Sunday, January 08, 2006

readers' theater attendance; profanity and violence in contemporary plays

Yvonne Johnson reports audiences of "about 20" for Reading Stage performances at the Civic this season.

Is the local market saturated, or are people just not listening anymore?

The Civic has held a Reading Stage series for about five (?) years; ARt holds its production previews at Auntie's; both Lake City and Ignite! hold readers' theater events; and now Interplayers is about to open the second of its three readers' theater productions of this seasons (in lieu of one full production, and clearly meant to hold down costs).

Forgive Bobo if he's wrong, but with the exception (perhaps) of one of Ignite's events at Auntie's, none of these are particularly well attended.

They also aren't particularly well advertised. The Civic had a decent hook with its first season of shows: Come see the 20 best English-language plays (many of them with large casts, therefore less likely to be given full productions) -- high-quality scripts, lots of parts, therefore lots of friends and neighbors attending and lots to look at onstage. Season-long themes, it seems to me, matter less: If I decide to take time out of my schedule on a Sunday night (which I'd rather spend with my family) to see a given show, I don't much care if it's part of a 10-part series ... I won't be able to see more than a handful of them, anyway.

Possible solutions: cooperative marketing by several local theaters, to get the word out. A core repertory of the best local actors from which to draw most or at least the leading roles. (Let's face it, ya gotta be good -- If all we have to go on is your voice, then it had better be a pretty good voice.) Rotate the locations, from theater to theater. Make people comfortable; let 'em bring in a glass of wine. Don't direct statically: There's no rule that actors have to stay seated throughout. Do some blocking, use a prop or two -- I agree, don't overtax actors by having 16 rehearsals for one show, but also don't bore the audience. And reconsider showtimes -- something other than Sunday nights at the Civic, perhaps? Put readings in lobbies with comfy chairs; maybe provide scripts for those who want to read along (even at the risk that they won't be looking at actors every second).

And a commitment from local theatergoers and people who read this blog, at least in the next few months, to come out and see some readers' theater shows. There was a good, skeptical comment on this blog awhile back -- and thank you for it -- along the lines of, we SAY around here we want edgier stuff, so it gets tried out in readers' format, and nobody shows. If we want edgy shows to get a tryout, then show up at the reading stage productions and agitate for contemporary stuff during those seasons.

(And yes, Bobo is skirting self-interest here: He's directing a Reading Stage production of *Take Me Out* by Richard Greenberg at the Civic, with auditions on March 13 and performance on April 9. Sorry, ladies, it's an all-male cast. As if women around here were just dying to work with Bobo. Ha! Some folks around here -- they prefer anonymity -- are probably to boycott and throw brickbats at me and my show. What IS a brickbat, anyway?)

Kim Roberts would be best on the following: Didn't the Civic Main Stage production of *Inherit the Wind* more or less result from its having been tried out during that first Civic Reading Stage season? And aren't there others that also resulted in productions? My point is, by under-attending readers' theater, we may be about to lose as a theater community the opportunities to see live performances (in at least some form) of shows that actually take some chances.

IF we started attending edgier readers' shows, at least we'd have those experiences to remember -- and maybe get some of them scheduled downstairs at the Civic or at ARt. (Other venues, I understand, have to consider the bottom line exclusively -- I know, everybody does.)

Example: I like Neil LaBute a lot -- but then there are so many F-bombs in his plays. So he won't get done around here. But he's honest. I just read *Fat Pig* with anticipation and was disappointed. (It's his rumination on misogyny and anti-fat person prejudice; juvenile and predictable.) But "This Is How It Goes" is very do-able: cast of three, minimal set, funny and honest, but also disturbing -- sort of the Othello premise, with black guy married to white girl who's sort of attracted to the Iago-figure who also just happens to be her former boyfriend. On issues like race, misogyny, class and manipulation, it's quite good and insightful. Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Peet and (!) Ben Stiller in one production.)
And there's The Shape of Things and The Mercy Seat.

Another example: I just read and highly recommend Martin McDonagh's *The Pillowman,* in which the premise is that a writer of short stories (most of which deal with the torture and murder of little children, horrific stuff, not directly portrayed onstage) is being good cop/bad cop interrogated in an unnamed totalitarian state. Crackling dialogue (but full of profanity), takes unexpected turns, alternately hilarious and disturbing, great meditation of the responsibilities of the artist, society's responsibilities to its most vulnerable citizens, free speech, and much to do with the Bush administration's proclivity for torturing bad guys. Kafka, Beckett, Pinter, Stoppard are all over it. But then they say "fuck" a lot in it, so I guess we'd better do The Sound of Music instead. (And I quite liked the last S of M (!!) show at the Opera House; those are delightful and even moving songs. And yet.)

