"Conventional wisdom" will tell you a few things about audiences:
- No one goes to see plays
- No one goes to see plays by unknown writers
- No one goes to see plays by female writers
- No one will go see plays in rep (any schedule that varies from the 8:00 curtain is too confusing)
- In tough economic times, playing it safe is the only way to ensure success. Bring out the chestnuts, stay away from challenges or no one will show up.
- It's too hard to do actual productions, staged readings are better, and besides no one really wants to see them.
- Anyone trying to do all of this at the same time has to be a damn fool.
The festival opened on Thursday. It is something that Jenn and I have been talking about for four years. On Sunday night as the last of the shows was off and running, I stood outside for a moment (there wasn't a seat for me). Watching a train pass by, which seemed a strangely apt metaphor for the past couple of weeks, I had a momentary realization we really just opened this beast of a festival. I looked up and smiled in a way that I haven't in a while, unless Tony Jr. has hit some amazing new milestone (which seems to happen all the time.) It wasn't always easygoing, and we lost one show along the way, but getting it up on its feet is the one single thing I've ever done that I'm most proud of as a producer.
We're a small company, with very limited resources. So we probably shouldn't have even tried something like this. But it was a dream of Jenn's and mine. A dream that we talked about long before we started our own company. We had actually pitched the idea briefly to both of the companies that we had been a part of back in the day. And even in our own company not everyone was sure it was a good idea. One member had suggested to do a sampling of scenes from the works, or maybe staged readings of a couple of shows. This was an idea I was against from the start.
When Jenn and I first started talking about our idea, initially we had talked of including modern playwrights and maybe even readings of new works by women. Along the way we heard of Juggernaut's festival of readings in 02-03. I don't know the specifics of their festival, I only heard about it afterward, but the idea of doing staged readings has never sat well with me.
I understand their point with new works. But with older works readings have always carried an implicit suggestion attached to them. "You should know about these works, but they're not really good enough for us to actually stage." From the onset I was adamant that we do fully staged productions. Albeit with scaled back design elements, as is necessary with a festival put up by a company without LORT-sized artillery.
The only thing I knew for sure was that playing it safe is a sure way to stunt growth. The biggest challenges we've taken on have been our greatest successes. And a challenge it was. I've joked that I wasn't sure if it was an ambitious idea or if it was just fucking nuts. Casting this many shows was difficult to be sure. Actors preexisting conflicts drove most of the directors crazy. But as we can't pay everyone yet, we need to be respectful of everyone's time, so it is a continual challenge to be worked around. We've all got to eat.
Personally it was tough. Jenn directed a full length, her first classical piece as a director. I directed a one-act and produced the fest. The behemoth scope would be exhausting even without a 21-month old and full-time jobs. So I watched Jr, when Jenn was rehearsing and she watched him while I was. At times we didn't get to see each other much, which was rough. (Tonight we have nothing planned but to spend time as a family and that is awesome!)
Tech went pretty smoothly, but I was waiting for the big disaster to happen. It wasn't until opening night that I started to feel like all was well. When the lights came up after Safe, the second show of that group, there was silence. After a moment the applause began, and I knew it would all be alright.
As for the conventional wisdom, our stupid ambitious idea had the best opening weekend of anything we've done to date.
Saturday we had a Salon, not a whole lot of people but it was a very interesting discussion. If I had thought of it, I would have recorded it for posterity. We had one woman storm off before it began. She arrived, asked if this was where the discussion about women was taking place. I said yes.
She said "and this is what is on the walls?"
I said, "Yeah, I know, it's ironic."
"Ironic, that's a word," she replied, "I would have used infuriating." And she left.
They have a series of nudes on one of the walls, but we have no control over what is hanging in the gallery. I tried to catch her, and explain that but she wouldn't turn around to listen. Some people's art is other people's infuriation. I'm going to assume she's not a fan.
Only three weekends left. This Saturday the 28th, we're having a BBQ from 5-7. Come and meet all the folks who're working on the festival. We'll be grilling and conversing. Food and refreshments will be available for a pittance. It will be at the Peter Jones Gallery, 1806 West Cuyler, 2nd Floor in Chicago (Map.)
Hope to see you there.
ps. I'll be back to regular blogging that that I've got some more time on my hands
Saturday night Henry IV closed. It was a pretty decent run. We didn’t sell out the run, nor break even at the box office. The show lost $37. Which is pretty damn good for a difficult text with mixed reviews. Tomorrow, we begin tech rehearsals for the Alcyone Festival. I’m so excited about the festival, I can’t wait.
The last week has been tough on that end though. Adam had to let an actor go from his show. He never made it to rehearsals. When the person on-book reading the lines, for the rest of the cast to rehearse, was then off-book from doing it so often we knew something had to change. Luckily for Adam, he’s found someone to fill the role.
I lost an actor over the weekend as well, she was accepted into the School at Steppenwolf and had to withdraw to attend the school. I think I may have found a replacement, she’s reading the script today and we’re going to meet tomorrow. My show is only ten minutes long, so there’s time to get the cast in great shape in the next two weeks.
It’s never easy to cast a festival of this size. There are almost one-hundred actors involved. But, losing actors from shows happens from time to time and with eleven shows it’s almost to be expected.
Some times events happen that we don’t expect or see coming. I’ve done hundreds of shows in one capacity or another. As a designer you don’t have to go to every rehearsal or stay for all of the performances, so when I was primarily designing, I ‘d do a lot more shows than a reasonable person would attempt. Only once have I had a show I was involved with not open.
Make that twice. We had to make a tough decision and pull La Hija de las Flores from this years festival. It is saddening, as this was one of the shows I was most excited about. And I loved the opportunity/challenge of producing a work in Spanish with projected supertitles.
The cast had gotten together the week before and told Juan, the director that they didn’t think the show should be done without cutting parts of it. He was blindsided by this, and as he and I talked about it, we came to the conclusion that the mission of this year’s festival is to expose audiences to work by female playwrights they haven’t seen before. Women who’ve been largely forgotten. I was very clear with the directors about keeping the scripts intact.
There were changes in two of them that I had okayed, one has two published versions of it, and our production will be a halfway point between those two. The other has the gender changed for some of the chorus but the main focus of the play is unchanged.
Juan went back to the cast and said the show needed to go up uncut, but they did work to modernize some of the language, from the 19th century castellano. Most of the cast was on-board. However, the actor leading the charge for the cuts was not easily swayed, and instead asked if she could carry her script for the third act. That would not work when the rest of the cast was off book, so she quit. That was a tough pill for us to swallow, but we were able to pretty quickly find a great actor to replace her.
Casting Hija was difficult, as the cast needed to not only perform in Spanish, but in classical language which is doubly difficult. Also, many latin actors are at the Goodman for their Latino fest. Some even told us that they knew the Goodman was doing the Latino fest so they were keeping their summers open until they got that call.
Everything was back on track, though it would be a tough two weeks. Another actor decided it was too much of a challenge and with the shortened schedule he would not have enough of his process to go on, and he left. At that point over the weekend the tough choice we had to make became clear and we pulled the plug on the show. So for the festival, there will be ten works by great writers, instead of the planned eleven.
I have no doubt the festival will be great, and that everyone will have a good time. But it is a bittersweet thinking of the festival sans Avellaneda.