Creative Loafing theater critic Mark Leib mentions in this week’s column about how area artistic directors should essentially “look and learn” from USF’s set for The Birthday Party (one of my favorite plays by one of my favorite playwrights):
This is one of the most impressive stage environments I’ve seen in years in the Bay area; I wish the artistic directors of our professional theaters would come, look and learn. Pinter’s stage directions ask only for a living room; Kellan has given us that and much more. It’s a bold choice.
I’ve seen him trash every theater on this side of the bridge and a few on the other side of the bridge for their sets. I think the only theater I haven’t seen him cream over a set is American Stage. I believe once upon a time he mentioned that a certain set of ours was “out of the budget bin at Home Depot.”
One of the most maddening aspect of dealing with critics is their inability, or outright refusal, to consider the realities of producing.
We’ve been criticized by him specifically on many occasions for less-than-superior technical design, and for the most part we swallow it because we frankly don’t operate with the budgets that we need to do a lot of the things we’d like to eventually do.
Rights to plays certainly aren’t cheap, and they’re getting more expensive with every show we do. In some cases we’ve paid a full 25% of our gross potential to even be able to do a show. We’re still trying to pay our artists more and more as we work towards a living wage. Keep in mind I don’t even get paid for what I do. I’m a glorified volunteer in my position as producing artistic director for this company. We’re doing everything we can, and we’re always working to top ourselves – to keep moving uphill.
We also tend to choose scripts that don’t require enormous or complicated sets. Some shows we choose knowing we won’t hardly have a set at all. Look at This is How it Goes. The Tribune called it “actors theater at it’s best” and the Times said it was “good old-fashioned black-box theater,” but it was only Mark who wished director Ami Corley “had more to work with” than Brian Smallheer’s bare stage with a few furniture pieces that got moved on and off.
Was it not clear enough that the lack of a set, and having a few pieces of furniture move on and off was a choice? Seems the other two critics got it. The script calls for a nowhere bare space. We were true to the script. When looking for a show we could do in rep with Books – we needed that. Yet we get beat up for it in an otherwise great review.
We’re not going to produce Amadeus unless we can do it justice, or at the very least come up with a overall production concept that would make it work in a tech-light fashion.
Theater only needs actors, space and audience to make it what it is. That’s all. We work in a shoebox, and the space itself even limits what can be done. Put all that in a blender with the fact that we all pretty much share the same tiny pool of set designers, and it’s a challenge. Our TD and I have been looking for two years to find someone to help us design sets who’s also ok with building – which is part of the deal with the budgets we have.
This is NOT sour grapes – I’m really glad USF got a great review of the show and I genuinely hope folks go see it. I like the play a lot as well as several of the artists involved, and USF is after all where I got my BA. Couldn’t he have given credit where credit is due about how great their set was without taking a pot shot at the rest of us? What does that comment accomplish?
USF doesn’t have to worry about attendance, or where their next check is coming from, or a thousand other things. It’s one of biggest draws to settling into university theater – you can have fun with the money doing interesting theater in the construct of higher learning. You have giant scene and costume shops, storage facilities, slave student labor to build and paint and hang … you get the idea. There’s more in it for them as an institution of learning to also go above and beyond – there’s more of an educational opportunity there for the students to be a part of. USF always had exceptional sets, I’m not surprised this one is incredible.
I think Mark should spend more time in a local theater learning more (or at least reminding himself a bit) of what a real day’s work is like working on a shoe-string budget. You either produce to the best of your ability and find work that suits your strengths, or you sit around and talk about producing while the world passes you by.
Believe me, if I could spend $5,000 – $15,000 on one of our sets while paying our actors a living wage and still keep tickets at an affordable cost for the average person – I’d be thrilled to. I don’t know an artistic director who wouldn’t. But at present, in order for us to have those things we’d probably be charging $75 a ticket – which no one in Tampa is paying for anything unless it’s grown men in tights beating the crap out of each other or it involved a falling chandelier or a green witch.
In the meantime, we’ll produce shows we know don’t depend on a helicopter flying in or 35 actors wearing period costumes. Give us time, and give us some meaningful financial support. You’d be surprised what we’re capable of.
So, ok. The money thing is a giant sore spot with me. That’s no secret. It’s not like we have a fat bankroll that we like to piss away. Beat us up for that if that ever happens. Knock yourself out.
We save everything, we reuse everything. We beg, borrow and steal all we can. And we are in no way the only local theater company that’s in this position. I think there are far more productive ways to go about handling things than the way he often chooses to regard the incredibly difficult work we all do. Again, it’s hard enough to get people into a theater. We all make a choice to be part of the problem or part of the solution.
On a side note, I’m starting to be surprised by how much traffic this thing is getting, and how many google searches are performed for “Blogsite Theater.” Thanks for reading.