Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Scenic Design’s Social Impact

Salvage Vanguard Theater’s partner in the Austin Scenic Co-Op is Rude Mechanicals. Today, Thomas Graves of Rude Mechs shares with us a thought provoking meditation on scenic design and its significance beyond the stage…

I began working on this project during a state of emergency. When hurricanes Katrina and Rita tore through the southern United States, many of us felt an urgent need to act. Among other things, the devastation Katrina and Rita caused forced us to recognize the racist and classist structure of our society; the fact that our elected government officials fail to serve us; the scarcity of natural resources; and the devastating effects of our actions on the environment. The crisis caused me to interrogate the ethics of my arts practice and ask myself how I can have a more positive impact.

Over the past three and a half years I have been working as an actor and sometimes technical director with the theatre collective Rude Mechanicals (Rude Mechs) in Austin, TX. Katrina and Rita book-ended the construction of the set for the Rude Mechs’ production Match-Play. As technical director of this production I bought the materials and organized the labor required to build the set. Performing this task in a state of crisis made me wonder what impact the immense time and resources invested in the construction of theatrical sets has on the world.

The Rude Mechs adapted Match-Play from renowned choreographer Deborah Hay’s dance The Match. The play uses Hay’s performance practice to raise questions about consciousness and the relationships between theatre, dance and daily practice. The work of performers like Hay that challenge the boundary between what I regard as carefully crafted artistic practice and everyday life inspire me to more be more intentional about practices of making theatre.

Early in her career, Hay participated in the Judson Dance Theatre, a group that explodes notions of dance’s ontology. Watching Deborah Hay perform, my perceiving heightens and expands. A plane flies overhead as she makes a slow turn center stage, and I hear, as if for the first time, the intricate complexity of the sound of a jet engine. Nothing escapes the performance. Planes, late-comers, and people rustling candy wrappers all become something to marvel at. Hay’s work expands my understanding of what performance is, thus challenging me to carefully consider what happens behind-the-scenes as much as that which happens onstage. This more capacious definition of performance demands that the technical process receive attention.

The performance of Match-Play itself certainly has an impact by making us—technicians, performers, and audience—question the way we perceive the world. The set, therefore, in so far as it serves as a site for the performance and furthers its artistic vision, makes an impact. However, considering the nature of tragic events that surrounded the production I couldn’t help but feel the need to have my labor as a technical director make an impact that was less ephemeral and esoteric, and more concrete and immediate. Linda Frye Burnham captures the sense of urgency that fuels this project when she states, "There is too much going on outside . . . Real life is calling. I can no longer ignore the clamor of disaster—economic, spiritual, environmental, political disaster—in the world in which I move.” I am interested in exploring the ways that the performance of my labor and its product can have a direct material result in the face of real life disaster.

Peggy Phelan, in her book Unmarked, makes the case that performance is fundamentally ephemeral. She writes, “Performance’s only life is in the present . . . Performance’s being . . . becomes itself through disappearance.” Although I agree with Phelan, matter refuses to disappear. The performance may disappear, but the set, props and costumes remain. Considering matter’s durability, should not the impacts of the material excesses be as intentional as those of the performances they support?

I want my work in the world to matter. This project focuses on the technical production of theatre as an important site to do those things many performances confront onstage, like countering capitalism, addressing inequality, and contributing to the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants. I am interested in how theatre enacts better futures, not only in the moments of live performance, but also within technical production. This Austin Scenic Co-op project concerns itself with the making of theatre as a way to create the world in which we want to live.

--Thomas Graves, Co-Producing Artistic Director, Rude Mechs

Childsplay Hosts Sustainable Stagecraft Summit

Read about Childsplay’s planning of summits to find solutions to Sustainable Stagecraft, and take part in their survey this month…

Our search for practical, affordable solutions to sustainable stagecraft is being led by a fantastic team of graduate students from Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS). We have been meeting weekly to develop a shared vocabulary and a framework for conversations about the constraints – cost, availability, quick turnarounds, institutional priorities, etc. – that govern purchasing decisions in our shops.

With the help of the GIOS team, we are busy preparing for our first of three Sustainable Stagecraft Summits. The February convening will focus on the sourcing and recycling of materials used in our shops. Childsplay will bring together theatre professionals, manufacturers and recyclers to explore the following topics: where are we currently purchasing our materials and what is their origin (source); what sustainable materials currently exist in the marketplace that are directly comparable to our current materials and how might we reduce costs through bulk purchasing; are there other existing sustainable (and affordable!) products that could be adapted to theatrical applications; and how could we alter our preparation of materials to make them easier to recycle. We will build upon the excellent work of Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company (see their entries on the A-ha! Blog) and the Rainforest Relief Fund’s Safe Sets Campaign in providing a framework for materials discussions. We will also hope to have a practical application session during the summit, spending part of the day in a shop environment experimenting with samples of substitute products.

