog. See original post at https://www.arts-people.com/expectation-for-community-theatres/)
Back in the day, as we say, theatre was produced in New York, tested in out of town tryouts, then taken to a theatre along the great white way for hopefully a long popular run. Later, if lucky, there might be a tour of a show to limited big cities. This limited reach of live theatre left much of the country without the ability to see live theatre, unless they were part of the few lucky ones that could travel.
This is where the Regional Theatre system began. Larger theatre companies were created in major cities to produce their own work for their region. This exposed much more of the nation to live theatre, but certainly not all, and there was really very little opportunity for would be performers to get involved, test their craft, work.
Then, along with more open options for royalty permissions to produce plays came Community Theatre. Smaller cities and towns everywhere started creating their own small theatre guilds and groups that encouraged community members to come out and be in a show, or help backstage, or help paint, run the box office, sell the tickets and more. They were truly a community event with community members and family members coming out to support their friends and loved ones in the show. Obviously these were not the most polished productions much of the time. Sets, costumes, props were created out of what they had or could acquire and designed and finished by amateurs. Direction and performance was a place of learning and of finding a creative outlet for the people involved. They typically had no training, little if any experience, but maybe some innate talent and guts to rely on. It was community on and off stage with all the encouragement and wide eyes that came with it.
Well here we are now, many many years later, with community theatre mixed with small and large professional theatres, with the lines often very blurry. Does pay mean you're pro? Does it also require a certain level of expertise or training? Theatres are abundant in cities and sometimes even in small towns... sometimes with more theatres than talent to support them.
Expectations have changed as well. Audiences go to theatre expecting a high quality show, even if it's a community theatre where every member is a volunteer. The audience often has no connection to the cast or crew involved. It's no longer the community gathering on stage and off that it once was, cheering on your friends up there on stage doing their best acting, singing, dancing. It now is often much more. We expect a higher standard, a professional production, a level of talent on par with other theatres where performers are paid, more experienced, with years of training.
To attempt to deliver this high quality of production, the people involved rehearse evenings after work, weekends away from their family, countless hours, sometimes for a couple months or even more. Since the hours of rehearsal are shorter per day, rehearsals are spread out longer as they compete with work schedules and lives. In the professional theatre, where a performer is being paid full time, they rehearse for 8 hours a day as their job. They don't have to work first, THEN go to rehearsal and work more. So rehearsal periods in number of weeks can be shorter often than community theatre. Maybe they rehearse 4 weeks, then perform 4 weeks, then move on to the next show. Community theatre also relies on volunteers putting in long hours on the production side building sets, hanging lights and so forth. These volunteers are often hard to find these days, unlike professional theatre with paid staff members in these roles.
So how do these compare? With the commitment to countless hours on top of our every day lives, exhaustion that often leads to illness, and passion fueled work that often leads to absolute joy.
Community theatre involvement is huge. Arguably I'd say it's far more of a strain than that of professional theatre involvement, though of course the pros likely paid their dues over the years, got the training, worked extremely hard.
It boils down to an appreciation of the work of these people, driven by their love of this collaborative art form, of performing or designing or supporting in numerous ways. I hope that audiences can imagine the work that they have undertaken for weeks and weeks to bring that show to life. In our current model of all kinds of theatres blurring the lines of professional to community, coupled with the work of just getting audiences to come to the shows, supporting the theatre with ticket purchases and donations, attention should be paid to this extreme dedication and passion.
From the community theatres are born the future Hollywood stars and Broadway performers. Let's show them our deep appreciation and support on their journey.
(Written originally for the Arts People blog. See original post at https://www.arts-people.com/magic-if-for-the-audience/)
As an actor, there are many tools from many different schools of acting for us to utilize, play with, keep in our toolbox or leave alone if that tool doesn’t resonate with us. These tools help us to discover deeper aspects of the character, to tap into emotions needed to play the scenes, relate in appropriate ways with the other characters, to play the period of the piece, to find the physical characteristics of our character and much more.
