The Purpose of Theatre*

I think that it is fair to say that theatre is essential to human existence. It has been around for nearly as long as civilization has existed in multiple forms from religion to pure entertainment. In fact, most popular forms of entertainment today – movies and television for example – have their origins in live theatre.

A Public Art

It’s also fair to say that theatre is common in most communities. You may never get to be a part of a Broadway audience, you might not even get to a large regional production, but most of us have been to a local community theatre and certainly a high school, elementary, or even church performance of some kind (I’m talking Christmas pageants by the way, not the regular Sunday service). Theatre in some form or another is ubiquitous in our society. It is not, as often ironically portrayed on stage, films or television, an activity of the idle rich. It is an accessible art form with millions of participants and as such is uniquely able to serve as a public forum for thought and ideas.

How Theatres Choose Their Seasons

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Now, a few of you involved in theatre may disagree with what I’m about to say. But, I have been active in theatre nearly my entire life. I was in school plays, going back to elementary, some college classes and started a Reader’s Theatre Group as a student, and a ton of community theatre for the past 39 years. My community theatre work includes acting, writing, directing, etc. and I’ve served on multiple boards of groups at both the local and state level. This broad experience has allowed me to make note of some similarities among theatre groups. Especially among smaller groups which do not have abundant resources and endowments to draw upon.

I have heard the same basic arguments from different theatre boards and members when selecting shows, especially when the bank accounts get a little low. The discussion tends to center around what shows will sell. So as a result, because of the pervasive belief that casting children in shows sells tickets, many seasons of smaller struggling groups tend to be filled with children’s theaters, musicals, or the holy grail of ticket sales, musicals with children!

The Real Question Theatres Should Ask Before Selecting a Show

A question that I think theatres don’t ask enough is what is the purpose of theatre? And, just as important, how is that purpose being fulfilled? Regardless of how you answer these questions I think we will all agree that the purpose of theatre is not to sell tickets. Selling tickets is just a tool to raise funds to help us fulfil the higher purpose of our craft. It is an unfortunate fact that all groups need funding to continue to put on shows. But has your group become dedicated to just selling tickets? I believe that the purpose of theatre is to show a slice of the human condition in a safe environment and to give the audience something to reflect on and think about long after the final curtain call. If your board’s only goal is to make money without consideration of the important voice that theatre has are they doing the right thing?

Obligation to the Community – More than Frivolity

All theatres have an obligation to their communities and that obligation is not just to present shows that are entertaining or that can be easily cast. It means that on occasion at least that your group should be doing what I would call difficult pieces. Works that are often not associated with community theatre in fact because they are too controversial or use “bad” language (gasp). Works that deal with the troubling questions of our day like gun violence, homelessness, sex abuse, inclusiveness, and so on and so forth. I maintain that as soon as a member of your theatre’s board says something along the lines of “that won’t sell tickets” or “our community isn’t ready for this show” then that is exactly when you should produce it!

A Place for Every Type of Show

Now I’m not being dismissive of children’s theatre or musicals. Both have their place and both can also be educational and thought provoking. In fact, the best scripts and productions always are. Even old standbys like The Music Man are full of social commentary and you don’t have to dig deep to find it. But if your only purpose in picking a show is because you think it will sell tickets you are missing out on an opportunity to not only help further educate your audience – and I bet your theatre is organized as an “educational” 5019c)3 – but to develop an entirely new audience as well.

Risk and Reward?

Will your risk pay off? In terms of finance, possibly not the first time or two you perform something a little more daring. But in the long run, I think your community will learn to appreciate the intellectual debate that your productions inspire.

There you have it, my two cents. I’d love to learn what you think on this issue. Am I right on or all wet? Let me know in the comments and get the discussion started!

Admittedly, some shows are harder to justify as thought provoking than others. But sometimes just having fun is okay, too! The cast of Monroe Community Players’ production of Gilligan’s Island. Photo by Robert Yoman.

All photos by David P. Wahr unless otherwise noted.
Photos and words @copyright David P. Wahr

*I don’t use the word “theatre” with the “re” for any hoity toity artistic reason. I use that word to describe the act or art of putting on a play. If I’m using the word “theater” I’m talking about the performance space. I just find it an easy way to distinguish between the two.

