Monday, March 29, 2010

Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant: Seven Downtime Conversations

I loved reading the last two posts by Jon and Joanna, and hearing about how we are all wrestling with our audiences to create a foundation on which to build long-term relationships and communities. Since the production schedule for Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant has been lighter than usual this spring, I have had a chance to participate in some other encouraging conversations and to see some exciting experiments in community.

Company Meetings
Instead of rehearsals, we have been holding company meetings. We have been taking a look at how we organize ourselves for a long run in Cambridge this summer, anticipating the challenge of mounting our logistically-involved show in another city with very little changeover time. In addition, we need to replace and/or write-around an ensemble member who was cast in the Broadway company of Hair (a shared victory for our company of actors!). How do we bring in directors and designers, re-cast, and grow the numbers of our ensemble without destroying the actor-generated spirit of the work we do?

The name of our mainstage show is the name of our company is the name of a place where a collection of characters work and perform. We are an actor driven-company that has created a show about an ensemble of actors. In our meetings we have also been brainstorming about how to create brands that can allow us to branch out without confusing our audience. For smaller site-specific events with food: Conni’s Ah-La-Carte? For private events: Convergence Catering? But how do we re-define ourselves if we want to create something that is made by the actors of the company but not by the characters of the Restaurant? See Little West 12th Night. Suggestions welcome.

For next year, how do we plan our season in advance but also stay agile enough to take advantage of co-production opportunities that arise with short notice? How can we institutionalize renewal? Is’t possible that back-to-back productions can sometimes be a way of procrastinating doing the real work of building an ensemble? Note to self: build in downtime.

Outrageous Fortune

Speaking of institutionalizing renewal, I work as a part-time grantwriter for New Dramatists, a 60-year old organization that is sustained and funded solely with contributed income. Housed in a renovated church on West 44th, New Dramatists provides time and space for writers to create their best work, offering seven-year residencies to a rotating company of 50 playwrights. I have been privy to some pretty deep conversations among playwrights of late.

Todd London, ND’s artistic director, along with researcher Ben Pesner, just published a four-year study Outrageous Fortune, the Life and Times of the New American Play that looks at the lives and livelihoods of playwrights. Read it and you will feel like you are not crazy. It is getting harder for individual artists to make a living in the theater. The systems are shrinking, empirically confirmed. In 1920, a new play opened on Broadway every two days. Today, every 2 months. And the not-for-profit theater structure, created to support artist-driven work, cannot support the weight of its own institutions. The last chapter contains hope.

Also, check out Arena Stage’s new play blog:

Play Mountain

Only half-joking, I have expressed that my mission in life is to create a New Dramatists for devised work, except that I would like it to be funded with earned income. Justine Williams of the Glass Contraption has organized a series of meetings to think about just this. She calls it Play Mountain. It was not intended to be a women’s group, but for the first three meetings it has been largely dominated by thirty-something women with their own theater companies.

This started as a loose group of friends, many of whom share both a lust for real-estate and the hope of finding a way to share a space dedicated to developing new work on its feet. The group is part discussion, part support, part action-plan, part creative project, and may soon become part play. ERPA fans and thinkers, please contact me if you care to hear more about it:

Passion Play Festival
Epic Theatre Ensemble is organizing a coalition of performing groups to create a theater community event surrounding their premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play at Irondale’s space in Fort Greene. Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant is slated to perform and serve up a 2- or 3-course meal on select Sundays after the matinee performances this May.

Little West 12th Night

So, while I am off chatting and easdropping, what do my ensemble members do during downtime? They make another play, with a new set of characters, a reconfigured set of company roles, and a potentially fascinating ERPA-spirited business model, originally conceived by Rachel Murdy with Stephanie Dodd as head writer and Cindy Croot as director. I got to act, just act. On March 25, we held what amounted to an open rehearsal for an underground walking tour of the meatpacking district. Throughout the tour, the audience encountered characters who evoked the spirit of the neighborhood during the 80’s, and who appeared to be enmeshed in a drama very reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant will heavily cross-promote, so get on our mailing list to get yourself invited to the tour next year:

This project has sparked a new obsession for me in terms of stealing an already-established business model and overlaying it to serve artist-driven theater: walking tours! Does that mean I have given up on food service? Not yet.

Catering Class

The ERPA implementation project for my theater company, Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant (for those of you just tuning in) is to invest in kitchen equipment and other one-time costs associated with starting a food service business, to enable us to eventually support art-making by selling food. As part of these activities, I brought an ensemble member to a class taught by David Turk of Indiana Catering about how to start a catering business.

Two tricks I’d like to share that directly translate for season planning:

First, he had us do an exercise for starting a business plan. Start by envisioning where you want to be at a point in the future, say two years. Then work backwards. In order for that vision to be realized, where do you need to be in one year, 6 months, 3 months, 1 month, this week, and what can go on the to-do list today? I turned over the exercise to my ensemble to help us collectively make a vision for next year’s season and to take accountability for the actions that need to happen now. I’ll let you know what we come up with.

Second, he gave us a trick for accepting gigs: the four Fs. The gig should either strongly satisfy one of these needs, or meet more than one F:

Fun (or, perhaps, artistically satisfying)
Financially lucrative
Future business
Fills a hole the calendar

Another tidbit about food and theater from me and the Restaurant, including Jonny Hammersticks’ lasagna recipe, will be published in the upcoming (April) issue of American Theatre magazine.

North Captiva

Perhaps we are working too hard. I am writing this post from my parents’ home in Southwest Florida, where an island liberal arts community has spontaneously erupted. It is not a self-determined community but one that arose out of a homeowners association that baby boomers bought, then retired, into. True to their generation, these folks are pro-duc-tive! From within their ranks of volunteers, they provide for one another weekly yoga classes, book club meetings, a theater group (I am trying very hard to avoid Plaza Suite rehearsals this week), nature walks and talks, painting classes, a sketch group, and it goes on.

What do they have that we don’t have? Time and space.

My mom held her first art show and sale at her home on Saturday. She sold half of 30 paintings. Yes, she is a brilliant watercolorist. (She picked up a brush at the tender age of 55 and has been steadily working over the last 10 years.) But also she is very pragmatic and paints for her audience, featuring subjects that are dear to them. For shows in Florida, she paints pelicans. Massachusetts? Fishing boats.

Note to self: When in Florida, paint pelicans.

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