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What’s Next

December 28, 2010

Here I am, half-way done with my first year/one-quarter done with my training/one-sixth done with my grad school experience. And yet, one question seems to be burning a hole in everyone’s figurative pockets.

So what’s next? What’s after grad school?

I’ll be damned. I don’t know.

I thought it might be fun to make a list of options. You know, so I can direct all of you to this particular post when you ask that completely innocent question. I’m having a hard time giving a completely innocent answer. I just. Don’t exactly know.

In no particular order:

A) New York. After all, my showcase will be in New York City (though I hope we can get one in LA. And Chicago. And…everywhere), and quite frequently, actors from my program are getting picked up by agents after this. One kid who just graduated made his way into the right agent’s care and ended up on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (I don’t watch the show and I don’t know the student, but I’m told he got killed off after a few episodes).

Still, I’m not crazy about this idea. I don’t know why. Well, yes I do. Taking a wild leap into a sea of a million actors all scrambling for jobs like ravenous, hungry dogs fighting over scrap meat has never really appealed to me. One of the main reasons I started my theatre company in Baltimore was so that we could avoid ‘throwing ourselves to the wolves’ of cattle calls, holding spears, and months without work. I didn’t necessarily become an actor to go out there and be a Broadway star. I want to create and collaborate, not starve and pray. So it’s not so much fear of rejection as it is a fear of stifled creativity, tough breaks, and the prospect of living in one of the most expensive cities on the planet while working in a career that isn’t known for it’s consistency or generosity to your bank account.

And, what are the options for a working actor in New York anyway, Suzie? Let me count the ways… A1) Triple threat your way to Broadway, do musicals. Make $2000 a week. A2) Eek into one of the four non-singing, non-played-by-a-celebrity roles on Broadway per year. Count your benjamins. A3) Find your way into an off-Broadway career. Get paid sometimes. Or not. A4) Find great agent. Get into some film, TV or commercial work. Kiss your agent. A5) Work the regional theatre or Broadway tour circuit. Yes, you’ll pay rent and audition in New York. No, you will not live in New York. A6) Find a combination of A1-5, also choosing from a plethora of auxilliary jobs like cruises, showcases, improv, voice overs, industrials, print work, and the like.

Most actors fit into #6, I’m guessing. There is no city in the country with more access to work. And also no place with more actors out of work. So it’s a risk. I’ll probably finish school with a very low amount of savings, if any (mmm, rice and beans), so if I went to NY I’d have to like, use a student loan or immediately find my way into paying acting work (live the dream!), or most likely, take my MFA to a retail store and beg for a $9 per hour job so I can pay my $1500 rent. I’m sorry, am I sounding callous? It’s okay. I’m jaded. Or, as I like to think of it, realistically and reasonably cautious.

B) Move to Chicago. I don’t know a whole lot about Chicago, besides the fact there are about 300 theatres. Yet, of those only two are members of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT). So, the box offices are small in Chicago, and while there is plenty of equity work to be had, there is also plenty of non-paying work to be had. I need more research. But there she is, America’s Second City.

C) Los Angeles. Sunglasses. Tans. Muscles. Whiter teeth. Commercials. Film. TV. Ass-kissing. One of the visiting actors who occasionally come through our department to give us a professional pep talk, as it were, once said “You can be an artist in New York. You can pay your rent in LA.” I think that about sums it up. It’s much more appealing that NYC, but does the camera love me? That’s the question you have to ask yourself. Our acting technique applies to film in a major way. In fact, the biggest thing I’ve learned while being here, probably inadvertantly, is understanding why some actors are so interesting and honest on film. It’s all in the technique, and it’s all much simpler than I thought it was. And you know, the city gets a bad rap for lack of stage, but it has a couple of LORT theaters. More than most big cities. And, the diversity of the types of jobs is appealing. But can you play the games?

D) Washington DC. After living in Baltimore for three years, I admit I really should have gotten to know DC better. There are about 25 producing theaters, 20 more presenting/rental theaters, and anywhere in the neighborhood of 30-40 independent theater groups, all making work happen. The foundation and grant support isn’t the same as it was pre-9/11, but the Maryland/DC area is one of the best in the nation for arts funding. I love the people and places in Baltimore, which is 45-60 minutes North of DC (on a good day), and if there were better professional options in Ballmer, it’d be one heck of a hot choice. I mean, look at it this way. You live in Baltimore, and you are open to the work in your own city, PLUS Washington DC, and ohbytheway Philly is only an hour North of Baltimore. There is no other place in the country with so many big cities grouped so tightly together (the Twin Cities is a close second, but you’re one city short. Sorry, MN). And, if you didn’t mind commutes, you could make a real run at being a three-city pro stationed in Baltimore, the city in the middle. However, despite how much I like the city and how perfect of a place I think it is for a young company to start, the options for a professional actor in Baltimore are very limited, with only three professional theatres. So, while it’s nice to have by, DC has most of the available work. But I like the region. A lot.

