Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Do/Don't Review This

All of us want glowing reviews for our work. Professional reviews. We believe they will bring audiences and lasting recognition; we believe they will be useful in obtaining grants. Though we hold fast to our public assertions that we don’t need them for personal validation of our creative talents, we secretly covet the words when they glow. For the past few years my faith in these beliefs has waned. I’ve seen glowing reviews do nothing for audience attendance; I’ve grown to understand that the only thing that brings lasting recognition is consistent and continued quality in one’s work. And the eruption of audience reviews on sites like Goldstar Events and other places have shown themselves to have a more immediate impact on ticket sales that traditional reviews, even if I can’t attach them to a grant application or clip them to a play submission. I don’t mean to diminish the value of a professional opinion; I’m just recognizing its changing place in a changing world.

I was intrigued, then, when I learned of a controversial blog written by Melodie Bahan, the Director of Communications at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, entitled “Don’t Review This”. She stressed that “too much emphasis has been placed on theater reviews to the detriment of arts. Does the average newspaper reader even skim – much less read – a review of the latest production from a small theater company she’s never heard of and has no intention of seeing? Probably not. But she might well read movie reviews and almost certainly reads feature stories about the movie industry, even if she sees only two or three movies a year. I believe it’s because, in part, newspapers provide stories about the film industry that explain and inform, yet provide little real coverage of the theater community in this town.”

In advocating for theatre “journalism” rather than reviews, Bahan wants coverage that gets inside of the theatre world, a look within productions, coverage that builds a sense of community between artists and audiences. I say "Amen" to that-- it's what this blog and our Twitter page ( are all about, building a community. She goes on to write:

The readers of the two major daily newspapers in this town would be better served by forgoing hastily-written, ill-considered snapshots of an opening night performance and focusing instead on actual journalistic coverage of the arts. I’m not against theater reviews; I’m against theater reviews that are poorly written, thumbs-up-or-down laundry lists of actors and designers that don’t do anything to illuminate the production or give readers a real sense of the experience.”

I don’t know if I agree completely with Bahan’s a solution to diminishing theatre reviews. I rarely read movie reviews and almost never skim feature acticles about the movie industry. But I’ll admit I’m intrigued. And it’s definitely worth some discussion. With reviewers been forced to critique productions in a hundred words or less, it's almost impossible to write something that illuminates the art of a single show. Consider how many artists contribute to a show: set, light, sound, costume, prop designers and graphic artists-- not to mention stage managers, tech operators (have you ever seen sloppily run lighting? it can ruin a show), directors, choreographers, and actors. You could fill a hundred words just placing names to occupations. More importantly, I think Bahan's article poses a question about the role of the reviewer. And that's a whole 'nother ball of wax.

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Stage Picture vs. Blocking

Today's post is about the difference between stage pictures and blocking, and how they work together. It took a bit longer than anticipated to put together, so I'm not going to write much-- just post. But! the defining characteristics I'm trying to get at are their strengths-- stage pictures' ability to provide focus, perspective, and relationship; while blocking is about action. As I wrote in a Tweet last night (and you're all invited to follow the enhanced/abbreviated discussion on Twitter), blocking is dialogue. Dialogue is action. Action becomes present through specificity, intention, and responsiveness. You should be able to tell the story in blocking, without use of words.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

The Unappreciated Art of Props

I'm thinking back to the last time I read a theatre review that critiqued the props used in the show. It was a production of... well, never, actually. It is an under-appreciated art. Yet there are people who take it quite seriously. Eric Hart for one, who in addition to designing for the Public Theatre, keeps a pretty healthy blog at There are others, of course-- like Meredith Ries who has just started her own blog at called Malaprops. Looking for a quick resource on when something was invented? is a good starting point.

I'll have to admit I'm not very prop savvy. Working on a turn of the century period piece has left me with my nose in Google, trying to figure out what remarkably simple things looked like in 1860, 1900, and 1930. Wallets. Pens. Briefcases. Flashlights. Every object on stage should have its own story, history. The process has reminded me to appreciate the art of prop design, and those who do it well. So....

On Eric's blog I read an interesting article on how to read a script as a Properties Designer. It's just the beginning of the prop design process, but it seemed applicable to every show, large or small. I've re-posted it here:

How to read a script

By Eric Hart Published: August 17, 2009

A prop master develops a prop list by reading the script. The director, designer, and/or stage manager may come up with their own prop list; you still need your own so you can get working right away, and so you can make sure the rest of the production team has considered all the props that may be in the production.

First off, if your script comes with a prop list in the back, don’t use it. These are from the original production. The design and direction of your production will certainly be slightly altered, and can even be totally different.

Read the script twice. The first time is for fun, to get an overall feel of the play. You want to be able to have an intelligent conversation about the play with the rest of the design team. You don’t want to be the one at the meetings going, “Wait, Juliet is a girl?” The second time you read through it is to start noting props. Have your own copy of the script so you can mark it as you read. This script should live in your prop bible. Mark the page number of the prop on the prop list for easy reference later.

You can find props references throughout the script. The scene descriptions will give descriptions of the set furniture and some set dressing. The stage directions will tell you what hand props are being used, and how they are used. The character descriptions can give more clues about hand props, and can also hint at possible costume props. Even the dialogue can hold additional prop notes.

