Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Teasing Social Relevance from Traditional Scripts

One might wonder why Second Wind, a company that specializes in plays with social or political relevance, would choose a simple ghost story. The Woman in Black has no pretensions about being more than a good yarn, so it’s certainly a stretch for it to fill our mission. Whether you’ve wondered or not, today I’ll talk about what we did to tease out social relevance, because I think it is a technique that can be used much more broadly—in looking at a variety of scripts, but also with concepts like non-traditional casting.

First, I’ll be blunt: it is a stretch. It was meant to be a stretch. Being alive and vibrant as a company means bending a few rules, even when it comes to your mission. Then you look at how to bend them back. Second, I believe every story, every relationship, has social relevance when examined within its true context. Ghost stories are traditionally morality tales in Western culture, so I began by looking for moral resonance. Young Kipps, a lawyer (okay, some weird morality issues right there…) displays a considerable amount of arrogance and a sense of superiority, especially when dealing with the town people. This seemed like a nice touch, in that we tend to look for reasons why there is a downfall. It was also the first step towards identifying status and power issues.

The script is completely obtuse about the time of the play. It seems to be set somewhere close to the turn of the century, but if you try to add up the dates, ages, and bits of technology (flashlights, cars, telephones, etc.) what you get is complete nonsense. By adjusting the length of time between events, however, I found that the play situated itself nicely at 1931, the heart of the British Depression. That opened up the possibility of exploring ideas of poverty, economic disparity, and what it forces people to do. There were two references to money in the play—“You’ve paid me for the day,” and later a line about a young woman who had to give up her child because “she had no choice.” Both of these references are typically run-over with little emphasis in other productions. We didn’t run them over. Instead, I added two points where the old solicitor pays the young actor for the day. Then, during one of the transitions, I started the scene with the actor mending his coat with needle and thread. With the young woman’s voiceover, we made sure to highlight her necessity, and between each of the characters we spent time exploring and defining their economic status. The British, certainly during that time period, were very class conscious. These seemed like good starts, but it’s all subtle work. I looked for other avenues to get at the idea of money. The pre-show music highlights not just jazz from the era but Depression songs, including “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”, and “Are You Makin’ Any Money?” At intermission I contrasted that with several waltzes, an aristocratic dance. Costumes also played an vital role in defining class and economics. Overall, the teasing out of social themes was quite understated, but I think it adds to the richness of the show, and sense of detail. I also hope it makes the characters more three-dimensional, and easy to identify with. You’ll have to tell me whether it worked or not.

From a company standpoint, we also did some things to take the work beyond the proscenium arch. As I’ve said before, The Woman in Black is also a celebration of theatre. A play within a play, it relies heavily on the most basic elements of the theatre: sound, lighting, set design, as well as suspension of disbelief and the audience’s imagination. In that spirit, we focused this Vlog on more technical aspects of producing theatre, rather than drone on and on about the show. We started a Twitter account ( specifically for theatre tips and inspiration. And finally, the theatre ads you see in the program we donated to the companies in an effort to support other Bay Area groups.

In the end, we didn’t want to turn The Woman in Black into some avant-garde or revisionist production. The story is just too darn good for that. How good? Yesterday, Albert Goodwyn wrote: “Second Wind Productions effortlessly enthralls with their taut, gripping suspense and intense pacing. The suspense in this play makes the grueling tension all the more scary.” You can read his full review here:

Sunday, October 25, 2009

In Front of the Scenes

I must apologize for my absence. My excuse is that on October 18th we began load in and technical rehearsals for the show, which was to have its first audience five days later on October 23rd. Despite its simplicity, The Woman in Black is surprising difficult, technically. There are twice the average number of sound cues (triple letters, for those in the know), and at intermission we had to switch from the patch system to the page system to accommodate all the light cues. Furthermore, the play requires a great deal of precision to suspend the narrative. It's a fast moving river that escalates as the action progresses. But I'm back, with a preview-- in front of the scenes-- clip from our Sunday matinee.



Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Memorization and the Director

Occassionally, companies and productions require the actors show up to the first rehearsal already off-book, but it's much more likely to have that first read be almost "cold", with the process of memorization beginning from the first day. When there are only two actors-- such as in The Woman in Black-- that can be a huge task. So today we looked at the director's role (and responsibility) when it comes to the actors being memorized in a timely manner, and two approaches to make learning lines easier.