E) And here’s where it gets fuzzy. Hey, there is good theater in the Pacific Northwest, right? What about the Tampa/Sarasota region? I hear Boston’s got a few joints. Pittsburgh always comes up. Minneapolis/St. Paul is as happenin’ as you can find as far as Non-Chicago Midwest goes. But why roll the dice on any of the cities? I mean hey, its always been a dream to return to Denver as a professional, but to work for who? I think the biggest appeal to me in cities like this is that there is the chance of being a big fish in a little pond. Or, a medium pond, at least. It’d be a great life to know all the players in town, and have them know you. And, to work in a place where you don’t have to throw elbows and bite ankles to get noticed in the masses, hey – who doesn’t want that? But starting in a town like this would be hard. I don’t think there is a blueprint for it, necessarily. It’d be a whole new type of adventure, but honestly, I see it every bit as valid (and risky) as throwing myself off a cliff and into the void in NYC or LA. Just different.

F) Start a company. I…ah. Well. Don’t think this hasn’t crossed my mind about 1000 times. “What would you do differently if you could start all over again, huh?” Another post, my friends.


Truth and Freedom

December 7, 2010

One semester. In the books.

The work is far from over, and even though I’m not in classes at the moment, my grad school life is every bit as busy as it usually is. But, it seems like a perfect time to slide the ol’ thermometer under the tongue and see where we’re at, no?

As you probably noticed, I went several weeks between posts. I had great ideas blazing through my head, but never a real chance to stop and think and write. Voice exams, movement assignments, acting showings, and a neverending list of plays to read… Writing a blog is easy. Just as long as you aren’t trying to get your MFA in Acting at the same time.

So. Brendan. One semester in, what exactly have you learned in grad school?

Let’s break it down.

In advanced play analysis, our professor told us on day one that we’d never read or see a play the same way. All we’d see is the guts and how they fit together. “Sorry,” he said “but you don’t get to enjoy theatre any more. Get over it.”

And, yeah. He’s right. Sort of. I haven’t lost complete enjoyment in watching a live performance or reading a play, but I feel like all the skin has definitely been pealed back. The Aristotelean elements of drama go coursing through my brain; “what’s the action? what’s the thought? what does this say about their point of view? what imagery is the playwright invoking?” And before I know it, I’m sitting there admiring how the play’s spleen is connected to the kneecap rather than wondering if the production is working or not. If anything, analyzing plays has made me realize how freaking hard it is to A) Write plays and B) Write them at the level that successful playwrights write them. Bravo. I’ll never be a playwright. Thanks for being crazy.

And in movement, I’ve learned that it doesn’t take much to lose the insecurity about performing abstractly. If you had told me at the beginning of the semester I would perform an object study duet with a partner and a bamboo cane, I’d have rolled my eyes. Perhaps the weakest part of my skill set as an actor is to move without inhibition. To really explore and create and free one’s self takes great risk, and a set of big, shiny, brass balls. Bravo, dancers. I’m still completely and totally in awe of you. And even though I’m moving in better alignment, with a longer spine, more strength, more freedom, more creativity, and a sliver more flexibility, I’ll concede that much like playwrights, I never want to be a dancer. With the encouragement of my professor and a new diet/exercise regimen, I’ve added 10lbs since I came to grad school, with an eye on adding 10 more next semester. When I arrived, I had “a leading man face, a leading man voice, and a character actor body.” Tell me about it. I think there is an entire blogpost about this simmering in me, so I’ll do my best right now to stay on topic.

Oh, and hey. Viewpoints finally makes sense.

In voice, we dipped into IPA (consonants only), dove into Standard American, and showered in articulators. I can tremor like a dying cockroach, and swing my ribs like… someone who swings their ribs really well. I can send. And I can land. And I can make sure that when I say “TWINKLE, TWINKLE, LITTLE STAR,” my partner across the room can hear me. When I started realizing that voice class was a mechanical, technique-focused study, it actually became a lot of fun. In acting we explore,but in voice we drill, drill, drill. If studying acting is like hitting live pitching, studying voice is like hitting in a batting cage. Drill till it becomes secondary. And you know what? I sound better. Way better.

Which brings us to acting. While I consider all four of my classes to have wildly changed my perspective on acting, nothing has so dramatically altered the way I see myself as a performer than this class. The technique we’re learning (a mash of Demidov, Chekhov, Vakhtangov, and Malaev-Babel schools of thought) emphasizes an entirely new approach. Yes, we learned all about relationships, characterization, objectives, beats, etc from Stanislavksi, but the organic method (Demidov) enforces the idea that all of those things, without scripting or assigning them, can and will spring freely into a text with spontaneous, expressive acting. Wow. Easier said than done. Basically, when an actor finds complete and total truth, and marries it with complete and total freedom, they’ll achieve complete success without even having to think about beats, characterization, the magic if, sense memory, or any of that. And as a kicker, they’ll be far more engaging, interesting, creative, and ‘watchable’ than an actor who mechanically puts together a character one gesture and inflection at a time. It’s about listening. It’s about reacting (cheers, Meisner). And it’s about expressing your character’s truth without the slightest hesitation that you might be faking it. If you do things right, it’ll never be faked. It can’t be. The most common notes from acting class this year: let it, allow it, yield to it, permit it. No choosing tactics, no conjuring fake emotions, no working yourself into a frenzy. Commit to truth, and allow what happens. You’ll be damn surprised at what comes out.

