Production “Values”

I’ve talked in the past about how we make choices with the money we have available to us for a given creative project, how we can sometimes justify undercutting people in the present by imagining a vague future in which we’ll have more money and therefore more ability to give people what they’re worth.

If you read this blog you probably know that I don’t agree. You probably know that I think no matter what level you’re working it, your value system should be in place. That I would posit that at these smaller levels, when no one is watching or expecting anything of you, it’s even more important, because it sets the tone for the maker you will be. I think we lean quite heavily on production and not enough on personnel. Which is why audiences don’t know that actors and designers and directors costs anything, because we show them through our actions that their money is best spent on fancy sets and stuff and not more rehearsal hours.

I have seen innumerable large companies in town decide to cut a week of rehearsal for a show and present it with no noticeable dip in set “fanciness” (that’s the technical term).

I see that and I say, “What the hell? Are you serious? I came to see a play, not an expensive paint job.”

I am not maligning design here. I love design. But I hate design that is not integrated and necessary and I hate design that says “This play is expensive” in lieu of “This play is about something.” This results in what I see as a culture of under-rehearsed, high production value pieces of bleh. In these shows, the actors seem unspecific, insubstantial and boring next to the detail and “quality” of the space they perform in.

And in the face of such a wave of underwhelming work, I ask if you have little time to develop anything past a first idea (and good or not, a first idea is still a first idea) what are you really accomplishing? Is that the art you want to make? That just because it’s done, but was it worth doing?

I know there are people who think that’s cheating  audience out of the money they spent on tickets to give them the finer production things in life. That viewers need to see where their cash has been spent. I think that’s all wrong and that making this kind of display a priority says you’re in the wrong business. Theater’s ultimate goal cannot be the delivery of luxury. Because then it undercuts our ability to say things we want to say in our artwork that are not pretty or luxury or expensive. Theatre’s real purpose is in its ability to make humans engage with each other in acts of communication and communion. And the vehicle by which we do that can be expensive or cheap depending on what you’re trying to say but ultimately the job of the artist is to make sure the work is delivering the message. If your priority is to make an expensive thing you stand to lose making a meaningful one, and risk your audience treating what you do like an expensive thing that they should evaluate the value of. They will treat you like a latte.

The problem is of course from the inside and in process you can see money when it’s spent on stuff in tangible and immediately obvious ways. And you have to feel and guess and test it when it’s put into the intangibles like time and people. But didn’t we all go into art to chase just that feeling? Don’t people come to see us because that feeling is something they can’t just go out and buy? I really think higher ups at many of these theaters think audiences notice when the set is smaller or simpler but that they don’t when actors have barely gotten blocking under their belts. But it’s just not true. An audience member may not be able to articulate the difference, but they feel it. If we really believe all that stuff most of us say – the stuff about connection to audience, and the deep respect we have for the viewer, and our love for them supporting our work – than we shouldn’t be the ones to assume they can’t tell when something is surface level deep. That thinking says it’s more important that you make it look like quality versus actually containing quality. But I would wager that a producer who consistently looks at a too small pot of cash and puts the money in the personnel instead of stuff will have far higher actual quality of artwork over the long run.

In short: Pay big bucks for the designer not the design. Because a brilliant designer does a lot more for you and your show. A brilliant and well compensated designer will make something that really serves the work.

Ok fine. Agree with me there or not, there’s actually another assumption that I don’t know that I agree with. And this is one that I think we’re all making on an even larger level in the community: that expensive and high production value  makes the work better. More and more, I really don’t know that I agree with that. More and more I wonder if all that stuff doesn’t just get in the way. Not simply because I want to put the money where the people are, but because I think sometimes all that fancy makes the work worse.

Last year I worked with local company The Berserker Residents on our co-produced piece, THE GIANT SQUID in a re-worked, re-mounted version from it’s original in 2008. For those who haven’t seen their work, this is a company that is scrappy, spontaneous and hilariously DIY. Their work is smart and sophisticated and it soars best when you feel like the whole giant spinning comedy machine might fly off and smash into you at any moment. It took me time to understand this as a director. I had to realize that much of the job was finding where the crafting and detail work was useful and where the scaffold was all that mattered, and that other moments needed enough room for the show to bounce without too much rigidity. I had to realize that over crafting some of the directing got in the way.

There were lots of things that we wanted to fix in terms of structure, plot and character in the show. And of course, as one does with a remount we looked again at the design world. Everything in the original was funky and silly and made by our own hands. And truth be told, it was a huge part of the conceit of the show, that these characters had made this thing they were showing to the audience themselves and that these people were not experts at the making. It made it endearing and human and real. And halfway through the new process as we started “updating,” I began to get nervous. I started thinking about some of the changes we were making, changes that were more polished, more professional by any traditional standard, and I wondered if we were undercutting the spirit of the thing. In many cases, I made a point not to let the show over polish certain aspects, not to make things look to beautiful. Like my directing I had to resist many impulses that seemed obvious because though they made the show look more expensive, they didn’t actually make the thing a better play. Some things we did update, because it was useful, and in some cases a tech upgrade actually improved a moment, but in many cases we kept the thing exactly with what had worked before.

During that show I realized just how much there is an unspoken assumption that more money equals better art. And if I, who had built this thing from scratch and stood to gain the extra money saved still had the impulse to update and fancify, then clearly something external is pushing me towards that. And for the first time I really saw how hard I would have to work now, with some amount of success and more access to resources to really keep that voice in check. I realized that some times that is true, that more money for something can give you access to more choices, but just as often, nay maybe way more than we realize, the work done at a smaller production scale is just as compelling (and much more sustainable).

I have this pet theory that perhaps you’ll indulge me in sharing:

Have you ever heard of the uncanny valley?  This, in a nutshell, is a theory used mostly in things like robotics or animation, says that there’s a relationship between realism of representation (in the original case of the human form) and our emotional response to the thing.

So a rock. Not very human. We are essentially indifferent to it. But put two googly eyes on it and suddenly we like that rock a whole lot more. Why? Because it’s humanness has increased dramatically. This relationship, the making a thing more and more like us resulting in an increases our affinity/familiarity for said thing, continues but only to a point. And then, the more realistic it becomes the more we actually start to dislike it. So much that there’s actually a point where a thing is so similar to us, but not exactly the same that we find it totally alien and repulsive. Think creepy mannequins and robots. The differences are so small but because of the similarity become so much more noticeable.

Ok. This is a really specific theory to human recognition of other humans, but I think that the same general concept might be applicable to this discussion. Here’s how: For realistic representative theater, naturalism is an assumption. And I think for a long time in our careers, the closer we get to naturalistic and realistic settings, the more impressive our shows seem. And so we put more and more money into making bigger and more professional looking work. But somewhere along the line, that impulse can stop serving us.

At the biggest and most moneyed theaters,  I think we been able to let this tendency impulse run so unchecked that we get these “real” spaces that are actually pretty creepy. Or at the very least distracting. I don’t need to see every detail of an intimate drama. I go to art to have the world focus and crafted, not simply presented. And for me, and I bet there are others out there who feel this way, just a table and chairs allows me room to imagine a space whereas a full kitchen with detailing on the tile and ceiling panels with weathered aging just makes me notice all the ways in which your set actually isn’t the thing you are trying to make me believe it is, actually just makes me see that there’s something fakey about your wall’s water stains because when they are so damn literal I get annoyed that I can tell you used a painting technique to make them.

It makes me focus where you’ve put so much attention. And when you’re drawing the eye to things that aren’t really the main focal point it obscures the larger picture entirely.

Maybe more on this soon…


PS – Thanks to all who’ve reached out. Things with my Dad are much better, as best as they can be for the moment.

One comment

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m so tired of sets and costumes that seem to exist solely to prove that lush grant money was “well spent.”

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