Friday, April 26, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories - Cat's Cradle, Brains & Puppets, & Hiroshima

Barry Weil in Brains and Puppets

Hi, Barry Weil of Evolve Company here. My creative partner Tanya Khordoc and I are puppeteers, and our company has been given some amazing opportunities (as well as some really weird challenges) through the work we’ve done with UTC61. When Edward asked me to write a reminiscence of the 2008 Walkerspace plays (Cat’s Cradle, Brains & Puppets and Hiroshima: Crucible of Light), I have to admit that it took me a while to actually come up with anything. Not because it was an uneventful experience – far from it. It’s just that Tanya and I were so involved in all three plays that our memories are a very tired blur.

At one point, while Cat’s Cradle was running, I remember ending an evening performance and heading uptown to Edward’s place to help Tanya cut out Brains & Puppets shadow figures for hours, catnapping on Edward’s couch briefly and then getting up to perform a matinee of Cat’s Cradle. Tanya’s schedule was similar, though she probably wins the crazy award for setting her model of the Trinity nuclear site watchtower on fire in her living room (not out of frustration, I should add, but for filming purposes).
One of many models from Cat's Cradle

Confused? It went down like this: Tanya and I designed and built two huge bakers’ racks full of puppet/models for Cat’s Cradle, which I puppeteered while also having an acting role in the production. Tanya created stop-motion models for Hiroshima, and we each directed, designed and performed one of Edward’s two single-person plays that made up Brains & Puppets. On top of that, I designed the brochure and graphic art for the entire endeavor. Now, when you’re in college, staying up all night is fun, and you can do that amount of work without breaking a sweat. When you’re forty and attempting it…well, you just want to lie down for a few minutes. Or a week.

So why would anyone in their right mind do things like this? Well, the plays were amazing, and we’d have to have been insane not to be a part of them. How often do you get to create a model airplane that mounts to a video camera and crashes into a sand castle, or a pair of elegant Leonardo da Vinci wings? A tiny period UNIVAC computer decorated for a Christmas party, or Matisse and Kandinsky paintings that come to life? A multicolored dragon with an East European growl, or a miniature Caribbean dictatorship with its own flag, buildings, hotels, shantytown and taxicabs?
Tanya Khordoc in Brains and Puppets

We’ve always loved the way UTC61 incorporates puppetry into its work, and appreciates its value as a unique form of theatre. And Edward has always shared our joy in getting to create and use cool things. That’s definitely worth a few days’ sleep. Over the years, Evolve has provided UTC #61 with living houses, electronic sheep and intricate temple arks that contain shadow puppet shows. And we always look forward to hearing a crazy idea and realizing there’s no way we can say no.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories - Lysistrata

Part of the cast of Lysistrata
Lysistrata was a huge and complicated endeavor. It was marked by difficulties with the co-producer and the publicist, difficulties that I won’t be exploring too deeply here but definitely colored my experience. It also had a directorial concept (my own) that proved difficult to fully realize, logistically. But more on that later.

On the positive side, the show included a number of talented actors and a very talented group of assistant directors, including my current Associate Artistic Director, Henry Akona. It also inspired a translation/adaptation I am quite proud of, now printed by Theater 61 Press. The translation has inspired a surprising number of productions, particularly university productions, including shows in Cambridge, Edinburgh, and Aachen, Germany.

I had had a brainstorm about performing Lysistrata with a cast of 100. It seemed doable. The amount of resumes I receive for each show is overwhelming, and it seemed to me that a huge company could be assembled. The chorus would become a huge environmental element that would immerse the audience in the Bacchanalia that was the play.

Part of the cast of Lysistrata
It was a good concept in many ways. I thought it would attract some press, and it did attract some press. And I do think I was right, it was doable. The fact that it didn’t happen as envisioned…well, there’s more to this particular story.

The space we used was actually the basement of a bar in DUMBO, Brooklyn, right next to St. Ann’s Warehouse. At the time it was a large, empty space, except for some distinctive architectural details, like its Ionic columns and two-story wrought iron stairway. It seemed ideal for an environmental production.

For the principal performers, we had a good and reliable bunch. Our trouble was the chorus. We were a non-Equity show, because we had signed on to an open ended run. But attracting enough actors for a non-Equity Brooklyn show to fill out a chorus of 100 turned out to be a logistical problem. Yes, they came. But yes, they went. The turnaround in chorus members was tremendous, and we were in constant state of casting and recasting.