While it’s just been a few months, I could never have hoped for the type of dramatic shift I’m experiencing as a performer right now. All the pieces were there, I just needed someone to tell me what to do with it all. The decision to come here wasn’t easy, but pulling the thermometer out and seeing it at 98.6 makes me feel like a better one couldn’t have been made. I’m humbled.

On the docket: This week, we’re taking a master class in ‘acting songs’ with David Brunetti (I can’t WAIT to write about this. I hate singing, and this man is turning singing on stage into a liberating, doable, actable experience), next week is a full week of fight choreography, 12 Angry Men has already gone into rehearsals, and Reasons to be Pretty tech starts later this month. And, as if it weren’t already a full enough plate (and as if I learned nothing by overcommitting myself at SCT), five of us are kicking around the idea of doing a “Late Night” performance next semester of Men of Tortuga. I’m feeling equal parts psyched and idiotic. Anyway, I haven’t disappeared. I’ve lost myself in the world of an actor in a repertory environment.

Stay tuned for the second series of “Ask an MFA student.” The submissions keep coming in, so we’ll keep answering them as we can. It’s a fun ride. Take it if you can.

Viewpoints by the Water

November 15, 2010

In exploration of Mary Overlie’s Viewpoints work, we took our Movement class outdoors for a few days.

Here are a few of the excellent shots of the outdoor work, photographed by Max Grossrubatscher.

We survey the ‘stage’

Joe finds the water

Chris is a tree, architecturally.

Lindsay takes a shape

Francisco steps off

Something is happening. Or isn’t.

One more, just for fun. A sneak peek at the set (in progress) for Bonnie & Clyde at Asolo Rep

Thanks to Max Grossrubatscher for coming to class!

Ask an MFA Student

November 9, 2010

Let me start with saying how excited I am about the response I got from the ‘reinforcements’ post from last week. I got more than 50 questions from MFA hopefuls, actors and the like, and I’ll do my very best to get you all insightful answers in return. If you enjoy what you read here, don’t hesitate to send more questions our way by leaving a comment or emailing me: brendanragan (at) gmail (dot) com.

It is now my cutting-and-pasting privilege to share our guest-bloggers’ responses to 9 of the most popular questions.

Who you’ll be hearing from this round…

Brendan: Yours truly. Brendan Ragan at FSU/Asolo Conservatory.
Ben: Ben Koucherik at LSU.
Peter: Peter Kendall at Brown/Trinity Rep

And, introducing one more! Mary: Mary Werntz, first year MFA at Shakespeare Theater Company’s Academy for Classical Acting (George Washington University).

See the other bloggers here.

1) Did you visit schools beforehand? How many?

Brendan: I actually didn’t. I made a lot of phone calls, though. I was in three productions in prime school visiting time, so I could never work out even a few days out of town.

Ben: Yes, I visited one school (LSU).

Peter: I applied to graduate school 3 times before I got accepted to a program that I really wanted to go to. As Brendan has mentioned, this whole process is incredibly expensive, and visiting the schools that I was interested in would have been too expensive for me to handle. But, I’m not entirely sure that visiting the schools before auditioning would be very helpful. I was very fortunate to have friends who recently graduated from the programs I was applying to, and I found their insight the most helpful. They have a sense of what the program was like while in it, and then what the world is like after having the MFA. I would suggest asking the program for the contact information for some people who have recently graduated.

Mary: I never looked at other schools because I never had a desire to pursue an MFA.

2) Why did you want to go to grad school?

Brendan: I can’t possibly try to explain this succinctly since I was coming from such a unique situation. Check out my long answer in my first post on this blog.

Ben: I wanted to “step my game up” as an actor, break out of the “golden-handcuffs” that were my box office job at the DCPA, as well as earn a degree to be able to teach and to pursue my Equity card.

Peter: This question is a strange one because it seems to me that every one’s idea of what they want from MFA Acting experience changes once you actually start school. Once you start your training, you realize strengths that you never knew you had, which is incredibly empowering, and also weaknesses that you no idea even existed. Thus, your goals change once you start realizing who you are as a person and an artist. I feel strongly that everybody goes to graduate school for a few overarching reasons: they want to be a professional actor; they want the connections and knowledge that will help them succeed in the real world; they want to be a powerful, clear, thoughtful, empathetic, and versatile actor who has something to contribute to the world.

Mary: My undergrad degree is in dance and while I’d been doing a decent job of combining bits of sporadic acting training with a lot of intuition, I’d been wanting to develop a more solid acting technique for a long time.  I wanted cohesiveness. I wanted to understand “it” more.  I wanted to not have annoyingly honest cast mates refer to me as “green”.   I always dreamed about doing this program but would have never taken the step to apply had it not been for the encouragement of a friend who was in the program last year.  I feel fortunate to be doing this work in DC, where I have a decent foundation of a career.  The fact the program is only one year was incredibly appealing being that I’m no spring chicken.  I want to get back in the game before I transition to a new age bracket. 