Look for clues on how a prop is used, and what it needs to do. If a chair is introduced on page 3, and on page 42, a character leaps on top of it, that needs to go on your prop list. A designer will usually decide what a prop must look like, but it is up to you to figure out what the prop needs to do. The director will also determine what a prop needs to do in rehearsal, but it helps to know as soon as possible if anything on your list will take some time or effort to build or acquire.

One final bit of advice comes from Bland Wade, who reminds you to consider all the ramifications of a stage direction, rather than what is merely written down. When a script says a character enters “smoking”, you need to ask what kind of cigarette he has. Where did it come from: a pack, a cigarette case, a friend? Where do the ashes go? Does he light it on stage? With a lighter or matches? What kind of lighter? Where does he extinguish it? In an ashtray or the floor? One simple stage direction can lead to a page’s worth of props.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Applying Table Work to the Play

Four days into rehearsals we've wrapped up our table work analysis of The Woman in Black. Today's entry is a small glimpse into how table analysis brings out the complexity of character relationships, even within a narrative as straightforward as a ghost story. Photos by Sorta Lim, with a little help from Richard Enriquez.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Director's Tool: The French Scene

Today we're looking at a script analysis tool called the French Scene. It's useful in both understanding the pacing and relationships of a play, and in developing rehearsal schedules-- who to call, how many pages they have together, and from that you can calculate how much time you should allot. For rehearsals, I typically allot four minutes of rehearsal time for each page of script. This is each time I return to a scene. Altogether, I'm likely to spend 75 hours in rehearsal before Tech, or about 40 minutes to a page. But I'm getting ahead of myself. For now, the French Scene....

You can find my French Scene diagram for The Woman in Black here:

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Selling the Complex Bundle called Theatre


I ran across this article at The Artful Manager and thought it posed what is both a common and an important question for theatre producers. In true internet fashion, he is (of course) quoting someone else’s article. So in the “I am quoting he is quoting, we are quoting, quoting all together” spirit:

What, exactly, do you sell?

(From Andrew Taylor of The Artful Manager)

Doug McLennan provokes a rather central question in his Diacritical blog are arts organizations in the business of selling tickets? Says McLennan: “If you believe your business model is the classic consumer transaction (I make the performance, you buy the ticket) then you're done. Sorry. That's a Manufacturing Economy mindset, and while it worked when choices were limited, now that you're competing in the infinite marketplace.”

He goes on to suggest that arts organizations are providing a much more complex service than a play or a performance or an exhibition, and that arts consumers are seeking a complex bundle of goods in their purchase decisions.

People aren't comparing you with other orchestras or theatre or dance companies; they're measuring whether classical music or theatre or dance is something they want to choose at the moment. They're deciding whether they want an active or passive experience; they're trying to determine what level of social encounter they feel like today. They're weighing whether they want a predictable, known, comfortable quantity or whether they want to be adventurous and try something new.”

His provocation is right on the mark, and central to any thoughtful discussion of the future of arts enterprise and cultural management. But I'd suggest that it's missing an important wrinkle. The deeper challenge for arts organizations is that they DO sell a product, even as they DON'T. That is, an important segment of any arts audience doesn't recognize the complex bundle they're seeking when they buy a symphony or theater ticket. They've come to use that event as a placeholder or proxy for that bundle, without even knowing it. To this core group (often the most passionate about the art form, the most loyal buyers, the most committed donors) the bundle IS the product. And as you innovate around the delivery or context of your creative work, you challenge their passionate connection to the discipline's tradition.

by Andrew Taylor

The idea of theatre as an experience greater than the sum of visual and auditory sensations—that there is an experience of community, that it is a social gathering as well as an event—and that it is not confined to the action upon the stage is one that I’ve pondered for quite a while. If anyone else has found ways to highlight, emphasize, and promote those aspects of the theatre experience, please leave us a comment and tell us about it.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Woman: First Read Thru

Welcome back and welcome in the first read-thru for The Woman in Black. For this series of video blogs we're aiming to be even more interactive than ever, pulling the veil back on the nuts and bolts of producing small theatre. This series will combine video and traditional blog entries in an effort to examine crucial elements of running a company.

For our first entry in The Woman in Black series we have a peek behind the scenes of our first read-thru of the play. Enjoy.

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From Meadowland to The Woman In Black

As of 8:54 on Tuesday, September 8th, Second Wind's behind the scenes video blog is back! As a courtesy-- and because we decided that this new installment of our blog would focus more on skill-building tools for small theatres-- we've included all of the old posts from our January 2009 production of Meadowland. We haven't been dark all that time. We co-produced a one-act play called Marked ably directed by Richard Enriquez and written by up-and-coming SF playwright Cassandra Lewis as a part of the Bay One Acts Festival. We also presented the staged reading of my new play, The Tender King, and redesigned the 2nd Wind website to make it more interactive-- a project we're still building upon. And we've been in pre-production for our Fall show.

On October 23rd, Second Wind will open its production of The Woman in Black at The Phoenix Theatre in San Francisco. From now until then we'll be posting a behind-the-scenes look at the production process, along with some of the "how to's" of production. The Woman in Black is an autumn spine-tingler, the perfect Halloween night out-- and one of the most famous theatrical ghost stories in history. It's also a wonderful celebration of the art of theatre and story-telling. Tickets are on sale now, so snatch them up while you can at

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