Making Theatre is Kind of A Dumb Thing To Do [California Seething]
Author’s Note: I know I promised to reveal my pick for “”The One Summer Movie I Dragged My Ass Out to See” – but, sadly, the demands of my so called “real job” have prevented me from doing any real meaningful Seething. That is to say, any meaningful Seething, which I feel comfortable sharing on this blog. Ahem. Cough. Ugh.
So instead, I’ve decided to share this classic Califronia Seething, in which I explore the sheer idiocy of my chosen artform with the hope of inspiring young people. Seriously, if just one aspiring theatre professional with stars in his eyes reads this post and decides to go to Law School instead, I’ll consider my work here done.
I’m joking, of course! I love what I do, and if you are a young person who is interested in theatre, I encourage you to follow your heart. Hell, the job market is so totally crappy now that you’re hopelessly fucked no matter what field you go into, so you might as well be unemployed from doing something you might love. That way, at least you’ll be excited to interview for the jobs you don’t get. Enjoy!
OK, all kidding aside, it’s very important that all of you come see my show when it opens. Not just because the actors are amazing (which they are), and the director is brilliant (which he is) and the writer is halfway decent (name rhymes with Flakespear- and I don’t mean Blake Steer, renowned Cherokee porn star). You should all come because I’ve been working my ass off on this show for no money or hope of professional advancement and I need as many people as possible to validate this incredibly stupid and self destructive life choice that I’ve made. Again. This, BTW, is actually the subtext of most peer-to-peer grassroots arts marketing – in fact, you could change of names of most shows in LA to “Somebody Tell Me I’m Not Wasting My Life” or “Hug Me- I’m Broke!”
I’ve been making theatre for most of my life. I founded my first theatre company in 3rd grade in Arad, Israel. For those unfamiliar with Arad (i.e. anyone reading this who’s name does not include the word “Sims”) it’s the sort of idyllic small town that Norman Rockwell would have dreamed of if he fell asleep on the toilet after eating some bad schwarma sold to him by sleezy Russian immigrants. There were three of us in the company, so we called ourselves Ha Shlishia- which, loosely translated from the Hebrew means, “The Three” (pretty fucking clever for a bunch of 8 year olds, if you ask me). As our fame grew, so did our aspirations. We expanded by leaps and bounds- fast becoming Ha Revieya (“the Four”) and, at the peek of our success, Ha Hameshia (“The Five”.) Tragically, we lost two members due to artistic differences over action figures (Boba Fett was our Yoko Ono) and were back to being Ha Shlishia. (Fortunately we weren’t in the American public school system, so addition and subtraction were no problem for us.) It didn’t matter, though- we were Rock Stars- bold, brash and out of control- guzzling chocolate milk by the bagful (don’t look at me- they sell it that way) , wolfing down Krembo (phallic Third World Malomars) and fighting off the girls with a stick (mostly because they wanted to play Smurfs with us and that was NOT fucking happening.)
My love song to a chicken, performed as Gonzo to the tune of a Eurovision winning hit in our iconic Muppet Show tribute sketch was the second biggest theatrical event in Arad in 1982 (#1 was the first national, non-union Israeli bus and truck tour of Jacob and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – held over at the high school auditorium for four whole nights (excluding Shabbos.) I was a superstar until my parents decided in 1983 that it would be better for my sense of self-loathing if we moved somewhere where I had no friends and wasn’t popular (there was some other bullshit about my dad’s job) and we moved to the icy climate and socially hostile terrain of Albany, NY.
The Shleshia was, perhaps, the high point of my theatrical career. By the time we moved to the US, my fate was sealed. I was doomed to be a theatre producer. No matter how many advanced math and science classes I took, my earning potential would be forever pegged at the lowest ebb of Middle Class- in that magical ghetto of Ramen Noodles and parental disappointment known simply as “The Arts.” Since then, I have been able to respond to any inquiry into my well being by referencing the show I’m working on- as in “I’m pretty good, we just finished casting” or “Awesome! We opened last night.” or “I’m gonna murder that fucking actress if she asks me one more fucking time about getting soy milk backstage. This isn’t a film set, bitch, shut up and drink the Mini-Moos I stole from my day-job. ” At some point along the way, I noticed that my motivation had shifted. While my early theatrical endeavors were motivated by a clean, wholesome lust for adulation, my later ventures were increasingly motivated more by a twisted and depraved addiction to the process of making theatre itself.
