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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Writing With a Message: How and Why I Wrote "The Re-Programming of Jeremy"

The Poster from St. Paul's School's Production of my play, "The Re-Programming of Jeremy"
So, once upon a time, I wrote this play...

Actually, if you're familiar with this blog, you know I've written a number of plays.  I rarely shut about it.  In fact, in the interest of self-promotion, I will occasionally write things like "You can learn more about my plays by clicking HERE or HERE or HERE," and, of course, please feel free to do so if you're of the mind.  However, you can click on all of those links and check out all of those pages, and even though you'll learn about many of the plays, you won't learn about the play I'm going to talk about today.  This one, The Re-Programming of Jeremy remains unpublished.

But unpublished does not mean without a life of its own.

I wrote The Re-Programming of Jeremy, in its original form, back in 2010, at a rather feverish pace. The play is about a gay teen named Jeremy, who has killed himself after bullying at school and home, and then being sent to a "straight camp," that was designed to "re-program" him, cure him of his homosexuality.  The play is a series of monologues told by Jeremy's friends, family, a teacher, and the woman who ran the straight camp he was sent to.  In the first draft, Jeremy appeared only once, near the end of the play, and gave the longest monologue of all, about tolerance and acceptance.

I wrote the play in two writing sessions, at the Thompson Free Library in Dover-Foxcroft, ME. There was company at my house, and a lot going on, which made it difficult to write, and I had this burning idea I had to get down, so I brought my computer to the library and wrote fast.  The play has gone through a number of drafts since that day in 2010, but it a good deal of what I wrote over those two days still remains.

I suppose the question is, why did I feel it was so important for me to get this story down on paper? Here's the thing--- every time I heard a news story about a gay teen who committed suicide, my heart would break.  Whenever I heard a news story about a gay teen who was being bullied and ostracized, my heart would break.  Whenever I heard a news story about a so-called religious group picketing a funeral of a homosexual, not only would my heart break, I would become so angry and disgusted that people could be so cruel in the name of God.  You see, I do identify myself as a Christian, and I think Christians who spew hate speak are not really Christians at all.  Certainly they have the right not to agree with a certain type of lifestyle, no matter how much I disagree with them, but how does hate solve anything?

I had been thinking for a number of years about writing a play that deals with the subject, but every time I did, it was a piece that was attacking the issue from a very angry, overly satirical way, a way that was just as political as it was sarcastic.  A painfully dark comedy type of play.  And while I enjoy a play like that, and have written others about different subjects in that vein, that style didn't feel right to me inside for the story I wanted to tell.

I knew I wanted it to be a HUMAN story first and foremost, where the characters weren't exaggerated.  I knew I wanted the play to transcend the idea of politics, or, at least, blend the political and the personal.  And, of course, I didn't just want to be writing "with a message".  Yes, all playwrights have something to say, and all playwrights, because they are human beings, have thoughts, opinions, and issues they hold very dear.  But to attack a play just from an issue is a tricky proposition, and, at times, an empty one.  Political theater is great, and can make a difference.  It's been around since theater began.  But, if you don't have characters you can relate to, a strong story, and genuine humanity, then you are not serving any message you may be trying to impart.

I was thinking about my idea one day, when suddenly, I just knew I wanted a character to be named Jeremy, and that Jeremy didn't want to be re-programmed.  I have a female friend from college who's name is Jeremy, though she's always been called Mimi. I think that's why the name Jeremy was so strong for me, even though the character is male.  Just having the name for the character made him real to me, a human being, especially since he was named after someone who has always been a great friend to me.  And so I began to imagine Jeremy.  I didn't want him to be flamboyant, or stereotypical, but just a normal teenager with fears, joys, and hopes like any other.  But also knowing he was "different" from the norm.  And then I began to imagine his family, and how is mother wanted to understand him, but couldn't, and how is father tried so hard to love his son, but had his own demons he couldn't conquer.  And it just sort of spread from there.

There's a play I've always liked a great deal called The Incident at San Bajo by Brad Korbesmeyer.  It is a long one act that won the Heidemann Award from the Actors Theatre of Louisville.  It tells the story of a man who tried selling an elixir to residents of a trailer park.  Turns out, this man then poisoned the water of the park, and what he was selling was the antidote.  Only seven people bought it from him.  These seven people tell the story in a series of monologues.  It's a great show, captivating, and I had the chance to direct it once with a high school group.  I love how the show has a documentary feel to it, described by its publisher as a 60 Minutes segment.  The actors answer unheard questions, and tell their story.  They are in different locations, represented by different areas of the stage, and are very different types of people.

I thought this aesthetic would serve the story I wanted to tell very well.  So I decided to give it that same "documentary" type feel in my script.  When Jeremy, who is dead when the play begins, finally does appear, he is somewhat otherworldly, a complete break from the documentary, which had an effect I thought would prove to be powerful.

By writing the play as a series of monologues, it allowed me to get deeply inside each of the characters.  Now, I've never been a teenage girl, or a jock, or a gay teen for that matter, but every character, in some way, came alive for me in some way.  Even the Rev., who's views on homosexuality were the complete opposite of mine.  I found myself digging deep for the humanity of each and every one of them.  Trying to understand their beliefs and opinions, even though it was difficult at times.  And by doing so, not only do I feel the play has a strong message for audiences, the act of writing reinforced a strong message to me--- we are all people.  And though sometimes people are capable of being cruel, even without knowing they are being cruel, they are still people. It is so easy to lose sight of such things when we focus strictly on the political side of an issue.

Even though Jeremy has never been published, it remains one of my favorites of my scripts, and contains some of the best writing I have ever done.

I have a great deal more to say about The Re-Programming of Jeremy--- the initial production, which I self-produced, the wonderful people who believed in the show and helped make it stronger, and how, even now, I am working towards getting the script into as many hands and venues as possible--- but all of this will be reserved for tomorrow's blog post.  So if your curious to learn more about it,  and how it's been rewritten after different productions, and how it's changed over the years, come back tomorrow and read PART TWO of my discussion on the play.

