Professional Courtesy

Over the weekend, I found this post on HowlRound and it elicited a huge reaction from me. The story of my relationship with professional theatre definitely has a happy ending, but bears some striking similarities to the tale of Mr. Keel.

I’ve been a professional theatre-maker for most of my life. I had the good fortune to attend a performing arts high school, which gave me the training and know-how I needed to navigate New York’s professional scene from a very young age. I bought backstage every week; sent out headshots, resumes, and cover letters; went on auditions; booked jobs; and generally worked my tail off while going to high school. By the time I got to college, I was jaded enough to know that a four-year conservatory program wasn’t going to give me what I wanted; a full time career in the arts wasn’t about spending my college tuition money cultivating my art, it was about figuring out how to work with what I had. I bypassed the BFA in favor of a more “real world marketable” degree and continued my training on the side at some of New York’s many studios where such things were possible.

After college, I worked my way around a bit (both in and out of the field). It was during a

High school me performing in "The Laramie Project"

High school me performing in “The Laramie Project”

conservatory production of Twelfth Night at a big-name regional theatre that I experienced my career turning point. While I had learned a great many things from this company over the years (having trained and worked there several times), it was clear that the program I was embroiled in at that moment didn’t understand me, didn’t encourage me, and didn’t feed my art. I had found myself in an artistic dead space; while those around me could hear their ideas and emotions “resound” within the conservatory, mine were continually disregarded and devalued. Needless to say, I was depressed and lonely and just wanted to finish up my time there so I could go home, lick my wounds, and figure out if this whole “full time theatre professional” thing was really going to work out for the rest of my life. It came to a head one evening during a tech rehearsal in which the director, frustrated with the speed at which tech was running, stopped rehearsal to tell me (in front of the entire cast and production team) that I was “an idiot” for not understanding his clear-as-mud direction, and further elucidating how stupid I must be if I couldn’t comprehend what he was telling me.

That pretty much convinced me that I wasn’t cut out to be an actor. It wasn’t okay that someone felt like they could talk to me that way, it wasn’t okay that I had no recourse about it (what was I going to do, walk out of the rehearsal and never return?), and it wasn’t okay that if I did decide to take action I would be the one bearing the negative label for the rest of my career as someone who was “difficult to work with”. I finished the run, but packed in the trunk and retired from the stage, refocusing my energies on other things.

It took many years for me to want to come back to theatre. While I loved so many things about it, the negatives far outweighed the positives. Professional theatre seemed like a pleasant daydream; good for the young and naïve but in actuality not realistic if you wanted to work, live, and be treated like a human being. Hence my relationship with the term “professional” became fraught; professionalism and the lessons I learned as a professional theatre-maker were things I carried with me in all walks of life. Be fifteen minutes early, come prepared with your work, have a pencil on hand to take notes, bring a water bottle, make eye contact, communicate clearly… I could go on. But for that, being a full-time professional actor had baggage that I simply didn’t want to carry with me. I was angry. I was hurt. I was upset that I had spent so long hanging my hopes on a star that turned out to be a time bomb.

For me, after several years of staying away altogether and then an easy transition back into the theatre via teaching and mentoring (which I absolutely love), I can once again say that I am a “theatre professional” (or was I always a “professional” and just took some time off?). As you know, I now have several levels of theatrical involvement, all of which I consider “professional” engagements: I review, I fight direct, I dramaturge, I text coach, I teach, and (when the mood hits, but only when the mood hits), I perform. But that’s not the case for everyone. I’m definitely one of the lucky ones.

And I think that this, unfortunately, isn’t an uncommon experience. I think there are a fair number of folks who wanted to go pro, trained to go pro, and for one reason or another had to back away from the life of full-time professional theatre-making. Unfortunately, this experience can leave a bad taste in the mouth; we all have our reasons for breaking up with Thespis. As with any breakup, it’s painful and unpleasant, and the way that you handle that pain will determine your attitude about running into your ex at parties.

More often than not, performing looks way more like this for me these days. (Photo courtesy of Al Foote II Theatrical Photography)

More often than not, performing looks way more like this for me these days. (Photo courtesy of Al Foote II Theatrical Photography)

There are some who return to the theatre on an amateur level because they simply love making art. Theatre is a part of their blood, and just because they didn’t want to do it professionally doesn’t mean they should stop entirely. This is the best kind of community theatre: theatre made with perfect love. There are others for whom theatre on anything less than a professional level will have “the stench of failure”; they’re bitter, they’re angry, and they simply can’t let go of the past. This, I think, is part of where the “amateur” or “community” theatre stigma comes from; the idea that theatre made for pleasure is somehow “lesser than” theatre made for profit.

Let me make one thing clear: you have not “failed” for choosing a life that sustains and supports you. You have not “failed” for choosing a job with a steady paycheck and benefits, that will allow you to work human hours and be able to see your family on the weekends. You have not “failed” for not wanting to put your very soul on the stage eight shows a week for audiences, directors, and critics who may or may not be appreciative. You have not “failed” for refusing to do things that are degrading and/or embarrassing simply because you need to work this week and it’s the only job available right now. And you certainly have not “failed” for choosing to return to the theatre on your own terms, in your own time, in a way that fulfills your desire to make art.