The thing is, like most Jewish men, I’m a bit of a workaholic (when the going gets tough, the tough blame their hook-nose), and producing theatre is like masturbation to a workaholic — a cheaply satisfying but ultimately fruitless activity that’s best done in the dark and impossible to resist no matter how draining it becomes or how crappy it makes you feel about yourself afterwards. The burden of the show becomes a weight so familiar that you forget how to stand up without it. Some like to think of it as childbirth, but I prefer to compare it to Basket Case. Every show is a horribly mangled evil Siamese twin growing out of my side like a demonic Mad Ball, screeching and clawing and gasping for life until it grows too large and is surgically removed during rehearsals and no matter how much you try to coddle it and keep it contained in the theatre it runs amuck killing the relationships with everyone you love and everything goes down the toilet. (BTW- if you haven’t seen Basket Case- SEE IT NOW!)
At this point, the eagle eyed reader might be wondering why I keep producing theatre if it’s such a miserable and stressful experience. The answer is simple — I love it! Why would anyone do anything else with their lives? No matter how terrible a show is or how thoroughly unpleasant the experience, every show has three golden moments which make the whole thing worthwhile:
Golden Moment #1: The Initial Conversation
This is my favorite part of any show. This is the moment when I hear the director’s ideas and we all decide, “Yes! This is good! This will work! Let’s do it!” That last moment of pure artistic joy before everything inevitably falls to shit. During this conversation, everyone loves each other, everyone loves the project and everything is possible. More often than not, this is the conversation where the director tells the First Great Lie of Theatrical Production: “I want this show to be really simple”. This is the lie I believe no matter how many times I hear it — the “I swear, those other girls meant nothing to me” of theatrical seduction. That beautiful word — “simple” — a few platforms, some tables and chairs painted black; only the most essential props- a pencil, a clipboard, a book; basic costumes — maybe even stuff the actors have in their closets. Elegant, beautiful, CHEAP!!.
The director sings this Siren song and I am mesmerized by it. I close my eyes and allow myself to be drawn in by his words until it’s too late to pull back — the ship of delusion crashes into the rocks of reality and I find out that “Simple” actually means that the whole set is going to have to rotate and flip over, that all the actors will have to be in perfect reproductions of 19th Century Samurai garb painted hot neon pink so we can’t possibly rent them, and that a massive chorus of children and cats will need to fly in from the rafters on a full scale reproduction of a German submarine. And while I may grumble to myself that this sounds a little over the top for The Crucible I go along with every crazy request because once the production is booked — once the Press Release is sent, the website is updated and tickets are on sale, it’s a runaway train and nothing can stop it. All problems must be solved, no matter how absurdly difficult: the lead actor announces that he can only rehearse from 1 – 6 AM and that he needs to leave town for two weeks right before Tech for a Reiki Master class (The Second Great Lie of Theatrical Production is told by actors during casting- “My schedule is totally flexible. If I get this show, it will be my top priority.” More actors get cast based on how convincingly they deliver this line than anything else they read at auditions); the theatre’s only bathroom begins spurting black sewage (HELPFUL NOTE FOR ASPIRING THEATRE PROFESSIONALS: Fuck Grad School. Learn plumbing. If it’s too late and you’re already at the Yale School of Drama, at least do your thesis on snaking paper towels out of toilets so that you’ll have some useful information when you hit the real world. Trust me, nobody cares what you think about Brecht.); the Stage Manager needs a quart of vodka just to get through rehearsal and cries hysterically every time she has to give a line note. During every production, there comes a time when everybody hates each other, nothing will ever get finished, none of the tickets are sold and everything just keeps getting more and more expensive — but if you can persevere through this time, you can reach the Second Golden Moment.
