Wednesday, May 31, 2006

mid-week thoughts

Working like a lunatic this week, two shows opening at PS 122 next week (both of which every one of you will come to early with nine friends in tow, I trust) and beginning work on the stage adaptation of Midnight Cowboy which I just got hired to direct at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Hot, frantic, strange few days.

A few thoughts on this League:

Some folks have talked about a physical site being important, a venue with rehearsal space, maybe a place with more than one stage. I like the idea, naturally, but every physical space eventually evolves into a clubhouse with some people on the inside and others knocking at the door. No way around that. So I think a physical location is important, in fact, some actual office space at the very least is essential, but thinking broadly, how about an organization that as part of its mission works to create new spaces, working with realtors, donors, merchants and politicians? Organized sweat equity, long-term neighborhood preservation or neighborhood development, etc. That's one concrete thing the League could work towards that no other organization I'm aware of has as a stated goal. And it's something that makes success verifiable, at the end of a year you could say this much square footage was created or acquired for small theatre artists, these many new affordable rehearsal halls were built, this many performance spaces were found.

Riffing off someone else's idea in one of the comments, how about an organization that works with local colleges and universities to train and place administrative, technical and creative interns with small theatres? So it's not just the random eager or not-so-eager kid hanging around getting in the way, it's someone who's gone through a process familiarizing her with the environment and even the particular Off-Off or indie theater she'll be working in. Same wing of the League could work to organize those sought-after group sales with a theater class that can make an iffy early Wednesday show into a solid, rowdy audience.

And another goal is to work consistently and ferociously with the local, state and federal government to preserve the cultural eco-system of which we are the key. Simple recognition of that fact and recognition that it's an organized community, not just a lot of individual artists, is the first step towards financial support of that community.

What do you think?

Come see the shows. Midnight Cowboy onstage, that's pretty strange, right? And most importantly, who's got free rehearsal space for me on Friday and Saturday afternoon? And a couch for Americana Absurdum.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

comment round-up

A lot of great comments and the beginnings of some good conversations since the Draft Mission Statement post. Thanks everyone for reading and joining in the discussion. In the interest of efficiency, I'll summarize some of the thoughts:

Walls and Bunkers comments:
James points out part of the problem may stem from too much supply rather than too little demand. This has been Zach's point for years, there's just too many little theater companies in New York. I think the problem is not that there are too many, it's that they're not organized.

Jake calls for a multi-generational and multi-disciplinary movement. Now that's interesting. Visual arts collectives and homeless theatre companies pooling resources to get a physical space.

Ann, god love her, applauds the general idea and speaks for the audience, saying the artists shouldn't do all the heavy lifting. She talks very practically, pointing us towards theatre departments in universities, getting administrative support, etc.

And then Jesica, an AEA member and co-founder of Collaboration Town, gives a hearty hell yes, let's do this thing.

Comments on the original post, the Draft Mission Statement post:

Colin calls for a broader approach, not just changing the Showcase Code, but changing Equity. There's some support and concern expressed and then Zach goes a little further and proposes starting a new union, perhaps along the lines of that Freelancers Union I used to see advertised on the subway. Mark and George weigh in, helping to differentiate this embryonic idea from what ART/New York is already doing.

There are more comments and more issues expressed than the above, but in order to steer the conversation forward, let me ask this:

How do people envision this League operating? Non-profit? Membership organization? What's the staff? Does it need a physical office? Where might that be? Would anyone reading this pay dues or a membership fee? What would the League do, actually and practically, to merit that money?

And let me say this:

I'm enjoying being an artist right now. I've also got a lot of producing and consulting and teaching work lined up right now. So if this is going to happen, we're going to need three or four more people to devote some time and focused energy to build it. And once we build it, I may not be the right guy to run it.

Calling out for a little vision here. General sense is that the thing is needed. What does the thing look like?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

walls and bunkers

A comment on the previous post from Jake highlights a problem I'm always running into and a conversation I've had with many people over lo these many years. I'm wrestling with this problem, or choice, as I type these words. I've got two plays I'm working on right now, a very loose Woyzeck adaptation and a big crazy full-length with a gang of clowns invading and over-running a 19th century well-made play. I'm also re-mounting two shows now, Americana Absurdum by Brian Parks and The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (partially burned) in a Dustbin in Paris Labeled "Never to be performed. Never. Ever. EVER! Or I'll Sue! I'LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!!! "discovered" by Greg Allen, Ben Schneider and Danny Thompson. But instead of working on any of these four shows, I'm typing on the old blog, trying to stir shit up.