Why is it “bad” or “wrong” to want to make theatre under any circumstances possible? Why is one person’s desire to perform seen as inconsequential or smaller than another’s simply because the first person isn’t being paid for their work and the second is? And what made us “professionals” fall in love with theatre in the first place? It certainly wasn’t the “spectacular” paychecks…

The “community theatre” stigma needs to be put to the side. I’m not saying that you have to sit through every amateur production of Oklahoma! you find in the papers with a willing heart and gracious applause, but let’s at least have some consideration for fellow artists. Everyone walks a hard road; why should we make it harder for each other when the world’s already a cruel place for us theatre types?

Community Theatre

This weekend, I saw some friends in a community theatre production (both friends’ names and the name of said production will be withheld to protect the innocent).

The show was okay, the venue was darling, my friends are pretty darn talented. As we watched community theatre in action, myself and my compatriots had a few observations about what makes good theatre into great theatre and what can be riveting about something happening onstage. Perhaps more importantly, we had some D.O.A. don’t do’s that I think the world at large could really benefit from understanding and taking into consideration.

The first thing to keep in mind (and this is particularly important when doing community or

Not all theatre can be this...

Not all theatre can be this…

non-professional theatre) is that every individual should know his strengths and his weaknesses. If a show calls for something (say, a fight scene), that something should be executed to the best of the group’s ability. If there is someone in the group with an expertise (particularly an unexpected expertise), that individual owes it to the group to step up and say something. In return, the group owes it to the individual to respect his expertise. In other words: your fight will look awful if you don’t know how to fight. Or if you think you know how to fight. You have nothing to lose by discussing other ideas or approaches with those around you. No one will disrespect you if someone happens to come along and know a little thing that you don’t. What will make your show weaker is stubbornly clinging to the insistence that you know something. That will, definitively, poison what you have onstage. For this example, fighting safe is the top priority; but if you can fight well then for the non-denominational deity’s sake, fight well. I refuse to sit through another half-hearted, bumbling stage fight… especially when I know that someone in your cast has enough experience to actually make it look decent. Grow up, man up, and admit you don’t know everything.

Second: elegance is refusal. Your show will be cleaner, more professional, and more tolerable if your scene changes are less than ten seconds each. If you have a change that involves anything more involved, for the love of all things holy cut the scene change. Find some creative way to work around it. Chances are it’s costing you more money than it’s worth. Having your already antsy audience sit in darkness for an awkwardly long time is simply not worth the headache it will cause to your stage hands and the polite folks who are sitting through your production.

….Personally, I’m done being polite, but many people don’t have the same cavalier attitude about theatre as I do. I have paid good money to see your show, I expect to be entertained and/or moved, not sit and stew while you bumble around with something far too big and involved to be worth the time to move it. Cut. It.

...but it can be this.

…but it can be this.

Thing three: don’t expect me to be nice. I’m done being nice. I have to be nice all day all the time with my students, cohorts, and professors. I have to be nice via e-mail to my networking connections. I have to be nice to the random people I encounter at the library and/or coffee shop. As far as I can see it, I spend faaarrrrrr too much of my time being nice. Seeing theatre is something that I count as part of my job, but it’s also something that I do on my own personal time. As such, generally, I don’t feel the urge to censor myself when I’m giving feedback about a show that I was asked to go see. If you want me to see your show (and I understand if you don’t), I’m not going to smile and tell you how great you were if you didn’t earn it. I’m not going to laugh if it’s not funny. I’m not going to clap if it wasn’t worth the applause. I will give you an honest opinion; I will try to cushion the blow if I have something scathing to say and at least make it constructive criticism; I will (generally) refrain from bashing your show on the internet (…unless it really really deserved it… Harvard Revels, I’m looking at you). I will not go out of my way to be an evil jerk, but you get what you earn from me. Just because this is your hobby doesn’t mean I have to hang your macaroni pictures on my refrigerator and praise how them every time I want a beer.

Don’t worry, I expect the same of you when you come to see my show. If it’s not working, TELL ME. I don’t want to be out there doing something that I think is brilliant if it isn’t landing with an audience. I can’t see myself from the stage. You, the audience, are an important part of my experience as a theatre-maker. If you see something in performance that you think could make the performance stronger, of course I want to know about it.

In a creative process, giving and taking feedback is important. In a creative process that’s essentially art for art’s sake, it’s even more important. If the product is going to be a lump of raw talent held together by the spittle of one over-worked and over-egoed director, it simply won’t stick. It takes integrity to make a show into something worth seeing, and integrity comes from the strength of the whole. If you want to make art in your spare time (and it is a noble pursuit… and fulfilling when it works out), learn to be an active member of the community. If you can’t handle that, take up painting or sculpture. Theatre is a communal activity and only a strong community can make a strong show.