Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Give My Regards to Philly

I just read an article on The Playgoer's website about how Broadway is often touted as the measure of success for theater folk. His point is that too many people (especially those outside the business) only think a play is successful if it's on Broadway or going to Broadway.

I can't remember running across this attitude in my career, but then I've never lived in New York City. In fact, since moving to Philly, I've realized how lucky I am to be in a town so supportive of its artistic community. Not only do most Philadelphia actors live and work here (without a lot of traveling to other regional theaters--a hazard of the NY actor), many of the ones I have met make a living exclusively from theater. And several theater artists actually support families with their earnings. It's a far cry from what is described in the article and another reason to take pride in my adopted hometown.

One of the ways that the artistic community is supported is through the Theatre Alliance. This group brings together all the Philly area theaters under one website. Theaters posts job listings, class offerings, auditions, and production information. In addition, the site hosts a listserv for actors to discuss topics ranging from how to critique a show to what is racism in the theater. Many also use the listserv to announce openings, look for long-lost friends, or ask for much needed props. We even have our own version of the Tonys called the Barrymores.

When my family and I decided to move to a city with a more vibrant theater community (Albany has Capital Rep and the New York State Theater Institute, both great places but two theaters do not make a vibrant community), Philly's Theater Alliance made searching for a job a whole lot easier. Washington DC has a ton of theater but I had to visit each theater's website to look for job openings. With the Theatre Alliance it's just click away.

As for patrons, I've met several neighbors who take pride in their season subscriptions to different theaters. I've met some who are loyal to one theater only and others who bounce each season from theater to theater. And not one of them mentions Broadway.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Procrastination is Making Me Wait

I went down to the Arden the other day to say hi, get the groundplans for Candide and chit-chat. Starting a show, since I don't do them on a regular basis, is like getting into the water for me. It takes me about 20 minutes to get into the pool. I walk in slowly getting used to it. The rest of my family jumps right in and can't understand why I take so long. Well, it's the same thing for a show; I need time to ruminate about it before I do anything. Unfortunately, this show doesn't allow a lot of leeway in the "ruminate" department.

I popped into the production, office, saw the model of the set, and read the plans for the trap doors, the falling snow and the orchestra. And then I panicked.

"Why did I say yes to this show?" I asked Courtney Riggar, the Production Manager.

She just laughed but I was serious. I've never done a show this big. It's like Broadway without the pay.
  • 20 in the cast
  • An orchestra
  • Body Mics
  • Snow falling from the rafters
  • 4 follow spots
  • Mops popping up out of the floor
  • Things that go bump in the night

Well, perhaps not bump in the night but I can't be sure; I didn't actually get through all the special effects.

The Assistant Production Manager, Jessi West, said I'd kick this show in the ass. Well, we'll see after it's all said and done.

So now, I'm sitting here drinking wine and instead of updating contact sheets, and pouring over scene breakdowns, I'm just panicking. I'm on the third step of the pool and it's time to just jump in.

Sink or swim, there is no getting out of the pool now.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

You Mean I Have to Do It Again?

I read somewhere that it takes 28 days to form a new habit or break an old one. I asked my neighbors for their opinions about this statement last night. One neighbor said she never starts anything if she doesn't think she'll see it through. Another neighbor said she doesn't believe anyone starts anything they are not going to see through. If that's the case, why are gyms so busy in January but virtually empty by February?

So, obviously I've been trying to start a new habit. I first did the Five Tibetan Rite of Rejuvenation in a yoga class in Albany New York but I've never been able to do them consistently. In the rites, in case you don't go the link, you start with a few repetitions and then work up to 21 repetitions. The entire program takes less than 10 minutes and it's supposed to keep me young. A no-brainer, right?

But for some reason after a few weeks, I quit doing them. I'll get up to, say, 17 reps and then I'll think, oh I can skip them today. Then, it's two days, then three, then...you get the picture. But after a few months or a year, I'll go back and start doing them again. It's as if my willpower needed a break. I read an interesting article in the New York Times about willpower. Apparently, it's like a muscle and the more you exercise it the stronger it becomes. That makes sense because some people can start a new habit or practice and continue it with no problems.

Often, though, I will pick up a new routine that I had dropped and try again, like I'm doing with the Tibetans. I did morning pages consistently for almost half a year before dropping them. After a few months, I started again. Is that a willpower thing or did I just need a break?
The psychology of it all fascinates me. Why do some people, like my neighbor, never start a habit unless she knows she will keep it up? Why do some people, with the best of intentions, quit after a time? Why do some people seem to have no problems starting a habit and keeping it up? And why, do some people, like myself, start something new, drop it and pick it back up again?
I wonder if my way with habits has to do with my career choice. As a stage manager, I work on a production intensely for ten weeks and then I have time off. After a break, I do it all over again.

I'm up to 11 reps with the Tibetans. I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

But What I Really Want to do is Stage Manage

The question I receive most frequently about my job is, "What exactly does a stage manager do?" As I begin to describe my various duties, most people's eyes glaze over as they nod and smile and think about their grocery list.

The fact is that the role of the stage manager changes with each production. Some plays require us to be diplomats while others need us to be Ms. Fix-it. When working with my assistant, Alexis Simpson on The Piano Lesson, we decided our job most resembles a safety net. We keep everything organized and running properly so the actors have a safe space in which to explore their characters. We are the first to arrive at rehearsals and performances and the last to leave. It's odd to do the same thing every night--sweep the stage, check the lights, put out the props, handle fight call--but it's that routine that ensures smooth running performances.

As for what makes a good stage manager, I'm not sure I know. Richard Ciccarone explains is well in an article on the Bay Area Magazine. And if you asked 100 stage managers what makes a good stage manager, you'd get 100 different answers. I think it's because we each bring something unique to the job.

Stage management is not a field most people aspire to when they are young. In fact, most high school students probably do not have a clear picture of what a stage manager is. Although, I think that's changing since a lot of colleges now have Stage Management majors. I'm not sure exactly what they learn in their classes but it's becoming more and more popular. I learned how to do it by doing it--in college, interning at Baltimore's Center Stage, working in community theater, and then finally in a Equity theater. For those who might not know, Stage Managers belong to Actor's Equity--the professional theater union that controls the working conditions of actors.

I fell in love with stage managing in college. During the summer of my freshman year, I interned at the Champlain Shakespeare Festival in Burlington, VT. Sadly, the Festival is no more. It gave me my first glimpse into professional theater. I had started college, at the University of Vermont, aspiring to be an actor. That summer, I assisted the stage manager on Romeo and Juliet and never wanted to do anything else. Ironically, after that summer, I was cast as Sandy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a rather large part. While I was passable in the role (at least I hope I was) I spent the entire production wishing I was the stage manager.

It's difficult to stage manage and have a family. It's six nights and week and all weekend long for two months at a time. But with a patient husband, good babysitters, and cocktails, it somehow all works out.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Let's Get This Party Started

As a French major in a previous life (and by that I mean before husband and kids), I studied pre-revolutionary France. With the court ensconced at Versailles, the Parisian aristocrats had run of the city. Those in the know met at Salons where they discussed everything from politics to art to the latest gossip. I am fascinated by the idea of a group of people getting together to discuss the arts. I find that happens a lot when I stage manage a production. Artists gather on their breaks to discuss the state of theater, the latest plays, new projects and how to make a living--especially when one has kids. A question, I most often receive when I work on a show is, "You have two kids? How do you do it all?" I honestly can't say I know except that I have an understanding husband who makes an awesome cosmopolitan.

Interestingly enough, my next theater project will be at the Arden Theatre Philadelphia this Fall where I will stage manage a production of Candide. Voltaire wrote Candide in 1759 to satirize the popular optimism movement of the time. Voltaire, the pen name of Francois Arouet, was very popular in the salons of his day because of his wit and imagination.

This past Spring, I did my first show at the Arden, The Piano Lesson by August Wilson. It was such a great experience that I am looking forward to this next project. As an added bonus, the rehearsals start in August and this is the first summer in two years that my children are not in camp. The days can get long.

My family and I are new to the Philly area. We moved here two years ago because I thought I wanted a full-time, day job in Theater. Not so much. I did write an essay published in the Philadelphia Inquirer about our move. It was published in June of 2007, I'm having trouble finding the link to it. A quick update on our situation in case I do get the link to it. We no longer live on the Main Line, we've bought a house in Abington Township. My full-time job at the time of the article was with People's Light and Theatre Company, another excellent theater located in Malvern, PA. But I missed stage managing and Malvern is too long of a haul from Abington. Luckily, as I decided to leave People's Light, the Arden was hiring stage managers so it worked out perfectly.

And here's another coincidence, the Arden periodically hosts salons that gather artists together to discuss, you guessed it, theater.

See it all comes full circle.