Activism or organizing or agitating or whatever it is I'm doing when I talk out about a new League of Independent Producers, or a new Alternative Touring Circuit, takes time and thought and energy. Most theater artists in New York have a precious small supply of these three things and choose, wisely, to spend them on their work. This is especially true of younger artists still chasing their own voices and visions. So those with the most to gain from a systemic change in the Off-Off or indie world, the younger artists, have the least amount of resources to contribute. And this is where we all begin to climb the wall or build the bunker.

The wall is the status quo, the existing conditions. We climb the wall by accepting them as unchangeable and adapting to them. These are the physical, economic conditions of the American theatre industry and the common, accepted understanding in this country of what theatre looks like, what it does, how it behaves, how you buy it, where you see it and how you judge it.

The bunker is the safe place, physical or psychological, where a committed artist hides and schemes. The Theatorium was my big old tumble-down bunker for a few years. Clancy Productions is my current bunker. Bunkers are vital. They keep you alive. The only big problem with a bunker is that the view is for shit. You're dug in, walls all around you, safe, but essentially blind.

It is extraordinarily difficult to sustain a life or what can laughingly be called a career in the theater in this country in these days. I believe it is our collective responsibility to make it less difficult. It's the logic of collective action. It's enlightened self-interest. It's believing in the future.

This belief was the driving force and the main reason we put together the New York International Fringe Festival nine years ago. The festival didn't solve the problem, obviously, the problem is bigger than that, but for a few years there it felt like we were dealing with each other in a different way, we were climbing out of our bunkers and looking at the wall together and it didn't look that high or that strong, not when you looked around and saw how many of us there were.

Now it's nine years later. The wall is still there and we're still here, by and large. Some new bunkers dot the horizon, some old ones have been abandoned or over-run. And it feels to me like it's time to poke our heads out again.

We built the festival by talking to everyone who would listen to us, pooling all of our collective resources, holding onto each other as tightly as we could, and then jumping off a cliff, screaming all the way down. At least, that's my memory.

And the time and effort it took to talk and pool and hold onto each other and jump off that cliff was time and effort I didn't spend on my art. After five years of it, I had to step away and see if I was still an artist.

It's been almost five years since I resigned from the company and the festival. Built myself a nice, roomy bunker in those years. New bunker, old wall, same story.

I hate this story. I hate the story of the starving artist, the struggling playwright, the tiny houses, the eviction notices, the vast indifference, the institutional disregard.

Yes, Jake, an artist's first responsibility is to her art. But when external conditions make it all but impossible to make the art, some time and effort and thought should be directed to changing those conditions.

How do we do this?

We talk to each other honestly and directly about the conditions.
We identify things we'd like to see changed.
We plan how to change these things.
We put the plan in action.

Sounds simple because, actually, it is. There's no guarantee we'll accomplish anything, but there's nothing stopping us from trying. The trick is to keep talking, stepping slowly out of the bunker and walking towards the wall.

Got to get to rehearsal. More later.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

crazy talk

We can cut a deal with realtors to renovate properties and revitalize neighborhoods that benefits both sides.

We can argue with the city about the vital need for recognition and protection of the young, unknown artists and the environment they work in, and we can win that argument.

We can work with the unions to create more work and a much more rewarding work environment.

We can tour our work across the country and host the work of like-minded small theater companies and artists here in New York.

We can build a new, strong, engaged audience by focusing on younger people and working together.

We can write the history books. Literally. We can write them. We're living them, we just need to write it down now while it's fresh.

We can do a lot of things, friends. Only real problem I see is that there is no we.

Every generation recognizes the same problem. Every generation comes to the same wall.

Most generations divide into two camps. One camp recognizes the wall, measures it, and begins to climb it. Some may actually get over to the other side, who knows? Most of the first camp, however, settle on finding a position somewhere on the wall and begin to jealously guard it.

The other camp, standing at the wall, not climbing, divides as well. Half spend their lives standing at the foot of the wall, shaking their fists and shouting. The other half grows bored and walks away.

That's what most generations do, upon finding themselves at the wall.

The exceptional generations, the historical generations, tear down the fucking wall.

We all know the situation. We can all talk about the same problems and tell the same sad stories. The answers may not be easy, but they certainly aren't complex. We can change things. We're the only ones who can.

Only problem is, there is no we.

In the meantime, let's all pursue our individual agendas and work on our individual shows and publicize our individual endeavors and hope that it all works out.

