Thursday, March 31, 2011

Little Moments That Are Giant Leaps

We’ve had our best classes yet in the past month. We were talking through some of our favorite moments the other day – and kept touching on moments when the kids really took risks, stepped outside of themselves, and allowed some moment of transformation to take place. When they weren’t these excited-but-playing-it-cool kids in a classroom crowded with too much furniture and not enough play space – moments when we really saw their imaginations take over, and they experienced moments of total immersion in a character.

We have begun reading the Lorax by Dr. Seuss, which deals with the environmental destruction of fictitious Truffula Trees by the greedy Once-ler. This piece was chosen for the students to adapt because being from New Orleans, they could relate to the destruction of home and environment. Most are too young to remember actually going through the experience of Katrina, but they all remember last summer’s BP oil debacle. They were asked questions about what they remembered about the oil spill. Which marine life was affected? Was there a smell? Did they like crawfish and shrimp? Then we read through the Lorax and then talked about how this story is similar to what New Orleans and the Gulf Coast went through, and is still going through. In our next session, we started putting the story on its feet, with the kids acting out the story as it was narrated. They really got into depicting/ translating each aspect of the story – not just the defined characters like the Once-ler, but becoming the trees, swaying in the breeze. It was awesome.

Outside of the Lorax, we’ve continued to work with acting and story-telling exercises. A favorite exercise moment occurred during a session working with onomatopoetics. First, we went around the circle, and the kids were given obvious words to make onomatopoetic: Smash, clip-clop, etc. Then they worked their way into sentences, like “the girl fell faaaaar faaaaar faaaar down the well.” And there was this little boy with ADHD who really has a tough time focusing – he was given the sentence “And then the little bird fell fast asleep.” At first, he rushed through it and just said the words. But then we got in front of each other, kneeling on the floor, looking into each other’s faces. We took turns repeating it, until gradually, the words came out where the “little bird” was this tiny, vulnerable thing, and faaaaaaast asleep, was hushed, and soft, and gentle. It was a tiny moment, really – just a sentence. But he made it come alive, and that felt like a giant leap.

On to April!
-Gamal Chasten & Marieke Gaboury

Your Past is Your Future

Isn’t it always the case that you return to the place you know the best to learn new things? Well that is the case for me anyways. I graduated not too long ago from the MFA/MBA Program at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). Actually me and my good friend Jeremy Ancalade, now Director of Operations at Shakespeare Center Los Angeles were the very first graduates with the joint degree program. This program truly did help me get where I am today.

The MFA/MBA in Theatre Management is a three year full time program (including two summer sessions) offered jointly between the Theatre Arts Department and the Graduate School of Business. In addition to the core courses in theatre management, the MFA/MBA students take an additional 30 units of business courses including finance, accounting, marketing, strategic business management and operations.

Nicki Genovese, the new Head of the Theatre Management program, and Eric Imley, Managing Director of their graduate student theatre company California Repertory Company, both brought up interesting points about what benefits a partnership with a university can have and what drawbacks it has specifically for the university. The benefits could include the support system the students have in a university setting including access they have to research, professors, etc. One of the few drawbacks is the potential for the university to perhaps be “called on” in the solving of a problem for these local theatres that the students get placed in during their internships. Many times if a graduate student who is still learning goes out into the professional environment they are not going to have all the answers right away. So the student then leans back on their university advisors for help and thus the university professors in some sense are “aiding” or “mentoring” these organizations.

Having met with all three of our academic advisors, an emergent idea that has also become clear is the need for an ongoing dialogue to take place between all local academic institutions who offer these types of arts management degrees. We see this as an easy opportunity that CTG could help facilitate and plan on adding that to our To Do List in this process.

I am excited to meet fellow CSULB management candidates and have them participate in our student focus groups. I want my alma mater to succeed and grow and I am so fortunate and thrilled to be able to work with them as a theatre management professional.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pick your price

We opened Nathan Louis Jackson's Broke-ology this month. We're three weeks into the run with two more to go.