We need your help, too. In the next few days, Childsplay will survey the field to better understand the quantity of materials used in theatrical scenic construction, the potential buying power of the industry, and any current sustainable purchasing and recycling activities at individual theatres. Thanks for your help – we will share the results in our next blog!

Here is the link to the survey: Childsplay Sustainable Stagecraft Survey

--Jenny Millinger, Director of Strategic Initiatives & Anthony Runfola, Production Manager, Childsplay

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A-Ha! Round 3: Go!

The waiting is over! New Guidelines and Applications for the 2010 MetLife/TCG Aha! Program are now available on the TCG website, and we know you're just bursting with ideas so far out of the box they can only be called... A-Ha!

Deadline: May 3, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Book-It Repertory Theatre and Literacy

Book-It Repertory Theatre is asking many questions relating to literacy as part of their A-ha! project. They have provided an Evaluation Plan that outlines their process and seeks to answer numerous questions. Their plan and story so far...

To be honest, I feel like I’m just getting started. Through this grant, I have been hired as the Literacy Assessment Director to research, develop systems, provide data, explore, question, and answer all things related to literacy and how those things intersect with the work of Book-It. The dream is to have our own home – a literacy-based theatre center. In the beginning, I spent a lot of time developing a plan that outlines exactly what we hope to do over the course of the year. We have some big ideas and lots of questions and it became clear, that we needed to stay focused – the plan helps us achieve this and is included in this posting.

First, a little background on the Book-It Style. Book-It’s mission is to transform great literature into great theatre through simple and sensitive production and to inspire our audiences to read. Book-It adapts works of literature for the stage in the signature Book-It Style which activates the narrative text through the characters in the story. You can see/hear an example on our website or go directly to: Book-It Rep Theatre's Channel
The evaluation plan is a framework I've morphed from various consulting companies. Its purpose is to: identify the key areas of investigation; develop core questions for exploration; name the ways in which those areas will be investigated and how data will be gathered; and finally to state how this knowledge will be shared with others, or, the deliverables.
So, literacy. What is it? And, what is it in relation to Book-It’s mission? During one of our interviews with Literacy Source – a local non-profit provider of adult education, I asked “What is literacy?” The Executive Director laughed at me – it’s such a big question. She told me to do some street talk. Go on corners and ask the people – it can be interpreted so many ways. Even though she was joking, I think we should do this.

The first wave of our work was to create a staff baseline. We drafted questions to be answered for ourselves and our departments. We completed a vision exercise to draw the new “space” and the programming that it will house. This helped us see the possibilities that are floating around in our individual brains. We drafted lists of all the organizations and people Book-It has partnered with over the past 20 years. These will shape who we talk to and think of as potential future partners for the space and programming.

The questions we brainstormed are rich – they are risky because they make no assumptions about the work we’re doing and they go beyond our theatre and into our culture. Here’s just a few of these questions:

1. What stimulus and at what age triggers a person to become a reader? If this stimulus is not triggered, what can shift this behavior?
2. What does Book-It mean when they say that they encourage audiences to read – read what? How much?
3. What is it about reading that keeps us engaged as citizens?

So…What is literacy? We have started to gather statistical data for our region on illiteracy rates, programs, immigrant populations. We are doing a literature review that includes the NEA’s study around reading literature/poetry. We’ll be doing interviews and focus groups with the community and literacy-based organizations.

The next wave will be to take this knowledge and hone-in on what literacy means to Book-It. We want to measure the impact of our work for the mainstage and education programs. We want to know how to use the Book-It Style intentionally within the world of reading. I think once we’re educated on all this, the lines can begin to blur. Book-It already does this in many ways, but it’s helpful to name the similarities and differences.

Actually we are entering this phase now. We completed a baseline survey of our mainstage audience in response to our first show of the season – A Confederacy of Dunces – and will refine it in upcoming shows to try to understand the impact of our work on reading behaviors of our adult audiences. We are in the process of doing program evaluation and student learning assessment in our education program, Book-It All Over, with one of our Page-to-Stage residency programs. We will be evaluating our teaching methods with an eye toward “the language of possibilities” – I believe this idea comes from Shirley Brice Heath. This is not traditional instruction. We hope to compare the average classroom with a Book-It classroom when analyzing text. We will also set student learning goals for the project, which we've never had before. Fortunately we can develop and test the methods this winter, then revise for the spring when we work with another group of students.

