Tuesday, December 27, 2016

How Do We Make Theatre Worth Fighting For?

As we head into the biggest fundraising days of the year, we thought it important to share what we do that sets us apart from many other theatre companies - and why we are worthy of your donation. At the end of this article, we will be making a request for your support, and I hope that you will be inspired to contribute based upon the exciting things (below) we set out to do in the world.

Original Broadway production of Waiting for Lefty.
I want to start by including a picture from our roots in The Group Theatre, which depicts one of the most important and iconic moments of audience engagement that has ever taken place in the theatre. At the end of a performance of Waiting for Lefty, the audience rose up to scream "Strike!" right along with the actors onstage. That is the kind of visceral communication we have with our community.

Many people have asked us why we do what we do over the years. Most tend to assume that we are theatre-makers that self-produce out of some kind of ego-driven need to do everything ourselves. If it were just about doing great plays and playing great roles, there are much easier ways. We are committed to much more than producing plays and building careers. Though these things are side-benefits for all of us, we want to take this opportunity open up to our community and share the many things that The Seeing Place does that are not so apparent upon first glance.

1.) We are passionate about "Organic Theatre." What the heck does that mean? When I was in my early 20's, I saw a theatre company in San Diego that blew me away. To many people I knew in the community, their work was boring and unimpressive. For me, it was the first time I'd ever believed what I was watching onstage, and it was a magical experience. I saw many productions at New Village Arts before I started working with them. I fell so in love with their work that I moved to NYC to study with their teacher, David Gideon. When I got to New York, I thought there would be a lot of ensemble companies that were alive onstage like the work I fell in love with at New Village Arts. Not one. I do see wonderful performances from time to time, but it's rarely a full-ensemble effort - and definitely not the kind of theatre I fell in love with. New York is full of impressive theatre, which tends to be driven by spectacle and stardom - where the actors behave in some kind of superhuman way. That's great for a lot of people. For me, I want to believe and relate to what I'm watching, rather than being amazed by the superhero talent of the performers. I want to see myself in what's happening on the stage and really get to live through the story with the actors. I want to do that kind of work, too. I love directing it. I love acting in it. I love it when the action of the play is malleable, so that we're not trying to hit a certain level of emotion or manufacture moments that just aren't real every night. I'm not suggesting that our work does not have "moments." We do, and some of our moments are very specific, as when an actor is required to hit a certain mark for a lighting effect. We do still deal with pace and timing. Those elements are important. We also believe in trying to keep what we learned in rehearsals and share it. But the night-to-night discoveries are different, and there is freedom in our work that allows for growth. This concept is not new, but when it does happen in most theatre, it's usually only one actor doing it - and that actor tends to be heavily criticized by the community.

2.) We make challenging plays relatable to a modern audience. Really, I think most plays present their own special difficulties, but there are some that have almost been dismissed because of the problems they present. Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, Closer by Patrick Marber, and Macbeth by William Shakespeare are great examples. Obviously, all three plays are popular and attempted frequently - some more than others. But even with Macbeth, many Shakespearean scholars have professed that the play only seems to work as a piece of writing, rather than a lived performance. That's a major hurdle to overcome. We set out to make our production of Macbeth relatable to our audience - which is something we've rarely seen doneWe make the same commitment in all of our work. Though many other people do these plays, they tend to be more concerned about revamping them or doing something really cool with them and adding a wild concept. This is true of the production and film of Macbeth, starring Patrick Stewart. The production is set in Nazi Germany, and Macbeth is likened to Hitler. And that's awesome. I get it. It makes sense. It was well done, and I enjoyed it. But all of a sudden, it's a play about Nazis - which allows a separation for the audience to hold themselves at arms length from the characters. As a result, we lose touch with the basic human responses to ambition and stress that the play illuminates, and it becomes exceedingly difficult to relate to the Macbeth's and see ourselves in their struggles. That's what we as a theatre company set out to do.

3.) We are ensemble storytellers. Anyone that has been involved in our work knows that we spend just as much time with the "smaller roles" as we do with the leads. To me, there's nothing more distracting to a wonderful production than the one person that just isn't in the same reality with everyone else. This is very surprising to our actors, sometimes - especially when they dismiss their importance to a scene because they only have one or two lines (or even none). We really believe that every life on the stage needs to be lived. The playwright may only focus on the leads, but that does not make the other characters inconsequential.

4.) We believe in a group effort. We demand that everyone we're working with is an active part of the creation of the project we're working on - from fundraising and marketing to audience development and theater management. It's important that we are all invested in the outcome and have ownership in making each production come to life. Erin Cronican (our Managing Director) and I may have more responsibility and accountability, and as the founders that is to be expected, but there is no one that is "just an actor" in our company. We have a deep commitment to training and mentoring our artists in all aspects of theatre-making, and that is no small task. We set out to have a group of people where everyone has a voice and the agency to be able to contribute.

5.) We give back to our artists and our community. For our group, we hold weekly acting and producing workshops, which teach our actors how to develop themselves as artists and self-producers. All of those skills help them be more well-rounded in our work and in the marketplace. For our audiences, we are committed to making theatre affordable for all. In addition to our low ticket prices, we give away lots of free and discounted tickets to senior centers, low-income housing developments, student groups, artists, and anyone else that can't afford the cost. We believe that theatre should be available to everyone. Additionally, we give our audiences a voice. We have lots of talkbacks, and we all go out in the lobby after shows to engage in discussions about our world. We truly believe in the community-building aspect of theatre.

These are the reasons why we do what we do. Our work extends far beyond our productions. We're a year-round ensemble of theatre-makers, and we are all asking for your help today.

As I mentioned before, we're in the middle of our Annual Fundraising Campaign. Your contribution goes a long way toward making theatre that is worth fighting for at The Seeing Place: the place we come to see ourselves.

You can be part of the charge and donate here:  www.TheSeeingPlace.org

Thank you!