What angers me is that the economics of local audiences prevent local artistic directors from scheduling a play like This Is How It Goes or The Pillowman, because of the f***ing profanity, which would horrify and discomfort the very people who would raise nary a peep about the violence.
Kill fictional people all you want, the sentiment seems to go -- we see that in prime time every night -- but don't make me uncomfortable in my theater seat by having real live actors 20 feet away from me utter the S and F and N and C words, because that violates my own sense of propriety. (We could probably do an entire alphabet of objectionable words. But violence? A couple of knife fights or drive-by shootings -- hey, that's America for ya.)

Sorry for the ramble. Take your pot shots. I want local theater to succeed. I also want it to attract younger audiences. Rodgers and Hammerstein appeal passionately to about 0.3% of the 18-to-29 crowd.
We have remember that we do handmade stuff in a machine-made world. Put a kid right there in the room with a truly convincing Leontes or Maggie or Bette, have him FEEL up close what acting is like, communally and in the same space, and he'll show up. He'll support arts subsidies. He'll urge his kids to do theater. He'll slow down to take a look at something other than the latest spectacular at the cineplex.


At January 08, 2006 7:50 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, so much to comment on.
First, let us acknowledge that Readers Theatre was created for a specific purpose - to get backers for proposed Broadway shows. It was a gimmick created by Lawrence Langer of the Theatre Guild to present new scripts directly - and in their most dramatic form - to possible backers. Rather than mailing scripts out and have most of them remain unread - and therefore unappreciated - Langer would hire established actors to read scripts aloud to invited deep pocket audiences who were wined and dined in the process. (Yes, Bobo, as you suggest, comfortable chairs and good wines.) The potential backers were then available to receive a strong sales pitch on why they should put their money into the planned show. But we must keep in mind that Readers Theatre has never been a commercial success. When Eugene O'Neill, Jr. established Readers Theatre, Inc. in 1945, and teamed first with Herebert Berghof to read "The Mayor of Zalemea" and then Blanche Yurka to read "Oedipus Rex (both at the Majestic Theatre), each ran only two performances. Six years later, in October 1951, Paul Gregory produced "Don Juan In Hell" (the third act of Shaw's "Man and Superman") for a one night fund raiser at Carnegie Hall. He was smart enough to get Charles Laughton to direct and read the part of the Devil. Laughton cast Charles Boyer as Don Juan, Sir Cedric Hardwicke as The Statue, and Agnes Moorehead as Donna Ana. It was so well received that it move to the Plymouth Theatre in April 1952 for 66 performances, and the re-opened at the New Century Theatre in November of the same year for another 38 performances. To my knowledge it was, and is, the only commercially successful Readers Theatre production. But then look at that cast. Four of the biggest stage and film stars of the day.
Personally, I love Readers Theatre, but I suspect that only other actors really enjoy watching it. Sadly, your average theatre goer wants action, costumes and a set on stage, nothing less. Vivid imagination is not their strong suit.
As for your suggestion that a little blocking and a few props be added in - well, there are rules against it, but if bending a few rules makes the project a success, who am I do argue against it. Good luck getting the support you seek.

At January 09, 2006 9:36 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was one reading stage show that was VERY well attended. "Hair" was a reader's theatre show, the end of the season and it was standing room only. Maybe they should do more of those, because it was exciting and amazinly well done.

At January 09, 2006 11:17 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reader's theater should not be treated as a revenue generating event. Outside of the large markets searching for production financing, the reader's theater serves as a forum to hear plays (new or proven) under consideration for production. Given that as the intention, audiences would tend to be artistic types (directors, actors, writers) and also literary types. The remaining audience are generally friends and family of the people reading.

With the goal of "listening" to a play to consider it for production, blocking gets in the way. Having seen readings with blocking, the experience is like watching a first rehearsal (not that great) and often the reader, wrapped up in the blocking loses the timing of the writer or their place in the script.

The consistently best reader's theater I have seen occurs in comfortable chairs, beverages are not necessary but wouldn't be a problem, blocking might occur if the narrator can not bring a vision to an action, and the audience attending can see the play in their mind's eye with eyes closed and relaxed.