(CLICK HERE to read part two)

And if you are a producer, or teacher, or community theater director who might be interested in reading the show and producing it, drop me a message at theater.is.a.sport@gmail.com.  The licensing rates are very negotiable and fair, and I have seen first hand how audiences react to the piece (which I'll discuss tomorrow).

Until next time--- remember, it's great to write with a message, but make sure the message comes packaged with deep characters and a good story.  And don't be afraid to let your writing teach you something along the way--- it's a great feeling.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Drive to Make it in Show Business

Welcome to the House of Keniston, Where Theater is a Sport

Greetings, and welcome to theater is a sport, my blog where I talk about what's on my mind regarding theater.  It's a good time (I think).  Enjoy your stay.

I've been thinking about "drive" a great deal lately, mainly because I've been talking to some people about what it takes to try to make a living as an actor.  "Drive" is the answer I keep coming up with.

It's interesting:  for those of us who studied acting in college, we learned so much great stuff about craft, technique, keeping our bodies as well-tuned instruments to serve our art.  The business doesn't necessarily care about these things.  It's sad, but acting is a job where, even if you're really, really good at it, there's no guarantee that you'll ever get work.  And if you do, it won't be like your acting class.

And so you need drive.

So what is drive?  I like to think of it as encompassing the following parts:

LOVE,
PASSION,
NEED,
PERSISTENCE,
COURAGE,
RESILIENCE,
FLEXIBILITY,
SELF-ESTEEM,
IMMOVABLE FAITH
ACCEPTANCE

Allow me to explain.

LOVE, is fairly simple. You need to love to act.  If you don't love to act, sing, or dance, or what-have-you, why would you do it?  Countless better ways to earn your daily bread, believe me.

PASSION, which is different from love, is also essential.  Passion is the fire in your belly, the thing that turns you on, gives you the greatest bliss.  And not just for the performance, but for the process. Passion is thing inside of you that shuns the ordinary and desires the little something extra.  Let's be honest--- if you can make a living from acting, that's pretty extraordinary, isn't it?

NEED, I know may sound bad, but I don't mean it that way.  I simply mean that you must feel that reaching your dreams is a need, like food or water.  Often, people who have "made it" will say that they did so because they aren't suitable for any other kind of life.  I believe them.  If you don't absolutely need to be an actor, then please find something else that makes you happy and do that.  It's not "settling" if it makes you happy and you don't feel pangs of regret.

PERSISTENCE, of course, is key.  You have to constantly be doing things outside of your art for your art, and all for rejection.  And you have to keep doing it over and over and over and over again.

COURAGE, to accept your need, your love and your passion in the face of constant rejection. Courage to live without the hope of financial stability.  Courage to shun social norms and societal expectations.  Courage to constantly risk absurdity.  Courage to fail, and, even harder sometimes, courage to succeed.  Courage to look at yourself in the mirror to keep growing and getting better. Courage to listen to commentary about how you're wasting your time, you're never going to "make it", to hear questions like "when are you going to grow up and get a real job?"  In fact, you need courage to believe you are a grown up, when most of the world will tell you you're not.

RESILIENCE, or, thick skin.  Did I mention you're going to get rejected a whole lot?  It's true.  And when you're being rejected as an actor, it feels like they are rejecting YOU, because your body is your instrument.  And yes, I believe it's even worse for women.  I can't imagine being at a chorus girl "cattle call" audition, and literally having them point out "You, you, you, step forward.  The rest of you, thank you for your time", without really even seeing what you can do.  It is inherently a cruel process, and you have to be able to bounce back from it and do it all again.

FLEXIBILITY, at least until you're "in demand" or have "clout".  You might have to take jobs you're not passionate about, just to get on stage (don't compromise your deep-rooted morals, however). You have to compromise, eat dirt now and again.  They don't always teach you that in acting class.

SELF-ESTEEM, which ties in a bit with resilience, but is something a little different.  You have to believe you're good.  Not to the point where you're a total diva (again, unless you've achieved clout), but yes, there is a little ego involved, and maybe even some good-natured arrogance.  Don't feel bad about this.  You need it.  Facing all this rejection, you have to be able to psyche yourself up and feel good about yourself.  You have to believe.  Which leads me to...

IMMOVABLE FAITH.  You have to have the faith of a zealot. Faith, or course, is having believing in something, even without hard proof.  And actors need to have this kind of faith and belief--- a faith in themselves, of course, and faith in the fact that they WILL reach their goals.  That it is MEANT TO BE.  This faith is what can give you courage and resilience.

ACCEPTANCE.... I know some of you are probably thinking that this "acceptance" I'm talking about, is the acceptance to realize when it's time perhaps to pursue other things.  Nope.  This is a post about drive after all.  There's nothing else to pursue in this post.  The kind of acceptance I'm talking about is the acceptance that, in order to make it in the business, you have to remember it is a business. The art and the craft, which is what is responsible for your love and your passion, is not enough.  You could be the best actor of your generation, and never find work.  You also have to accept that, like I mentioned earlier, the stuff you learn in your acting classes in school, while serving your personal work, are not going to ensure your employment with a director who's process is completely different (remember flexibility?)  Acceptance of the fact that, while your heart wants to play Hamlet, you need to WANT to book that national laxative commercial just as much, and put just as much work into it as you would the world's most famous soliloquy.  You have to accept that sometimes, you may feel a little phony with people because you need them as a connection.  You have to accept that you are a PRODUCT and part of your job is to make yourself a BRAND.  A brand that people want to buy.  A brand that you're constantly tweeting about, and sharing on other social media.  Accept that this brand might lead to type casting, but, at least you're working, and one day you'll step out of your wheelhouse and show what you can really do. You have to accept that your love and passion comes with a lot of hurdles, and you're not always going to feel satisfied at the end of the day.  But you happily accept climbing more of that mountain day after day.

That's what drive is, ladies in gentlemen, in my humble opinion.  And, while I possess some of these fine qualities, I am lacking in others, which is why I never really pursued the big stages (more on that in another post).  And, no, I didn't intend for this to be a depressing post.  Just something to demonstrate a bit of a universal truth people don't always talk about--- to make it in show business, it's not enough to love the show.  You've gotta do the business.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences on this subject in the comment section below. I'd love to hear what others think.

