Michiana Meditation, or a Break in the Action

We’ve flown to the midwest to meet up with our Sophie who’s been hanging with the grandparents in Chicago since the day after Opening Night. We’ve had a wonderful reunion and now we’re at the summer home in Michiana Shores, on the Michigan/Indiana border, two blocks up from the beach, and we have the shin-burns and the knee-burns to show for our first time out in the sun. It’s the 4th of July today, or what our Treplev, Alexander Strain calls “Happy Beat Up on His Home Country Day” and our production of THE SEAGULL is taking a well-deserved holiday off — a number of ailing actors get to rest up, including our young lovers – Romeo and Juliet, er Treplev and Nina, er Alexander and Veronica – both under the weather from physical maladies and gamely playing through the pain with three shows this past week.

It’s good for all of us to enjoy the break. We went out, most of the company, to Fox & Hounds after Thursday night’s performance and so enjoyed being together. Much to savor, the genuine affection this ensemble has for one another, and for the project; for the process of making this thing. I can only reflect for myself… that this time away, as the earlier day in New York on Monday, has helped give the perspective that, by God, we created something special and that the disappointment will find its place but that it probably won’t be top of mind, or so consuming that disappointment dominates the memory bank or dictates the destiny of this project. The disappointment is almost entirely singular, though it comes with a decidedly real “other shoe that drops” — which is a dismissive review in a paper of record giving rise to terribly slow sales which means a bad budget for the whole of this show and a bad start to a new year which we’ll be paying for for a while. But even this can be circumventable, as we began to trouble-shoot and rearrange budget allocations and priorities, making cuts further into the season to address the shortfall that’s unfolding before us now.  (I share this because it’s important truth and it so informs the magnified disappointment that is created within; even with pride and pleasure derived from a production that accomplishes what you set out to achieve, when you also have the added burden and responsibility of delivering a budget projection, and the prism through which you evaluate a show’s success is informed, in a very real way, by how it grosses, you find yourself in a difficult position as an artist.  And yes, it’d be nice to edit all this information out, but it’s too present, too real, and better a blog speak truth than only PR.  Yes, we publish our press reviews here–especially the good ones, which are in the clear majority on this show–and so yes, we put ourselves at their mercy–reviews, that is–this is true, and this is our reality, alas… That they matter.)

One can be daunted by the challenge (before us all, really) in this new season with a climbing unemployment ticker that affects local attendance — I’m hearing more and more from audience members grateful for our discounts because their own employment situation is so sketchy; many with work, are not working in their chosen fields now, having been laid off and now scrambling to put something together, earning much less than they once were making, but they don’t want to give up the things they loved or supported; they’re just a whole lot less able to do so. So “pay what you can” discounts, among other things that we offer — and will be offering — turn out to be crucial, especially for those who haven’t been lucky enough to find a job even outside of their chosen field.  Nothing spells “recession” like losing a job.  A 10% unemployment rate, that in actuality masks an underemployment rate of nearly 17%, is one that we are going to be feeling in very real and upsetting ways, even if housing prices begin to stabilize and 401 K’s stop nose-diving.  June has been a cruel month–November 2008 revisited–as I think the consumer is beginning to get spooked all over, knowing that this recession will still be here for a while.  And so will the hard times.  Which does make me feel a little bit more sanguine about our new season, which was a season programmed in response to our hard times; a season designed to bring people back, as a community, to look at the hardscrabble with a degree of levity and warmth; to be inspired by the resilient family; the indomitable personality who overcomes.  That’s next season.  Treplev and Arkadina is now.  And who were they speaking to?  Who was our production of THE SEAGULL ON 16TH STREET intended for?  A good question.  (Can we answer that another time?)

Thinking about the economy helps us put our own financial set-back in perspective. It also, of course causes increased worry as we wonder how the whole year will unfold from a fundraising perspective. But–and here’s the point of the posting; why I’ve bothered to write this over a holiday weekend–I’ve had these Michiana Meditations before, especially i summer, when a final show for us at TJ hasn’t gone so well, and I get to brood over the past, present, and future, and have plenty of reasons to embrace depression and, by golly, history now shows me that it is indeed a roller-coaster with ups and downs but that for every set-back, there’s a break-through, and for every financial flop there’s a hit that makes up for the loss. And that’s how it goes, in the business, and in life.

Off to play tennis…

And now that I’m back from tennis, just this little bit more of (TMI, I know) personal specifics about these summer meditations:  I remember distinctly coming back to Michiana in 2002 after the BORN GUILTY/PETER AND THE WOLF repertory ended in mid-July.  BORN GUILTY reviewed well and was a gorgeous production and made money while PETER was more of an incomplete production, didn’t review as well, didn’t draw, and we wound up swapping some Saturday night performances of PETER for BORN GUILTY so we could make back a little bit of our losses.  I remembered some of the abject panic of the preview period of PETER when we didn’t have an ending really, for either act.  As strong as we were a company of BORN GIULTY, we weren’t all seeing-eye-to-eye, director-to playwright/producer-to-protagonist (in this case, the actor playing the Adapter who, though a great actor, turned out not to be a kindred fit for the role) and the bottom line was, I didn’t know how to fix my own play; I didn’t know where to cut; and the true ending that would come, inspired by life, hadn’t yet happened–in fact, it would take production of the play to help CREATE the true ending (and by that we mean, Peter Sichrovsky would have to come from Austria to Washington to see the play before he would decided, 6 weeks later, to actually resign from the Austrian Freedom Party — this was, in this case, the other dramaturgical shoe to drop, and how we realized we’d come to the end of the story).  The process of growing PETER and having it fail at Theater J was instructive.  Of course, I’ve been working on redeeming that play ever since, with workshops at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, the New End Theatre in Hampstead, UK, Jewish Theatre of the South where we first workshopped it and then where it was produced in rep in 2008), and then, of course, the wonderful experience at Epic Theatre this past winter, with our Fall 09 salon soon to come in anticipation of full production.  Plays take a long time to find full redemption.  A playwright needs a big window and a long time frame.  A producing theater has a much shorter endurance level with a show.    

I remember the summer of 2004 and my first public spanking from Peter Marks after the opening–and panning of my OH, THE INNOCENTS, a successful chamber play I’d written in 1990 that had gotten well-produced, well-received, handsomely published (I remember such a wonderful book party reading in Ann Arbor where I read the role of Jeremy and a dear friend at the time, David Scobey, called it a “little chamber play classic”) and then, after adding another 9 songs to the two that were already there, I directed its premiere in DC as a musical and it got totally killed by Marks and we wound up losing thousands upon thousands (again!).  And I remember, in Spain, this time, licking wounds as the summer weeks unfolded, wondering why such winsome music that honestly came from the heart and seemed to play well on the tape recorder, why and how it could be dismissed so summarily as “sluggish” — one word and you’re dead.  So that was Sir Peter raising the knife and letting loose the guillotine, not for the first, nor the last time with us.  But it planted a censorious impulse within me, a voice to be wrestled with, and the wrestling clearly is not done.  As I now turn, as a writer, to an unfinished project in need of reborning–or disposal.  Which will be my new challenge.  And that project begins anew this weekend as well, with Michiana as my restorative roost.  Overcoming the admonishing verdict and the self-censoring impulse; this is a theme with more universal ramifications, I should think.  But more on that in a private notebook, and more on the future, hell, in the future.  Happy 4JDay.