See you on the wall.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


I won a goddamned Obie last night. Stood up there behind the podium with my mind empty, mouth moving as always. Nancy was in the ladies room, came running in from the back of the hall. We did our Adrian/Rocky bit. "Nancy!" "I'm here, baby!" "Naaaannnncy!"

"Sustained Excellence of Direction". Sounds like I never wavered or bumped into the wall. Which I can assure you, is not true. It's sitting over there on the floor. The cat is, strangely, unimpressed. Full list of all the awards on

Got a suggestion that we should move the Equity conversation to a moderated message board. I have no idea what that means. My belief is that when conversations get to a certain pitch, they should be moved into a real-life sitting around a table type of situation. Everyone's busy, but we might be getting to that point.

Again, to repeat the call from last post, if there are Equity actors reading this, please weigh in with whatever opinion you have, or email me at

And again, there are other issues to figure out. The always dapper and unflappable Brent Cox, he of the Dog and Pony Show, has a take on new audiences/old audiences in the comments below.

Monday, May 15, 2006

great ideas and big picture

Some very good ideas and suggestions have come in on the Showcase Code issue, check them out in the comments to the post below. I've noticed that in this town when we start talking about unions, people get tense and knees start jerking. I'd like to hear from union members if you're out there, pro and con. Bottom line, if the union actors working downtown are happy with the code, then any effort to change it or create something new is going to be quite a struggle and may not be a legitimate cause. It's their union.

Other issues I'd like to kick around:

Rehearsal space- There's a lot of empty office space in New York. In Dallas, years ago, a deal was worked out between realtors and theatre companies. Only issue, I believe, was insurance.

Creating an endowment- How much revenue is generated in this city from all of the film and television that goes on? What would 1% of that mean to a bunch of small theatre companies? Can we make an argument to the city and to the massive media conglomerates that as the research and development wing of American culture, they should invest in us? Can we make the same argument to the League of American Theatres and Producers? Broadway shows that recoup begin to give half a percentage point back to the New York theatre?

New audience- How many colleges and high schools are in New York City? Why aren't we inviting them to take part in the unique cultural opportunity of downtown theatre? We'd be getting a good, rowdy crowd, filling some otherwise empty seats and engaging with a new audience, getting to know them now.

This is an especially insane week for me, so I'll try to stay in the conversation but if I grow quiet, don't worry, I'll be back. If anyone knows of some cheap and or free rehearsal space, let me know, I'm a little bit screwed. Too many balls juggling and dropped one.

Obies tonight. Always a strange evening.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

League of Independent Producers draft mission statement


Here's a first draft. Cribbed a lot of it from existing leagues, trying to balance between a broad, inclusive definition and a clearly defined membership criteria.

The League of Independent Producers mission is to foster theatrical productions produced in 99 seat theatres and promote the common interest of its membership- theatre owners and operators, producers and presenters. The League assists in the voluntary exchange of information among its members, serves as the collective voice of its membership, works to increase interest in Off-Off or independent theatre throughout North America, strives to foster a sense of community among all members, and develops programs addressing the unique needs of its members.

In its first year, the League will seek to reform the current Equity Showcase Code, commission and execute a comprehensive economic impact analysis of the New York independent theatre industry and work with the city and state government to address the affordable rehearsal and performance space crisis.

A couple of quick points:

1. I have no pride of authorship on this thing, please whack away with suggestions.
2. The purpose of this first draft is to start a conversation. I'd love to hear and discuss what other people might like this proposed organization to look like and do, or indeed if such an organization is a good idea.
3. For reasons I've put down below, in the Towards a Definition post, I've purposely avoided any reference to a "downtown" or indie aesthetic. I've also avoided any adjectives like "adventurous" or "cutting-edge" or all the rest of the blather we put in our press releases. The individual work will determine all that, this is just a place where the work can be supported.
4. The stated goals of reforming the Showcase Code and the rest are just what Nancy and Paul and I came up with. I like them, but again, please whack away.

I'd like to have a good, spirited cyber-discussion on this for a couple of weeks with the goal of an agreed-upon mission statement by, say, June 1. Then sometime in July or August all interested parties can sit down and yell at each other somewhere.

Let's see if we can build something.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

scrappy gets a job

I just got hired to teach acting and directing at Rowan University next year. For you geography buffs, yes, that's in Glassboro, NJ. Got some thoughts rattling around about the post-Stanislavski methods of actor training and the general state of the theatre that these kids will be walking into after they graduate, will post soon.