Thanks for reading Theater is a Sport.  Come back soon.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Theater and Legacy


I have been thinking a great deal about the notion of legacy, the things we leave behind as human beings. What's left of us when we have shuffled off our mortal coil.

Sorry... I don't mean to be a downer, and I don't really intend this post to be a depressing one, but, rather, as with everything I write for this blog, I'm simply trying to work through some thoughts and feelings on a subject that means a great deal to me.

Just yesterday, a gentleman I knew from different theater circles, passed away.  He was an actor, teacher, director, and playwright.  He was a mentor to a great number of people.  I wish I had known him better than just as a passing, friendly acquaintance, but I always had respect and admiration for his creativity, his intelligence, and his drive. He loved and understood theater in a way I aspire to.  We never worked together, which is actually odd when I think about it.

He knew he was dying, and this last week or so, Facebook was a used as a tool for him to say goodbye, and for people to say goodbye to him.  He wrote that it was like attending his own funeral, which is something he had always wanted to do.  I was overwhelmed and moved by all of the messages on his timeline, especially from his former theater students.  He touched so many lives through his various endeavors, achieving, in a way, his own piece of immortality.

I suppose it is natural, when someone in your life passes away, to think about your own life.  While it may seem self-indulgent, I feel it is a natural human by-product to loss and grieving, to try to filter the experience through your own world view, your own perceptions. I guess this is why I'm wondering today about the things I will leave behind.  How I will be remembered.  Of course, I hope it is a long time away, and that I have ample opportunity for rewriting and tweaking, adding, and fleshing out.  But, then again, when it comes down to it, I'm not really in control of my legacy.

But we're all in control of how we do our work and how we treat one another. This goes a long way.

I hope...

No.  I was going to write a list of things that I hope people remember me for, but, truly, that is not only self-indulgent, it's somewhat of a distraction.  Legacies are made by living, not by wondering what your legacy will be.

Backstage at Lakewood Theater, they have a wall with 8x10 photographs, the one's used for the marquee, of the people who we have lost.  It makes sense to me as a fitting tribute, a wall of remembrance.  After all, every cast is a family, and it is important to remember and honor your family.  Every production is a unique, shared moment in time, that changes all involved, creates a bond of common experience that never goes away, no matter how the years pile on, or how relationships may strain and break.  We'll always have that show together.

You see, those weeks spent working together to create something have impact, the act of creation and collaboration is IMPORTANT.  It builds trust.  It builds humanity, in all of its forms.  We give our hearts and minds to a process in order to make something for others--- family, friends, and even strangers.

It is all about that shared moment.

Because it only takes a single moment to live forever.

So instead of saying goodbye, perhaps I'll simply say this:

Break a leg, my friend.  

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Learning Your Lines for a Play: A Second Look at Tips for Memorization

Note:  I am in no way affiliated with HBO or "Game of Thrones", other than thinking its cool
Thank you for stopping into Theater is a Sport today.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and this is my own little piece of the internet to talk about all things theater.

I have written about the subject of learning lines before, about a year and a half ago, and in that time, I have had some experiences that have changed my outlook a little bit.  So, at the risk of repeating myself somewhat, I offer these thoughts to you.

I'm asked a lot by people who have never in a play, how I learn my lines.  In fact, the conversation is usually something like this:

ADORING FAN:  I saw you in that play last weekend!  Lord, I don't know how you remember all those lines!

ME:  Oh, well, I'm glad you liked the...

ADORING FAN:  I'd get up on stage some time, but I just couldn't do it.  Remember all those lines! I can't even memorize my shopping list...

ME:  Well, it just takes practice, and...

ADORING FAN:  I mean, I could probably ACT circles around you!  You're nothing special, you know!  It's just the whole memorizing lines thing that keeps me from wiping the floor with your sorry butt!

ME:  Ah, I see.  Listen...

ADORING FAN:  No, you listen, Mr.  "I think I'm so great because I can memorize lines!"  I could be an actor, too, you know!

ME:  Ummm... right, it's just...

ADORING FAN:  What?!

ME:  Ummm.... the minister is talking right now, and people are starting at us.

In any case, usually, from these interactions, I get the idea that some people think that acting really is as simple as just learning lines.  In my opinion, I think learning lines should be the easiest part of being in a play.

Having said this, learning lines IS  important, and can be very challenging.  That's why I thought I'd offer a few tips and suggestions.  These are all things that have worked for either myself or other people I know.  They may not work for everybody.

First off, let's deal with this question:  At what point in the rehearsal process should you be off book? It's a good, fair, question, obviously with different schools of thought on the subject.  The brilliant Simon Callow offers some thoughts on the subject in his book, Being an Actor.  He suggests that, if you have a lead role, you should be off book by the first rehearsal.  On the other hand, if you have a small supporting role, he suggests you wait, for fear of growing bored with the text, among other reasons.

I can see what he's saying.  Last summer, I was in a play where it was required to be off book by the first rehearsal.  I've never really worked that way before, and was a little nervous, since I had so much to say, and, usually, it's the repetition of rehearsals that help me to memorize lines.  But, I did my best, and, I must say, I liked being off book earlier (though the scripts were still around to act as crutches).  It enabled a sense of making connections with other actors earlier in the process.  The lines and their meanings seemed to internalize earlier, as well, and, of course, it made blocking that much easier as well.  However, I do believe good, solid, productive work can still be accomplished with book in hand, but, I must confess, learning in advance really was a great experience that I think I'm going to keep trying for future plays I'm in.  For one thing, it forces everyone, even if not completely off book, to really know the story and how their character helps to tell it.

All right.  Down to the nitty gritty.  How do you learn your lines?

I used to be somewhat luckier than I am not.  I could read through a script over and  over, and just absorb my lines (and pretty much everyone else's, too).  As I've gotten a little older, it's not quite that simple.  So here are some other techniques:

KNOW YOUR CHARACTER and WHAT THEY WANT--- This, of course, is vital, even outside of learning your lines.  However, if you know your character, know what they want from scene to scene and know how they intend to get what they want, the lines make more sense, and, thus, are easier to remember.

HIGHLIGHT YOUR LINES:  It's a visual thing, and it helps.  It also ensures that you are learning ALL of your lines and not missing some.

RECORD YOUR LINES--- This helped me out last summer.  I made a few recordings on my iPad.  On the first, I read all my cues (in different voices), and then all my lines (in my voice).  I would listen to this recording a lot.  I'd wear headphones, and speak with my recorded voice.  As I grew more confident, I made another recording, this time with just my cues, and dead air in between them, for me to speak my lines out loud.  This came in handy when I didn't have another person to help cue me,  Which leads to...

HAVE SOMEONE CUE YOU--- Enlist a friend or family member to take the script, and read your cues.  Have them correct you if you make a mistake (instruct them to merciless on this, pretty much word-for-word).  If you don't know a line, have them read it to you, repeat it out loud, then have them go back and give you the cue again.  It can be a tedious process, but it has the benefit of really working well.  Warning:  you most likely will get frustrated, especially if they have to correct you a lot, but that's okay.  Just take it line by line.

USE YOUR RECORDED LINES WHEN EXERCISING---  I have friends who swear by this, and I've tried it, too.  Physical activity opens up the brain for absorption.  It's a great time to run through lines in your head, or through your earphones.  Exercising, from what I hear, is also healthy.

TAKE GINGKO  (UNLESS YOU'RE ON BLOOD THINNERS)

One thing I would strongly recommend, and Callow makes note of this in his book as well, is to not memorize your performance.  Memorize your lines.  Don'g get married to how you say your lines, but just to the lines themselves.  Meisner always said to learn lines by rote, so that you can react naturally on stage.  This is easier said than done, of course, and, you're bound to memorize your lines with some expression to them.  However, don't let this keep you from letting that go, and reacting naturally with your scene partners, and don't let it keep you from discovering new things about your character.

One last thing--- even though I'm a playwright, I don't think a script suffers from an occasional line that isn't said 100% as written.  In fact, that's bound to happen.  I still recommend trying to learn your lines verbatim, because then, you will hopefully be so aware of your character's intentions, that if your mind does go blank, you can get a close facsimile of your line out of your mouth.

I know there are many other thoughts and techniques about learning lines, and I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.  Please comment below.  This is a place to share, after all.  We've all got our theater stories to tell.

Just remember--- memorizing lines is essential.  Just don't memorize your performance.

Break a leg!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Community Theater Directors: How to Avoid Becoming Overwhelmed at Rehearsals

Me, Bobby Keniston, trying to figure something out in "Silent Laughter" at Lakewood Theater

Greetings everyone, and welcome to Theater is a Sport.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and I will be your host at this blog, where I write down my thoughts on theater, most often for the school and community theater markets, but, sometimes, just theater in general.

Today, I have some thoughts and advice for any community theater directors out there who are feeling stressed out and overwhelmed.  First of all, this is natural.  You are not alone.  In fact, I am writing about this subject today because I am currently directing a production for a local community theater, and I am feeling a little stressed out and overwhelmed.  These thoughts are a way of helping me psych myself up, too.

So, let's see...

TIP #1:  PAY CLOSE ATTENTION WHEN CASTING
While this is true for all productions, it is especially true for school and community theater.  A good number of times, us directors have to make concessions and compromises when casting, or, if we are directing a really large cast play, we may just have to take everyone who auditions.  This happens sometimes.  But there are important things to take into consideration, aside from person's talent.  Do they have a great number of conflicts that will make them constantly late to or absent from rehearsals?  Believe me, you want to know this right away.  Always have a tentative rehearsal schedule for auditions, and ask for conflicts on their audition forms.
What's their personality like?  Do they come off as arrogant or diva-esque?  This is important, although, you can't always judge a person in that way from a short audition.  However, if a fellow director tells you that you should be careful with a certain person because they were a nightmare in a play they directed, you might want to listen to them.  Nothing makes rehearsals more frustrating than a person with a bad attitude.  Likewise, if you're directing a play with children or teens, you might want to inquire to others about any behavior issues or anything like that.
Trust me, I would rather cast a less talented person who works hard and has a great attitude, than a good actor who is going to make my life as a director difficult.  This might not be true for me for professional endeavors, but at the community theater and school levels, I think it is a good code to go by.

TIP #2  GO INTO EACH REHEARSAL WITH A PLAN
Have an idea of what you think the overall shape of the characters on stage will be.  A foundation of blocking when you go into it is very important.  Now, this might have to be adjusted or outright changed when you see it on it's feet, but it's still wise to have a plan.

TIP #3  KNOW THE TEXT, KNOW THE TEXT, KNOW THE TEXT!
You should know the script, the way it flows, the characters in each scene, the technical and prop concerns for each scene.  Again, some of these things may be added to or removed during the rehearsal process, but you should go in with the a good understanding of what you'll need, and an impeccable understanding of the story, and how it is told.  Have an aesthetic vision, and make sure the cast and crew know what it is as soon as possible!

TIP #4  YOU'RE IN CHARGE, SO BE IN CHARGE
This isn't an episode of "Who's the Boss?," and you're not Tony Danza or Judith Light.  You're the director--- you're the boss.  Does this mean you should be an unflinching, draconian automaton?  Of course not.  You should encourage some collaboration, and, yes, actors should be allowed some ownership of your characters.  But a production needs a leader, a number one person, and you are it.  If actors in the play pipe up when you're giving notes, make it clear kindly, but firmly and without question, that this decision is yours.  If they want to talk to you at another time, that is fine, but not when you are giving direction, and not in front of the rest of the cast.  This goes for parents, volunteers, and pretty much anybody.  You will never get anything done, and the cast will feel like they can direct themselves, if you open up every bit of direction to a town meeting.

TIP #5:  HAVE A GOAL TO ACCOMPLISH FOR EACH REHEARSAL.
You may not accomplish them all, but that's okay.  For rehearsals that you don't accomplish your daily goal, say, blocking pages 12-18, make notes as to why the work couldn't be finished in the allotted time, and minimize those reasons, if possible, for future rehearsals.

TIP #6:  ALWAYS HAVE AN ANSWER, EVEN IF THAT ANSWER IS "I'M CONSIDERING OPTIONS TO TRY"
Directors are asked a lot of questions.  That's what being the leader gets you.  Actors, designers, crew members--- they all have questions, and many of them good ones.  Always give them an answer.  It's good for your confidence, and it inspires confidence in others.  And instead of having an answer be "I don't know", say "I'm considering different options to try out."  Doesn't that feel good to say?  Warning:  don't use that answer too much, though.

TIP #7 BREATHE AND TAKE A BREAK
There's no shame in reaching a saturation point at a rehearsal.  It happens.  If you get to a point where you know you're no longer being productive for yourself or the cast, take a break.  Give them five or ten minutes, to give yourself five or ten minutes.  Breathe.  Ask everyone to refrain from asking you questions during the break.  Separate yourself from the group if need be and allow yourself to think without all those expectant eyes looking at you, waiting for direction.  You're only human.

TIP #8  FIND WAYS TO MAKE DIRECTION A TEACHABLE MOMENT
If you're directing for community theater and schools, you will most likely have a wide variety of skill sets in your cast, some very high, some very inexperienced.  It is okay to phrase your direction almost as lesson with young people and inexperienced adults.  Don't condescend, of course.  But this isn't Broadway... sometimes you need to teach.  Sometimes a person's first play is like their Intro to Theater 101.  Don't be afraid to be their professor.

TIP #9  MAKE PEACE WITH HAVING TO BE FLEXIBLE
You're going to have to do this.  Something like this is bound to happen:  you have planned to rehearse Jimbo's big scene, and, at the last minute, you get a call from Jimbo that he's not going to be there.  You have to quickly find a way to make rehearsal valuable for you and for those cast members called.  Take five minutes and figure out what other scene you can work on with the people who are there, with the least amount of fuss.

TIP #10  YOU'RE GOING TO GET STRESSED OUT AND OVERWHELMED
"Heavy is the head that wears the crown" and all that.  It's going to happen.  It just is.  Welcome it, feel it, and keep moving.  Remember you do this because you love it.  And, if you find you don't actually love it, don't do it again.

I hope you find these thoughts valuable.  I would love to hear thoughts from others as well, in the comments below.  I'll take all the help I can get!

Until next time...

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

NOT Your Typical LEADING MAN (The Joys of Being a Character Actor)

Your Truly and Kristen Seavey from Lakewood Theater's production of "The Producers".  Photo by Hannah Weston

Welcome to Theater is a Sport.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and this is my little home on the internet to write about theater.

I'm short.  And, often, I'm a little pudgy, though, for the right part, I try to lose weight. Unfortunately, outside of a pair of elevator shoes that give me about two inches of added height, I'm pretty much stuck being short. In fact, one time, I was walking down the street, minding my own business, when a car drove by, and young man, maybe sixteen or seventeen, stuck his head out of the car window (thankfully, he wasn't driving), and yelled, "YOU'RE SHORT!!!!"   I confess, this action left me a little rattled, and I didn't have time to think of any kind of comeback as the car sped away.  I could have yelled out, "BY MOST STANDARDS, YOU'RE RIGHT!," but I didn't.  In truth, I've  made peace with my height, and, while it offers the occasional challenges at the grocery store, I don't look at it as a negative thing.

What it does mean, however, is that I'm not meant to play your typical leading man, and I don't think anyone would really cast me as such.  Once upon a time, this might have bothered me.  Now, however, I am grateful.

I don't want to be the typical leading man.

It's true that one's physical attributes can "type" them as an actor--- the funny "fat" guy, the "ditzy" blond, the "hunky" ladies man, the "thug", the "sidekick", the "plain" friend... there are dozens more, of course.  And yes, this can be very frustrating.  But we must remember, that the "leading man" and "leading lady" types or also just that--- types.  And perhaps these actors get tired of being pigeonholed into those roles as well.  In fact, I would guess from time to time they do.

Why?

Simple:  character roles are often more juicy and more fun.

This isn't to suggest that I haven't played my share of "lead" roles.  Theater has been good to me.  I've managed to play some dream parts like Leo Bloom in "The Producers" (pictured above), Lt. Cioffi in "Curtains", Prince Dauntless in "Once Upon a Mattress", Seymour in "Little Shop of Horrors", and tons of fun parts in non-musicals as well.

The one thing the leading parts I'm cast to play all have in common?  They are not your typical leading man "types".  They are character roles.  They certainly have some leading man responsibilities, but they are not the typical leading man.

Now, I would never suggest that "typical" leading man parts are without there share of fun and interesting discoveries.  Of course they are.  I just wouldn't know how to find them.

A few years back now, I was cast in a production of a musical called "Sugar".  For those who don't know, it's a musical adaptation of the excellent Billy Wilder film, "Some Like it Hot".  I was originally cast in the more sidekick type role that Jack Lemmon made famous in the film, a role that was right in my wheelhouse.  Unfortunately, the actor originally cast in the Tony Curtis role, the more "leading man type," had to drop out of the production.  The director slid me over into that role and cast someone to take the Jack Lemmon role.

Now, this is a musical about two guys dressing up like women and joining an all women band to escape detection from gangsters, after witnessing a hit.  So, two guys in dresses, you might say, wouldn't lend itself to your typical "leading man" stuff.  And, yes, I was always more comfortable in the scenes when I was wearing a dress.  The scenes I had difficulty with, were the scenes in which my character is out of his dress, in a suit, wooing the Marilyn Monroe-like character of Sugar.  Being the charming, confident fellow, you know, the type that always gets the girl.

I must confess, in those scenes, I felt stiff and phony, which isn't a good way for an actor to feel.  Funny enough, I had even played off of the leading lady before... we were opposite each other in "The Producers"!   But, in that particular play, well, her character had fallen in love with the neurotic, naive character I was playing.  She came after me.  In "Sugar", I had to woo her.

It was one of the few times I felt "short" on stage.  And pudgy.  And just not right for the part.  I didn't have a way in to the part.  I didn't know what made a guy like this tick.  I didn't know how to play a "personality".  And, consequently, I was stuck in my head (never a good place for an actor), and felt self-conscious.

I must confess, the young man who took over the Jack Lemmon role got huge laughs, and deservedly so.  I was proud of him.  Of course, I couldn't help but notice how much prettier of a woman he was than me.

So what's the point of this story?  Don't worry about being cast as the "lead" role.  Don't worry about "types".  Go after parts that are juicy, and that you know you can put an interesting spin on.  Yes, it's good to go outside of your comfort zone and try new things, but it's also good to know what kind of roles you might not be best suited for (it helps save a great deal of disappointment to have that self awareness).  I'll never play Paul Bunyon or a retired NBA player wanting one more shot at glory.  But that's okay.

I've always been more of a character.

Thanks for reading my thoughts today.  Please feel free to comment below, and follow me.

Until next time....

Monday, March 23, 2015

WATCHING MY PLAY IN COMPETITION: A Big Thank You to Cheverus High School!

A production of my play, "The Dark Tower" presented by Cheverus High School
From Left to Right:  Jesse Rodrigues, Heather Bridge, Zoe Leblanc, Abby Thomas
Greetings theater lovers!  Welcome to Theater is a Sport, my little piece of the internet where I talk about all things theater!  My name is Bobby Keniston, and I'm a playwright, actor, and director who's been at it for about 25 years, and am still learning more and more each time I'm involved in a play.

Today, I want to talk about the joy a playwright feels in seeing their work performed.  After all, that's why we write plays in the first place, right?

I live and work in the state of Maine, and, even though I have 33 published plays for the youth, high school, and community theater markets published, I very rarely get to see a production of one of my plays performed in my home state, except for productions I put on myself.  My plays have been performed in 43 different states, as well as in Canada, Australia, and even Prague, but, for whatever reason, I don't get a whole lot of action here in Vacationland.  For whatever reason, I seem to be most popular in Iowa, Nebraska, California, and South Dakota.

So, naturally, when I learned that Cheverus High School in southern Maine was producing my play "The Dark Tower" for the Maine Principal Association's One Act Play Competition, I was thrilled!
The talented group from Cheverus won their regional competition and made it to the State's.  I had the good fortune this last weekend to travel up to the state competition held at Stearns High School in Millinocket and cheer them on!  I remember when I was a high school student how much I loved the one act play competition, and to know that now, all these years later, a play of mine was there at the state level, in a location I may very well have traveled to, was a genuine full-circle kind of rush for me.

First, I should say, I was a little nervous.  Not because I was worried about their production--- after all, they had made it to the state competition, so I knew that they obviously had worked hard and done well.  I was nervous because it's always a little nerve-wracking for a playwright to see how well their script does in competition.  I wanted it to serve this group well.  I wanted their decision to do my play, and work their hearts out on it, to be one that they didn't regret.  And, of course, as I had never seen a high school group do this particularly challenging play, I was desperate to see if the play itself worked as a performance piece.  No matter how proud I am of a script on the page, seeing if it works on its feet is a whole different story.

I am proud to say that I was blown away with what Cheverus did with the play.  Their costumes, set, lighting, and sound were all fantastic, and really brought together a stage picture that captured the mood and tone of the play.  It is a bit of an epic fantasy in forty minutes, and the teenage actors handled the heightened language with ease, and made it accessible.  It was clear they had studied the script, and the legends it portrays with a a serious eye for detail, and had internalized the feeling and themes throughout.  In short, they got it.  They knew what I was trying to say with the play, and served the intentions, while also making it their own.

They made this playwright very proud.

I must give special props to the added fight choreography, which helped to break-up and change the pace of a very dialogue heavy script.  Well done!

After their performance, I waited in their section of the audience to make their triumphant entrance after striking the set.  I shook all of their hands.  They were tired from a long day of travel, tech, and, now, the performance, but their smiles and appreciation for my support was evident, and meant a lot to me.  I shook each of their hands and thanked them, and had them sign my playbill, and then let them rest.  After all, it was their moment.  While I wrote the play, this was their production, and I wanted their experience at states to be about them, and not about the playwright.

Their director told me that it was the first time their school had ever made it to the state competition, which made me feel good, too.  Now, obviously, I know it wasn't my play that gave them the edge to make it to the state's, but, rather, their hard work and dedication, but it still felt good all the same to have my work represented there.

The other plays performing that evening were "Dogg's Hamlet", "The Dancers", and "A Doll's House".  I must confess, I couldn't help but smile at the fact that I was on a bill with Tom Stoppard, Horton Foote, and Ibsen.  That's something that doesn't happen for me very often.

So, once again, thank you to Cheverus High School for choosing my play, "The Dark Tower".  I hope it is something you will  always remember with fondness, just as I will always remember watching you perform this play that is so special to me.  Your production is a prime example of why I write for teenagers, and you definitely showed the audience that theater is, in fact, a sport.

Until next time, thanks for reading my blog, and feel free to comment below, and follow me.

Friday, March 20, 2015

THE TRUTH ABOUT MAKING MONEY WRITING PLAYS FOR THE AMATEUR THEATER MARKET or PLEASE DON'T RIP OFF PLAYWRIGHTS


WRITING PLAYS = $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

Whoa!  Slow down.  As much as I would love to have you believe that I can teach you how to earn fat stacks of cash by writing plays, I really can't.  I'd like to, honest.  But first, I would have to be proficient in making fat stacks of cash by writing plays, and, though I'm happy and grateful for all the successes I have achieved, I do not make a living writing plays.

Welcome to Theater is a Sport.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and this is my little piece of the internet that I use to write about theater.  Thanks for stopping by.

Today I want to talk about writing plays for the amateur market (schools, community theaters, etc.), and the truth about how the money works.  If you're looking for the financial possibilities for a playwright who has a play on Broadway, you've come to the wrong place.  Sorry.

There's an old expression, credited to Robert Anderson, that says you can make a killing on Broadway, but you can't make a living.  And it's true--- many of the top playwrights working today supplement their income working for the movies.  Which really means, these screenwriters supplement their income writing plays.

