February 17, 2013

"Encanta" and indie theatre in the 21st century

Free copies of a full-length play for virtual strangers is not how things are usually done. For the most part, people usually have to pay to see a performance or buy a published script. But with Encanta, I've been much more free-handed about things that I ordinarily would be.

However, it does make you wonder: why would a playwright without a job at a pie factory hand out a script for free that is probably worth charging money for?

The first reason is pragmatic: plays are ultimately meant to be performed, not just read. Production, not publication, is where it's at for a play. The text of a play is, in my view, closer to sheet music than to a novel. Reading Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, while very likely meaningful and enjoyable, is nothing compared to hearing even a recording of it.

Secondly, a lot of theatre hasn't quite caught up to how to reach out via social media beyond promoting the next show. I'm not going to change that by myself, but I do want to do my part to engage 21st century audiences beyond asking people to follow me on Twitter or "like" my Facebook page.

For me, the internet has been crucial for building an audience. It makes no sense for me to treat their participation as auxiliary to bringing my work to life. It also makes no sense for me to make my work less available to them just because they cannot be physically present at a performance.

Then there's the fact that I have never given my script to someone and had them less interested in a live performance. The vast majority of the time, when I gave out my script, the person reading it said, "I have to see this live."

So, to me, this means that I need a different process for engaging audiences with my work.

I came up with 3 layers of engagement that I believe would be a good way to guide how I get my work to its audience from now on.

The first layer is the "Hey, I'm writing this play. Interested?" layer. I call it "Creation" in the picture because that's what was legible in the circle.

This part of the process is not just about writing the piece. It's about sharing my vision for what the play will mean to the audience. For me, one of the first things I ask is, "Who will see themselves here?" and "What are they going to see about themselves?" It's the appetizer and a taste of what's to come.

A story about a sorceress and a pirate falling in love is nothing spectacular in and of itself. But when I say that every single character is LGBTQ and Latin@/Afro-Latin@, that means something to people. People, especially people excluded and marginalized in arts and entertainment, care about that because they want to see themselves in ways they normally don't get to see themselves. So, they're immediately hooked and want to know more about where I'm going with it. This usually means a complete draft. Or several, in the case of Encanta.

From here on out, things are a bit more experimental.

The second layer is the, "Let's see what we can do online" phase. I call it "Virtual Event" in the picture because, again, it's legible and fits in the circle. This is the main course.

The first thing that came to mind for this was a livestreamed performance where the audience hangs out in a chatroom or on a Twitter hashtag. No camera tricks. No movie magic. Just what actors can do just from the strength of their performance. This includes readings, staged readings, and workshop productions. Not to mention interviews with the writer, cast, and crew, and so on. I believe this could be the main form most performances would take because they would by far be the most accessible.

I have no idea how the logistics of this where tickets and what not are concerned, but it's one of the ideas I had.

Finally, there's what I call "Live Event" (once again, because it fits and its legible), which in my mind I think of as the "Icing on the Cake" layer.

Here is where the fully realized productions would happen. It's what we have for dessert. Just as every meal doesn't have dessert, every piece won't become a fully realized production. And that's fine. The point is to get the piece performed and in front of an audience.

The great thing about these layers is that they are very porous. None of them has to work in isolation from the others. For instance, it's entirely possible to combine a live event with a virtual event.

February 14, 2013

Special Valentine's Day thanks from Crossroads Theatre Project (aka me)

Anybody who knows me knows how much I HATE being on camera, so the fact that I made this shows that it really means something.

February 6, 2013

Back to my roleplaying roots

Inspired by Flux Theatre Ensemble's BARP (Big Artistic Risk Project) and Howard Shalwitz' TCG post about theatrical innovation, I've finally decided to put pen to paper about the sort of production process I want.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that I want a production process that goes back to my roots in roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons, World of Darkness, and so on. I come from a background where the only thing I needed to build a world, develop a story, and/or make a character were a few sheets of paper, a book, some dice and my own imagination.  I could enhance the experience with costumes and props, but I never needed them to feel fully invested in the setting, the story, or my character.

I love how, in roleplaying games, the act of exploration itself (through playing the game) organically gives rise to coherent characterization, narrative, and aesthetic. None of these things are truly determined beforehand. Sure, the Game Master (GM) may give you an idea of some of these things, and you can read about a lot of it online or in a rulebook. But it isn't until we start playing that those things really start to take form and come together.

I love the sheer freedom of roleplaying games. I love the fact that I don't have to wait to be given permission to bring something that enhances the game (music, pictures of people and places, props, even food!).  Even more than that, I love it when doing so inspires the other players to do likewise. In my favorite games, there was a jazzy vibe where each player brings something different yet essential, and we're constantly riffing off each other, just taking what each person offers and going with it.

The time commitment for a roleplaying game is also fairly manageable. It's not unusual for a group of roleplayers to meet every week and play for 3-4 hours. This could go on for months or years. I'm not talking about people who have no lives outside of roleplaying. I'm talking about people who often have families and full-time jobs that require their care and attention. For them, it's relatively to commit long-term to playing every Tuesday evening for the next five months. Much easier than, say, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evening for the next five weeks.

I want to get back to that. Or, to be more precise, I want to bring more of that into making theatre.

This cannot work with the way theatrical productions in NYC usually happen. The key elements that need to change are the division of labor and the time commitment.

I'll address the time commitment first because that's easier.

I'd rather do one two- to three-hour session every week for six months to a year than cram everything into 3-4 months of frantic activity. To me, it's like the difference between microwaving a can of soup and making soup from scratch and putting it in a crock pot. With more time to simply breathe, would more nuances in texture and flavor emerge?

I also want a process that lets go of expected results. Nobody begins a game knowing exactly what's going to happen by the end. So, I don't want to determine from the outset if this process would lead to a staged reading, a workshop, or a full production. It'll definitely lead to something, but I want to tailor the results to the process rather than vice versa. Let's say that the group commits to six months of weekly meetings. If, at the end of that, a fully realized performance is the next step, that's what happens. If a staged reading is where it's at, that's what happens. If it's something in between, that's what goes next.

Another aspect of roleplaying games that I want to see more of in theatre is blurring the line between audience and participant. In roleplaying games, the audience and the players are one and the same. While theatre often plays with the fourth wall (mostly by dragging them into the play somehow), I'd love to simply have a play where the characters are doing what they do while the audience itself forms part of the scenery somehow (as trees, a faceless mob, a flock of birds, people on the street, watchful spirits from beyond, or some such), and the actors treat it as such.

Now, I want to be clear that this wouldn't mean six months of navel-gazing and twiddling thumbs then getting to the "real" work of putting on the play (learning lines, blocking, etc.). It would still involve much of the same stuff as rehearsals and production meetings. The only differences are that: 1) everyone is involved from the outset, and 2) it becomes part of the rehearsal process rather than separate from it.

The way it usually happens in theatre is that the performance and the production are treated separately. So, you have the cast doing actor stuff while the crew does designer stuff and production stuff. And then there's the director who's trying to hold it all together with the help of the stage manager and maybe an assistant director. Not to mention the producer who's trying to keep it all under budget.

For the scope I prefer to work with, this seems inefficient and arbitrarily limiting to me. To me, it matters less who does what than that it gets done. That is, if it needs to get done at all. (Personally, I believe there's something to be said about exploring what can be done with nothing but performers in a space before putting a lot of time and effort and money into hiring a designer.) Even when choosing a designer, it always struck me as strange that their work gets done in isolation rather than in collaboration with the people who are most directly impacted by those design decisions.

I suppose that the general principle would be to add more to the production as the need arises. I'd start with the essentials: actors, text, an empty space. Everything else would be added once we see a need for it and not a moment before. For instance, a designer would only come into the picture if no one has ideas, if no one can agree on anything, or if something needs to be made that no one can make themselves.

This reflects the setup of the roleplaying games I've been a part of that all start with players, rules, and a place to play.

The trade-off for all this freedom and input is more responsibility for the production as a whole. Everybody does script analysis. Everybody does marketing and publicity. Everybody contributes ideas for the set, props, costumes, etc. Granted, there may be people who have the final say on these things, but the process of actualizing a performance is shared by all.