Posts Tagged ‘Theatre’

The Joys of a Poet

December 14, 2016

(And His Arrival at this Most Minuscule of Positions)

carl-nelson4

I cross the Ohio everyday.

Of the many experiences I remember of my theater years, the most compelling occurred on stage.  They were small moments, mini-scenes, in which the characters seemed so autonomous that the actors no longer needed to please the audience.  They were little sections of life that didn’t need to sell their plight to the audience; didn’t need the audience’s approval.  No great injustice needed be fought.  Rather, the tables were turned and it was the audience which could either watch or not.

These scenes from my work which have so stuck with me were quiet areas in the midst of the plays’ turbulences where this balance had been achieved… if only to be enjoyed for a short time, the world and theater being what they are.  Looking back, it’s occurred to me that the theater was not my calling as it is not rising conflict which energizes me but balance.  I love playfulness.

Amount and quality of audience are the two measures of a playwright.  If you cannot attract an audience and/or critical stalwarts, then you are not a playwright.  Those are the realities.  But like most practitioners I fudged.  I could attract a smidgeon of an audience, and some of them liked it – so I rationalized and called myself a playwright.  For I did write several plays, and they were produced, and, as unsuccessful people are apt to say, (with each career change), “I learned a lot!”

I would guess one of the reasons artists would yearn for great success – aside from the money and fame and beautiful lovers – is that it gives them a forceful argument when dealing with the complaints of people they have known privately.   For a very successful playwright, the easy reply is that, “Well, you are just a small minority of the many, many who loved it.”  A small time playwright cannot use this defense.  The troublesome person lives right next door.  The hope for audience is partly a defense mechanism.

Also a large audience will grant a artist the opportunity to command better and better opportunities.  For a playwright this would mean access to the best actors, directors, set designers, venues and… even audience.  But it also means restrictions.  The more money, the more pressures to reduce risk and to frequent travelled ground.  The better and more powerful your collaborators, the better they are at stealing the audience for themselves.  A popular actor might want the scene re-written to better showcase them.  A powerful director might insist upon their vision.  A powerful financial source might prefer the politics slanted a bit differently – or removed.  And the venue has a very worried view of what their regulars will endure.  With the acquisition of a large audience, there is always the risk of losing it.  The second guessing becomes as bothersome as pushing a huge rig down the road, squinting ahead, all the while glancing in the mirror at a wandering trailer.

I’d guess the first audience for most of us would be our parents.  And perhaps many of us found theirs as frustrating as I found mine.  Mom and dad would pay attention, but only in their terms; not unlike strangers.  This was a bone of contention between us for many years.  Finally, I gave up.  I no longer shared how I felt or my hopes, and oddly enough, our relationship improved markedly.  Mom and dad were intelligent, generous, caring people once I got over the fact that they didn’t want to know me very well.

Segue to the audience…

Since that time, I have employed this tactic often.  The solution to many an insoluble problem is to ignore it; proceed as if the world were created without that problem.   If acquiring audience seemed an insoluble problem for me, why not eliminate the audience?  For all these reasons – and the fact that I’d pretty much played out my hand as a playwright – poetry looked pretty good to me.

So after I had moved from Seattle to this Appalachian area, I looked around and found a poetry group which looked compatible.  They were close by, met frequently, weren’t attached to any college or university, and most importantly had sympathy for the spirits – albeit pagan, (in their case).  When I first read my poems to the group for their reaction, one of the first individuals to respond asked skeptically:  “Who do you imagine your audience to be?”

They all looked to me.

“I didn’t think poetry had an audience!” I responded.

“You may leave now,” the next laughed.

 

In truth, I had had my fill of trying to acquire and please an audience.  A writer gets tired of playing the whiskey drummer.  Some of my misgivings are revealed in a previous piece I’ve written.

the-audience-is-a-mob

Poets have little audience, generally make no money, and, unless they misbehave, command little attention.  We wander about in the artistic world a little like derelicts or the homeless.  All of which allows us great freedom.  And we catch our audience as we can… perhaps spouting off in a bar – or wherever we find ourselves for that matter, like the local hardware.  People don’t believe they are listening to poetry in so much as they believe they are arguing with a drunk or indulging an eccentric – which is a time honored practice in small, out of the way spots like here in Appalachia – or hope of hope, enjoying a laugh with a clever fellow!

Poets talk among themselves swapping words and a cleverly turned phrase in a verbal one-ups-man-ship.  And now and then when the urge to flock comes upon the poet community, they hold readings.  The grudges are dropped, the qualms muffled and a general comity of fellow feeling along the lines of “We are all in this together” and “I will listen to you if you will listen to me,” contains the aggregate of assembled oddballs.  Aside from this, poets send out their little missives to journals and odd sorts of publications as if spreading sparks in hopes of starting a fire.  This is the off-the-main-road-poet’s life, aesthetic nobodies chipping flints over damp wood and hoping for a conflagration.

