This is the first entry in a series I am doing on my work directing Porch Light Productions Next to Normal. The show opens June 20th at Porch Light Theater in Glen Rock, New Jersey.
I first saw Next to Normal in 2011 with my best friend Anna on Halloween night . I had heard it was “a must see” and “something I would like”, so when I got the free ticket offer through American Theatre Wing’s Springboard Program Alumni list, I jumped at it. Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley had just taken over the roles of Diana and Dan. I have loved their work for as long as I can remember and was thrilled to see them onstage together.
To say I was undone by the show is an understatement. Next to Normal was the first time I had ever seen the issue of mental health, illness, loss and a family grappling with these things honestly portrayed on the commercial stage. I knew the show had a cult following and arrived a bit late to it. Anna recently reminded me that the first (and only) thing I said to her following curtain call was “I will direct that show one day.” When the opportunity to direct this piece presented itself (3 years from when I first saw it), I jumped at it.
We have just finished preproduction and casting. My vision of Next to Normal differs from the Broadway show (one of the beauties of directing – creating the world as you understand it through the text and music). I have no interest in recreating someone else’s vision. One of the reasons I am drawn to directing is for the opportunity to be at the artistic helm of a project and create new worlds.
Please welcome today’s guest poster to the blog — Avi Asuleen!
Avi is a choreographer, director, and performer in New York, who’s graciously shared some of her insight with us today. Check out her own blog called The Strategic Artist that shares business-minded hacks to artists if you love what she has to say!
Over the past month, I worked on a theater project that involved some very established musical theater folk. This was a wonderful project on many levels, as the material, energy in the room, and overall excitement about the piece was terrifically high. I learned a ton working on this show, but one of the most important takeaways was one about personal standards. In this room, everyone expected, and therefore delivered, work of a very high caliber. Everyone’s standards were set very high, and this forced the entire creative team to strive for the same level of excellence. This started to make me think: doesn’t it make sense, from time to time, to evaluate your own standards?
I think we can think about standards as being both internal and external: internally, there are the standards that you hold yourself to. These might be things like your standards of time management, standards of what constitutes a productive or not productive day, or standards that involve personal finance, eating habits, etc. Then, we’ve also got external standards: the standards others hold you to, and the standards you have set for the work you do in the professional world. I believe that all of these standards, which are fixed at a certain point at any given moment in time, influence a person’s day to day decision making.
Recently, I’ve been offered the opportunity to be a theatre reviewer. Needless to say I’ve accepted and now had orientation for. Most in my life would say that such an opportunity is indeed perfect for me, since I have a pretty decent critical eye. However attending orientation I already learned something very important about reviewing: it’s not simply about having a critical eye.
As theatre artists, while we often learn through seeing other shows and have that stronger ability to analyze what worked, what didn’t, and how it could be stronger; 9 out of 10 times the audience doesn’t see the show in that way. When it’s not simply because they know someone involved with the show, they see it to experience it. Theatre is meant to entertain, make us feel, make us think, make us respond, to use all 5 senses, and for us to react to. So for writing about a show one has seen, it’s better to write about what it’s made you think and feel, as opposed to simply how it could’ve been better.
I finally had the availability (a.k.a. unemployed :-)) to attend a USITT conference and it was in warm Spring weather – hello, Fort Worth, TX! I had a blast. I came back to a cold, soggy, and still snowy New England climate but it didn’t matter because I was refreshed, rejuvenated, and extremely inspired.
The conference focuses on the technical production side of the entertainment business. It’s filled with sessions devoted to various topics that appeal to every level of experience (from high school to retired) and there is an Expo floor that is filled with booths promoting the latest products, ideas, and programs for technical production It’s not just for young students looking for the grad school experience or those having just graduated and looking for that start into their career. For someone like me who is a freelance Equity Stage Manager that works mostly in small regional theatres and has been working professionally for over a decade, I found a lot to do and not enough time to do it in.
When I arrived, I was in a van with 2 other USITT participants – one of whom knew many people that I have worked with. We decided to have dinner after settling in and that first evening found me meeting 10 different people by the end and so my networking web started to expand. That’s the other brilliant and wonderful aspect of this conference – the networking. As long as you can reach your hand out to someone and introduce yourself to them, things fall into place and you easily find yourself connecting on some level. For someone like me who considers networking a difficult thing to do, this was the first time where I felt extremely comfortable and confident doing it.
Today I got to be on set doing extra work. It was the first time I had done extra work in a while, and I quickly remembered why. There are lots of downsides to being an extra.
Before I continue, I’ll mention that I’m non union (and am in Chicago). Last fall, the Mothering Actor wrote a cool post about what she learned from being a union extra in New York.
As far as the downsides go from today, here were a few of them:
-I got four hours of sleep last night and had a 6:45am call time.
-My check in number got changed without my knowledge. Check-in was less than pleasant.
-The first scene was shot outside. It was incredibly windy and cold. Not only were we not allowed to warm up inside, but we had to remove hats, gloves and jackets whenever we were shooting.
-We had an extremely late lunch. Eating was very difficult because of the limited time spent in holding.
…are you sick of the bitching yet?
I met lots of wonderful people on set today and couldn’t be more grateful. Not everyone is a whiner. That being said, I find that I frequently encounter extras that are constantly looking for something to complain about.