3) What kinds of things were you looking for in a school? How did one make it on a list?

Brendan: I covered this in length in the first blog post, but in short: professional experience at a reputable theater, national recognition, dove-tailing/complimentary/rigorous training from established professors, full scholarship plus a stipend, and location doesn’t hurt, either.

Ben: I was interested in a school that was “cost-free” (no loans required), had a professional theatre tie-in and offered an opportunity to earn your Equity card, offered the chance to teach and had some recognizable “reputation.” Less important was the chance to do film work and sing/dance, as well as offer some kind of senior year showcase. LSU offers all of the above except the senior showcase, which we’re working on. 🙂

Peter:  Sweet Jesus. The Story of Peter Auditioning for Grad School: Well, I auditioned three years in a row before I got into an MFA program. The first time I auditioned to all of the “best” schools in the country, solely because I heard from various people that they were the most well-known: Yale, NYU, Julliard, USD/Old Globe, Delaware/PTTP, The Denver Center, NTC. I got called back to most of them, but I didn’t get any offers. The second year, I was jaded from the first year, I think. It is an incredibly harrowing process, and very taxing emotionally. So, I only applied to USD/Old Globe and Yale because I had gotten the best responses from them. The third year, I took an entirely different approach to the audition process. I spent a lot of time researching the instructors, acting methods, coursework, alumni of each school and then picked schools that I thought that I actually was interested in: Yale, USCD, USD/Old Globe, NYU, and Brown/Trinity Rep. So, when I actually auditioned for schools that I wanted to go to, I wanted a school that would help me be a professional actor. By that I mean I wanted to go to school that would help me work full-time as an actor when I graduated; we often are told by our professors that one of the goals of our education is that we will never have a “day job” again – we will make a life in the theatre from here on.  I wanted the technique, experience, network, and artistry that would allow me to do that.

Mary: See answer to #2.

4) Will you graduate with your AEA card?

Brendan: I’ll have the points to, yes.

Ben: Most graduating LSU MFA’s accrue enough points to take their card if they want it.

Peter:  I was lucky to already have my AEA card before I entered school, but since my program is associated with one of the best regional theatres in the country, all students leave with their card.

Mary: I will not graduate with an AEA card which is fine by me because I do believe it would severely limit the work I will be able to book come August 2011.

5) Are your directors grad students in a directing program, professors, professionals, other students, etc?

Brendan: All seasoned professionals. A few of the faculty (who have MFA’s in directing) will direct the conservatory shows, but the artistic staff and/or contracted professionals direct at the Repertory. I’m understudying a show with a Tony-winning director this year, for instance. “Late Night” shows, which are entirely student produced on a shoestring, will have student directors from the conservatory. Since we’re a satellite program, we have no connection to any students except for MFA acting students (and a couple of technical students who come down from Tallahassee for the year).

Ben: We have at least one out-of-town professional director each year (from places like the Illinois Shakespeare Festival and the Pearl Theatre in NYC). Most other directors are professors. If we are involved in an MFA “lab” project, then it’s directed by other MFA/PhD students interested in directing (there is no directing degree track at LSU).

Peter: One of the special things about my program is that each year has two directors a part of our “company”. We all take most of our classes together. They take acting classes, we take directing classes, and we all take playwrighting classes. The idea is that all of us leave as theatre artists that have an awareness of every aspect of the theatrical process. Of course, my main focus is acting, and their main focus is directing, but our studies are very closely connected.

6) Who competes for roles in your department? Just graduates or undergrads, too?

Brendan: No undergrads here, so it’s all us. The entire conservatory season is cast out of second year students, and you join the professional Asolo Rep season your third year as a company member.

Ben: Graduate students are primarily cast in the Equity theatre (and occasionally in an MFA “lab” show) while undergrads are cast in their own “Mainstage” shows, with the occasional cross-over. Grad students also compete against guest Equity actors for casting.

Peter: I’m not sure if competition is the right word. Brown/Trinity is incredibly supportive and non-competitive. That is not to say that it isn’t vigorous. It is insanely strenuous and hard work, but everyone from the teachers to the students wants everyone in the program to be the best they can be. To answer the question, the roles are assigned by the teachers based on what they feel each person needs to work on, and the casting is limited to each separate class.

Mary: The program is made up solely of actors; however, we are in constant contact with not only the artists at Shakespeare Theatre, but with the vast, diverse and incredibly world-class theatre community in DC.  We do not collaborate with undergraduates.

7) Are you paying for tuition, getting scholarships, or grants?

Brendan: I am getting a full-tuition scholarship, plus a small weekly stipend that I earn through some light assistantship/tech duties. I also got a Dean’s Scholarship from FSU on top of that which went right into my pocket at the beginning of the year, so that was a pleasant surprise.

Ben: I have an assistantship which pays for my tuition and provides a stipend (which covers student fees and offers a half-decent living payout). Loans are also available if I want them.

Peter:  I am getting scholarships, but it is not fully covered. I take out loans to cover the remainder.

Mary:  I have this really great Uncle named Sam who offered to pay my way – the ol’ “L” word.  Yes, I filed out all the promissory notes.  My first vial of blood is in the mail. 

8 ) Are you teaching as part of your degree? Or completing some other work-study assignment?

Brendan: FSU/Asolo just started a new teaching program where two of the students will have a chance to teach at a local arts high school in their third year. I’m not sure if I’m interested in doing that just yet, we’ll see. I also have some tech assignments to earn my stipend, which in my case means running wardrobe for two of the conservatory shows this year.

Ben: Yes, as a teacher and/or worker in the shops/marketing office/etc.

Peter: There are two spots available in the 2nd and 3rd year to teach. If one gets one of those positions, their tuition is covered for the year.

9) Is your program linked to a professional affiliation? Honestly…how effective is that relationship?

Brendan: Extremely effective. We’re not just linked to a professional theater, all of our classes and spaces are INSIDE one. We are immediately involved with the Asolo Rep (Florida’s premiere theater) in the first year, and the relationship is an outstanding one. When we join the pro actors our third year, they make that the focus, so we’re not taking classes during the third year. The relationship with Asolo Rep is an incredibly integral part of the experience here. You train the first year, get your own season of shows the second year, and experience life as a professional actor in the third year. As a pleasant bonus, we’re actually contracted as employees of Ringling Museum, (don’t ask me how, the Asolo Rep, FSU and Ringling are all partnered extremely tightly) which gets us some nice benefits at the amazing museum and a gaggle of free tickets to the International Arts festival, which happened last month.

Ben: Yes (Swine Palace Productions), and the tie-in does provide us with the opportunity to earn Equity points as well as work with out-of-town directors, Equity actors and other theatre professionals. I would say it’s one of the best aspects of the program for me.

Peter:  My program is associated with Trinity Rep. We act, understudy, and attend shows at the theatre. It is wonderful. We get to learn from the resident company and directors, earn AEA points, and learn what is like to work in one of the best regional theatres in the country.

Mary: The MFA program here was started by Michael Kahn who is our acting teacher along with many other incredibly talented working professionals from Shakespeare Theatre.  Does that mean we all will get cast in a show next year?  Not at all and I don’t think it should.  That would compromise the integrity of the company.  Actors should be hired because they are the best fit for the role, and if that person is a past student, awesome. If we never earn that opportunity, its our own damn fault.  Plus that would be end gaining – what we are taught to avoid in our lives and in our acting work.  I’ll expound more on that in a later post.

Have a question you’d like to ask to an MFA student? Leave a comment or hit my email: brendanragan (at) gmail (dot) com.


October 25, 2010

If you’ve been reading, thank you. The MFA journey is a topsy turvy one, and it’s filled with highs and lows and suprises and head-scratchers and plenty of long, deep sighs.

Which got me thinking. Is it like that everywhere? How is my experience compared to others?

One of the things that I disliked most about investigating grad schools was the complete and total inability to really get a true sampling of all the best programs in the country. Yeah, for your program to end up in a top-ten list is great and all (as mine has), but I find these rankings totally and completely questionable. First, if you’re putting one together, that means you’ve done a thorough analysis of all the programs, facilities, faculty, and adjoining theater, if applicable, which means you’ve visited at least all of the top ten programs on your list. Beyond that, I’d say you have to visit at least ten more and do the same research, so you may actually find who the top ten is, correct? And beyond that, how are you going to determine what the top 20 programs are in the first place? Rumors? Reputations? A complete investigation of the success of the graduates? It ain’t difficult to guess that anyone putting together a “top ten graduate program” list hasn’t done any of this, and has probably strewn together the list based on a few achievements they’ve heard about, plus general reputation.

So, what’s an aspiring grad student supposed to do? They can visit dozens of programs, meet the faculty, and speak to students, and ultimately try to find the program that aligns most with their goals – costing them weeks of time and thousands of dollars. More realistically, though, they usually visit a few, research many, and then begin more in-depth research of an institution once the school expresses interest in them. In either scenario, it’s a bit of a toss up. A lot of it is feeling. In my case, I made a list of absolute musts for my graduate experience, and when a school came to me and checked off every one of them, the decision became easy.

Back to the original question. How then, are we really able to shop around at programs in a more efficient way? I’m lucky to be here, and I feel extremely fortunate to find a program that works with my personality, goals and experiences as an actor. I’m not so sure every student winds up with such an experience.

So, I’ve decided to take us where top-ten lists and reputations can’t.

I’ve enlisted the help of first year MFA students from some very fine programs around the country. They are going to share their experiences, talk about their programs, and generally, give this blog an undeniable boost by fleshing out the variety of perspectives.