What landed on the cutting room floor (if I can be so grandiose) were some tips for the actor's process, so I'll mention a few here: First, memorize in small pieces-- don't try to accomplish too much. I often spend 15 minutes first thing in the morning going over a section before I start the daily shower/breakfast routine (so I can run them in my head) and then I spend 10 minutes in review before heading off to work. By far the most helpful tip I can offer is to review the lines of scene both before you work it in rehearsal, and then the following day. Actors sometimes review lines before a rehearsal and then move onto the next section without returning to the pages. Even 15 minutes in post-rehearsal review can be enormously helpful.

But todays video entry is on the director's role, and two ways the director can set the actors up for success.

Did I mention tickets are on sale for The Woman in Black? Now would not be too late to purchase them.

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Friday, October 9, 2009

Does Twitter Work for Theatre Companies?

I’ve spent some time looking at this issue, and as you can see from the left hand side of my web page, I’ve subscribed to Twitter. Does it work? Is it a flash in the pan? Well, I want to hear your comments.

But I did do some research. According to PEW, the largest demographics of Twits are 18-34… no surprise there, really, though it is interesting to note that only 1% of Twits are under 18. They are overwhelming white (81%), and childless. Sadly, they tend to have less money. Equally distributed among men and women. And most do not have a graduate degree, though equally distributed between HS graduates and bachelor’s degrees.

Tuesday is the most active Tweet day, only 5% of accounts have more than 100 followers; 20% are never used.

Twits tend to sign up then drop their account: 60% last less than a month. The majority, about, 40% use it to keep in touch with friends; 28% use it as a pass-thru tool to update their status on social network sights such as facebook and their blogs; and about 25% use it for “news”. According to Linkedin (okay, maybe not the most stringent of researchers) only 8% of businesses view Twitter as a “very effective” marketing tool. (I tend to agree.) In fact, the main people touting the effectiveness of Twitter appear to be marketers themselves. How to effectively use social marketing is endless fodder for marketing individuals blogs, twits, and articles. But do people use Twitter to get info about what to see and do? Does it work? Who does it reach? If you’ve got a success story, leave a comment and tell us!

So if I’m not a fan, why am I doing it? Good question. First, I put a lot of time into researching it and setting up an account, so I’m planning on using it for a little while to get the full experience. Second, I’m wondering if the tips and tricks I’ve read will make a difference in my experience. Not everyone researches how to use a tool before they go out and start hammering. And third, sometimes a marketing campaign is designed towards depth, and sometimes towards breadth. We’re currently in a breadth mode, so even a handful of new contacts, relationships, and audience members are a victory. And we’re using it to create depth to our outreach: our twitter updates are focused on real tools, ideas, and inspirations rather than bland, reiterative marketing of current activities.

It's also important to consider your audience demographics and buying cycle. Is this your crowd? Do you want them to be? Tweats are very ephemeral-- they come and go as quick reminders with no lasting impression. But (perhaps) if timed to your audiences' buying cycle, the nudge can come at just the right time. As long as you don't overdo it and the twits become a nag. For that reason, I've focused away from our current show.

Through my Twitter research, I did find a few tips that I thought I’d share:

1. Don’t sell on twitter, engage
2. Follow and respond to other’s twits
3. If you don’t have any news, give them someone else’s
4. Update. Every other day is too little, 5x a day too much
5. Keep a notepad to write down twits for the future.
6. The number of followers is not as important as the quality: it’s social.
7. Have a goal and an identity for your twitter page, make a plan to reach it

How to Expand Your Following:
1. Post on your website and blog
2. Respond to someone else’s twit, they may start to follow yours
3. Put your twitter in the signature of your email

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Rehearsal Peek in 2 Minutes, 22 Seconds

Today's post is a visual peek into our rehearsal: 2 minutes, twenty-two seconds from behind the scenes. Tonight was our first stumble through. Like every first, it had more than one painful moment; but the strength of the story-telling is already beginning to shine. As a director, I like to identify the strengths of a piece, and then focus on its weaknesses. Strengths (an aspect the playwright focused on during the writing process) will almost always blossom on their own. The main strength of The Woman In Black is in the story-telling, so it's no surprise that's what stood out in the first stumble. Now the fun begins.

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