Management Lessons from the Stage: When Your Best Isn’t Good Enough

As I did two years ago, I participated with my local community theatre group, the Monroe Community Players, in the Michigan State AACTFest competition again this year (see Management Lesson from the Stage: Competition for details). For those of you unfamiliar with the competitive side of theatre, every two years the American Association of Community Theatre (aka AACT) hosts a competitive play cycle (AACTFest). This cycle begins at the state level, moves to regional, and finally on to national competition where the 10 “best” community theatre productions will go head to head. This year the festival in Michigan was hosted by Owosso Community Players on behalf of the Community Theatre Association of Michigan (CTAM).

Me and the three Arials who made me look good. Left to Right, Martina Petit, Dillon Sickles, and Besty Brockman.

For the record, the talent pool at this year’s festival was very deep and all the participating groups brought their A game to the competition. Sets were imaginative, costumes on point, the acting was well prepared and rehearsed. It was a weekend of high quality theatre. But, only two groups would be selected to move on to the regional competition by the adjudicators. I did not envy their task this weekend.

For my part, I felt that our production was top notch. In particular, to toot my own horn as they say, I thought that my personal performance was on point. During my big soliloquy the audience was dead quiet (always a good sign) and I could feel them all watching me and sensed that they were right were I wanted them emotionally and intellectually (anyone who’s been on stage knows what I’m talking about).

When the show was over the applause was generous. Afterwards good comments came from the adjudicators and audience members who approached many of us afterwards through the weekend. All signs indicated that we might have a winner on our hands.

But, (and you knew this was coming right?) when the awards were handed out the big prizes went to other groups. We were recognized for several good points of our production – including choreography which is rare for a production of The Tempest, but our director was unique in his vision of this play, and ensemble work for the three actors who jointly played the character of Ariel (pictured above with me). None for me…alas, but not a bad haul as they say. But, our competition journey ended that weekend. Our best, my best, just wasn’t good enough.

So, what do you do when your best just isn’t good enough? How do you react when you know that you’ve given it your all, that you were well prepared, that your ideas were solid and still someone else walks away with the prize? This is something that has happened to most of us, either in a competitive setting or in business. I can tell you what not to do:

Don’t dwell on the defeat.

Don’t blame anyone else.

Don’t complain about bad luck.

Don’t complain about bad decisions or judges.

Do pick yourself up and move on.

Yes, you can take time for introspection. Ask what might have been done better? Maybe you didn’t have the skill set necessary to complete the task (or win the bid), maybe you didn’t have the vision, maybe you were just outclassed, maybe the stars were out of alignment. But, sometimes, surprisingly, the answer is nothing could have. Too bad. It happens. Athletes know this. On any given day even the most talented team with the best leadership can fall to opponents who are less gifted.

And guess what? It has nothing to do with the other team or person having more “heart” or “drive” or just “wanting it more.” Sometimes it was just the other team’s day. Whether on stage, on the field, or in the C Suite, sometimes your best just isn’t going to cut it.

All you can do is to accept defeat gracefully, try not to take it personally (something I often fail at) and prepare yourself to give your best again next time.

Because one thing is certain, if you don’t keep giving it your best you will never find yourself on the winner’s podium!

Prospero's staff lays in wait on the stage.
Prospero’s magic staff lays in wait during rehearsal at the Michigan AACTFest Host Theatre – the Lebowsky Center in Owosso, Michigan. Home of the Owosso Community Players.

Management Lessons from the Stage: Competition

For those of you who don’t know, every two years the American Association of Community Theatre (aka AACT) hosts a competitive play cycle (AACTFest). This cycle begins at the state level, moves to regional, and finally on to national competition where the 10 “best” community theatre productions will go head to head. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of participating this past weekend in the Michigan State AACTFest, hosted by Bay City Players on behalf of the Community Theatre Association of Michigan (CTAM) and I took away a few observations that I feel may apply to enterprises everywhere.