These questions we’re grappling with are not new, but they are so important for us to address and answer as deeply and honestly as we can if we are to transform as an organization. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by their complexity, but the conversations they prompt among ourselves and with others in the community are so exciting that I keep chasing them, trying to pin them down and analyze them in the context of the bigger picture for Book-It.

For now, I’ll stop here and will check back in a month. Thanks for reading and if any of you out there are doing similar work or have thoughts on where we are so far, we’d love to hear them!

-- Gail Sehlhorst, Literacy Assessment Director, Book-It Repertory TheatreGail has more for us regarding the Evaluation Plan and you can view the actual document here:


The evaluation plan is a framework I've morphed from various consulting companies. Its purpose is to: identify the key areas of investigation; develop core questions for exploration; name the ways in which those areas will be investigated and how data will be gathered; and finally to state how this knowledge will be shared with others, or, the deliverables.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Salvage Vanguard Theater and Rude Mechanicals...the Austin Scenic Co-Op

This week we have an introduction to Salvage Vanguard Theater's project with partners Rude Mechanicals--the Austin Scenic Co-Op...

The Austin Scenic Co-Op is a project that I started with a fellow TD (Technical Director) named Thomas Graves. I am the resident set designer and TD for Salvage Vanguard Theater, and a company member of the Rude Mechs, the theater group for which Thomas is a Co-Producing Artistic Director. We both saw a problem with the way theater and arts organizations were using resources: buying materials to build platforms and flats, then throwing them out because storage was too expensive, only to have to buy and build them all over again. It made production expensive, time-consuming, and wasteful of materials that could be recycled. So we started collecting generic set elements that could be re-used, storing them at Salvage Vanguard Theater and The Off Center (home of the Rudes), and making them available to TDs, theaters and arts groups. The greater purpose of the program is to reduce waste and to make production less costly and time-consuming for the creative community, especially those members who struggle financially and technically.
We have mostly standard sized flats (lightweight "walls") and platforms (sturdy, used for stages and risers) that are 4 x 8 feet. There are a few odd sized or shaped pieces, as well as a variety of step units of different heights, some doors and windows. We are beginning to build a small collection of props and more detailed set-dressing materials. It's been a fairly casual operation until recently. With the help of the TCG "Think-It" grant we hope to take the project from informal lending done in our spare time to a robust sustainable network of theatrical materials. We are hoping to improve our space and create an online system to keep inventory updated and linked to a calendar, set up regular hours and create a membership structure and fee schedule with the aim of self-sustainability. Our dream is that Austin can share a state-of the art facility for technical production—a shop equipped with the necessary tools for constructing sets, costumes, and props; a storage facility housing stock scenery, props, costumes, lighting, sound and video equipment; and a truck, shared by the theatre companies, to transport things to the various performance spaces. By pooling our resources and strengthening existing networks, we can make Austin theatre more affordable, efficient, earth-friendly, community-engaged, and of higher production value.

--Connor Hopkins, Resident Designer, Salvage Vanguard Theater and Co-Director, Austin Scenic Co-Op

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"Wait a minute, that’s us: Theater Grottesco"

This week in A-ha!, a missive from John Flax of Theater Grottesco, reminding us that Wall Street isn't the only place Securities and Exchange Law can be... well, exciting!

The project: Theater Grottesco forms a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) which invests in downtown Santa Fe property for the purpose of creating a performance space for small non-profit organizations.

There was a healthy dose of absurdity in this proposal even in 2008: Theater Grottesco, with a $250,000 annual budget, raises $3 to $4 million dollars. But isn’t that the point of the A-ha! Program? Think outside the box, test something grand, reach beyond your traditional scope.

By 2010, absurd has become grotesque…wait a minute, that’s us: Theater Grottesco.

It’s a great idea – beautiful in its simplicity and embracing of community spirit and ownership. Our committee of business leaders and lawyers saw no problem. Then came our first visit to New Mexico’s leading authority on Securities and Exchange Commission law. No Wall Street type, this slight southern woman who raises horses dazzled us with a legalese far beyond what we’d grown comfortable with – a screaming web of rules and regulations that blew our plan right out of the water. And when we were certain of defeat, she showed us a small beam of light we could follow: the issuance of bonds based on the Calvert Foundation, a micro-lending entrepreneurial model. To that, we’ve added a traditional capital campaign option and a community building phase. Not our perfect idea, but a way to get there nonetheless - maybe even in these times. It has been a wild ride, not easy, but then that’s the point. Stand by for a final report at: