Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The history of theater in America is hardly awe inspiring. Unlike other cultures that produced great playwrights, our brief flare with O'Neill, followed by Miller and Williams, will probably not resonate through the ages. How can we expect these fine writers to last, when our greatest, O'Neill, is dismissed by critics for his obsolete language. This from pettifoggers who revere Shakespeare, yet don't understand 20 to 30% of his language! Theater is the most accessible of the performing arts, demonstrated by the numbers of Broadway theaters that tract hundreds of thousands annually. Opera, ballet and classical music appeal to limited audiences, and cannot become mainstream without audiences learning enough to comprehend what they are attending. Then they have to develop the requisite taste to appreciate what is not a common core in our texting society.

Despite the dim future of theater as audiences age and new audiences don't emerge to take their place, escalating ticket prices that prevent exposure to disadvantaged populations who could participate someday, if encouraged, more glamorous, hi-tech film, tv, video games, there is still an appeal in live theater that attracts people. Even as the classics fade from the repertory, musical theater still attracts huge audiences. There is no equivalent in less demanding opera or ballet. Musical theater could flourish another ten years, then the cost of production and technical advances in TV will erode the economic base that nourishes dozens of Broadway houses that are not suitable for other applications, except demolishment and replacement with condo-hotels.

Gary Beck

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

In retrospect, there were many reasons for my decision to form a classical company. I loved the classics, especially on the grand scale like Hamlet and Agamemnon. Yet the translations of the Greek plays were ponderous, stilted and almost as difficult to read as to produce on the stage. I visualized performances that would thrill the audience with the heightened passion of great tragedy. This was what I wanted to work for. But I knew that theater tragedy, especially with young actors lacking the requisite skills, would not reach audiences that no longer brought a willingness to actively respond to the play. They have been conditioned to sit back, relax and spectate, just the way they go to a movie. Theater is an emotional transaction between actors and audience, mandating participation between both sides. Nevertheless, my ambition was to involve audiences in the passion of the play.

Even while starting this Quixotic quest, part of me knew the chances of attaining my goals were not high. I neglected to bring an appropriate gift to the Oracle of Delphi, and did not perceive unfavorable omens. The irony was I never directed a classic. My experience, in several countries, was invariably social issue drama. I had an inherent prejudice against comedy, considering it crude, vulgar or too clever. So I opted to build the company doing comedy first, so
The pain of early failure would not be an anguish. The thought of inflicting tragedy on the audience with an unprepared company was abhorrent, but somehow making the audience suffer through the learning process of comedy was more tolerable.

I realized I had to master many new skills to do classical comedy, so I decided to recruit a number of small performing groups once we got a theater, including a modern ballet co., a modern dance co., a clown co., a mime co., a recent group of graduates who wanted to do a show together, and some scruffy musicians I named the Dehydrated Band. ( I think they could read and write, but they lacked many cognitive skills. One of them asked why they were the Dehydrated Band and I replied,' you just add water and mix'. I named them as a joke and didn't think it meant anything, but he seemed to get it. Rock musicians and classical musicians come from different planets). The idea of these disparate groups, congealing in one place considering the vast gulf between the sensitive ballerinas and the unwashed musicians, was perhaps a bit perverse, but definitely amusing. I planned to do some writing, directing and choreography with all of them except the band from another planet, whose only redeeming value would be if I could get them to play...What?...for the other groups. This had to be one of the strangest undertakings
In what had so far been my strange life.

