Hello and welcome to my first Blog entry. I’m a social media luddite, and am even sometimes suspicious of email as a communicant. I’m the last person under 80 in North America to not have a facebook page (the whole thing creeps me out), but I think this blog (on the fantastic new website!) is a great opportunity for me to share my input to anyone listening. And, in the end, isn’t everyone dying to know what I’m thinking?
So let’s start with staff changes. First off, I’m thrilled Mary Ruth and company are taking over the management of the festival. I was getting burned out/cynical and beginning to say no to new ideas rather than see first if they work, which is generally a bad idea for someone in charge of a theatre. I had also begun to have the very humbling feeling that AST had gone as far as I was able to take it. I’m thrilled with how far it’s coming, especially given the up hill battle it has faced from the get-go, but when I could only start to see the things we didn’t have yet or couldn’t do yet, I knew it was time for someone else to pick up the ball. I love this company and want to see it become that big festival I’d always known it could, I had just run out of the necessary steam to do it. I’m excited to still be involved and know that new management will keep it moving forward.
Every year, we try to choose a season that offers something to everyone-no easy task. We start with 2 Shakespeares and go from there. Which plays feel pertinent or “ready” for us to look at? Which ones feel like the appropriate response to plays we’ve done in the past? Which of our artists would we like to feature? Which plays do we think can be satisfying artistically on our end of things, but also something that we think our audience will appreciate and continue to drive from out of town to see? We weigh the merits of a lot of different titles and in the end choose 2 Shakespeare plays that we feel our audience would like to see, our artists will be eager to tackle, and that our resources can handle.
Working in repertory means that there has to be a balance in the scale of shows we can do as well as the content. We can’t take on three “big” shows every year, nor do we want to unnecessarily scale back a show that requires a certain amount of spectacle. Yes, any Shakespeare show can work in a black box theatre with a $50 budget, but the audiences that come to the outstanding Reynolds Performance Hall see some spectacular shows and so have high expectations of what they spend their entertainment dollars on. There are alot of these considerations we juggle, and there have been missteps, but along the way I’m very proud to say that we continue to create seasons that hopefully address all of the above and balance each other out while showing off the folks we’ve got.
This was the first show I chose for our 2011 season. It’s one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and I’ve wanted to do it since our second year. It has always seemed to me a quintessentially Arkansan play: alternately witty and silly, great for kids, combining lofty poetry with folksy fun, and infused with music and a love of the outdoors. In other words, a perfect fit for the Natural State. I’d even begun to think of it as ArkansAs You Like It. Great show for our company of comic actors (including a perfect leading role for audience favorite Marin Miller) and a great opportunity to get back director and composer Andrew Hamm, who did such a first-rate job on 2010′s Comedy Of Errors, and who’s work I’m sure will be a staple at AST for years to come. This one was a no-brainer.
Next decision became about the tragedy to pick for balance. We had done Henry V last year, so knew we’d be leaning towards a tragedy rather than a history and wanted to do one of the bigger titles (I don’t think our audience is clamboring for Timon of Athens yet. I’d really wanted to do Merchant of Venice, which, though technically a comedy, is rather dark in places. I see it now as maybe being a little too problematic as a contrast to AYLI, so maybe not this year (but I’ve got alot of great ideas for it!) As far as the big tragedies, we’re then left with the remaining big 4: Hamlet, Lear, Julius Caesar, and Othello. The Rep was doing Hamlet this year, so that’s out. Lear has an epic quality that I’d love to get on our stage, but it’s hard to minimize in consideration of the needs of other shows. Plus, I’d fear that it would need more rehearsal then we’d have time for. Julius Caesar I really liked and did some research on the Orson Welles production of it, but it just felt wrung out. Are there any surprises left in that show for the audience or for the artists? Is there anything that needs to be said with that show right here and now? Couldn’t get excited about it. Which left Othello. We have an abundance of actors who can ably play the various officers, and many actresses at our disposal for the complex and interesting female roles. This show could create a stylistic contrast to the folksiness of the forest in As You Like It, moving instead to the battlefield and the board room in a very slick and sleek politically-charged Othello. The opportunity also to lure back David Alford, who had done a fantastic job onstage and off with 2008′s The Tempest was irresistible, and with Mr. Alford we’re guaranteed a first-rate production and a mesmerizing Iago. Can’t wait to see this show and I’m hoping a small role opens up that I can jump into. Maybe if someone breaks a leg in a dress rehearsal….
The last big show for the season was tricky, as it always is. With the third show, we always struggle to offer a title that is unabashedly commercial, but that we still feel we have the people and resources for, and a show that we can be proud of. Dennis Courtney’s outstanding “Producers” of 2009 remains, for me, one of our big artistic triumphs. The attendance wasn’t what we’d expected, but we wanted to work with him again on a project that would share the amazing work he does on stage with a wider audience. Make no mistake, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is cheesy. It ain’t King Lear. To be fair, it doesn’t pretend to be. But I just couldn’t shake the notion that it was too “lowbrow” for us. In my terrifically snobby way, I wasn’t sure it was something classy enough to be a part of our AST season, and then I showed my kids some clips on Youtube. They loved it. An hour later, they could sing all the songs. 2 hours later, they had staged their own production in our living room using lego’s, laundry, a plastic tamborine, and a cast of 2. By the end of the summer, we’d heard it so many times on car trips that we had to “accidentally” lose the CD. And the DVD. And daddy’s computer “didn’t work on Joseph anymore.” Parents, you know what I’m talking about. With each of our Shakespeare shows, I’ve sought to create something intellecutually engaging but also lots of fun. Yes, I’m an idealist and I want to inspire our audience with great works of art. But I’m also unabashedly an entertainer, and I want our audiences to have a good time or theatre can become stale and condescending. Joseph seemed to me to be a great opportunity to throw whatever artistry we have towards a common goal: give the audience a good time. With Dennis onboard and audience-favorite Chris Crawford as Joseph, I’ve no doubt that they will.
So that’s it. It sounds easy, but believe me, the above discussion took several months, and I’m still not sure we made the right call. But who knows? Theatre is a gutsy medium, and tends to favor the bold. It’s a huge risk to put out the money on a project with no guarantees of anyone coming. With ticket sales making up only a third of our income, it’s another huge risk to assume that businesses, foundations, and individuals will continue to sponsor our efforts with their contributions. It’s the hugest risk of all to commit to a title and then scramble to put together the right people, the right materials, and the right schedule, all to deliver a years-worth of work ontime and under-budget come opening night. But these risks are what make it all worthwhile and what makes a theatre experience an exciting one for us and our audience. There’s a safety on your couch at home flipping channels or in a movie megaplex. There’s a set of expectations, and these medium require very little from you. Theatre is dangerous, risky, exhilirating, and above all, requires your attention. When you sit in that theatre and the lights dim, you have no idea what you’re going to get, and that’s the way I like my entertainment dollar spent. That’s the kind of experience I’ve been thrilled to offer at the helm of AST for the past 4 seasons, and that’s the kind of experience I’m still eager to be a part of in whatever capacity I can for years to come. Thank you for your support of AST. We’ll see you at the show!