Fortunately for me, I just finished up “My Big Year” – an accountability group with Courtney Rioux. There were two big things I learned through Courtney that helped me with today:
1) You can choose to be happy, or you can choose to be right.
2) Focusing on the negatives means only seeing the negatives. But focusing on the positives will mean only seeing the positives.
Despite some undesirable set conditions, I made a point to continue looking for the positives. Here are some of the ones I found:
All of these are based on actual people I know and interact with daily. Names and details changed to protect the not-so-innocent. And yes, one of them is me.
1. The Screenwriter. He has a notebook he keeps with all 97 of his screenplay ideas. (It might be up to 98 by now.) He lives at Starbucks by day, and couch surfs by night. He is always asking you if you want to read these ideas and give him feedback. When you awkwardly mumble “maybe someday…” he energetically dives into the plot of his favorite story, which has something to do with comic book heroes entering an alternate reality.
2. The aspiring model/singer/actor. She is successful in the industry because of her keen networking skills, most of which are used in line at Whole Foods or browsing acting books at the library. Her friends are all aspiring artists as well. They can most often be found having ‘jam sessions’, writing screenplays at indie coffee shops, or smoking in parking lots at 2am.
3. The name dropper. This girl won’t let you forget that she was one of Miley Cyrus’ first babysitters. She has a heart of gold and a Louis Vuitton on her arm. She’d love to grab lunch with you at that vegan place in Culver City but she already made plans with her BFF, the Victoria’s Secret model.
4. The 20-something local. They grew up in a suburb of LA and could not care less that they live 3 miles away from the center of the world’s entertainment. Hobbies include repeatedly enrolling and dropping out of community college, working part time in retail, and attending Coachella.
5. The overachiever-who-wants-you-to-know-how-much-they’ve-achieved. Currently starring in a one-person play in Hollywood’s “theater district” while co-writing and co-producing a scripted drama for MTV. But before you ask “wow, how do you do so much?” – don’t worry– they will be dropping it all next month to tour the country with a blockbuster broadway show.
It’s been forever and a half since I last wrote for the blog (or at least that’s how it feels), and part of it has been from me being insanely busy with shows and teaching theatre to kids from pre-k to 1st grade several days a week (which needless to say has been fantastic for the most part). And one thing I’ve done that was during a good amount of time of the year so far, was that I stage-managed a show.
Now I don’t really consider myself a stage manager. In fact, before this experience I would’ve said that I’d be a terrible stage manager. However for me as someone that’s an early career director in their mid-twenties, a huge part of my philosophy is that the more diverse I am in my skills the better. So when offered to stage manage for an artist I personally admire greatly, I decided to put my fears and concerns to rest and do this opportunity since I knew it would be a valuable part of my growth as an artist.
And it was. Not only did it allow me to have an opportunity to be organized and on top of things (which in our line of work as theatre artists is an exceptionally helpful experience to have), but it gave me a new set of faith in my own ability to stage manage. Stage Manager’s often have one of the hardest jobs and along with that often get the least amount of appreciation. When stage managers have to work with people who aren’t the best at communication and organization (or are even straight up crazy) it can become a miserable and difficult experience fast. Thankfully this experience was full of wonderful and talented people who made my job so much easier, but it did make me wonder if all theatre artists should experience stage managing in some capacity at some point. Here’s some reasons why I feel it would be beneficial for most to do so:
I just finished hiring my staff for this season. Then I saw a ton of people posting an article about unpaid internships (http://creativeinfrastructure.org/2014/03/21/just-say-no/). I’m sure many who work in theatre will have read it by now. Not too long after I saw it, one of our summer directors emailed me saying that she had brought in a college student to assist her Stage Manager. This student had said she’d be willing to do anything at our company for no pay (the magic word “Free”) – basically an unpaid internship. My department has no established internship/apprenticeship program. All of the positions that I have to offer are paid and for a summer not for profit theatre position, it’s okay pay for the non-Equity contingent. We also provide housing. Depending on the skill level, we will provide training and mentoring to the younger staff. But the bottom line is that they are paid.
So when someone comes forward asking to work with us for no money, I balk at this because it could potentially undermine the other legit/paid non-Equity SM and ASM positions that I have fought long and hard to keep. I get nervous especially when I find out the Scene Shop staff was cut down to half its normal size. What’s to stop the company from telling me next season “Hire ASMs but we won’t pay them”?
After university, when looking for chances to further hone your skills in a specific area of expertise especially in theatre, the offers out there that will pay you money are thin. Most theatre companies/groups (mainly the small ones) can only survive with unpaid interns and volunteers. Like many of my colleagues who have commented on the article that I mentioned above, I too have lost count of the number of postings sent to me asking for actors, designers, and/or technicians to do something for free – and what they get out of it at least is exposure and experience – that’s something, right? No, no it’s not something. This is our profession that we should be able to expect to make a decent living from. And yet many are fueling these issues by accepting these “jobs”. The easy targets being those still in school or just out of it. I feel as if the educational community could help temper the situation by advising their students more closely and helping them do the research (why pay all that tuition if you’re not getting the proper guidance from those who should know the business that they are advising you in?).