  • Deadlines are crucial: each group performing in an AACTFest works under the same rules. 10 minutes to set up your production, 60 minutes to perform, and 10 minutes to strike (take down). Exceed any of these deadlines and you are disqualified regardless of how brilliant the show is. LESSON: it doesn’t matter how good you are. Get your work in on time. There may be an opportunity to fix or update something later – but miss the deadline and the sale/project/etc. is gone forever.
  • You will be judged on your work regardless of resources: all groups at AACTFest are judged by the same criteria. Obviously, some groups had more resources to work with than others, but the goals remained the same. LESSON: do your best no matter what resources you have (or lack thereof).
  • Innovate: don’t come into a project trying the same old thing that others have done before. The shows at AACTFest which do the best, with judges and audiences, are the ones that literally bring something new to the stage. Hamlet is a hard sell to most audiences. Give it a steam punk look and a fresh techno hip-hop vibe and you’ve just blown peoples’ minds. LESSON: you can start with the same old service or product, but be sure to freshen it up often. Don’t be afraid to dust off an idea that’s been sitting around a while and see if you can make it new again.
  • Celebrate excellence: only two groups move on to the next level of competition at the state AACTFest (plus an alternate) but many groups are recognized for smaller outstanding contributions. LESSON: find the good in everything you do. Maybe the whole project isn’t a winner – but there are things you can still take away and celebrate. Maybe even learn from!
  • A little competition never hurt anyone: win or lose it the groups who participate in AACTFest come away with a better understanding of how they compare to others in the same field. They better know their strengths and their weaknesses and become better groups in the process. LESSON: you don’t know how good you are until you compare yourself to someone better or, at least, just as good.
  • Someone is always watching and judging: I don’t think this needs to be explained any further.
  • Popular opinion does not always carry the day: occasionally, a play that everyone seems to like won’t win. This is because the judges have their own ideas and criteria that differ in critical ways from the audiences experience. LESSON: remember who you are really selling your product to. Just because you and your team likes it, doesn’t mean that the customer will.

These are just a few thoughts I had. I’d love to hear yours regarding mine.

Onward!

Lessons In Management: It’s All Show Biz

Every now and then someone asks me what I get out of theatre. I usually give some sort of glib answer like “attention” or “standing ovations.” But the answer is really more complex than that. For example, it occurs to me that many of the methods used to put on a show can be directly related to any business project. Don’t believe me? See below the steps that a director goes through to “manage” a successful production and see if they don’t fit your next project.

Set the Goal

A show starts, like any business project, at the beginning. The first thing a director needs to determine is “what show are we doing?” In some cases this is determined by an outside force (i.e. board of directors, committee, or producer – a.k.a the “supervisor”). The director starts with the script, which is in essence the bare bones of the play. Just words on paper waiting to be brought to life. Read and study the script. Understand what the playwright was trying to achieve. Research, research, research. You need to know the script (plan) better than anyone else on the team. You can’t guide people to a goal if you don’t know the way.

Determine Your Needs

How many characters are in the play? Male? Female? Is it a comedy, drama or musical? What are the ages of the characters? How many sets do you need? Costumes? The questions are numerous but like any project these basic facts need to be known and understood before you can fully determine your needs.

Block Your Movements

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In theatre blocking is the process of mapping out the movements that an actor will take during the show. In business, this is similar to the strategic steps or tasks which need to be done to complete the project. In a play the blocking may be basic (go from stage left to stage right) but should always have a purpose such as to make the scene seem more natural or to place focus on a specific characters actions or to set a “tableau” demonstrating relationships of characters to each other or evoke a mood or feeling from the audience. A show that is not well blocked becomes chaotic and random often devolving into a random mess of motion without meaning or, worse yet, a stagnant grouping of people on stage (the audience “sees” first and “hears” second). In business, if there are no set plans or tasks the project can grind to a halt as the team each goes their own way without clear direction.

Set the Budget

Now that you know the requirements to start the project, you have to assemble the resources. As so often with any project you need to know what will it cost. Then you most likely need to look at what you are provided as very few of us get unlimited funds to do anything. Do the two match? Probably not so you need to go through your needs line by line and prioritize to determine which items get the most money and which items you may need to be more “creative” with (theatres may have fund raising abilities which your business will not – but let’s presume you have enough funding to continue with your project).

Assemble Your Cast and Crew

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Now you need to find the best people to help you complete the production. You hold auditions (interviews) and determine who best suits each role. Like the hiring process in business you may not have all the information you need to make the perfect choice so you go with your gut and make the best choice you can at that moment (anyone who tells you they’ve never made a mistake casting or hiring probably doesn’t have much experience with either or are dangerously oblivious to their surroundings).

Set the Schedule – how long do you need to get the production finished? How many hours a day can you devote to the show? Like most workplaces, those involved in theatre – especially amateur theatre – have other things that they need to continue doing along with the show or project. Can everyone make each rehearsal (meeting)? Will they have sufficient time to work outside rehearsals on their specific task?

