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Unlocking LiFT 12: The Brass Lantern Live Rehearsal

By Matt Powers

We live in interesting times. Radio has made a comeback in the form of podcasts. The public has a desire to see how a show is created. Shows like Prairie Home Companion were popular in their day because they produced sound effects live, and now, with The Brass Lantern, we have the opportunity for a hybrid performance. Sure some of our effects are digital, but many we can reproduced live. But this isn’t about sound effects! Not yet! Back to directing.

Script Additions and Aids

While not a memorized show, it is still helpful to have some additional notes in a performance script. As my actors have requested, I’ve added several notes, cues, and other matters in the script so that they have a handy reference during the live performance. This isn’t so much that their memories are faulty, or that they didn’t take notes, rather there is an air of wanting to do very well, and they want to be sure to “get it right.”

Which is alright with me, it is a bit more work on my end, but this is worth it, and has an unforeseen benefit. It forces me to make my vision for the show much clearer, more potent. Not only is clarity beneficial for the actors, as it provides direction (ha, see what did there?), but allows them a solid foundation from which to build their character upon. Actors can piece together words, tones, and actions in unique ways – and I, for one, am the last to get in the way of that, but it certainly does help even the most seasoned actor to have a starting point. And, selfishly, this exercise helps my writing and my ability to communicate. Which is always beneficial.

Stage Presence

Transitioning from voice acting to live stage performance is a bit tricky at times. Actors get used to the privacy, intimacy, flexibility, and reproducibility of recording in a studio. It is very similar to television and film acting – if you mess up, you just do it again. Don’t nail the line? It’s alright. Do it again and stitch together the best bits.

Performing live, obviously, takes away this safety net, and when that happens, some actors retreat inside themselves, and their charisma and entertainment subside. At times like this, it is the responsibility of the director not only to put the actor at ease with reassurances, so they can flourish and be their radiant selves, but to guide them through the show with a clear plan. Then rehearse it enough so everyone is on the same page.

At that point, it is important that everyone has some fun, and draws out their character. Acting is fun after all, and if that’s not happening among the actors and director, that will clearly be evident to the audience. “If we’re not having fun, they’re not having fun.” I’ve said this many times to my actors, have seen it to be truthful, and will continue to say it until I’ve been proven wrong.

Timing / Fluidity

Certain moments and beats need to timed well to convey the moment accurately, with emotional intensity and clarity. Really, it’s about what information the audience needs to understand at that moment. Our job is to make that very clear.

In drama, or more serious portions of theater, timing functions a bit differently. In comedy, humor is generated through quick pacing, expression of the dialogue, and posture (as well as an actor’s awareness of laughter). With more serious work, those same concepts are in play, but in reverse essentially.

In the clip above, we see Matthew Arnold (played by A.G. Devitt) talking with Elaina Dare (played by Laura Powers). Arnold is home from his stint in the war, where horrors have scarred him, has difficulty confessing the whole truth about Elaina’s father, St. John.

Much of the work that we focus on here is accurately conveying Arnold’s character, and the difficulty he has with opening up to people. Contrasting Arnold, Elaina needs to come across as fierce, independent, capable, and understanding.  The scene also has elements of romance, as two characters, despite their foibles, are discovering they care about the other.

Its a dynamic scene with much to show to the audience, and great character development. The awkwardness, the risk-taking of emotional expression, and the wonder of discovering a new person (as well as new things about yourself), I think all of us can relate to. It becomes a matter of making the moment real. To that end, we opted for a slower pace of dialogue, with longer pauses to help show both the difficulty of being truthful and thoughts simmering below the surface. Character spacing also matters, we wanted the characters close to establish some intimacy, but far enough way to show distancing. Posture and mannerisms do similar work.

While the scene isn’t perfect yet, it is moving in the right direction. All it takes now is practice.

Till soon,

Matt

Unlocking LiFT 11: “Where’s the Cheesecake” Rehearsal

By Matt Powers

Since the inauguration of the Little Falls Cheese Festival four years ago, we have put on a series of original one-act, radio-theater style plays. We have a recurring cast of characters and actors, and are in the same venue each year.

These shows are great fun to direct. And that’s the point, right? Why have theater that isn’t fun? There is a time and a place for that kind of theater, but, for us, for the Cheese Festival in the throes of July heat, we prefer light, witty comedy. Even though we have a lot of fun, there are always things to work on.

Timing – Timing is crucial in any comedy. Getting the right preparation, delivery, and the right pacing all contribute to good timing. The best comedians excel in this areas, and know, in and out, how to make a joke funny. The same applies in theater where actors need to know what the joke is, how to prep it, and how to deliver it. With verbal and witty jokes, the burden is on the “straight man.” They need to establish a “normal” which the other character, the “foil,” can make a punch-line against. Sometimes the normal is composure, sometimes it is madcap, either way a baseline needs to be established in order for it to be upended.

Actors. Always on break.

So part of the rehearsal was geared toward allowing the actors to learn which role they played in the joke. Not everyone can be the punch-line person, but without the “straight man,” jokes fall flat. It takes some time, particularly getting the speed and delivery right, but once it hits – it is absolutely worth the time.

Voice Acting – These Cheese Festival shows have evolved into a hybrid. They are part radio-theater, part reader’s theater, or as our authors dubs it “theater for the air.” Since actors have script in hand, and our performance space is rather small, we don’t have much room for movement or blocking. So, like the old-time-radio personalities, we need to rely heavily on voice acting.

The full cast reading the first few pages. From left to right: Katie Drake, Tom Stock, Cindy Quackenbush, Ginny Clapp, Tucker Lester, Al McDowell, and Oscar Stivala.

Voice Acting is all about being distinctive. A character’s voice needs to be iconic and convey things like: age, gender, education, geographic location, physical size, personality traits, and more. So much time is spend on character voicing, not only to capture the essence of the character, but to fit in the overall comedic design. If a particular voice, or voicing, is making a joke unclear, then it needs to be tweaked. Oftentimes I’ll say to the cast, “We need more. Really bring that out. Or don’t be afraid to be a bit over-the-top here, I’ll tell you when its too much,” just to put them at ease and perform in energetic ways.

Script Adjustments – Finally, the script. We go through a rigorous reading process. Angela sends me a draft. I read it and give feedback. She edits, has others read it, and then we get it out to the cast. During the first few read-thrus,  we make alterations here and there, but it isn’t until we actually read it in our performance space that the script becomes finalized.

More script changes.

Several times during that rehearsal, I’d wander over to Angela, ask a question about the script or a cue, and get clarification. After we decided to cut, or add, something, I’d stop rehearsal, tell the cast what the change was, and have everyone mark it in their scripts. I know in some cases actors get very annoyed by this process, but they are good to us, and know that they too are part of the process and want to have an excellent product. It is sometimes time-consuming, but it works.

All of these things happen simultaneously, so it is a bit difficult to accurately convey how rehearsal goes, but they are vital for creating a fun, lively, comedy. And if we didn’t pay attention to these things, why are we creating theater?

Till soon,

Matt

Unlocking LiFT 10: The Communal Story

By Matt Powers

Community theater is the only theater. Blasphemy, I know. Particularly since community theater is see as pretty low on the totem pole. There are regional theaters, for- profit and not-for-profit professional theaters, Broadway which all have greater “status” or “respectability” than community theater.  It’s all hooey really.

The roots of theater grip into the community. The Greeks held multi-day celebrations with theatrical contests. Plays written by Sophocles or Euripides and others used familiar stories, religious deities, and local people to entertain, examine social and philosophical issues. Sure part of this was religious in nature, but much of it too was a community coming together to create new work from a talented artist, where the work directly related to the people of that time. Two thousand years later, we still do the same thing.

 

Making theater is about the journey we experience as a group, and how the stories we spin entertain and connect with our community. We all have lessons to offer, and we all have things to learn from stories. It is our duty to bring them to life, present them, and, hopefully, impact the community to get them talking. Spark discussion. Promote reflection.

If this is absent, the community suffers from this lack of discourse. It also misses out on opportunities to see the world through a different perspective. Take, for instance, Trifles by Susan Glaspell. First performed in Provincetown in 1916, this one-act play deals with an investigation of Mr. Wright’s death in his home. The male characters look for clues, while their wives talk. The ladies too investigate, examining the kitchen, her sewing, and the deceased pet bird she adored. They quickly realize that the Mrs. Wright indeed murdered her husband by considering her life, whereas the male characters barely consider it. The inherent feminism in the play adds to the community and shows inequality in that community. Possibilities for discussion, reflection (and hopefully change), are now available to make the community tighter and stronger.

With LiFT, we began Strike Story, continued with summer Shakespeare, but have now expanded to include radio-theater with The Brass Lantern, and have a foothold in an upcoming production of The Laramie Project. While we typically focus on new work (Strike Story and Lantern), because their themes are most relevant to our community, older and pre-produced work also bears important thematic concerns for our community.

Part of the job of artists, particularly theater artists, is to see the bigger picture of their community, and then create work that addresses it, to promote dialogue and reflection, and to make their community a better place to live.

A healthy community needs a healthy theater. No matter what size.

Till soon,

Matt

Unlocking LiFT 9: Decision Making

By Matt Powers

LiFT began with Strike Story by Angela Harris, which is about the 1912 textile strikes in Little Falls, NY. We didn’t know it then, but this production, and how its been produced, has set the tone for how LiFT creates shows and makes decisions.

In the initial read-thrus of the play, the whole cast sat in Angela’s living room, read the play aloud, and then had many discussions about characters, conflicts, language, and a host of other things, while having snacks and wine. The closest thing I can compare the openness of conversation and diverse perspectives is democracy. Everyone had a voice, and we didn’t all get along, but we somehow came together to create this show. From the start, our decisions were not made in a vacuum.

As LiFT continued in other projects, I kept this open forum central to the group. As was often the case, I would choose a show, get a cast, and schedule rehearsals, but decisions about costumes, makeup, sets, even blocking were all open for discussion. If someone had an idea, we tried it. If it worked, we kept it. If it didn’t, we tried something else. It was fun, liberating, and invested the actors in the show. This worked for a few shows, but it wasn’t entirely satisfying to me.

That’s when I brought the cast in on the pre-production. After selecting a script and casting the show, I’d have a read-thru at my home, feed everyone, and discuss the play. We’d then have at least two follow up meetings to lay the ground work for all sorts of matters. The result? An ensemble driven show, that everyone had investment in.

Playwrights, actors, and theater makers in the age of Elizabeth did a similar thing (which I took as a model). The concept of a “director” didn’t exist. So everyone made decisions on acting, blocking, and other things collectively. Sure there would be a “point person” to establish responsibility for certain matters, but overall the ensemble, social, even democratic feel of the production is unmistakable.

And has become the backbone of LiFT.

Till soon,

Matt

Unlocking LiFT 8: Structured Creativity

By Matt Powers

I play Dungeons and Dragons. There I said it. I have played it for twenty years, and now have a biweekly game. I am the Dungeon Master. I craft adventures, campaigns, and stories. I build fantastic worlds, delightful characters, and vile enemies. I play all the characters my players interact with. Together we adopt roles, converse, act, react, and resolve conflicts. It is a unique share creative experience, but, essentially, we create theater akin to creating episodes in a series.

While the connections between role playing games and drama are there, I’d like to take a moment to discuss a related theme. Depending on my audience, when I tell people I play Dungeons and Dragons and they look at me like I am some hydra, I sometimes quickly follow up with labeling it as time for “structured creativity.” This is purely to re-frame the conversation to help them understand what it is we engage in, because, more often than not, they have no clue about the game beyond the stereotypes they have encountered.

The benefits of this time for structured creativity have been enormous. It has rekindled my imagination in childlike ways and put my back in touch with the exhilaration of imagining. When I sit down to work on the game, I ravenously search for something new. Something the players have never encountered. I paw through books, websites, and magazines for inspiration. Pay attention the world around me a bit more closely in hopes transforming my experiences.

There are also other skills I get to exercise here: problem solving, crafting an adventure where everyone can shine, providing challenge and danger, improvisation, managing personalities, adjudication, and many others. From creating an adventure to playing it out, I get to utilize all manner of “critical thinking” skills, and, upon reflection, this has sharpened my other creative endeavors. I have a clearer sense of what makes an entertaining and satisfying piece of theater or fiction. I pay more attention to the rhythm of the piece, its moods, and how to modulate them for effect.

But, most importantly, I get to have fun. There are eight in the group, so twice a month we sit around the table, play a game, role play, create story, and laugh. The ingenuity that arises is spectacular, dynamic, infectious. Once one of us does something the rest finds wonderful or hilarious, that moment inspires a chain reaction of other creative ideas. There is a palpable energy in the air when we play, and three or four hours seem to disappear.

I guess the best part of this time, for me, is other people, and seeing (again) that storytelling isn’t always a solo work of genius, but a group having fun.

Till soon,

Matt

Unlocking LiFT 7: The Necessity of Respite

By Matt Powers

I have chosen not to direct one of Shakespeare’s play this summer, choosing to direct smaller projects and to free up some time to be with my family. This was not an easy decision, as my love for his work is profound, but I have rediscovered that creative work is, well, exhausting, and I also needed time to recharge my creativity, drive, and discipline.