Ladies and gentleman, let me introduce you to my guest bloggers (with more possibly on the way):


 Benjamin T. Koucherik
1st Year MFA, LSU’s Professional Actor Training Program (connected to Baton Rouge’s Swine Palace Theatre)

 Megan Rippey
1st Year MFA, California Institute of the Arts

Peter Kendall
1st year MFA, Brown University/Trinity Rep


And now comes the fun part:

They’ll be providing some insight about their programs and experiences, but this experiment will be about 20 times more interesting and rewarding if you let us know what you’re most curious about. Are you an actor? A friend? An MFA hopeful? An MFA grad? A curious bystander? Whoever you are, we want to hear from you. Post a comment, shoot me an email. Whatever it is, I’ll make sure they get it and we all answer it. In the meantime, they’ll each be writing full entries as time and schedule allow. Check back now and again, it won’t all happen at once.

Fire away. [brendanragan (at) gmail (dot) com]

The Young and the Ticketless

October 18, 2010

This week, I had an absolute pleasure attending the Ringling International Arts Festival. How often does an amazing group of world-class artists assemble right in your own backyard, and then let you in for free? I can now count the times it has happened to me on one finger. (Seriously, we finished class one day and walked down two flights of stairs and snuck into a theatre for a Mikhail freakin’ Baryshnikov solo performance. It was pretty awesome).

Speaking of Baryshnikov, he’s the director of the festival. Or organizer. Or…main artistic leading force. Or something. So the artists selected from around the world are usually pretty damn good, and they perform right in three theaters at the Asolo. I saw Rubberbandance, a relentless, blistering, hyperkinetic, hip-hop inspired dance crew from Montreal. Then there was the creative menagerie of the John Jasperse Company, dancing with more than a hint of both irony and legitimate talent and technique (and one piece where four dancers stood impeccably still, faced upstage, and flexed their butt muscles to the tune of “Kiss” by Prince. Oh yes), and of course, my personal festival-favorite, Les SlovaKs dance company made up of five dancers from Slovakia now residing in Brussels, who all mish mash a Herculean feat of improvisational folk-inspired, but very contemporary-viewpointsish-contact improv type of dance into about 60 minutes of pure joy. Here’s a clip of the show, which was like, but entirely unlike the performance I saw. By the way, their musician is a virtuoso, looping, recording/live playing violining genius.

Oh, and theatre? How about a one-man, visually stunning minimalist mimed journey of the Apollo 11 trip to the moon? I laughed, I dropped my jaw. I felt like a child when it was over, and actually said something, probably a little too loudly, like “I WANNA DO THAT RIDE AGAIN!!” Nilo Cruz’s new drama Hurricane played, with some stingingly poetic dialogue and a gorgeous set looking like a freeze frame of a house blown apart in a hurricane. And lastly, we saw Moscow’s Theatre Art Studio (not a typo) perform their Crystal Turandot award-winning production of The Boys, a rendition of a section of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It was in Russian (with subtitles) and lasted two hours and ten minutes with no intermission. The acting was so good (the ensemble theater LIVES, my friends) that I was never bored. Period. It sung.

And yet. I have one, big, fat bone to pick with the festival that has absolutely nothing to do with the performers, organizers, venues, or festivities (at which we were whole-heartedly embraced to join in).

Outside of my classmates and the 2nd and 3rd year students from Asolo, nary a young soul could have been found at the festival. Maybe a performer from one show would see another, or a local dancer from the Sarasota Ballet (which also performs at the Asolo) would wander in, but I’ll take an uber-conservative estimation, and say that 95% of the attendees were 55 or older.

First off, I am absolutely not saying that people in this age range should stop watching amazing art. Thank god they do, it’s the only reason any of us have jobs in the performing arts these days. I want each and every one of them to continue passionately loving the arts as much as they do, and never stop. I just wonder why more of my 20-something comrades aren’t joining in. The shows sold very well. Most were in the 90-100% full range. If just a small handful of young folk showed up, there’d be lines around the building to get in like it was Lambeau field.

Seriously, read what I wrote about the shows I saw this week again. I had an awesome time. My mind was blown by so much talent that I had to wobble through the parking lot like a drunken hillbilly, looking for scattered pieces of my psyche to piece back together. Any old non-arts lover would have been stunned.

Where the heck were you, dudes?

Here’s a sick question for ya, though. What happens in 30-40 years and all of the current theater-goers have passed on? Are theaters even still open anymore?

Here’s another. What is it about the 50-80 age range that makes them want to see theater in the first place? Is it because they grew up with it and have loved it for a lifetime? (Dear Jehosefat I hope not, because my generation aint buyin’ tickets today, and won’t tomorrow). Or is it that something matures in you as a person, and that at age 5 you watch cartoons, age 15 you watch MTV, age 25 you watch Jersey Shore, and somewhere around age 55 you turn the TV off and flock to the theater like moths to flame?

I have a great time at dance and theater shows. They make great dates. They inspire me and change the way I look at love, life and the world. Of course, I grew up watching live theater because my mom has been a volunteer usher at Colorado’s crown jewel of a theater, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, for almost 20 years. I had tickets coming out of my ears.

So back to the issue at hand. There aint no twenty-, and hardly any thirty-somethings seeing theater in some places. My old company, Single Carrot Theatre, had a pretty phenomenal ‘young person’ draw – but we were all in our twenties, and our friends liked the work we do. They told their friends, and we suddenly had a subscription list that even the biggest theater’s coveted. They, as we learned at the Theater Communications Group national conference, are obsessed with ‘chasing the young people around.’