Reader's theater isn't a production after all. It's intended purpose is to hear and visualize the playwright's story.

There may be exceptions like "Hair" which is musical and one can watch the singers. But that is more of a concert forum than reader's theater of a comedy or drama.

There are some plays written with the intention of reading only (i.e., Animal Farm). This show in full production is just another reader's theater.

Given that the audience attending are artists, friends of artists and literary types, and given the goal of considering a play for production and getting feedback from the audience, charging admission shouldn't occur.

If a theater is presenting reader's theater as a revenue source, the audiences will always be small contingents of friends and family of the cast.

At January 09, 2006 3:28 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

For anonymous 1/9@11:17am:
Well said! You are right on the mark. But, I think "Readers" is plural, not possessive, isn't it?

At January 10, 2006 10:38 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

what is your definition of "edgy"? Must a show have loads of profanity to be edgy? Can one perform edgy subject matter without cursing continuously? I think the constant cussing detracts from a show (movie or play) Language should be used for emphasis and character development. If you are bombarded by it, you become numb, and when someone does curse for effect, it has none. Keep suggesting shows, please. I was not familiar with a couple you mentioned. Gotta go to the library!

At January 10, 2006 11:12 AM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Jan W, I agree about verbal obscenities being splattered all across the stage. It's like stage nudity: Are people paying attention to ANYTHING else onstage if somebody strutting around naked? No. And then if they've got a potty-mouth -- for awhile, that's all you hear, then -- you're right -- you just tune out. Used sparingly, of course, it can be startling and quite effective. My beef is with people who object even to those moments -- i.e., who have a zero-tolerance policy for onstage profanity.
And I agree that four-letter words in themselves do not equal edginess. In the case of The Pillowman (McDonagh is also the playwright of The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan (sp?) -- however, the F-bombs seem justified to me: highly charged and angry men in horrific circumstances ... of course they wouldn't scruple to talk like this.
But Pillowman is on the edge in part because it doesn't quaver from challenging the liberal pieties that the press is absolutely free, the artist has responsibilities only to himself, violent content (as in video games or movies) couldn't possibly influence young people to do despicably brutal things, etc. Does abuse justify acting out later in life? And why not, if parents, neighbors and authorities have done absolutely nothing to forestall the suffering of children? And maybe totalitarian states wouldn't be so bad, if they would round up all the child molesters and terrorists and kick some serious ass.
You can see how, in coded, metaphorical form, McDonagh is taking on invasion of civil liberties, torture, our collective paranoia, and so on.

At January 10, 2006 11:43 AM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Anon 11:17 makes very good points, yes.
I was blinded by my enthusiasm for good scripts -- of COURSE it's intriguing mostly to insider types.
What if the Civic or other local theaters simply organized cold reading nights? In the past, I've belonged to a couple of playreading clubs -- get together monthly, read a script. It was great fun. Main difficulty was in acquiring multiple copies without using Mr. Xerox to violate the law, wink wink.
The readings are tremendously invigorating for those who are involved. Maybe that's the problem - play readings are are a lot more fun for those doing it than for those watching it.
Especially in light of the disbanding (?) of the Civic's play reading committees, this might be a way to try out as-yet-untested-locally scripts. Ignite!, Lake City, ARt, CenterStage -- your chance to get people onto your stages and invested in upcoming productions. Fill an opportunity that Civic is jettisoning?

At January 10, 2006 3:46 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Thanks, David, for the good point about actors breaking into a new area - and with relatively little time commitment, too. A source told me that at Interplayers, for Tuesdays with Morrie done readers-style, audiences ranged from 20 to 100.
I still think maybe organizing a playreading club -- along the lines of a book club -- might be the way to go. Could be open to anybody, but esp. members of the Spokane theater community. Any interest? How would we know the gender breakdown, so as to accommodate and choose good scripts matched to whoever shows up?
AND I want to revive the idea of an awards night for local theater. Bobo will investigate how the B-Side awards night did. He hears rumors of how a proposed Tony night hereabouts may have gotten nixed ...

At January 11, 2006 1:16 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know I had a friend who was attempting a playreading club, that I attended a meeting of that was just he, his wife, and I... you may know this fellow Bobo as you work with him (I wont mention his name in case he can beat me up)
I'd love to see something like that get off the ground (even selfishly as a playwright who tends to write "Edgy" stuff)

At January 11, 2006 2:49 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been asked to post the rules for Readers Theatre - or Reading Stage, whichever you prefer. So, here goes.