As far as rewards, there is the quiet joy – something like that of a stamp collector – of having trapped a bit of life in verbal amber.  I’m reminded of the New Yorker joke showing the painter in his studio sitting to admire his painting on a Friday’s night with a coke and a theater pail heaped with popcorn.  Only the artist fully grasps the ins and outs and the subtleties of life captured in a well done work.  His lack of audience allows him unfettered freedom.  And his inability to market successfully frees up his schedule.  Find a bit of work or arrangement to pay the rent, add a few understanding spirits to voice admiration from time to time, and you have a satisfied fellow.  Or, at least someone satisfied enough to continue working…

A good poem doesn’t need an audience to be alive.  It’s alive all by itself.  It’s the audience which needs the poem to feel alive.  And that is because a good poem has balance.  And we rest in its achievement.  Not everybody of course, but there are people out there who delight in a little heaven here on earth.

So, to the number of audience an artist needs?  Just enough to keep him working, I’d say, and find him a little rent.

No more than fifty to a room at any time.  Anymore and it’s just the sound of hands clapping from somewhere out beyond the circle of light; the circle of trust…  but quixotically, always with the possibility of many more, if only to make the writing of the poem like purchasing a lottery ticket.  We keep talking and writing, hoping for that conflagration.

If you would like to read more of Carl Nelson, visit:  http://www.magicbeanbooks.co/home.html

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From the Editor’s Perch

February 26, 2013
At a Live Reading, the Playwright is Often a Ball of Worries.

At a Live Reading, the Playwright is Often a Ball of Worries.

The Fun of Live Theater

 

We had a reading of several small plays last night.  A piece was read which a friend and I had collaborated on.  Then a piece of each of ours was read.  The evening went well.   It’s fun to write.  It’s fun to imagine.  But the payoff of sitting in an audience who are clearly enjoying your theater work is hard to acquire any other way that by just putting it up there.  The warmth and the fun of it are something to bathe in quietly for at least several days.  And the memory can well be enjoyed for years.

Usually, it’s just a few select scenes which are so cherished; scenes where the acting and script seemed to speak and live so naturally, that you treasure the memory as if it were a relation, or a wife.   The play, as a whole entity, is usually cumbersomely remembered as part of the whole package of production materials: a concretion of crisis’s, breakdowns, adjustments, grit and slog, insights, fear and loathing, people who fail you, people who save you, etc. – rather like a life, out of which these special scenes surface like a State of Grace.  These are what we work for.

There’s nothing like having it breathing in front of you.  Statistical hits on the website don’t do it.  Comments are fine.  But after falling on your ass in front of people so many times, (which all playwrights do) a live success is something cherished. The whole room is happy.  The actors are happy.  The audience is happy.  You’re happy.  It’s the best sort of party.

Photo by Carl Nelson of model/playwright John Ruoff

From the Editor’s Perch

January 9, 2013
Between purges, show trials, gulags, and mass starvation, these guys are just...

Between purges, show trials, gulags, and mass starvation, these guys are just…

Bad for Attendance

If you’re part of the disagreement about why staged theater attendance is dropping nationwide, you’re probably not interested in my opinion, but I’ll give it anyway.  It’s the Left Wing.

Live theater has been rocked by technology since the advent of the movies, many, many years ago, and more recently by the home movie market.  But I think there are real parallels between the problems of the American Stage and those of current leading newspapers’ in maintaining their readership in light of the overwhelming growth of online media.  In a recent piece by Keith Windschuttle in The New Criterion, he notes that since a Leftist Cabal has striven to impose its values on a couple large East Coast dailies, (the New York Times and The Boston Globe), their loss of readership as reflected in stock values has gone from $54. in 2002 for the NY Times to $7.80 in July of this year.  And The Boston Globe has undergone a 90 percent fall in value over the past twenty years.  Meanwhile The Wall Street Journal’s circulation has increased 5 percent between 2007 and 2012.  He believes the Lefties have accomplished this loss of readership at the Times and at the Globe in two ways.  By insulting the intelligence of their Conservative readers these newspapers have driven away half of their readership, and by boring their core readership with the ensuing substandard fare, they have also been losing their Left Wing base.  His favorite example is a story in 2005 about a seal hunt in Nova Scotia written by the former NY Times journalist Barbara Stewart.  Here is a portion of what she wrote:  “Hunters on about 300 boats converged on ice floes, shooting harp seal cubs by the hundreds, as the water and ice turned red.”

“The truth is,” Winschuttle reports, “she wasn’t’ even there and did not know that the hunt had been put off for a day due to bad weather.  She knew so well what was required in a story of this kind that she could write it before the hunt had even begun.”