The late Tim Kelly, who published over 350 plays for the amateur market, once gave  talk describing how one could make a living writing for the amateur market, the way way way way way way off-Broadway stages.  Mr. Kelly admitted that writing for this market wasn't going to bring you critical acclaim, or glitz and glamour, but you could make a living.

By and large, I think Mr. Kelly is right.  But it's not easy.  If you've ever glanced through school and community theater catalogs for plays, you might notice that a playwright's name shows up many many times.  In the five years since I've first been published, I know have 33 plays with four different publishers, and have been called prolific by some people.  This might seems like a lot, but I would appear practically blocked next to many of my colleagues.  To make headway in the school and community theater markets, you need to write and focus on output.  However, you must also focus on quality, so that you'll be published and produced in the first place.

Even though this is a theater blog, I'm going to do a little bit of math right now to demonstrate.  I'm often asked by people about the financial side of my career, not out of nosiness, but out of a genuine curiosity of how it works.  I know I didn't know much about it until I was published.  In fact, to be honest, I was a bit naive.  I thought a few plays doing well meant moolah city, but it's really not that simple.

So, that one act play you write for middle schools and high schools (and yes, you want it to be suitable for both if at all possible) has just been accepted for publication!  Congratulations!  You deserve to celebrate!  And this excitement is well-deserved... it's not easy to be a published playwright!  So feel free to dance around.  I'll bet you even get goosebumps when you sign that first contract.

Now, you're a person who's looking to make writing plays for schools and community theaters a full out career.  Please do not quit your job just yet after your first publication.  Unless you've got huge savings to draw from, or are independently wealthy, in which case, go for it.  But for the rest of us, stay employed.

So, most likely, if you've just got your first one act play published, your publisher will offer it out in their catalog for a licensing fee of anywhere between $35 and $45 a performance.  Of this sum, you, the playwright, will receive anywhere between 50-60%, sometimes more, depending on the company. A good number of my plays, I receive 60% of the performance royalty.  Others, I receive 50%.  It's important to not just look at this percentage, but also to the quality of the catalog, how often it's mailed out, it's reputation for handling plays, etc.

Okay, along with this percentage of the performance royalty, you will also (most likely) receive a 10% royalty on the book sales.  For a one act play, an individual script can cost anywhere between $5.95 and $7.99, depending on the publisher.  To be honest, it wasn't until I had a few plays published that I made sure I received a royalty on script sales, but it's important to have.

For the amateur market, it is very unlikely that you will get any kind of advance, like you might for a novel.  By and large, advances for playwrights go to the shows with the big New York runs and reviews.  I've heard of only one amateur market publisher who paid an advance, and it may very well have been due to the author's previous successes.

Now, on a special note, again, before you quit that day job... pay special attention to when royalties are paid out.  Some companies pay twice a year, a select few pay quarterly, and some only once a year.

So, you want to make a living.  Well, what's a living?  Let's look at something as simple as $20,000.  I should note, I have yet to make this much in a single year from my playwriting, but I do okay.

Let's split the difference, and say your one act play is licensed for a $40 royalty per performance, and your contract gives you 60%.  That means your cut for each performance is $24.  This means you would need to have your play performed 834 times to make $20,016 from a performance royalty.  Now, let's say that the average number of performances a school will license is 3.  You will need 278 productions of 3 performances each to make that money.

Now, factoring in book sales:  let's say that each school needs to order ten books, that are priced $6 a piece.  That gives you another $6 per production.  So $6 multiplied by 278 gives you another $1,668, for a grand total of $21,684.  Well that's not too bad for a one act play, now is it?

Unfortunately, you'd have to be the rarest of the rare, or luckiest of the luckiest to hope that your one act play received 278 productions in one year, for 834 performances.  It's a pretty full market.  The play catalogs are thick, after all.  Yours is but one name among hundreds.  You'd be pretty lucky to have your play receive 25 productions in its first year (much better than mine did).  And, even more likely, it will be lower than that.

(Starting to see why we publish a lot?)

I don't mean this example to be discouraging, but just honest.  It is often true in this market that the harder you work the more successful you become, so that's a good thing.  Try not to think of yourself as competing with other playwrights, because you're not, not really.   You're competing with yourself to keep creating quality work at a decent rate.

All I really wanted to show here is how playwrights for this market are compensated, and how, not licensing a production, or not paying for every performance, is truly stealing money from a playwright's pocket.  And it adds up.

I've been saying this a lot lately, but you can't claim to support the arts without paying the money to support artists.

Thanks for wandering through this little lesson in finance with me.  Again, it's all relative--- some folks are lucky and publish major hits that do get hundreds of productions a year.  And if you become one of them, good for you!  I hope to become one too, and that's why I keep telling my stories.

Until next time, thanks for reading Theater is a Sport.  You can learn more about my plays by clicking HERE,  HERE, HERE, or HERE.  Thanks for reading, and feel free to comment below.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

THOUGHTS AND TIPS ON KICKING STAGE FRIGHT IN THE BUTT

Me with my blanket from Lakewood Theater's production of "The Producers".  Who gets stage fright when they have a security blanket?

Greetings ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to theater is a sport, my little place on the internet to talk about theater for whoever wants to hear it.

Just last summer, I was in a production of a play called "The Fall of the House of Usher," based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe.  I was the lead in the play, narrating a good deal of the play, while also being involved in the action.  My character in the "present" was being interrogated by a police officer, and I was supposed to be nervous, upset, in shock, and a bit traumatized.  These are all fun things for an actor play, until, well, it starts to become too real.

One night of the performance, it was dreadfully hot. I was drinking plenty of water backstage of course.  However, the play called for me to begin the play in my suit, a heavy overcoat, scarf and hat. I was onstage, and all was going well.  I had my first scene with the police officer, and it was fine, and then moved into the flashback scene.  I sat down on the couch, still bundled up, talking to my scene partner.  And then, at the moment I stood up to move closer to her, my head went light, and I stumbled over the line.  I kept going of, course, like the little trooper I believe myself to be, and, really, it was just one small moment of one single performance.  Once the coat was off, I was more comfortable, and, in my moments backstage, I kept drinking plenty of water. Everything was fine.

But then the real problem began.