For the purposes of this blog right now, the interesting thing about this play is that every ticket on every evening costs whatever the audience wants it to cost. Sometimes called "Pay What You Can" or "Pay What You Think It's Worth," We're just telling people to pay whatever they want or "pick their price." (This is a very common event at Minnesota theaters, and Pillsbury House has had a wildly successful Pay What You Can Every Wednesday night performance for years. No one here has ever tried All Pay What You Can, All the Time.)

The show has gotten stellar reviews and standing ovations, so it's hard to assess exactly what effect this pricing gimmick has had on our attendance. Plus, we have gathered lots of information from patrons (surveys, addresses, etc.) that we will be analyzing carefully after the show closes. But lack of careful analysis has never stopped me from speculating in the past--where's the fun in that?--so here are some preliminary observations and speculations:

1. The people who can only come to the theater when we offer this deal are incredibly grateful for the opportunity. I have a message on my phone from last week from a soft-spoken woman who sounded almost in tears as she thanked us for thinking about working poor families like hers. It almost me me cry.

2. More people than I expected have paid either full price or more than full price. When we work in the theater, we probably know that people who are more well off and willing to donate are subsidizing the ticket prices for everyone else. I'm suddenly wondering whether audience members themselves know that. In this case, when it's made obvious to them, a lot of people are willing to step up and pay for someone else. Simple, easy, heart-warming.

3. Ticket price is an important barrier to attendance but not the only one, by far. Preliminary results indicate that our attendance at this show has increased around 30% over previous productions first three weekends—which is great!— but we're still not selling out every show (and we don't have a super-huge house). I can't even say for sure whether the large percentage increase is due to the ticket prices or the quality of the show—or even just the increased outreach efforts we've made. . . But, lest we look ungrateful, let me clearly state that a 30% increase is pretty phenomenal, we think.

4. Here's the most surprising statistic so far—we're seeing increases in revenue. We were able to take this risk because of funding we received as a result of Minnesota's Legacy Amendment. We needed some hedge against the perfectly reasonable assumption that a good number of our customers would choose not to pay anything at all—which some of them do choose. Yet, somehow, instead, we've discovered that the average cost of a ticket has actually increased at least $1 per ticket. Go figure.

At the same time, we're really using our increased audience to highlight, ever so gently, the arts integration that is happening throughout the building, and the response has been positive and intrigued. A good start.

This is one grant final report that will be easy to write—where making a potentially risky plan to increase audience and reach more deeply into the neighborhood is actually paying off not only financially but in many other hard to measure ways—ways that forge stronger bonds of appreciation and gratitude that go both ways between us and our fans and even new fans we didn't know existed.

-- Alan, Director of Communications, Pillsbury House Theatre

Monday, March 28, 2011

Northlight On Campus has it's first performance

Friday, March 11 was the culmination of the Northlight On Campus residency with middle schoolers at Fairview South School in Skokie, Illinois.  The showcase was 35 minutes long and included singing, dancing, and original and adapted scenes the students had created around the theme and title of the show “All I need to know, I learned already.”   This tribute to learning in, around and outside the classroom, acknowledged that some of our most important lessons are learned before we enter high school.

The Fairview students absorbed much about theatre practice over the course of the residency.  They could define ensemble, memorize a script, attempt basic characterization.  They knew the basics of rehearsal and performance etiquette.  In the final week of tech rehearsals, their understanding of performance became more sophisticated.  They began to project and fill the space without reminders.  They developed an instinct for timing and delivery— moments we’d seen a dozen times became comedic.  During the final performance, they knew to pause for laughs and to maintain momentum and energy when a line was dropped.

