Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Finale: Three Shows - An Exploration in New Theatre

New pieces of theatre are always a mixed bag. As an audience member, you can never truly know what to expect (especially if you see it before official reviews) and as an artist you never truly know what the reception will be. This project was interesting because it looked at both of these sides in my exploration of three new works in the DC theatre scene: Red Speedo, Crossing, and The Argument.

Red Speedo was presented to audiences as a lab production, which was specifically designed to showcase new works. Because of this, I think audiences were more accepting of the piece as a whole, especially because less money was on the line. (Tickets were only $20). Red Speedo dealt with atypical issues for a piece of theatre which I think caught audiences off-guard, but ultimately won them over, even if not completely.

What was interesting about Crossing was that after a decent developmental process, the creators presented it as a finished work, but audiences and critics felt it was unfinished. This shows how new plays have very different expectations than an established piece of theatre, which is more or less "set in stone" pre-production. People seemed much more preoccupied with the production values of Crossing than they did the others, which I think says something about the show's effectiveness in capturing the audience.

I think of the three shows, The Argument, which was the most classic and accessible show production-wise also had the most contentious and dangerous message. Discussing abortion always sparks debate, and so it is a risky subject to present to an audience. I think it worked the best as a piece of theatre than the other two because it was clear about what it set out to do and didn't try to surprise the audience thematically or theatrically but still seemed fresh and exciting. I think audiences appreciated this as well, and the success of the production allowed audiences to have discussions about the issues presented and have a meaningful impact from the show.

I think these three shows were great choices for this project as they all were presented in different manners, with different intentions, significantly different messages, and all had very different audience responses. I really enjoyed doing this project because I not only got to see three great pieces of theatre, but I also got to really think about what I go to the theatre looking for in a new work and how I feel when I walk out of a show. This project will forever change how I look at new theatre and what I think about audience reaction.

A Fail Whale

Anyone who has been on Twitter for any length of time is probably familiar with the large "fail whale" they post whenever their site is having technical issues that keep users from using the service. If this post could just be a large image of a fail whale, I'd probably just post that. My Twitter project, which you can read about here, was unfortunately unsuccessful and did not gain any, let alone enough, traction to really get off the ground.

My Twitter project was aimed to get a sense for the widespread impact of messaging in theatre and what sort of plays and musicals really get reactions from the general public. Unfortunately, my network wasn't wide or strong enough to really get the exposure needed for my project to pick up.

This makes me believe that for a project like this to be successful, you really need more than a single creator pushing for the project's success. As most of Twitter's traffic is dominated by "the one-percent" of power-users, an average user like me does not have the scope or influence to get people to compose tweets using a specific formula. Had my project solely been a "retweet" experiment, I might have seen more success.

I learned a lot about the practice of social media as a medium for academic research and information through this project. While research plays a part in social media use, it really is a very recreational-based medium that really requires a lot of power to get users to act on something by tweeting specific material.

While the data I could have collected through this project could have been very interesting for my project, I think having this experience taught me just as much about social media as a successful campaign would have. It would be interesting to try this experiment again sometime in the future, maybe with a few partners to help me get it off its feet.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

RED SPEEDO at Studio Theatre: The Reaction

Lucas Hnath's play Red Speedo premiered in a lab production at Studio Theatre in Washington, DC earlier this fall, directed by Lila Neugebauer. Red Speedo is the story of Ray, a swimmer on the verge of making the Olympic swimming team, which would bring fame and sponsorships and a completely new life. When doping drugs are found in his team's refrigerator, Ray is faced with the his chance at the American dream and the question of how to deal with the ethics of being a professional athlete.

Studio's Lab "presents stripped-down productions of world premiere plays, giving playwrights in residence the ability to work in an environment of experimentation, collaboration, and discovery," according to their website. Neugebauer explained that she approached this process much like she would any other new play process; she and Hnath held a short workshop to develop the piece about a month before they went into rehearsal, and several significant changes were made prior to the start of the official rehearsal period.

