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picture-12Improvisational theatre in performance is a challenging art form. Not a bad statement, and it’s something I fully back. I come from the thinking that theatre is accessible to everyone. Not always easy when audiences want amazing productions for low ticket costs. In fact, I think improv can do better. It can offer an amazing experience for a low cost.

Improvisers believe the Harold is a sacred art. Oh, we love it. Long form is an athletic and mental feat unlike any play. It takes guts, stamina, and ingenuity to make a golden egg from nothing.

Improv is both a reliable and terrible way to make some moolah. I’ve seen both sides of the commercial spectrum. On one side, I’ve been an audience member. I’ve paid $20 to see an hour and a half show which was full of quality improv. I’ve also paid $2 to see students, and that was fun too. On the other side I’ve done shows where we performed for free (and got a tip of $20.) Plus I’ve done high-paying private shows. We’re talking $1000 for an hour and a half..

Now the most impressive number is the production cost: $0. Now, yes, that number can go up. One could pay for props, marketing, and space rental. However, it’s feasible to produce a high quality show for $0. Be crafty, make deals – er, be like any artist without a budget (see below for tips.)

So why aren’t there more improv troupes? And I’m not talking scarcity. There are a fair share of improv groups across the country. I’m saying, why not more? It seems like a great starting point for artists. You learn the business side of the arts with a lower risk (though, god, there is always a high risk with the arts.) Plus, as Conan revealed in his “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” improv teaches writers and performers to throw it all out there.

And no one’s good at the start. It’s too freaking scary to be good at the start. But everyone gets better, more comfortable. Instead of making bad jokes, all improvisers learn to be more natural. They learn to rely on each other.

I see so many new theatre companies from college students and post-grad (after all I started one.) From that, I learned that a theatre company needs so much energy, time, and funding. It’s one of the most difficult endeavors to start a theatre company, but they’re popping up everywhere. But a lot of theatre companies fail thanks to artistic and funding pressure.

In improv if you put on a bad show it’s hell. You’re scared to death already, and the pressure of ticket buyers sits right on top of that fear. That’s hell, man. I’m talking stress. Though, I’ll take it over a theatre company.

Actors and the improv troupe’s business can recover from those early, amateur performances. And the low financial risk allows you to develop your talents professionally, in front of an audience. These troupes need to develop with audiences because acting in your garage won’t develop you.

And again, with some time and commitment you’ll start to see audience members fill up those seats.

I don’t mean to just make a case for actors to start an enterprise. I also hope the entire performing arts community will welcome these efforts.

Improv isn’t that respected, but I think that needs to change. Any theatre professor will tell you about Commedia dell’Arte, the old grandpappy of improv, still cherished in Italy’s theatre community. It has a proud tradition, and I think it should have a promising future. But the arts community has to see why it’s worth those $20 tickets, those $1000+ bookings.

Sure it’s sometimes dirty jokes and silliness, but improv should be seriously considered as medium for new projects. It’s already a developmental process behind the scenes of several popular TV and movie comedies. New playwrights are leaving room for actors to wiggle around the text. On top of that, dramatic improvisation has unexplored territories.

Prominence leads to pioneers. Advance the art by creating a business. It won’t pay all your bills, but it won’t leave you in ruins. Start a troupe.

Start a troupe.

Learn, build, apply.

Here are some resources and ideas:

  1. The improv encyclopedia at humanpingpongball.com. You can jump into some online articles, peruse some games, and learn about nationwide improv troupes
  2. Books: Truth in Comedy, Improvisation in the Theatre by the mother of improv Viola Spolin, and Impro (my favorite.)
  3. See a show. I’m betting there are at least 2 improv troupes near you.
  4. Talk to artists about improv. Ask if they’re interested in projects that might implement improv into the process. It could be an ensemble-driven play, or it could be a film project that uses treatments rather than traditional scripts.
  5. Talk to artistic directors at small theatres; see if there’s interest in teaming up for a project – “Improv Tuesdays” $10 tickets, split the tickets amongst your group and the theatre company. (Yes, when you need experience, it’s okay to take $3 and give them $7. Sound like bad business? It’s not. You’re gaining money – though smaller than you’d like – to gain important experience.)
  6. When you’re ready to jump into your own place, start at a community center. Bargain. Negotiate. Try to rent a space for 1 hr at 100 – 200 dollars. $10 tickets mean you only 20 people. 4 people in troupe, everybody market to 5 people. If you can’t find a place that cheap, keep searching. It’s not easy, but you’ll find a place. A coffee shop, a place about to be torn down, a community college or high school.
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picture-11Today, I was walking around the main track at River Legacy. About halfway I realized the absurdity of the trail. It’s a park where hikers are free to explore the entire wooded area and open fields, but I was walking down a manmade cement trail on the rightside of a divider of yellow paint. I had chosen to ignore my freedoms and take the normal boring path.

Frustrated with my lack of individualism, I decided to trek across an open field. Most people bike, jog, and skate the cement trails, and only a rare bunch of people cross the open field. At first, I felt like an individual; I was going against the grain. Then it hit me…

Without purpose, there is no reason to explore.

I might have felt like an individual but I certainly had no reason to cross the giant field. I just got scared of being like everyone else.

I know others, including some friends of mine and myself, want to be pioneers in our fields. We want to explore new terroritories of our crafts and professions. We’re proud of being iconoclasts; we’re proud of our free-thinking. And it scares us to be total conformists.

But trailblazing is about purpose. In playwriting, we have rules. These rules are tested, and we can rely on them to craft a strong narrative with interesting character development. In playwriting, we have rule breakers. Famously, Samuel Beckett plopped the craft on its belly in the 60s. The avant-garde sector of theatre is constantly rethinking the rules.

In fact, my generation is trying to find its voice. At my level, all writers are exploring new territories by breaking the rules. We’re worried that our plays will turn out to be this generation’s Waiting for Godot, Arthur Miller play, or anything that resembles Albee. Most writers my age can’t write a play without being compared to Sam Shepard… And seriously…my generation is tired of hearing that the 60s were so great for theatre..

While we look for our voice, we can learn a lesson from the past (ugh, okay, even the 60s movement.)

That is purpose. Why did each of them break the rules of writing in each of their cases?

I don’t have a full answer, just a beginning of the search…

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2896039-lgAs the drama unfolds on the Hill (will republicans back the stimulus package without enough tax breaks), I think it’s important to talk about the arts. After all, the arts often suffer first in any economic turmoil. Broadway has seen the biggest wave of closures; funding is out of the question for many new artists. Times are bad for us in the creative field.

Habit is a curious thing. When an option is removed from the table, we usually look at our other options. I can’t drive that way because of construction? I’ll go another way. But when habit is threatened, we freeze up. We don’t ask what else?, we ask how do I fix it.

Producers might be trying to figure out how to fix Broadway so it returns to being a cash machine. They probably remember the days when shows could sell tickets with $200+ prices. Well, now that option’s off the table. The new option is that producers can focus on new kinds of projects; they can explore beyond the movie musical, or even the dreaded jukebox musical. And Broadway will see something new.

We can either build our arts to return to our old ways, or we can take this opportunity to choose a different option. We are the creative sector of this country, and yet we’re just as guilty of mediocrity. It takes opportunities like this to show off our ingenuity. After all, the writer’s strike, while ultimately disastrous for dramatic writing community, still saw new projects that would not exist in normal conditions.

We don’t have to stray far from what we know–after all, some rules exist to create the best products. But we can try to use this economic climate to forge ahead. Artists, take on new projects. You may not get paid as much, or you might not get paid at all. The point is that your creative energy doesn’t rely on the health of stock portfolios or a hemorrhaging economy. Your creative energy allows you freedom in the economic storm. You can still create whereas others are screwed for the time being. And once the storm passes, you still have a product to show your talent.

So, get out there! Do something–especially if you’re layed off from your “A” job. Create, create, create.

P.S. Things might pick up soon. If the stimulus package is passed, there will be 50 million dollars for the arts!

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