Know Your Role and Theirs

A director (manager) is a guide to the cast and crew. He or she needs to show the way and understand how each member of the production contributes to the overall success of the show. Likewise, the director needs to understand that he or she cannot do it all alone. This is the same in business, if you don’t know what your purpose is in the project you can fall into the micro-management trap or end up doing all the work yourself.

Rehearse

Rehearsal in show is the same as training in business. The cast cannot perform if they do not have the skills needed. Likewise, your team cannot do their jobs if they are untrained and unskilled. Professional development is a must!

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Follow the Script

The script is your guide. In theatre you usually do not have the option to change this. However, in business, you may be able to make adjustments to your plan as you go along. But even with the play your understanding of the script will likely change during the rehearsal process and you may make adjustments with the actors (blocking, inflection, timing) as you go along to better fulfill the “vision.”

Support, Support, Support

Give your cast feed back. Are they on the right track with their character? Are they learning their lines early enough? Are they doing a good job? Tell them! A cast, or team, who only hears negative feedback will quickly become under-performers. But be careful of praising indiscriminately. They need to trust you to tell them the truth – good or bad. Check in often to make sure that they have the tools and equipment necessary to get the job done.

Re-Cast When Needed

Sometimes it just isn’t working out. It’s the toughest part of a directors, or manager’s, job but you need to know when it’s time for different personnel. But not until you’ve done all you can to support and be sure that the person who is underperforming had everything he or she needed to get the job done.

Know When To Quit

In theatre there comes a point where you need to realize it (the scene, dance, whatever) just isn’t going to get any better and that more rehearsal may only make things worse. Sometimes this point is not where you hoped it would be and maybe instead of a great show you’ll only have a good show but you have to be realistic. Remember that budget item above? You can’t do Broadway on a Andy Hardy (you young ones may want to Google him) “let’s put on a show” budget.

Take a Bow – Or Not

When it’s all over, celebrate. Let your team members take a bow and share in the spotlight. Everyone from the leading lady to the stage hand who opened the curtain made an important contribution regardless of size. When do you take your bow? Probably not until later and not in public. In the theatre the director does not take a bow with the cast but watches everything from the back of the house with a satisfied smile and the knowledge that it all came together as planned. And then the director moves on to the next project!

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I hope this little primer gave you some ideas to be successful with your next project. On with the show!

All photos by David P. Wahr unless otherwise noted.
Photos and words @copyright David P. Wahr

AACT Fest 2015 Weekend

Those that know me know that one of my passions is theatre. I’m not a professional actor so I get my “fix” through community theatre and this weekend I experienced one of the community theatre’s biggest events – an AACT Fest.

For those who don’t know, AACT Fest is a theatre competition among community theatres held every two years. The competition starts at the state level (this past weekend in Owosso, Michigan) then the winner moves on to a regional competition (in a couple weeks in Midland, MI), and finally the winner of the regional goes onto national competition (this June in Grand Rapids, MI).

Now, astute readers will notice that all three levels of competition are in Michigan this year – a rare opportunity for theatre goers in Michigan to see some of the best community theatre around. This year’s Michigan competition was won by Players de Noc (Escanabe) and their production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape and Holland Civic Theatre’s, Revival at Possum Kingdom Community Church by Michigan playwrite Linda LaRoque.

My personal favorite, which came in third and will be the alternate entry to the regional was The Amish Project by Jessica Dickey presented by the Farmington Players. This was an extremely moving drama based on the Nickel Mines schoolhouse shootings in 2006. There was not a dry eye in the house when this show was finished. A total of eight groups competed (Monroe had submitted but was the ninth entry and the organizers limited the field to eight for reasons I don’t completely understand but were well within their rights to do.  So we have to wait until the next festival to enter again).

By now you may be wondering what this has to do with my quest for fitness. Not much except that I went completely off the diet wagon this weekend! I traveled with my good friend Bob and unfortunately, I think we are both enablers of each others bad eating habits! We passed a Ponderosa Steakhouse on the way into town, a fading restaurant chain that has a great buffet, and that’s where we went for lunch on Saturday. Well, it was a good thing that we were limited on time because three platefuls and several desserts later I was still ready for more! Plus our hosts, Owosso Community Players feed us well at the afterglows – oh and did I mention Roma’s Back Door? A great Italian restaurant steps from the theatre…

Interestingly enough, the damage may be controllable as I don’t appear to have gained weight yet and I’ve upped my cardio and strength workouts this week so I’m burning more calories. Also interesting, to me at least, is that I could put away so much food this weekend. My Crohn’s usually limits my intake. There has been many a meal eaten out that came home with me because I started hurting – but not this weekend. My guess is that this is because the Humira is doing its job and my insides can take more because they hurt less.

