Don’t expect there to be a blueprint for how to make it. There are no rules. Or if there are, you might need to get creative with your “rule following.” Read this great interview with Al Ruddy, producer of The Godfather. (He once told a great story at our theatre about how he’d be in the lobby of the hotel where actors were staying. These were actors he wanted to cast in a film he was making. He’d call them up from the lobby phone and ask them if he could send them the script to read. They would agree and he’d say, “Great, I’m in the lobby now. I’ll be right up to your room with a copy of the script.”)
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” -John Lennon
It’s never a good time to produce a play. (Or launch any kind of passion project.) There’s always a holiday coming up or a potential trip or doctor appointment or…whatever. The calendar is never complicit. There’s always a reason not to go forward.
A pandemic is another thing entirely.
But here’s the thing…it’s so rare, especially in a collaborative medium like theatre, when excellence and love come together. Meaning a great play, great artists, all of them available, and all doing it for pure love of the art. When that happens, you gotta answer the call.
As this recent Los Angeles Times article attests, when we decided to move forward with our Vs. production of “Stand Up If You’re Here Tonight”, we thought it’d be a great time. It’d be a celebration of the return of live theatre. One big, happy party!
That certainly hasn’t been the case.
But that’s okay.
We opened. We have a great show that I’m so very proud of. People are showing up and they’re so happy when they leave the theatre.
For that and so many other reasons, it’s all been worth it.
“Just remember what ol’ Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big ol’ storm right square in the eye and he says, “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.” -Jack Burton from the film Big Trouble In Little China
That’s how you want to feel when you leave the stage. You left it all out there. Gave it everything you got. Didn’t hold back for one second. You’re wrecked and vulnerable at the end. Because you exposed your heart and soul. You and your fellow actors went through the fire and survived for another night.
You shook the pillars of heaven.
That way, you and the generous audience who showed up that night will feel the same way Wang does when he answers back…
“No horseshit, Jack.”
And Jack knows and responds…
Oh! What a scene! What a movie!!
So whatever tough obstacle awaits, no matter what you’re facing…
“How can you change who you are and learn what it takes to get up, over and over, if you can’t allow yourself to feel how much it hurts to be knocked down?…To be excellent at anything, it must cost you something.”” -Sally Field
Actors are like firefighters in that they must do the exact opposite of what most people do. The firefighter rushes IN to a burning building while everyone rushes OUT. The actor must have emotions at their fingertips while most people wish to avoid feeling vulnerable. To accomplish this, to be in the right state prior to a scene, the actor must raw herself up.
Sally Field (whom I just learned was the thirteenth choice for “Norma Rae”…Thirteenth?!…she ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for that performance…that’s another blog post someday about never giving up) would imagine taking razor blades to her skin before she stepped into a scene. That blood outpouring image helped her be emotionally available.
Whatever it takes, you gotta go there. That’s part of our job as actors.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about receiving feedback. Here are some thoughts about giving feedback…
(1) Don’t agree to give feedback unless you truly have the time and energy required to do so….For example, don’t agree to read someone’s script if you’re too busy. (Note: I’m often guilty of this one) You should assume that the writer spent a ton of hours writing (and re-writing) the script before they gave it to you. The least you should be able to do is read it carefully, think it through and give constructive feedback. So if your schedule’s jammed up at the moment, let that writer know up front. You can say something like “Thank you for thinking of me. I definitely want to read it. Just have a lot on my plate and not sure when I can get to it. I’ll do my best though and in the meantime, if you make changes, send that to me so I have the latest draft.” Better to do this than agree to read it and do a half ass job or worse, never get back to the writer.
(2) Lead with the positive…No matter what, find at least one redeeming quality and lead with that. (This is also big one for coaching youth sports by the way.) Be sensitive that someone has put their heart on the line and is vulnerable to your feedback. By leading with the positive (and there is always, always something positive to find), you’re acknowledging that sensitivity and they are now more open to your constructive notes.
(3) It’s not about you…We all have our own preferences and tastes. When giving feedback though, it’s not about what you want something to be. It’s about first trying to identify what that person wants, what they’re going for. Then helping them find the best version of what that is. This is what the best dramaturgs do. It’s not about them. It’s about the playwright and the play!
(4) Be curious...This is related to #3. Take a deep interest in the other person’s passion. Ask tons of questions. Your questions are potent. They might just help the person unlock their own subconscious and make a breakthrough. Plus you learn something in the process too. Everybody wins!
(5) Be specific…Whatever feedback you give, be prepared to back it up with specific examples. A general feeling is fine, but it’s way more substantive and helpful when you can back up your feeling with examples. And write them down. Writing out your thoughts clarifies your thinking.
(6) Don’t overdo it…You may be inspired and have tons of notes and thoughts. Great. But go back through your notes and pick out the three or four biggest things and provide only that. Chances are if the person works on those, the other things take care of themselves anyway. And if they ask for more granularity, you can give it to them. But don’t do it right off the bat.
In a 1996 essay, Bill Gates famously wrote “content is king.” I encourage you to read the essay, if for nothing else to see what he predicted right and wrong twenty five years later. It’s pretty fascinating.
Many articles today such as this one argue that content is no longer king. Distribution is. That’s why Silicon Valley companies with their ruthless efficiency and fancy algorithms dominate entertainment right now.
Where both arguments come up short is the lack of a modifying adjective. Which is…
“Quality” content is king. Always will be. Because making quality content is really freaking hard.
And “Quality” distribution is also king. It too is really hard. Because it’s about being an incredible curator.
Excellence in both of these areas isn’t about money.
It’s about love. Doing it solely for the love of the thing. That’s art.
“Will is our internal power, which can never be affected by the outside world. It is our final trump card. If action is what we do when we still have some agency over our situation, the will is what we depend on when agency has all but disappeared. Placed in some situation that seems unchangeable and undeniably negative, we can turn it into a learning experience, a humbling experience, a chance to provide comfort to others. That’s will power. But that needs to be cultivated. We must prepare for adversity and turmoil, we must learn the art of acquiescence and practice cheerfulness even in dark times. Too often people think that will is how bad we want something. In actuality, the will has a lot more to do with surrender than with strength. Try “God willing” over “the will to win” or “willing it into existence,” for even those attributes can be broken. True will is quiet humility, resilience, and flexibility; the other kind of will is weakness disguised by bluster and ambition. See which lasts longer under the hardest of obstacles.” -Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle Is The Way
In deciding whether or not to take the plunge and do something…
The question to ask yourself isn’t whether or not you have the talent or capacity. You do.
The question to ask yourself is whether or not you have the will to see the project all the way through to completion. No matter what.