Gary Beck

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Unless you've worked with the actors before, auditions are the standard recruiting process. To a director obsessed with creating stage beauty, this is an excruciating experience. Off-Off Broadway auditioners include recent college graduates with B.A.s in theater arts, though it have no idea what they spent 4 years doing. They don't know plays, theater history, minimal skills and fervently believe they worked hard in college. They are mostly middle class with no concept of the original nature of the actor, a low life with upper class mobility. These hot house blossoms do not understand that performing serious theater is done with life and death like intensity, but the audience should only see the result, not the struggle. I often felt that if I sent out a press-gang, the recruiting method of the British Empire in the 18th century, I had as much chance of finding capable bodies,
Then there were the retreads, the ex-insurance company executives who retired and suddenly wanted to be actors, after 20 years of misleading the public about their benefits. A few were suitable for institutional tv ads, but classical theater? It takes a long time for the true actor to develop his/her craft. These characters who last week were conning joe client on the golf course, now want to do Shakespeare. It's ironic that many of them are bright, competent people in their other life, but they're attempting a profession that though undisciplined compared to ballet, or classical music, nevertheless still has requirements that take years to master. Their redeeming virtue is unlike the middle class kiddies, they seldom snivel.
The most promising pool of talent has the misfits, the neglected, the rejected, all the types that don't fit in to the college trained directors,who mostly seek the college trained actors they were exposed to at good old Shelter U. But these oddballs are the most deceptive, since many of them have been justifiably rejected due to unacceptable qualities. Yet this is where I hoped to find the born actor who hadn't fit in anywhere else.
It's curious to consider the nature of theater historically. The Ancient Greek theater wasn't theater at all, but a social-religious enactment more similar to the Christian mass, then Hamlet. The playwrights were distinguished citizens. Aeschylus fought at the battle of Marathon, that saved Greece from the Persian invasion. But the actors were unknown amateurs. Who performed once a year in the Thesmophoriazeusae, a 4 day festival, 3 days of tragedy, 1 day of comedy. The Roman theater wasgenerally performed by upper class amateurs for the amusement of their peers. It wasn't until the Commedia actors earned their living by their craft in 16th century Italy and France, that professional theater evolved. Commedia actors did high and low comedy, tragedy, dance, that delighted the audience, or they didn't get paid, didn't eat. Mommy and Daddy didn't subsidize them. They didn't work as waiters. It was a mystery in the television age how to find actors willing to exert the effort to earn a living by the sweat of their brows. Did these people still exist in an era of low cultural values, but high cultural pretensions?

Gary Beck

Monday, November 10, 2014

Someone in the 60s said it took ten years to build a theater company. When I decided 
to start my own company in the 70s, a most peculiar commitment for me since I was
the quintessential loner in an art form that mandated group interaction. Well
some of us make questionable decisions occasionally. I made a ten year plan to
build a classical theater ensemble that would start with Commedia del'Arte,
transition into early Moliere farce ( he performed Commedia, then evolved to
Baroque comedy) and we would do our first sophisticated performances in the
latter stages of the Moliere period. I would translate, direct and even
perform. The next period would be ancient Classical Greek comedy, Aristophanes,
which I would translate with a Classical Greek scholar, direct and perform.
This would take us into the seventh year of the company, when we would have our
first hit show that would transfer to a 299 seat Off-Broadway theater, the only
venue that could make money, which was the only way to produce art. 
This was an ambitious plan, especially considering my lack of negotiable currency. My assets were my skills, abilities and experience, and my brother, Robert, a highly skilled techie with many other abilities. At this time, Off-Off Broadway was flooded with a few serious theater practitioners, and hordes of college graduates with degrees In theater, gained in a hothouse protective environment. Young enthusiasts who worked in state of the art theaters in college, left the comforting confines of school  with their talanted fellow students and determined to stay together and build their own theater company. Of course, none of their instructors informed them that almost all post-collegial ventures lasted less than three months. The necessity for fund raising, rehearsal space, publicity, promotion, the endless management tasks were so beyond the reach of these eager youth who just wanted to do a show, that it was almost criminal negligeance that the institutions that churned them out, didn't prepare them for harsh reality. You really have to wonder about the deficient mentalities of their professors.
So if these offspring of the arts managed to get past the endless arguments and debates that they went through in college while preparing to do a show, without the nurturing professors to move the herd along, or a prosperous institution that provided a theater, scripts, costumes, in short, all the necessities of production, they found themselves in the wilderness of Off-Off Broadway, ratty store fronts, filthy lofts, dinghy apartments, unless Mommy or Daddy owned a barn.
To be continued.
Gary Beck