While there are twinges of disappointment, after five years of summer Shakespeare there is an expectation of entertainment, people have been kind, and understanding, and even congratulatory. “Good for you!” they say, or “Glad you can take of yourself first!” This has all been very good for my ego, and my decision, but I cannot help but find it a bit peculiar.

After some reflection, taking time off is incredibly valuable. Whether “time off” means gardening, reading, painting, building a deck, cooking more, or simply laying in a hammock, taking time away from your main creative endeavor is necessary. “Time off” isn’t quitting, or not being productive. It is a shift in mindset that allows for diversion, boredom, and exploration. During this time (which in the academic realm is called a sabbatical), we encounter new ideas, things, perspectives, and are free to process them at an easier pace, so when we do return to our work, we can return with new eyes, more objectivity, more ideas, and more energy.

Time off is also a clever trick to make us forget the exhaustion and burnout of creative activities, and let us remember the joy of making.

Till soon,

Matt

 

Exciting News!

We have been awarded two grants by CNY Arts to fund our original podcast The Brass Lantern! This money is seed money that will help us establish, create, and promote our podcast to the Mohawk Valley and the world. Or in their words: This project is made possible with funds from the Decentralization Program, a regrant program of the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature and administered by CNY Arts.

We would like to thank the CNY Arts grants coordinator Liz Lane, the CNY Arts grants panelists, and the CNY Arts board of trustees for all they hCNYArtslogoave done and for approving our project. We’d also like to thank Jane Malin and the Mohawk Valley Center for the Arts for being an awesome “umbrella.” Without their help this would not have been possible.

You can find our podcast on iTunes and on our host, Spreaker. Please like, review, and share! Thanks for all the support!

Our future is so bright, it’s blinding!

Unlocking LiFT 6: For Love

It’s happens. People come out of the woodwork. Stride out to the dance floor from the corners. They surprise. They delight. They risk their comfort zones. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s beautiful.

That’s one of the great joys of community theater. Hidden talents emerge in surprising ways, and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been caught off guard by someone’s performance. To have a friend cry or intimidate believably onstage is impressive. To have another friend provoke laughter with an interesting, dynamic voice and bring a character to life is delightful. The bonds that form after, rewarding.

For me, these surprises create the dynamism of community theater, improve a casts’ strength, and, really, make the whole thing fun. When these surprises happen, barriers are broken down, and let’s be honest here, we all have some sort of barrier. Whether it is a slight bias, or a judgment, an ego, or even lack of familiarity, when authentic surprise happens, these things are challenged. In the worst cases, there is begrudging respect. In the best cases, we see the performer in a new light, reconsider our initial barriers, see them as more human, and draw closer together.

I do not think this experience is unique to Little Falls, though I wish it were. Rather, this is a trait of theater, and community theater in particular. These small challenges, these surprise moments, could be used as a model for community building. I’ll try not to sound too idealistic here, because much of this is that, and lean towards a more pragmatic tone.

People have skill sets, and oftentimes they don’t utilize them fully, or only use them in narrow ways (like strictly for a job). Though, when people get involved in community activities, they increase the likelihood that their skills will be drawn upon in various ways. It’s a bit of a risk, getting involved and throwing yourself out there, but this challenge is useful, and often helps us grow. For a community it is crucial to draw on this, and for community theater it is absolutely necessary. Without people taking risks, growing, failing, and sharing their skills – community theater doesn’t happen.

None of us get paid to do this. Our compensation? Gratification, friendship, growth, and love.

Till soon,

Matt

Unlocking LiFT 5: Podcasting

Podcasts have been around for a few years, but have really become vogue. Some say the “Golden Age” of radio has come again. The sheer amount of content available, the ease of access, and the immense variety is astounding. So we thought we’d toss our hat in the ring with The Brass Lantern, because it is right up our alley.

And it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

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Teaching the next generation of podcasters.

One of our favorite things to do is create new work, reach new audiences, and allow as many people as possible to experience the wonder of the our art form: theater. And the possibilities with radio theater are too good to pass up. With its zero cost, accessibility, and specialized interests, this openness is optimal for our audience.

Every month we crank out a new script, record, re-record sometimes, make a trailer, edit the audio, music, create and add sound effects, and more. It’s an immense amount of work, time, coordination, attention to detail, and creative marketing, but it’s worth it. We are developing new work, which means developing ourselves, bettering ourselves to make better entertainment for all of you.

We choose audio drama, because we like it, but the possibilities are endless. In fact, we are having so much fun with this, we are considering more shows and perhaps a whole podcasting arm to LiFT. It’s a new and exciting time for us. We hope you enjoy what we have planned.

Let us know what you think!

Talk soon.

Matt Powers