Here’s the ultimate question: What can we do to change it in the big picture? I’m not talking gimmicks. I’m not talking off-shoots. How can we get the young butts to plant themselves next to the older butts?

1- Ticket prices. Why pay $25-75 for two hours of entertainment when I can get that for free on YouTube and facebook? Let’s be totally honest. I talk a pretty high game and I have no problem throwing my generation under the bus, but here’s a big old fat secret: I wouldn’t have gone to the festival AT ALL if I hadn’t gotten all the free passes (or known how to sneak into the shows for free). I’m broke and I ain’t got the $200-300 it would have cost me to see all the shows I saw. So, there’s that.

2- Content. If I see that a theater is doing Oklahoma, I will not only skip that show, but every other show they ever do. Ever. My generation doesn’t want re-hashes, revivals or re-treads. We want exciting, thought-provoking work. We want to be scared, shocked, seduced, and challenged. I’ll take it a step further: my generation doesn’t even want to watch Shakespeare. We don’t care if you set Hamlet in a futurist landscape of technology and computers. Sorry. I love acting the classics. I don’t love watching them.

3- The social setting. When “hey guys, what do you want to do tonight?!” gets asked, how often is the reply “Go sit quietly in the dark for two hours!”? Never. How can we make theater more social? Here’s a hint: TALKBACKS DO NOT COUNT. Retire the talkback. They are awkward for performer and patron. Let’s do ‘no-structure, everyone meet at the bar and if you wanna ask the artist something (and not in the “I want to ask something smart so everyone in the room knows I’m smart” type of way), then go buy him a drink and have a real conversation’ hang outs. Let’s do something at intermission that’s fun. Like a Jello shot and a drinking song.

4- Speaking of booze: the booze. Yes, theaters usually sell booze, but the last thing I want to do is fork over another $7 for a drink after I paid $60 for two tickets, and $5 to park. Single Carrot, if I don’t mind saying so myself, had a pretty freaking great idea. We gave out free beer and wine to all the patrons at a sketch comedy show because we wanted to make sure they laughed hard and loud. We also thought it would draw out the college crowd, which would have liked our low-brow humor much better. Hey, you know what? Old people like free booze too. And they like incest jokes just as much as young people do. Work a free drink into your ticket price, very few people will mind. Most will adore you. It worked so well for our sketch comedy show that we kept it for every show. It’s a major sell.

5- The art form is tired. People think theater is stuffy and boring because, well, it can be, sometimes. But I dare anyone who saw Fuerza Bruta in New York City to tell me that. I dare someone to watch Dmitry Krymov’s freaky talented group of students put on a show and not be knees-a-quivering astounded. I don’t know anyone, ANYONE, who wouldn’t have thought that Andrew Dawson’s Space Panorama (the hand-mimed moon-landing show) was anything less than brilliant and hilarious. There are damn good performers and performances out there, and if we held our artists to this kind of “I’m still talking about it the next day” standard, then we wouldn’t want to smash our faces into the wall when theaters still insist on doing Hello $%^*#! Dolly.

There is much more rant in me, but I want to hear what you have to say. Are we doomed? Or is there hope?

Retiring the Dinosaur

October 8, 2010

When you see a good actor, how do you know it? What, exactly, makes one performer stand out in crowd of pretenders?

Think about this and answer for yourself. Or me. I’m actually interested in your response.

Ask any theatergoer this and you’re likely to get any number of responses:

“They really transformed into that character.”
“They were so believable.”
“They made me think it was real.”
“They were just so interesting.”

And on and on. The theme I seem to draw from the typical pool of compliments about a “good” actor is simply truth. Play the truth and you’ll win them over. Play what you think the truth should be and you’ll put them to sleep.

Ever wonder the exact opposite question; “why do I hate watching this actor so much?” Usually, the ones who are trying to act their pants off aren’t noticably bad, let’s say, but everyone just seems to get a rotten feeling every time they open their mouth, right? Ask why and you’ll probably hear precisely the opposite responses of the question above. “I just didn’t believe a word they said.”

If we’re all in the same boat, truth seems to triumph.

What then, is the reason we can tell one person is truthful and another isn’t? Just yesterday I played ‘two truths and a lie’ with a new friend. You know the game; say three one-sentence statements about yourself and make one a lie, then see if someone can guess which is which. She tried admirably to fool me, and failed instantly. Even though I barely know her, I guessed the lie right away.

“How did you do that?” she asked.

Nevermind that I felt like saying something esoteric like “I’m an actor. All I do all day, every day, is practice truth, and try to sniff out falsities in myself in others.”

I ended up responding, “I don’t know. I just knew.” (Let the record show that we immediately played another round, this time my turn, and she instantly also correctly picked my lie. You have no idea how secretly disappointing this is for an actor. But I digress).

So, how do we know? Well, we know that impulses are real. Why did you click on the link to this blog? Why did you sit down at your computer in the first place? Why did you decide to get the mail at the exact time you got it today? Impulses. Sure, you can go back and justify. You may have been waiting for a letter from a friend, a package, or in my case, a scholarship check, but the fact is, when it came time to check the mail, you had an impulse. And you followed it.