The students learned one of the most important things about the theatre the night of their final showcase: the show must go on.  As students arrived for call, we learned that two students were very ill, and one student decided to drop out of the drama club that afternoon.  It was a frustrating reminder that some students (and parents) considered NOC a casual extra-curricular activity instead of a serious commitment.  The remaining students accepted these hiccups with grace.   We turned it into a learning moment.  The way to handle these moments is to focus on the wonderful, hard-working ensemble around you and figure out a solution.   Lines were re-assigned, and most were memorized in the hour before the curtain went up.  It was gratifying to see that the vast majority of the students had taken the responsibility and professionalism of being an ensemble-member to heart. 
This was the first performance showcase of its kind at Fairview, and students turned out in force to support their peers.  They also came to check out the program for themselves.  One boy (he had dropped out in the third or fourth week) told a Teaching Artist that he’d be back for sure, to stay, next year. 
Northlight on Campus had a wonderful inaugural run.  And we learned a lot from what we saw the night of the performance.  We had been very ambitious with this group of students that had no exposure to theatre before our program.  We certainly realized the necessity to spend more time on character development and voice work next year.  As theatre artists we watched the show with analytic eyes, scrutinizing the performance so that we can make improvements in the program next year.  However, the great thing is that the student’s had no point of comparison -nor did the teachers, parents or school administration. They were delighted with what they saw.  And now we can look ahead and get excited about next year.

-Elise Walter (Education Intern), Amanda Jane Dunne (Education Associate)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Who we will be...

We are embarking on a journey of transforming our company. Our A-ha! project is one of several big ways that we are shaking things up. It's very exciting. Everyone can see a brighter tomorrow on the horizon.

But one of the questions we must not lose sight of is: how will we make sure we are retaining the things about the company that we love, that we would miss if they were gone, whilst undergoing such significant change.

We want to be stronger economically, to provide better pay for our artists, and a degree of security for everyone who works for us. But we also don't want to lose our indie vibe, we don't want to sell out, go corporate and start prioritizing profit over all else. So we've agreed as a company to keep our culture sacred because if this place doesn't stay a cool place to work then it doesn't matter how stable it is financially - none of us will want to work here.

So now we're starting to focus on the educational side of building up our video production wing to the company. We're doing acting for the camera classes, video writing intensive workshops and so on. But the truth is that this kind of approach is already starting to counter how we might have traditionally approached new work. Dad's Garage has historically had a fly by the seat of our pants approach, spending time learning new skills in a classroom environment is not the same as figuring things out in the trenches. That's already a glaring violation of my pledge to keep our traditional culture sacred. Yet that's what I'm asking of my people.

It's occurs to me that it can't be a simple as saying we won't change our culture as we change our structure. The culture will change, the culture should change, even if the original spirit stays intact. It's a matter of degrees, it's not a one or the other type of situation. That doesn't mean that these aren't important conversations to have as we move forward, quite the opposite, since there is no clear cut answer to the question of how our culture will change as we grow, having an ongoing conversation is crucial.

Just like in an improvised scene we need to make strong choices, but remain flexible about where they take us if we want to have the most exciting possible outcome.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Working off of each other

This month felt like a big break through time for our YO NOLA kids.

We continue to be challenged by the realities of physical space, end of long school day attention span of 3rd and 4th graders, and missing kids due to detention, transportation issues at home, and the like -- But, even within these confines, the work took a big leap forward. They are getting excited by connecting with one another. This feels huge. We've done a lot of improvisation exercises that are about transferring energy and information from one to the next, and you can see how this gets them more deeply invested in working together as a group, off of each other - instead of showing off for the group.

A favorite exercise moment --
The kids learned the vocal warm up that starts "What to do to die today at a minute or two to two ..." and we spontaneously kept it going, until we found ourselves crouched to the floor - speaking in unison in low, clear voices, drumming with our hands on the ground as the dragon approached. And you could feel it - this electricity and excitement in the room that came from taking what existed between all of us in the moment and truly committing to it. It was actually a pretty compelling performance.

Yo Nola is laying the ground work for the story that will be their first original play, created by the ensemble. We've been working with re-telling classic stories, and infusing them with information from the kids' lives. They have chosen that their final semester project will be a retelling of The Lorax.