Thursday, December 30, 2010

v2, d242: Top 7 Theatre Moments of 2010

A friend today posted the following on Facebook: "Theater friends - what's your favorite role or accomplishment of the past year? Or favorite moment."

She then took the High Road and said that her favorite part was going through it all with her friends. I realized I couldn't answer after that, because anything I wrote would feel shallow and self-centered after such a fantastic response ;-)

It did get me to thinking, however, about my favorite moments from the 2010 year. (Started with Secret Garden rehearsals, wrapped up with Littlest Angel and early Hobbit rehearsals) And I came to a relatively disappointing conclusion:

2010 was a fairly unfulfilling year for me from an artistic standpoint.

Don't get me wrong, there were definitely high points (as are described below) and lots of good memories, but most of my assignments this year left me drained, frustrated, bored, or something similarly discouraging. The bad, I'd say, outweighed the good, theatrically speaking. In addition, two of my biggest Must-See shows came to town this year--In the Heights and Barrie's original script of Peter Pan--and had to ask friends who went how they were, because I missed both. The combination of family time and going nearly completely broke for half the year saw to that. And to cap it off, the only thing I wrote in the entire calendar year was a Christmas play that I threw together in eight hours and wasn't very good.

Not to bring the room down or anything, but on the whole, this wasn't exactly the creme de la creme of my artistic career.

I still loved it, though. Can't imagine anything I'd rather have done with the past year. I'm sure I have a "Theatre Burnout" level somewhere, but I haven't come close to it yet. This post, then, is to commemorate the high points within the general artistic doldrums that was 2010.

Here's to the good times!

TOP 7 THEATRE MOMENTS OF 2010 (in no particular order)

#1: The last Teammates booking (May)
I believe we were in Liberty.  This is generally one of my favorite bookings every year.  They've got a super-nice auditorium with actual theatrical lighting and a staff that's willing to help out when we arrive.  At least, that's usually the way it goes. Somehow, the wires got crossed this year, and nobody in the theatre department knew we were coming.  So the usually-spacious backstage area looked like a tornado had just gone through it, there was nobody to let us in, and the contact seemed pretty cross with us (for some reason) that she didn't know what we needed for setup.  (Also, there was some incident that happened at McDonalds on the way there that had one of our team members extremely cross, and I'm fairly surprised one of us didn't get kicked in the face at any point in the long van trip as a result of not letting a particular inside joke go)  So, in all honesty, this was not one of our "better" bookings overall.

The moment, however, comes within the show itself.  Now, this is a show I wrote, so I know I'll always have a fondness for it on some level, but I also got to originate the role of the hapless fourth-grade doughboy Bruce Dumpling.  It was a really fun role to play, and it was extremely satisfying (as the playwright) to see the way the show connected with our audiences in all the ways I'd hoped it would when I penned it.  The real kicker, however, came in the show's final moments, as (spoiler alert) Bruce makes the shot the wins the climactic basketball showdown against the two bullies.  Every performance we did of this show, the crowd went absolutely nuts when that happened.  It.  Was.  Awesome!  I've toured a lot of shows into a lot of elementary schools, and this was the only show that consistently received that strong of a spontaneous reaction from every audience.  It was always cool, too.  I mean, the first time we weren't expecting it, because it had  never happened before.  The next couple times, we thought maybe the first kids were an anomaly.  By the end of the year, though, you knew it was coming, and it sort of drove your energy toward the big moment.  Every other moment in educational children's theater where I've received that sort of reaction, it's always been directly solicited in the script.  "Okay, kids, say it with me!  Word power!"  "Do any of you know the secret word to break the Balloon Man's balloons?  What?  It's 'No'?  Quick, say it with me!"  "When I say 'You,' you say 'Tell!'  You!"  "Hello, everybody!  Oh, come on, you can do better than that!  I said hello!"  We never asked for a response in Teammates, though.  They just went on the ride with us and got psyched all on their own.  It served as a reminder of the power that live theatre can still have in today's kids.

Plus, it made me feel a little bit like a basketball star ;-)

#2: Sing Ho! (Winnie-the-Pooh, October)
I've posted on here how much I loved doing the show Winnie-The-Pooh.  So I don't need to go into all gushy philosophical warm fuzzies here.  It just felt good.  Doing the show always made me feel a little better about life.  I don't usually play larger roles; this was an exception.  And it was a character I actually came to love.  This is also unusual: I've usually got a pretty strong detachment from most characters I play after enough analysis and rehearsal time.

The particular moment I shall always remember about this show was the very last note of the very last song.  The four actors in the cast ended evenly dispersed around our in-the-round performance space.  Each of the members of this cast were people I love dearly, and I think we (far more often than not) enjoyed the cast dynamic.  We had just finished singing, "Sing Ho for the life that we live! Sing Ho! for the life that we live!  I don't much care if it rains or shines, 'cuz I've got a lot of honey in my house in the pines. Sing Ho! for my life!"  Such a simple, joyful celebration of the little things that made these character happy.  Friends, music, and life.  What more do you need?  One day, as we were singing our final Ho!, I looked around the stage as both Pooh and Will.  I saw three friends, having fun together, doing something we loved, being adults playing as children's playthings, singing together.  Huge smiles on our faces as well as the kids and adults surrounding our celebration.  And I was so utterly, completely happy.

And yes, I have been accused of being a sentimentalist.  Why do you ask?

#3: First week of Little Foxes rehearsals (March?)
I know, I know.  Little Foxes became an utter nightmare and was a key contributor in one of the darkest periods of my year.  But!  I loved the first couple weeks of rehearsals!  Almost everyone was really excited to be involved and the script is so well-crafted that it was an honest pleasure to watch such a talented cast sit down and work.  I learned a lot about directing from the process, some "What To Do" and some "What Not To Do," but there were points in that first week where there was some serious synergy happening.  Between actors.  Between actor and director.  People were even working out scenes and moments while on break and were doing extracurricular reading and discussing it before and after rehearsals.  Those early rehearsals never felt to me like they were three hours long; the time flew by.  And I wasn't really doing anything at all!  Just watching.  Watching committed actors throw themselves into a fantastic script.  I don't care how hokey it sounds, it was downright inspiring.

And, of course, pretty soon after that, the whole thing went to hell.  But we still put up a dang strong show and, as I've said, even the bad experiences are valuable learning experiences.

#4:Texas Christian Writers' Conference (August, I think)
I won a playwriting contest.  I didn't really expect to win it, because the script I sent in wasn't overtly "Christian," and these sort of competitions are usually looking for very direct Biblical application plays.  Which I don't usually do.  However, I had a sweet little fairy tale that encourages its audiences to keep faith in tough times.  Even though it uses Evil Things like magic and fairies and such.

Amazingly, it did win.  More amazingly, it won despite being judged on only the first 25 pages.  Which don't really connect to the story's faith element much at all.  Still, the judge enjoyed the story and the writing so much she went ahead and gave it the first prize.  It was a modest prize and a smaller contest, but it was exactly the boost I needed at that point in August.  Or July.  Whenever that thing was.

#5: That One Alice Rehearsal (April?  Also March?)
I'ma be honest with you people.  (I usually am, actually)  I was not certain I was going to be able to pull off Alice.  I know Hero Squad had gone over fairly well, but that show was easy for me.  The playwright and I were pretty well in sync the whole time.  Alice was a whole other animal. And while I was pretty sure I could make it work, it was probably the first project I've headed into here (as a director, at least) that I didn't go into certain I was going to pull out a good product.

I had a lot of fun with Alice.  On the whole, this process was probably the high point of my artistic year.  I loved my cast and crew, I'm proud of the work we put into it, and given that we were handed a really cumbersome adaptation of a book that's fairly inane and non-linear in the first place, I'm happy with what we ended up with.  My favorite "moment" in the process probably came during the rehearsal where we were "table working" the mad tea party scene.  My approach to this show was that every scene was a game with its own set of rules and its own objective.  Each character operated with its own unique sense of logic, and it was up to Alice to try to understand them on their terms.  In other words, she either caught on and started playing that character's game or she'd just get frustrated and leave.  It happens in almost every scene.  In the tea party, however, she's confronted with three different characters who seem to be living in different worlds while enjoying the same tea set.