Those we did keep were a mixed bunch. Some were terrific, stalwart cast members with talent. Some had never done a show before, and I remember receiving a call from one after a show saying “I got lost walking from the subway, and by the time I figured out I had walked the wrong way, I felt so upset that I decided to go home.”

Part of the cast of Lysistrata, with Corey Einbinder, chorus leader
By the time we were in opening week, we may (or may not) have had actors who had, at least briefly, called themselves members of the cast, but we certainly did not have 100 cast members onstage, more in the realm of 50. In truth, we needed only about 60 to make the cast seem full, but we were a bit short of that. The program listed all who had ever been part of our cast, and a few who hadn’t, with transparently absurd names like Caveman Coletti. And then the flu hit… On the night reviewers came, I think there were 35 people onstage, and our claims of a large cast had become increasingly questionable.

Still, those who were there did a game job, and a few nights later with the full cast onstage I felt proud a quite a few moments onstage. And I do think that those involved enjoyed their experience. We got some good reviews, mixed in with a scathing one written on the day of 35 actors. Many of the actors have continued to work on UTC61 productions. And the script, as I mentioned, has lived on in numerous productions.

Sometime I would love to do the play again and try to realize my original vision. I remain convinced it can be done...though I don't know when I would have the energy to try to achieve this particular vision, once more.

Monday, April 8, 2013

On Backstage's plan to end reviews, and why it matters

Backstage has announced to its reviewers that after April, there will be no more reviews printed. The reason given, by Executive Editor Daniel Halloway, is the following:
An analysis of metric data by our executive team led to the conclusion that too few readers are engaging our reviews for Backstage to continue to invest resources in producing them. We will be shifting those resources primarily to the creation of additional advice, news, and features content.”
This is why it matters:

Let us put aside the hollow thinking that is behind this “metric data.” Clearly, Backstage is struggling. It did not anticipate the internet age, and as a casting tool, it has been overtaken by Actor’s Access. Few people rely on Backstage for theater news.

It had, in fact, one remaining unique aspect. Its reviews. As a print publication, the breadth of its reviews was unmatched. The only two publications the came close in terms of breadth were The New York Times and Time Out, and even they were not able to cover the number of independent theater productions that Backstage covered. True, there are blogs that cover theater as well. One,, does an incredible job in its breadth, which no other website or publication matches. But blogs and unpaid reviewers are still not given the same respect that a publication which pays its reviewers, like Backstage, receives.

Who was its audience? Theater people, almost exclusively. Other actors, writers, and directors. Perhaps a grantor or an agent who received a clipping. Other reviewers.  It could be quoted and the quote would be recognized and respected, not as much as the Times but more than a random blog, just because of the brand recognition.

But those reviews meant something. They could be sent to potential audience members, posted on Facebook, on Twitter, linked to on a website or in an email. They could help you a grant, or maybe help to get an agent. They could encourage other reviewers could come. And frankly, they meant something to those in the show. Somebody saw the show, thought about the show, wrote some words, and cared.

Theater may be thrown out like a curse word by in congress, it may be disrespected and underpaid, but at least we cared about ourselves. We were paying attention, we knew we were valuable and this publication, a publication made to be read by those in the industry, cared about the industry

Unlike other theater towns, we have only a few theater publications. The reason the Times is considered so powerful is there is so little competition. When I put up a show, when I am lucky at least, I expect to be in three print publications. The New York Times, Time Out, and Backstage. Once there was the Village Voice, but ironically the publication that still hosts the Obies gave up on reviewing independent theater years ago.

And when shows aren't reviewed, it isn't just artists who suffer, it's the community as a whole.  An artist who practices good work in obscurity is a loss to the art form.  And the documentation of our theater is something not to be taken for granted.  With an ephemeral art form, we need more than any art to be written about in order to be preserved,

I talk about reviews sometimes as if they a toss of the dice. I believe that good shows, that take risks, are not always loved by everyone. They have their adherents, they have their detractors. This is normal, it is that way with good movies and good books. The difference is, the gambling is so much more acute, when there are fewer times to throw the dice. Backstage, gone. Time Out—reviewer got ill, no replacement available. The New York Times—snake eyes.

Three months, six months, a year of work, done.

Next roller.