Second Golden Moment: Opening
No matter how much everyone hates each other along the way. No matter how bad things get. No matter how many screaming arguments the lighting designer has with the set designer about the color of paint on the chairs that include the phrase “you’re killing me!”- sooner or later there will come a moment when the show opens and in total defiance of logic, common sense and sometimes the laws of physics, everything magically just works. At this point, there are three key factors that will make everyone fall in love with each other all over again, and people who days before might have threatened to beat each other to death in a dispute over blocking will, all of a sudden, be hugging each other like released hostages hugging family members after a particularly unpleasant hijacking (not to be confused with those pleasant hijackings in Stockholm where you get ice cream and delicious sandwiches and fall in love with your captors.) I call these factors, the Three A’s of a Happy Opening:
Abundant Free Food
Imagine: A full house of adoring fans laughing at every joke and hooting with exhalation during the Curtain Call, the Two Buck Chuck flowing like water (much cheaper than actual water), cubes of cheese lined up like warring armies of yellow and white as far as the eye can see- how can anyone stay mad at each other? For one fleeting and glorious evening, all is forgotten and everyone loves each other almost as much as they did before they discovered what a bunch of total assholes they signed up to work with. The crappy reviews, empty houses, broken props and smelly costumes of later performances still lie ahead – but for a few hours, everything is as good as you could possibly want it to be. Except the rotating set got stuck halfway through the show, and a couple of kids fell out of the flying submarine and had to be rushed to the hospital- but, still, it’s a glorious night to be alive — and it better be, because I count on the afterglow of this night to carry me all the way through to the Third and Final Golden Moment.
Third Golden Moment: Strike
No matter how long a show runs, how many tickets it sells, how much money was spent and how many sloppy hookups took place in the dressing rooms, sooner or later, everything comes to an end. The house lights come up after the final performance, everyone gets drunk and after one last round of hugs, the set comes tumbling down. With astonishing speed, the product of months of work is reduced to a pile of wood, nails and entertaining anecdotes. Almost immediately, the production is mythologized- and everything that seemed horrible just seems kind of funny- “Hey, remember that time you almost killed an actress for asking for soy milk?” “Remember when the toilet started spewing out sewage right in the middle of tech and we had to call you at two in the morning?” “Remember when those two kids fell out of the flying submarine RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF OPENING? Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha! That was awesome! Ha Ha Ha! Are they still in a coma?” Because a theatrical production is ephemeral, unlike a film or a building, we never have to confront the ugly realities of our work once it is done and so we are free to take what we want, archive it in our memories and leave the rest with the set in the dumpster. After all, two or three or five years later, no one will really remember what actually happened, and the production can once again be as glorious in retrospect as I would have liked it to have been when I first met with the director — or, if not glorious, then a hell of a lot more fun to remember than it ever was to have to live through in the first place
So there you have it. It might not be the smartest or most lucrative or easiest or most rewarding career choice, but I stand behind it. All I ask from you is that you come see my show, slug down a little Two Buck Chuck, laugh at the theatre stories you’ve heard a million times and reassure me that I haven’t TOTALLY wasted my life. Oh, and, if you know any Third Graders- for the love of god get them interested in computers. Or law. Or medicine. Or Dinosaurs. ANYTHING but theatre. Maybe plumbing- plumbing would be nice. Don’t thank me now. Just ask them to give me a break on snaking out the toilet at the theatre at 2 AM one morning in the distant future. I would do it myself, but, unfortunately, I didn’t go to Grad School.
Ed. Note: Eric Sims’ production of A Comedy of Errors will open on September 3rd. Free tickets will be available soon. Keep an eye on The Powerhouse Theatre‘s calendar and snap up 2 or 3. If you go to the show, be sure to give him a hug and tell him he isn’t wasting his life.
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featured image credit: loungerie