Friday, August 24, 2007

Music Stands

Matthew Everett posted the follow comment as part of a review on his Fringe blog:

"Just a quick side note about music stands. Laura and Curt perform their stories with the words on sheets of paper in front of them, on music stands, to which they occasionally refer - as many spoken word performers do. This seems to bewilder some people. 'Didn’t they bother to memorize their lines? Isn’t this theater?' Well, to be simplistic about it, no and no. This isn’t the kind of theater where the actors are pretending to be somebody else whose thoughts spring from their mind and out of their mouth as if the playwright didn’t exist. There is no fourth wall. There is no alternate reality. The words are the point. The words need to be in front of them, not as a crutch, but as a reminder to the audience that this is about the crafting of language on a page. This is telling you a story. This isn’t just rambling on randomly the first thing that comes into their head. This isn’t fiction. This is their way of processing moments in their lives, culling them for universality, and then opening them up for other people to experience. I’m not a spoken word performer. But having seen a number of spoken word offerings at the Fringe, this strikes me as being part of what it’s about. So, please, get over the music stands. The music stands are the point. They’re supposed to be there."

I was aware that there was a divide in thinking about this issue; but it wasn't until I performed my first storytelling show that I realized what a source of controversy it is in certain circles.

For my part, I'm very much in agreement with Matt here -- the point of my performance is the language itself. I actually did several rehearsals off-book, only to discover that I actively disliked the results: not because it was more work for me, but because I felt that it shifted the focus of the audience away from what I was saying and onto what I was doing. The presence of the music stand on stage, even if I barely use it, both physically anchors me and insures the primacy of the written word.

(That said, there were certainly points, particularly early on in the run when I was still feeling my way around the material, when I was relying entirely too much on the stand -- hiding behind it, rather than communicating more directly with my audience. I do think I'm working my way past that issue, however.)

But -- to invoke the phrase that seems to be becoming my anthem in my various blogs -- I think it goes *deeper* than that.

I'm not a great actor. People often chuckle and shake their heads when I say that, thinking that I'm being self-deprecating, but I'm really not: I've seen great actors, I've worked alongside great actors, and I've spent enough time in their company to recognize that I'm not among their number. I don't have the chameleon-like versatility of a Steven Epp or a Charlie Bethel. I don't think that I'm necessarily a bad actor, but I am a limited one: I'm a specialty act, and if people enjoy my performances it's at least partly because I'm very conscious of what my limitations are.

I listen to books-on-tape, and my observation is that the worst readers I've ever heard are actors. They don't know how to *trust* a text: they feel a need to embody the characters, create "voices" for them, and ham up their punchlines in a way that ends up being distracting, obnoxious, frequently untintentionally hilarious.

Allegra Lingo is a skilled performer precisely because she *doesn't* feel the need to do that: when she describes conversations, she simply reads them to us, without needing to come up with a walk, a voice, a contrived cast of characters. Her words tell the story for us: that's what gives her her approachability. (Theatricality, of course, has other virtues -- that's the trade-off that you have to weigh in rehearsal.)

Keeping the music stand there is largely psychological, both for the audience and myself. It reminds us that that I'm sharing a story, reliving it through word rather than action. Sometimes that's the right choice; sometimes it's the wrong one -- depends on the nature of the show that you're doing. But I do think that we tend to get excessively dogmatic about this is "supposed" to be done. As far as I'm concerned, the only real rule to this little game of ours is whether we're successfully entertaining you -- and if we are, do the trappings really matter?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Descendant of Dragons: Reviews and Reflections

Fringe blogger Matthew Everett gave the show a five-star rating, placing it in his "Life-Altering Experience" category.

Fringe blogger Kate Hoff: "We caught the opening of fellow blogger Phillip Low's Descendant of Dragons at Patrick's Cabaret. We've got lots of solo storytellers on the lineup this year. And they all rock. Phillip's story about traveling to the ends of the earth to map his family tree is engaging and funny, with a little Da Vinci Code thrown in. Very highly recommended. Phillip still has four performances left! There's no excuse to miss this show. 90th percentile." She also put the show on her "Favorite Favorites" list -- her top six shows of the entire Festival.