Impulses aren’t all about chores and entertainment though. Sometimes we have impulses to slap people, or shout at them. Sometimes our impulses tell us to seduce them or hug them. Ever see someone get into a passionate embrace, then stare deeply into the eyes of their partner, gaze down at their mouth, only to walk away after a pat on the back? No! Not without a kiss. If you saw that happen on the street, you’d say “man, he really wanted to kiss her, I wonder why he didn’t.” We see impulses in others and we probably don’t even know it.

Sometimes though, impulses aren’t as grand. The slightest inflection is an impulse. The shortest pause, the most specific volume. All impulses. So, if we’ve done our math right, I think we can assume that when someone isn’t following their impulses (natural, truthful behavior) we instantly finger them as false.

Perhaps our knees bend slightly to sit down but we ignore it, or we scream and rant at something we’re certain we aren’t actually that mad at. We fight impulses so that we may ACT, and ACT WELL, damnit.  But in doing so, we’re sending short-circuited, cross-wired messages to our audiences. They scratch their heads and forget our performances instantly. “Tonight’s audience sucks,” says the untruthful actor, “they’re killing me.” Meanwhile, they’re killing their own impulses, having no idea why their shouting and emphatic gesticulating doesn’t seem to be winning anyone over.

This is why I say,( at the risk of taking this post for a sharp turn and completely blasphemizing an overwhelmingly popular school of thought) that I think “method” acting should go the way of the dinosaur. Stop “the method,” Brendan? The most successfully marketed and branded acting technique in the history of mankind? Why?

Let me count the ways, and also offer caveats.

 If truth is what we’re after, why on earth would we at any point in playing a character step out of our role into our own psychological past, rummage around for a worthy replica of a feeling, conjure it up, and then attempt to utilize it back in our make-believe world? To me, this appears to be two or three steps further removed from truth. Why wouldn’t you simply use what is organically happening in your character’s life to allow the emotion to come? The most glaring problem is that thinking and feeling anything but the present moment, the present circumstances and the present impulses around you is categorically false, not true. Immediately we are no longer truthful if our intellect and emotions are somewhere else.

Let’s say a script calls for my scene partner to say,

“Your father has died.” And then my character is to cry.

So, to completely bastardize “the method,” I’ll wait for my cue, think of my poor dog Charlie who died as a puppy, and work up some tears. Truthful? Exactly the opposite. If I am emotional about anything other than what is happening onstage, the audience will know (but perhaps may not know why they kn0w), and I’ll have failed. A portrait of life has all of the lines connected, not each living it’s own story.

Now, is this what the method asks you to do? Arguably, yes. Realistically, not exactly. Unfortunately, Stanislavski and Adler and Strasberg aren’t around anymore to teach us exactly what they meant, and yet underqualified undergraduate professors and overconfident directors everywhere continue to pound this mutated acting school into our brains.

BIG FAT CAVEAT: The ‘method’ revolutionized acting. The method finally brought a scientific, understandable approach to acting that made thousands of people finally understand how to be competent on stage, and how to keep up with the true tragedians who were brilliant at what they did but didn’t exactly know why. Method acting allowed for the gigantic change into naturalism in the 19th century, and turned grand, oratorical acting into more believable “real life” plays. It helped usher in the theater we know and love today. However, about nine different “schools of thought” get crammed under the same heading, “the method.” The ‘sense-memory’ technique started with Stanislavski, who later abandonded it. Later, Lee Strasberg pioneered it in the USA, made history, and in the hands of lesser talents, it has unraveled into a mess of an artform.  There are ‘methods’ that focus on finding truth and communicating life from the inside out, yes, but many are unfortunately tied to the idea of wreaking havok on your emotional history in order to feel something on stage.

Caveat aside, the teachings were revolutionary when they were created. Many great actors thrived in the systems. But our practitioners are gone, and many of today’s institutions continue to todder aimlessly down the road of the method, scrambling the brains of hundreds of young actors along the way.

Don’t agree? Here’s a story for you: on my grad school audition tour, I had a run-in with a very reputable school (which will remain nameless in the blogosphere, ask me in person) where I was asked to do a monologue. Then I was told what the monologue was about and why I chose it (noticed how I didn’t say asked). Then, as they brilliantly declared that I had chosen the monologue “because the character was in love,” (how interesting that must be for me!) I was instructed to imagine a former lover who’d broken my heart, and that we’d just had the talk that ended it all, and that I should picture her (a ghost version of her, I suppose?) in a chair across the room. Then, pause for dramatic effect, Deliver. The. Monologue. Again.

After this, this school actually called me back up to New York to go to the private callback. I declined. Too much method made me feel like I needed a shower, not like I wanted to study with them for three years.

In short, I implore you. Stop the method. It’s old. It’s bastardized. We live in the 21st century, and in this time of reality shows and social network tidal waves, we need truth more than ever.

There are new, effective, evolving, interesting ways to study acting. As my graduate work and this blog progress, I’ll happily continue to tell you about one.