One of the grandfathers of acting who’s tools and methods still are referred to and used widely today is Stanislavski. His “Magic If” was a simple, elegant way to discover or create nuances for the character based on possible past experiences and more. We analyze a script first to find all the detail about our character that we can, but the script only gives us so much. We need to fill in more detail based on clues, or simply out of our own imagination.
Example: I’m playing a working class man in the 1930’s who is deciding to leave his family.
What if… Our character was abused as a child. How might that past affect his present relations and his decision?
What if… His father died before he was born, so he never knew him. How might that lack of a father example cause him to struggle in the role of father himself?
By imagining these possible back stories and history, it can color the performance I give providing depth, layers, nuances to the struggle he feels. Things the audience is not directly aware of, but will greatly enrich the performance.
As an audience member, the work being done by the actors and the production team is intended to draw you into this story so you might feel the struggles, empathize with the characters, consider the dilemmas they face and wonder how you might handle the same situation. This is the work of the audience when watching a performance.
In order to really feel the impact of a story, we need to be able to imagine ourselves in their situation. No we don’t live in the 1930’s. Maybe you’re a woman instead of our a working class man like our character, so your situation and choices in his dilemma would be different. But you can consider the “Magic If” of it. What if you were faced with the same challenges he is? Or what would you feel if you were his wife witnessing his emotional breakdown and wondering what to do. By considering how you might feel or what choices you might make given yourself in a similar situation, we more deeply enjoy the experience of the performance. This hopefully will lead to further consideration and discussions afterward. It helps us all to be able to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes to relate to them better.
As a society, I think we currently struggle with a crippling lack of this ability. Many people don’t know how, or don’t try to imagine what life is like for others. It’s easier to dismiss them, to blame them, to label them as “bad”. We also have powerful people trying to convince us that certain groups of people are the enemy in order to forward political or other agendas. If we could better imagine and empathize with the struggles of others it can help us all to be kinder, to be more generous, to try to help uplift others who need help.
Imagine if this was something we actively taught in our schools. I remember as a child going to live theatre performances as a “field trip”. We were taught how to behave in a theatre, how to show our appreciation, etc. Sometimes we did followup assignments analyzing the play we’d seen or sharing our experience watching it. If this work regularly included discussion about the “Magic If” of empathy; of imagining ourselves in their lives, just think how powerful this could be in developing our children’s ability to see past differences of color, gender, orientation, religion, nationality and more.
The arts can teach us so much and expose us to lives and situations we might never be part of otherwise. Perhaps we could be using them as a platform for teaching empathy as well as a great form of entertainment.
(Written originally for the Arts People blog. See original post at https://www.arts-people.com/aact-town-hall/)
Last Saturday I attended the AACT (American Association of Community Theatres) Town Hall held here in Portland. Arts People has been a sponsor of a number of AACT events over the years and we consider ourselves a partner to them as well as a deep connection to community theatres all over the country and in Canada. The Arts People system has always been a great fit for these organizations who have big goals and complex needs, but often small staffs with little time to accomplish tasks.
It was great to hear these groups sharing so openly their stories of successes and challenges so that other organizations might benefit from their experiences. The performing arts are a small voice in our culture, it seems, struggling to be heard, to find support, to advocate for the importance of what they do, and to even survive. I’ve unfortunately seen this struggle too often divide organizations and individuals from each other in what can often be seen as a competitive atmosphere, instead of supporting and uplifting each other. This discussion was clearly the opposite. With AACT bringing together these organizations toward sharing (and it was a great turnout), they can glean valuable insight into how different organizations are benefitting from presenting different types of programs such as staged readings, educational offerings, new types of social marketing and more.
The meeting was held just down the street from our Arts People offices at Twilight Theatre, one of our clients. I was able to introduce myself and see a number of our clients in attendance, which is always a pleasure. Arts People was founded on a goal of working with and assisting performing arts organizations to succeed and thrive. We’ve worked very hard over the years to maintain close relationships with our clients on a first name basis, so whenever we get the chance to get face to face we take it. To see the generous sharing going on at this meeting was a complete pleasure.