That last paragraph rings so true to the state of our contemporary stage today.  Most attendees of the larger theaters around this town know pretty well what is going to happen before they even go.  Some current shibboleth of the Left will be polished to a bright sheen either by the play, or by the theater’s take on the play.  The Right will have stayed home because they DO have some intelligence.  And the Left will applaud both the play and themselves, that they donated their time and spent their money to support the thing.

Here’s an example of what tickles the enthusiasm of a local theater brahmin.  The Theater Director of Cornish recently spoke to the Northwest Chapter of the Dramatists Guild this past Sunday, where he waxed approvingly regarding a past production of the Intiman Theater which was about the practice of womens’ genital mutilation in Africa.   He exulted that they had full attendance and that there were even women in the lobby with petitions to help support prevention of this practice.  He’s talking about some glory days at the theater before having to be re-organized after declaring bankruptcy.

Now, in terms of full disclosure, I have never supported women’s genital mutilation, nor have I participated in any.  And it doesn’t sound like a sound, prudent ‘best-practice’ to me.  And I understand that this issue probably really pisses off some women, and probably fairly so.  But… is there a real problem with this in the Northwest?  Would I want to attend this play with my wife, or family?  How about with my mom and dad?  Would I like to watch this play by myself?  How many people enjoy discussing genital mutilation, or watching descriptions of it?  Would a cruel, sadistic serial killer enjoy this play?  (Maybe!)  Was this play really such a success, or was it just a success to the ‘True Believers’?   Or was it a glorious chance for the Left Wing supporters of this theater to ‘out’ themselves – and cement their takeover?  And did many in that audience really care about genital mutilation, or is the play mostly an excuse to march out the ‘usual suspects’, to tar and feather them – as my experience would suggest?

The Cornish don went on to say that he probably shouldn’t talk about politics, but since all of us in that room probably agreed…  (I voiced the lone “No.”  And the conversation continued, just like a car does after running over a possum, or one of those Lone Star pickups does after running over an armadillo… when passing through those vast stretches in the Red States.)  The powers of this country, he said, seem to be wanting to separate us into the ignorant and the educated…. blah, blah, blah.

He went on to say that Theater attendance isn’t ALL down.  At the 5th Avenue and Issaquah’s Village Theatre (musical houses) attendance has actually grown.  He thought this might be because of their having the ‘beat’, the ineffable draw of music.

I think it’s because at these ‘musical’ houses the public can still bring their families.  And when with their families, nearly everyone becomes a conservative.  And the 5th Avenue and the Village Theatre know enough to respect this.  They don’t alienate their audience.

But, as far as I can tell, our Cornish don still remains among the ignorant.

Photos taken unattributed from the Internet

From the Editor’s Perch

November 7, 2012

Sometimes, we’re not the best person to present our personality.

Outsource Your Personality

 

Neil Simon, the playwright, has a face that is about as engaging as a cue ball.  I find it unnerving to look at his photo.  His plays however do quite well.  I’ve enjoyed his plays and my intent here is not to dish Mr. Simon.  However, anyone who has watched the Academy Awards has got to have noticed the charisma gap between the screenwriters and other behind-the-scene workers who win prizes – and the actors who win prizes for performing their work.  It’s especially remarkable when you see them all packed together for a photo.  You think, ‘nebish’, ‘nebish’, ‘cool’, ‘cool!’, ‘nebish’,…

I’ve wondered if playwriting isn’t for people whose personal charm does not match their ambitions, because playwrights are always shopping for just the right actor to carry their play.  As a vehicle, playwrights find themselves faulty.   They’re always looking.   They are always remarking, ‘Oh, if I could only get __________ to play __(me)________,’.

It’s an unnerving process to hear the first reading of one’s play.  The actors rarely are what one hears in one’s head.  And you just have to learn to live with what another person does with you.  It’s rather like having a talented stranger fill in a day of your life….  ‘Jeeeeze!’ you think.  At first, it’s like cringing while you watch a seriously bad driver.  ‘I guess this is what I’m going to look like to people.  Maybe when he’s done, I’ll get my wife some flowers.  That may help.’  However, after all is said and done, the script usually looks better with actors.  After all, that’s why you use them.

Recently, I found something better.

My son has only been in this country about a year and a half.  But he is blessed with an unusual amount of charisma and stage presence.  It’s unavoidable that he is going to copy much of how I act and what I say.  The other day I was watching him, while realizing this, and was struck, happily, by the result.  ‘When he says it, it really WORKS,’ I thought gleefully.  ‘When he puts on my personality, it really sings.’  It’s like getting my wings.  What a happy thing to observe.

Also, kind of odd.

Photo by Carl Nelson


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