Fringe blogger Ben Sandell: "Ah, fellow blogger Phillip Low putting on a one-man show. Another conflict of interest, but who cares? I’ve already plugged blogger John Munger’s show. I’ll certainly be there when this Maximum Verbosity veteran and playwright delivers his first non-fiction performance. I mean, how can I resist a show that features “a globetrotting adventure (in the spirit of Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad) [that] pits a cranky libertarian detective against the world's greatest Communist bureaucracy”? Plus, the show contains “copious bilingual profanity.” I am so there." Also put the show on his pre-Fringe Top 18 Most Anticipated Shows.

Arizona comedian Bill Bernat (of Crackhead Whoremonger Nerd Comedian): "Nicely woven story. Very personal. You could really see Phillip getting angry, hurt, moved, etc., at points and this was very powerful for me as an audience member. A lot of great laughs, too. As someone who has had to fight for my artistic priorities to the chagrin of an overachieving parent, I especially appreciated the Dad relationship stuff."

Playwright Bill Stiteler (of the Council of Doom Theatre Co.): "Energetic, emotional, and at times angry, Low takes the audience on a journey to try and capture what remains of his family's history before it slips away. It's made all the more frustrating by his family's refusal to talk about past events and the way that modern adults nonetheless slip into traditional roles and attitudes when it comes to (capital F) Family. Low's performance took off from the first word."

Actor Andrew Haynes (of our own Maximum Verbosity): "phil low has flawlessly captured his own voice and excitement in a one-man show that soars leagues above the common, self-serving drivel that seems to pepper the majority of up-and-coming performers. He makes his story not only accessible to the audience, but meaningful and enlightening. Not to mention the laffs. Descendant of Dragons is, I don't want to say 'brilliant,' but... how about genius? Okay, and also brilliant. An hour has never felt so short."

Other audience reviews:

"Paints a convincing picture. Strong writing, OK story-telling. The writer bravely powered through the his touching personal tales and withering heat."

"To be honest, the first five to ten minutes I was struggling with the blazing heat, so it was a little difficult to stay focused on what was being said. But as the show went on, I got more into the show, and forgot about the fact that sweat was pouring off my face and that the fans in the theatre were not sufficient cooling mechanisms. Phillip's story to define his ancestry was very passionate and touching. And humorous. (I only wish he'd been off-book) And I was inspired to write my own Fringe show. Not bad for a day's work."

"Low gave the audience a jam-packed script and an engaging performance, and I was very happy to conclude my 2007 Fringe with his Encore show. My only suggestion: to consider reducing the scope of the piece and addressing fewer components, but with more emotional depth. This is rich stuff. If it were presented only as a travelogue, it would be one thing, but Low touched upon some issues of great poignancy while -- it seemed to me -- still "holding back." For example, just the Fiji leg of the experience would provide enough material for one monologue right there. While I'm sure it's tempting to want to chronicle the entire geneology experience in one monologue, sometimes less can be more."

"Phillip Low takes us on a journey that is personal, cultural, historical, and political. His task of writing a family history starts with high ideals (sources must be confirmed!), but runs into obstinate family, and a government bound to erase focus on the individual. Despite all odds, and somewhat by chance, a document has been preserved and is recorded, but there is no confirmation available, and one is left with what one believes; where one puts his/her faith. (Okay, he kept it more "me" personal, but this is theater not therapy, so I'm going with the above.) The writing is outstanding, and the performance engaging, despite the massive scare I had upon entering (there was a script stand and they give me the willies, but Mr. Low performed his show using the script as a reference instead of reading it, and making eye contact only with the page). 'Descendants' was good enough that I abandoned my plan to ride over to the Kenny G encore; I was tired (25 shows despite working the first 9 days of the festival) and I was going out with a winner. As I pedaled back to the correct side of the river and saw the fantastic sunset behind Minneapolis, it seemed both the perfect curtain to Fringe 2007, and reminder that there is a world beyond the stage. At least until next August!"

Average audience review is four and half stars out of five. The show was also selected for a special Encore performance as the best-selling show in my venue, out of eleven productions total. I can safely say that this makes this particular show the most successful thing I've ever done. I wouldn't quite characterize it as a Fringe hit -- I didn't sell out any of my performances, although I came pretty damn close -- but it was definitely one that people were talking about: "You've got to catch this show before the Festival closes!"

So how do I feel about the experience? On one level, euphoric -- we've certainly come a long way from three-person crowds and sneering audience reviews, and I hope I can find a way to spin out this audience enthusiasm into our other shows. On one level, baffled -- that I've devoted so much energy to more complex, difficult ensemble pieces, and the one that's successful entails me standing on stage and talking for an hour. On some level, resentful -- that the expressionistic fantasy that's closest to my heart is less engaging to people than something so literal. On some level, guilty -- for having such a mixed response to being handed such a gift. But mostly? Relieved -- relieved that I can still walk onto a stage and hold an audience's attention, without an ensemble, without props, armed with nothing but words. Reassuring myself that I've earned a place in this community, not as a critic, but as an artist.

It's amusing to me how easy it is to become pigeonholed in this community -- I produce one political sketch comedy, and suddenly I'm a satirist, in with the Liberal Media Elite crowd. I write one mime show, and suddenly I'm working alongside Dean Hatton. Now, after a grand total of one storytelling show, people are talking to me like I'm a storyteller -- and that includes members of the local storytelling community, too. Bizarre, but awesome -- and I'm looking forward to doing more work within this genre.

What have I learned? Watching other proficient storytellers like Allegra Lingo and Nancy Donoval, what strikes me is how well-structured their stories are -- both within their individuals stories and within the arc of the show as a whole. My show doesn't hang together nearly as well as either of theirs -- like most of my shows, this one is a sprawling epic, loaded down with dozens of ideas and themes. Which is an effect that I like, and that I strive for -- but I believe that that same effect can be achieved in a more focused way.

People commented a lot on the physicality of my performance, and that's very much something that evolved over the course of the Iowa and Minnesota runs -- initially, I was standing at a podium and reading -- but by the final show, I wasn't simply gesturing, it was *choreographed*, points at which I walk away, clap my hands, leap, pose, react. I suppose years of mime training isn't something that you can simply walk away from.

People also commented on the podium (yeah, yeah, people never comment on it when Allegra Lingo and Mike Fotis use it, grumble, grumble) -- and while I certainly don't regret using it (much of the function of this run was to, y'know, write the show), I'll certainly consider both memorizing and hiring a director to shape the visual aspects of the performance if I undertake any kind of large-scale remount.

But we're off to start plunging into the next project -- something that I'd rather not talk about until I manage to get some specific details pinned down. But in the meantime, watch this space -- and keep your eyes on the month of January, enh?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Opening Tomorrow!

Just a reminder that "Descendant of Dragons" will be opening tomorrow night, 8:30pm, at Patrick's Cabaret. Show only runs for one weekend, so I don't have the advantage of word-of-mouth -- I can use all the support I can get!

Pleased to note that the show has now ended up on the Top Picks list of no less than three Fringe bloggers:

Matthew Everett:
"This ain't your granddaddy's travelogue/family history solo outing. Half the fun of watching Phillip at work is the way he rides the torrent of words that come out of his mouth. The other half is the dazzling flurry of ideas that ride on the back of those words - funny, obscene, irreverent, sacreligious, furious, hilarious."

Kate Hoff:
"I was so happy to love Phillip's preview at the Ritz...I am confidently recommending this show to everybody. You will not be disappointed."

Ben Sandell:
"I’ll certainly be there when this Maximum Verbosity veteran and playwright delivers his first non-fiction performance. I mean, how can I resist a show that features 'a globetrotting adventure (in the spirit of Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad) [that] pits a cranky libertarian detective against the world's greatest Communist bureaucracy'? Plus, the show contains 'copious bilingual profanity.' I am so there."

Can I deliver? Three people can't possibly be wrong. I'll see you opening night.