I started my own career in theatre in high school, and then went immediately to community theatre. I learned SO much from performing, directing, and design, to what it means to serve on a board of directors, what level of professionalism in the work I came to expect in myself and others, and how I wanted to work in the creation of theatre, including my own personal style and voice. It is a place for joy, creativity, learning, sharing, collaboration, teamwork, accomplishment and self worth. I’ve carried all that experience and knowledge forward into my work in professional theatres and sometimes returned to guest direct in community theatres I have a connection with.
Thank you AACT for all you do to bring these theatres together in meetings like this, to the theatres who generously share their knowledge and experiences to help others, and to the individuals who keep these organizations alive in your communities.
(Written originally for the Arts People blog. See original post at https://www.arts-people.com/ephemeral-performing-arts/)
In my work in theatre, I've often considered and discussed with colleagues the fundamental nature of live performing arts... the fact that it is so temporary. It is live, in the moment, often different from performance to performance; either by design, spontaneity, inspiration or accident.
So unlike film or audio recordings produced as a product that will last potentially forever, is the fixed lasting quality of those a benefit over live performances that exist only in the moment? Or is that live aspect, the fragility of the performance have its own intrinsic value that is preferred over the recording?
When discussing their work creating a film, directors and actors speak about their preference to rehearse or not. The fact that you can leap into shooting a moment of the story without knowing exactly what the actors will do in front of the lens means that you can sometimes capture pure magic that may never happen again. That true spontaneity might be more true, or genuine, than a scene on a stage that was rehearsed for weeks and now is trying to appear to be happening only in the moment, relying on the talents of the actors to re-enact it night after night for new audiences trying to make it fresh every time. This skill is not something that film actors need rely on in most cases. Out of as many takes of shooting a scene, the magic only needs to happen once, recorded by the camera, then onto the next moment of the story. Now you have that one ephemeral
moment, a moment of pure magic between actors, captured forever, to be enjoyed by countless people the world over. But, while it was live at the moment it was captured, it now is fixed. Every person sees that exact same performance. There is no energy passed from the audience to the actors and back as they watch it.
With theatre and other live performances, the magic is immediate. I
t's happening right now, in front of you, and can take your breath away, when it works. But it likely won't be as powerful every night. It may not hold up over weeks and months of performances. The actors must work very hard to make it seems brand new each time, and an off night means that an audience, likely seeing it for the first and only time, may not see your best performance.
So which is better? Or is it merely a difference? Do you have a preference?
I've personally worked for many years creating theatre, and I've also done some work in films. I enjoy both. The energy of embodying a character, creating emotions in front of an appreciative audience and telling a wonderful story is powerful, electric, exhilarating and unlike any other experience. However, I am often sad for that to end. A show runs for a limited time. Some people see it, others don't and never will, and when that show ends all that hard creative work you did is gone to soon be forgotten. With film friends and family anywhere can see it, now or in the future.
Here and gone. For the appreciative audience members out there. Keep this in mind the next time you see a live performance. Weeks, even months of preparation went into creating the work you'll see. Sets were built, costumes sewn and fitted, countless hours of rehearsals have happened and more, all leading to this moment when you'll see the show. It's monumental. It's sometimes magical. It's the work of many passionate individuals expressing themselves, telling a story, for you to enjoy. When the show ends and the cast steps out for a bow... they are thanking you for coming and enjoying their hard work, as much as you are thanking them for presenting it to you.
Patrick Spike is the Theatre Community Liason, system expert, and one of the original architects of the Arts People software system, with over 30 years in performing arts creation and administration. www.arts-people.com
Spike, as his friends call him, has 30 years in the performing arts world as an actor, director, administrator, marketer, fundraiser. He has consulted with numerous theatres and other performing arts organizations and loves to help such groups and individual artists to achieve their success!