In the meantime, please go by 59E59 Street and support our British brethren. It's the Brits Off Broadway Festival, a lot of stuff from last year's Edinburgh Festival, usually top-notch. And the theater has a bar. Very civilized.

keep off the grass

I'm climbing off the barricades for a moment with this post, trying to nail down a slippery thought. I've been hired to teach acting and directing at a university next year and so I'm trying to get some basics clear in my head.

What keeps me motivated and working in the theater is a profound and near-complete hatred of the theater. I hate the literalism of most design, the straight-faced mimicry the actors are asked to perform, the cowardice and obviousness of most of the writing, the confusion and dereliction of most directing. If I see a show and there are five minutes that genuinely surprise or hold me, that's an exceptional night in the theater. Five minutes out of seventy five. If it were music, I wouldn't buy the album. If it were a novel I would have thrown it across the room a long time ago. But every single time, when I 'm sitting there with others and the lights go down I lean forward, excited, focused, ready. That's usually the best part of the event. The leaning forward, the gathering of thought and focus and energy. And then its an hour or so of watching talented people slop around in horseshit.

So, not to just curse the darkness, here's where I think the problem begins:

The basic cul-de-sac or bear-trap that American theatre and most Western theatre has gotten caught in is this limited idea of representational realism. We think, in general terms, that that's our job description. Represent (which means imitate) reality. You hear it when someone asks you "what's your play about?" meaning what is the story or the issue you're presenting or exploring. You don't hear anyone ask that question about a Pollock painting or a Charlie Parker recording. We're hooked into this straight-on or fun-house mirror relationship to what we call the "real world". (I actually used that phrase in a press release for Fatboy, "a fun-house mirror reflection of the world we live in" or something like that.) And when we say or lazily think "the real world", we're accepting, right at the start, that the real world is the phenomenal world only and that people behave in an orderly, understandable, rational manner and that by and large, we all want and believe and fear the same things. We're all a bunch of good Freudians when we sit down to work.

The truth is, of course, that "the real world" is a place of wonder, mystery, chaos, terror, beauty, confusion and sudden illumination. That's the real world. We can all negotiate it and try to make some kind of individual sense out of it, but the experience of a gradual unfolding of events that lead towards a greater understanding is not one that I can ever remember having. Not in the real world. I don't experience a lot of reason or rationality in my day-to-day life, I deal mostly with faith, luck, superstition, habit and surprise. And I don't think I'm that different from most people.

By accepting this severely limited and frankly false definition of "reality", we wall off the most fertile soil we can work in and are left to toil in a bare, parched, well-traveled patch of public property. "Write a love story, because lovers always get together in the end." Just like real life. "Write a court-room drama, because they system of justice always triumphs." Just like real life. Whatever you write, just make sure that the characters and all of their actions are understandable and the whole thing means something that anyone paying attention can comprehend and sum up in three sentences. Just like real life.

What we're experiencing is the final, hollow triumph of empiricism, the result of a centuries old raising of Reason to the status of religion. We earnestly believe that Things Make Sense and Things Add Up and Things Happen for a Reason. And so our theater reflects this belief and because we're not as creative or as cruel as whatever Life Force/Playwright that has cast us in this "real world" situation we find ourselves in, our plays are pale, watered-down, slow, obvious forgeries of the Original, of "life". And the more we try to represent "reality", the more we fail.

When I was a young actor I got cast in a Horton Foote play, The Traveling Lady. The set was the front lawn of some boarding house in Texas. We were rehearsing in the theater and one day I walked in and they had laid sod on the stage. It was real grass. I started laughing. I stood in the audience, on a wooden floor, and then stepped onto the stage, real grass, and couldn't stop laughing. No one else found it remotely funny, and I couldn't explain how ludicrous and sad the design choice was to me, how intrinsically wrong it was to me. I don't know if I'm being clear about it now, but I'm just going to try to keep chasing the thought. The other actors and the director started getting a little mad, so I shut up about it, but I couldn't stop giggling. The futility of it. The attempt to use something real to represent something false in order to increase its realism. The complete and unacknowledged failure of the imagination.

I see this same "real grass" phenomenon in most Stanislavski-schooled actors. The good ones are very good at pretending to be real people. Problem is most real people are very boring and physically and vocally do everything they can not to stand out from the crowd. This attempt to be "real" is responsible for the Plague of Subtlety in the American acting world. All these small choices, choices based on "what the character's thinking" or "what the character feels". I spend half the time in rehearsal telling actors to get a wider physical base and shout more. Not half, but at least a third.