It is my understanding that The Drama League has "established" the following:
"All Reading Stage performances must conform to the format outlines below:
- No lighting cues. Lights will illuminate the stage...nothing more.
- No sound cues. Live sound effects are allowable, and must be performed by the director or his/her designate.
- No costumes will be provided and no costume changes will be allowed.
- No props; everything must be mimed.
- No blocking; movement is expected to be from chair to reading area and back again."

I know, there are some who say rules are made to be broken. Personally, I remain a purist, but then again I am just an old phart. Who am I to tell somebody else how to produce a theatrical piece?

At January 11, 2006 5:44 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments, Bobo. I'm anxious to get a copy of The Pillowman. I usually have trouble keeping up with the scripts for our current season, but I suppose I must put down my murder mysteries long enough to scout for potential shows. Sigh!

At January 18, 2006 3:09 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The size of audiences for the recent reading stage production for "To Kill A Mockingbird" were better than I expected.

I’ve been involved in local reading stage productions as audience, actor and director for a number of years. I like the format very much. It can be the happy conjunction of a good script, good actors and the imagination of the audience. I don’t think it is well understood as a format by the general public, even by those who purchase season subscriptions regularly.

Past staged readings at the Civic have had larger audiences than the usual 20 to 30 faithful. Angels in America sold out but you may be surprised that Miss Lulu Bett packed in as many or more. Never heard of it? Zona Gale, recipient of the Pulitzer for literature for the novel of the same name, was being taught in various women’s studies at local colleges. By contacting teachers and professors to promote that staged reading I, the director of what was to me an unknown piece, was able to bring in the biggest audience I’ve ever seen for the Sunday night series. Did any of those students ever return to other readings? I don’t think so. Why aren’t professionals, the college educated, the middle class replenishing the theatre?

Sunday night is hardly the best of all choices. The last breath of the weekend meets the desire to cocoon. Seniors don’t want to drive in the dark. Darkly serious scripts don’t tempt the curious who may depend on the news-rag show previews to expand the view of the play. Weekend afternoons may be better. With alcohol or chocolate may be better. Outside the usual theatre location could work better. Couple of days in a row might be better still.

Reading stage suffers from an identity crisis. What is it? Why would I want to go to a partial production? If it is such a good script, why wouldn’t the theatre do a full production? Why are tickets so expensive (as compared to movies or rentals)?

What is needed is better advertising to educate neophytes and historical supporters that this form has certain advantages. Reading stage done right is as powerful as fully staged productions. It is the distillation of the force of acting. A director can cast fine actors whose schedules don’t permit them to otherwise appear. One can experience actors whose physical reality may not match the visual but whose talent supercedes the role. Quality editing of necessary narrative or stage direction, spoken by an actor as narrator, can be minimally invasive. Imagination in the audience mind can be as rewarding as those images we create when we read novels. Those who love the written word can concentrate more on the script, see with eyes closed. Educators who blend classroom with performance art have a greater advantage. Students are exposed to other interpretations or experience of major works.

The challenge is to create a new audience. Theatre companies cannot afford six-plus character shows, giant sets, technical requirements. Nor can they offend established subscribers with edgier works. But to be a viable art theater must not be restricted by the dollar.

Reading stage may best be used to expand the mission of a theatre. Royalties must be paid and one might be surprised that staged readings are as expensive as full productions. I think it is time for theatres to think outside the bricks and mortar box, take staged readings to other performance spaces, in the summer, under the stars, in the parks. Directors can work with marketing writers to contact with potential audiences. Open reading stage to the public for free/donation requested and it works like advertising to promote the theatre’s season. Pass the hat, pay the actors and director.

What could be next for reading stage? I asked our resident curmudgeon to post the rules because I wanted readers of this blog to see them and to assure everyone out there who wants to see or do more theatre that it’s useful to know what the format has been. Past directors have tweaked the rules. I think that makes it even more interesting. I personally love the reduced rehearsal time, the lack of memorization, the spontaneity of the performances, the salad of opportunity that reading stage delivers.

Actors are bound to the tyranny of commercially driven script choices, the predilections of directors, the wage and most especially to ephemeral nature of the very art of acting. There is room for more theatre.

At January 19, 2006 2:08 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen Ann


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