We talked about this scene.  We asked a lot of questions.  We kept getting conflicting opinions.  We went around and around and around in circles trying to pinpoint what was the actual happening of this freaking tea party.  After about half an hour of discussion that was getting us nowhere but frustrated, I called for a short break and made a quick stop in the men's room.  As I was washing my hands I was trying to analyze why the scene wasn't working.  Why the conversation was going nowhere. And then it hit me: This is exactly what's happening in the scene!  All four characters have a different idea of what's important, conversations are constantly interrupted and reconvened with no notice, and Alice is trying to make sense of them all at once!

I strode back into the rehearsal space and grabbed a few basketballs, a bag, some cones, and a few pillows from our touring props.  "I want each of you three to take some props and engage in some activity," I said.  "Alice, when you're talking to someone, I want you to try to join in with what they're doing.  When you start talking to someone else, you have to drop what you're doing and join them in their activity.  You guys have about twenty seconds to figure out what you want to do."  Half a minute later, the Dormouse was asleep on the pillows, the March Hare sat cross-legged bouncing a basketball, and the Mad Hatter was dribbling another ball between his feet, soccer-style, through the cones.  Poor Alice was jumping up from lying down on a spare pillow to playing soccer with the Hatter to sitting with the Hare and back the entire scene.  It was chaotic.  Each of the Wonderland characters existed completely independent of the others.  It created clearer conflicts.  And it left Alice decently out of breath.

It was perfect.

And we didn't have any major trouble with the scene again after that.  It was a great day, because it felt like we'd hit our first major roadblock and obliterated it as a team.

Good lord, I really do sound like a motivational cassette tape from the 1990's, don't I?

#6: Hero Squad gets published (December)
I posted in depth about this recently, too.  Wow.  I put five years of work into that script.  I felt I'd been helped by SO MANY PEOPLE along the way.  You really have no idea what all goes into every single script you hold in your hands until you've been through the process yourself.  Looking back, getting this play published was so hard.  But one of the most fun and ultimately rewarding artistic challenges I've ever faced.

#7: Look ma, I'm the Cheshire Cat! (April, I think, but maybe May)
I'm really dropping the ball on remembering when things happened, aren't I?

I love the team/ensemble atmosphere of the rehearsal process.  My college professor used to always say she was sad and even a bit jealous when a show opened, because she wanted to be in the actors' place, up there on the stage instead of just watching.  I share her jealousy, but not her reasoning.  I don't really want to be in the performers' place once a show opens.  I want them to be performing.  That's why I cast them in the first place.  However, I've usually had such a blast working with them, trying crazy things, finding things that worked, overcoming blocks and obstacles, that I'm really very disappointed to see them go on to the run of the show and know I'm not an active part of the team any more.  I feel a little left out.  Not in a "Poor me!" sort of way, but you know.  I enjoyed my part in the process.  I enjoyed working with those actors.  And now that thing we worked so hard to put together is going on, and I'm not going on with it.

Obviously, this wasn't the case with Hero Squad, because we needed an extra body to be a ninja and a Bottlenose Boy (plus some Man-Strength to heft the cage that lowered from the ceiling) so I was actually a part of that show from first readthrough till closing.  Alice was the first time I'd really be shut out of a show once it opened.

....or so we thought!

I was not glad that one of my actors was in such serious pain that he could not go on.  I never, ever, ever with that on anybody.  Given my preference, I'd still wish he'd have been able to play the full run and not miss the one performance that one morning.  However, since he did have to miss a show, I can't tell you how much fun it was to go on in his place.  To be a part of Team Alice again.  To be invited back into the sandbox one last time.  To share a curtain call with the cast I'd put together and led through this creative process.  One last unexpected trip down the Rabbit Hole.

I honestly don't remember much about the show other than the fact that I totally blew the cat dance.  I just remember getting a little bit psyched from the point when the stage manager called the night before and said "We may have a problem," lying in bed and running over the entire show in my mind that night to make sure I could do it, and trying to contain my giddiness during vocal warmups with the cast the next day.  (It's not manly to be "giddy."  "Psyched," yes, but not "giddy.")  Oh, and I remember that the show was a total blast.  A whirlwind fourteen hours that served as one of the highlights of my year.

And I was very glad that my actor felt well enough to play the show that evening.  Because he is incredibly talented, he's far better than me, and he's the one who did all the work to earn the stage time.

But there's still a small part of me that wishes I'd had a second crack at that darn Cheshire Cat dance.