The real grass rule works great for film and television. You know why? Because you can show real grass. Real grass, real trees, real sky, real buildings. In the theater, the real grass is hanging out there alone, looking sad and a little foolish Looking like it showed up at the wrong party and is wondering where all its friends are. I felt bad for the grass after a while doing that show.

Same real grass reaction to most plays I read based on historical situations. Same thing when I saw Guantanomo and The Exonorated. Those were particulary strange because you had actors saying the actual words of real people. And I kept thinking...Man, this would make a great documentary.

So what's left for us if we abandon "reality" and turn the mirror to the wall? Everybody running around shouting gibberish? Long, strange, boring light shows?

There are already some things out there, contemporary things worth pointing to. Here in Manhattan there's a company called Vampire Cowboy Theater. They have these two cowboys slouching on the side of the stage the whole time and at the beginning and the end and in the middle too, I think, they do the classic cowboy showdown bit, but one of them is a vampire and attacks the other one. Lights down. No attempt to weave it in to the rest of the show. Brilliant. Chicago's Neo-futurists have been doing theater not attempting to reflect anything remotely real for fifteen years now, they don't reflect reality because they accept and acknowledge openly that they are part of the same reality as the audience. In the same place, same time, doing a show in front of them. Brilliant. You all have similar and better examples of this. I'm suggesting that this kind of immediacy and honesty and acceptance of the actual place and time is something we should begin to base our work on and instead of attempting to make things seem real, accept that they are real.


The thought remains out in front of me, but I'm going to post this anyway in the hope that others help track it down. I've been reading some people out there in the blogworld who seem to have a great grounding in theory, more than me, so tell me if I'm talking about something obvious or if I'm making any sense at all.

A theater that doesn't pretend, that doesn't imitate. A theater that engages an audience and keeps focusing them on the realities in front of them, not any fiction. A theater that reverses the usual flow of energy, that doesn't try to draw the audience into world of the play, but draw the play into the world of the audience...

And it can be funny, too.

More on this League of Independent Producers soon. Some great meetings going on already, seems like it might be a very good idea.

Monday, May 01, 2006

may day

Like a pilot spiraling out of the sky...

Ian Hill has some great answers to the seven questions below on his site, . Ian, besides being a fine director, is one of the unsung heroes of the New York Fringe. We broke on him and Art Wallace like a tidal wave that summer of 97 and they held fast, the Warriors of Todo con Nada, Defenders of Ludlow Street. Unthinkable to me that the festival is now ten years old, with all that has changed and, sadly, all that hasn't.

George Hunka, has me as a "recent veteran of the downtown world". The Times of London dubbed me a "veteran of the Fringe" last summer, so let me run with this. Imagine me sitting here in a bunker, grizzled and smoking a Lucky Strike, mad glint in the eye, tight-lipped, left cheek twitching... the horror...

"Tell us about the battle of Charas, Captain Scrappy, or the seige of Stanton Street the long winter of 99..."

No, no war stories. Not on May Day. How about a battle plan.

I believe we are losing a war of attrition here in New York. I believe we have to find a way, together, to preserve and strengthen the Off-Off or indie environment. We have to work collectively, defining common goals and achieving common objectives. I've already written about this in a previous post and others have been talking and writing about it as well. It's not that complicated or radical an idea. We are a strong, creative, large, diverse community. We work in substandard conditions for little to no financial reward. We have no plan to change this. No one outside our community has any reason to change these conditions. Why would a realtor or an audience member or a journalist or an Off-Broadway producer or a politician or a philanthropist or anyone outside our community want to change our conditions? Either we're working to their advantage or they just don't care. Either they're happy with the way it works or we haven't made a coherent argument.

Mayday. Who are we calling to? Who's going to come?

It's just us, folks. So we stay here, accept our conditions and go on with our individual projects and paths and wish each other the best or we work together to improve our collective lot. No one is going to change this but us.

What do we do?
1. Organize. Form the League of Independent Producers with the mission to advocate for and increase communication between the producers, presenters, companies, venue operators and service organizations of the Off-Off or indie industry. By acting collectively we act with clarity, efficiency and clout.
2. Mobilize. Define the concrete advancements and objectives that will improve the community's condition and begin working towards these goals. Rent subsidies, contract negotiations, increased visibility, we all know this list.
3. Realize. That we are strong. That we are vital to the cultural life of the city and the nation. That if we don't act, no one will. That there is a historical window that for whatever reason is open right now and that it will close if we don't jump through it.


This is Captain Jack, veteran of the Clemente Soto Velez campaign, signing off.