In Neugebauer's eyes, Red Speedo "utilizes pro-swimming and doping as an arena and vehicle for an investigation into what constitutes fairness."As an audience member, this was clear in this new play and the play was not discreet about the message and issues it was trying to start a conversation about. What was unique about the play, in my opinion, was that it took a common issue: that of fairness and ethical behavior, but put it in a new situation that is not commonly shown in theatre or other forms of entertainment.

Critical reviews of Red Speedo also were well tuned into the ethical questions that the play posed. Peter Marks, of The Washington Post wrote "Maybe “Red Speedo” should be subtitled “Nobody’s Clean,” because the coach’s threat to go to the sport’s governing authority with his discovery sets off a cascade of unsavory revelations about each of the characters." This asks the question of whether or not there might have been too many ethical questions posed by the play, and none of the characters served as the moral center.

Hnath chose a very timely subject for his play because "anyone with even a passing acquaintance with sports these days is aware of the investigations into which superstar is using what drugs to achieve better results. So Hnath has the news cycle on his side, and in his conception of Ray, a compelling idea of the modern American athlete as a soulless commodity with a single sellable skill,"Marks wrote.

Audience members were able to connect with the material. Wesley Miller, an audience member I spoke with after the show said that Red Speedo "was more about the relativity of morals because we all do bad things and good things, and you saw this in every character."

On Twitter, audience members tweeted about the scenery and the true smell of chlorine in the theatre rather than discussing the content of the show itself.
For Neugebauer, one of the challenges of bringing this new piece to life was how "viscerally and technically unrelenting Hnath's work is for the audience and the actors, despite how physically static."As the director, it was exciting for her to watch something that was technically and physically difficult, because it was a genuine obstacle for the cast. 

Red Speedo's message was very clear to audience members and critics alike, and although people were divided in their reactions (as is with any piece of theatre), the play has a strong message to send to everyone about the difficulties of doing the right thing.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

CROSSING at Signature Theatre: The Reaction

Everyone steps into the theatre coming from a different background and with a different set of life views and opinions. This is similar to the essence of Crossing, a new musical that was presented by Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, written by Matt Conner and Grace Barnes. The musical, inspired by the story of Harriet Tubman and the search for freedom, according to composer Matt Conner, is the story of eight different people from different time periods and walks of life, all existing at the same train station on their search for something more in their lives.

After being asked by Signature to pen a new musical, Conner said that he and Barnes "we picked the topic of sort of a human search for freedom, and we went all over the world: every civilization, character, and we found other types of freedoms...[and it] became a larger conversation about what freedom was."

After a developmental period at Signature and at the Shenandoah Conservatory, when Crossing returned to Signature, the show received mixed reviews from critics and audiences alike.

In Nelson Pressley's review for The Washington Post, he says that "On this enchanted platform, these archetypal figures talk together across the years, though Barnes and Conner don’t give them much to say. “Crossing” is less interested in history than in character sketches; big historical moments are simply the backdrop for personal crises." This makes it clear that although Conner and Barnes had a clear vision of what they wanted Crossing to say, it did not always read that way to the audience.

While critics unanimously enjoyed Conner's music, many felt the book needed to clarify the true arc of the characters and what they gain throughout the show. Charles Shubow, who reviewed the show for, noted how the book needed to better link the eight stories together.

Audience members had similar issues as the reviewers and didn't truly understand the message that Conner & Barnes were trying to get across. In a comment on the Washington Post review, user "smpflueger" said that "Undercooked is the perfect word. While performed well, the material is the problem...Ultimately the [characters] don't seem to have a lot to say and I didn't care about them. They are mere scetches [sic] of people, architypes [sic] without much fleshing out."

Conner has spoked to a lot of audience members after the show and while "some people felt it was unfinished, people were trying to figure out “what this is” because people want to put it in its box, but I can’t put it in a box." This stresses an interesting idea of what a piece of theatre needs to be and if the writers need to put a label on their work.

While the show started as a search for freedom, in Conner's eyes "this play is about the connections we all have as human and how those connections make us who we are."

Like the eight characters in the show, everyone has different views and is affected by life differently. So too audiences reacted very differently to this new musical and took away different messages of what it meant to be free.