So, I need to be even more careful with my food intake than I used to be…I can’t imagine how fat I could get if the brakes are now off my digestive system (so to speak). Time will tell!

Onward!

A Day in the Life of a Crohn’s Flare Up

Well, today was difficult…not because of anything that went wrong per se but because sometime during the night my Crohn’s decided that it hadn’t been active enough and I’ve been dealing with a “flare-up” all day.

Now, my flare-ups for the past many years have been mild and probably to many sufferers of Crohn’s non-existent. I have a feeling of bloating, sporadic pain – but today only a few spasms that were strong enough for me to double over – one incident of vomiting (more on this later), and a lot of noise and rumbling from my mid-section. Oh, and my favorite sensation, hunger “pains” with Crohn’s pains which leaves me wanting to eat but realizing that if I do I’ll pay for it dearly. But, temptation is always there and I finally gave in early this evening. I’ll tell you all about it but first let me set the scene…

For those who don’t know me personally, I consider myself an actor (director, playwright, whatever) and for the past 32 years or so community theatre has been my passion. I perform mostly with the Monroe Community Players (MCP) in Monroe, Michigan and have gone so far as to be active at the state level, including four terms as president, with the Community Theatre Association of Michigan (CTAM). Well, because of my affiliation with MCP I was invited to help out at a concert tonight with the Monroe Community Symphony Band, directed by Mark Felder who coincidentally has two children who suffer from Crohn’s but that’s incidental to my tale, and introduce a few of the numbers while portraying some famous people from the movies. I got to be Charles Kane, Otis (from Superman) and an agent of SHIELD. A quick, simple gig for the most part but fun and enough to quench the acting bug’s thirst for a while (I’m between shows). What could go wrong?

That takes us back the Crohn’s flare up. I made it through the work day, though I got very tired during an afternoon meeting – which isn’t unusual after lunch but this was “Crohn’s tired” which means I was running the risk of falling asleep in front of my usually understanding boss (who’s father and brother also have Crohn’s, apparently I’m connected to most of the 1.6 million sufferers in the USA if I look hard enough). I didn’t eat all day and by the time I got home I thought maybe I should try something before going to the concert. But what? The pains in my lower abdomen told me that anything I tried would be coming back up quickly and then it occurred to me. I have all that Jello left from my colonoscopy prep. Jello, which is considered by the medical profession to be a “clear” liquid. Surely, I could have some Jello to settle my stomach and not further aggravate my Crohn’s. Moments later two little cups of lime Jello are gone and I felt satisfied enough to stop there and head on to my performance.

On drive to the concert my cramps became more insistent. I stumbled into the dressing room, changed into my first costume which had become uncomfortably tight around my waist…tried to maintain a positive attitude through backstage pictures, excitement, etc. The pain increased until finally I had no choice – I broke out of a group photo unannounced and walked quickly to the restroom filled with band members taking care of business before the concert. No, I wasn’t going to be alone for this…empty stall secure and then as quietly as I could the vomiting began. Green liquid poured out of me mixed with a day’s worth of bile and other acidic fluids…nasty. And though I thought I was being quiet I hear from the next stall “you okay in there?” and I weakly tried to explain between upchucks (is that a word) that I had this digestive disorder and that I was fine, please don’t worry. Though I think that my symphony sympathizer worried a bit anyway judging from the sideways glance I got while washing my hands afterwards.

Anyhow, I toughed it out. Got through my first two intros without incident and even the later one. Begged off as everyone else started talking about pizza afterwards and came home. No sense in tempting fate further. Now I only hope that I can get some sleep tomorrow and that everything settles down by morning.

Oh, and why the flare-up I wonder? I know that Crohn’s is random but I have also noticed that whenever there is a big change in the weather my gut reacts. It warmed up quite a bit this weekend and I still think that the sudden “swing” in the barometer. I wonder if anyone else has noticed something similar with their Crohn’s?

Long story, no point really. Just a glimpse into what I sometimes go through for my work and my craft…I know that there are others who can tell tales even more distressing and embarrassing but I think I’m occasionally allowed to vent a bit, too.

Onward!