I was in my head.  Oh my God, I kept thinking, what if I miss the next line?  What if I do pass out? What if I ruin this entire performance?  Will anyone ever cast me again?

There were two performances left of the run after that night.  For each of them, I was terrified.  Although the heat had broken, I still felt hot, dreadfully so, when I stepped on stage.  I didn't trust myself.  My palms were icky, so that I felt embarrassed about the few moments when I joined hands with other cast members.  I would go backstage and be convinced that I couldn't return when  I was supposed to.  I would take deep breaths and tell myself "You're okay, you're okay, you're okay."  But I didn't feel okay.  I felt like my costume was choking me, and getting tighter by the minute.  I would look at my fellow actors, and, instead of being in the moment, I would be thinking, "Just make it through this scene, please God, just let me make it through this scene."

For the first time in my life, I had a SERIOUS case of stage fright.

Don't get me wrong--- I've been doing plays now for 27 years, since I was 10 years old.  I've certainly had nerves in the past, but this feeling was different.  It was a feeling of dread.  There were moments in my mind I imagined myself stopping the scene, turning to the audience and saying, "I'm sorry", and shrinking away backstage, most likely in tears of shame, and just not finishing.  Never before had I ever imagined such a scenario.  It left me with a huge crisis of purpose--- I've always wanted to be an actor, always been an actor.  Being in plays is what I do, it's what I live for?  Would I have to go and study accounting?  Should I just stick to writing and learn to live with the gaping hole that giving up acting would leave in me?  Was I just losing any gift I might have had for it?

Yikes.  Just writing about it now makes me feel awful.  I guess this is why most actors don't even want to talk about it.

You see, many, many actors and other performers have felt this anxiety.  Ian Holm, a favorite actor of mine, even walked out of a production of "The Iceman Cometh" in 1976 because of stage fright, and didn't return to the theater for 8 years. Daryl Hannah, when starring in "The Seven Year Itch" on the West End underwent hypnotherapy for her stage fright.  I've heard stories of actors who literally vomit before every performance, not that you'd know it the second they stepped out on stage.

I believe that stage fright for an actor is even worse than writer's block for a writer, though they're in the same ballpark, and most likely come from similar places.  The difference, of course, is the public scrutiny, and perhaps, embarrassment that comes from an actor who is now afraid to act.  Isn't that like a surgeon who gets sick at the sight of blood?

Stage fright (or more technical terms like "performance anxiety", or topophobia) is easily one of the top five fears I have experienced in my life.  But the good news is, I made it through the other end, did a whole lot of reading on the subject, and am now here to offer some tips and thoughts about how to conquer it.

First off, it is normal to be nervous before a performance.  In fact, very few people are not nervous before a performance.  Why?  Well, you're putting yourself out there.  As Mr. Ferlinghetti would say, you are constantly risking absurdity.  So, yeah, there's a little bit of pressure involved in that.  But remember:

1.  Being Nervous Gives You Energy:  energy is a very important thing to have on stage.  It carries you through a performance, helps you connect with your fellow actors and the audience, so long as it is channeled to the job at hand.  If you're backstage telling yourself how nervous you are, try instead to say, "Wow, I've got a ton of energy right now.  This is great."  You keep telling yourself how nervous you are, even if it's true, well, it's going to become a lot more true and a whole lot worse.  Tell yourself you have energy, and energy is needed for a great show, well... how 'bout that?  It's a nice positive spin on your natural feeling, and you may just make that great show come true.

Part of what I was feeling during my (Thank God) short-lived bout with stage fright was a feeling of worthlessness.  Though I don't make my living through acting, I studied acting in college, and have always prided myself on being a good actor.  Not a great one, but a good one.  I've been in a lot of plays, and, by and large, from the feedback I receive, people tend to enjoy my performances.  I work hard on them.  I care about them, more so than any other paying job I've ever had.  So the idea of losing all of that, losing any reputation I might have of being an actor that directors can depend on, or that audience members like to see, was devastating to me.  But here's the thing:

2.  Having Stage Fright Does Not Make You a Bad Actor:  people told me the last few shows of "The Fall of the House of Usher" were good.  Nobody in the audience once said, "You looked scared up there."  In fact, I won an award for the show.  Stage Fright isn't about your work as an actor.  It's about you and your insecurities.  It's about talking yourself out of something you know to be the truth:  that you can do this.  It's about those voices in your head that tell you you're not good enough or strong enough,  It's about not trusting yourself.  It has nothing to do with your art, your creativity, or your worth as a human being or performer.  Stage Fright is backstage business.  It has no place in the spotlight.  You do.

3.  You Can't Have Stage Fright Unless You're In Your Head:  believe it or not, people tend to mess up the most on stage when they are constantly thinking while on stage.  As I mentioned earlier, I was in my head like crazy.  My mind wouldn't stop.  And why?  Because I thought it would be my mind that pulled me through those performances.  WRONG.  Letting yourself be in the moment, focusing on your scene partners, hitting your marks and opening your mouth to speak is what gets you through performances.  So how do you let go of your mind during a performance.  Sometimes it helps to bargain with it.  "You can tell me all the things that went wrong after the show, brain, but shut the hell up while I'm on stage.  Deal?"

One major problem I had, as I mentioned, was the notion of letting people down.  My director, my fellow actors, and, not least of all, the audience.  But here's the truth...

4.  Lives Are Not At Stake:  It's true.  Every actor has performances they are not proud of.  But their lives didn't end.  Nor were any audience members' lives put in jeopardy.  Now, I'm not trying to be glib, and, yes, I do think plays are very important, and that people should approach them with sense of stakes, and a desire to give the best show possible.  It's serious business, yes.  But, if you're feeling strong anxiety, it's important to remember that you and everyone involved will survive.  You're not removing tumors, or administering powerful drugs... you are creating something.  And creating something is always a bit of an experiment, and not everyone is going to like it anyway.  If you're hung up on the idea of anything having to be perfect, you're in trouble, because theater is an imperfect medium.  That's what makes it special on a night to night basis.  No one wants to fail, per se, but it's better than not doing anything at all.  It really is.  Stage Fright can't hurt you if you hold on to the spirit of exploration and creation, and let go of the notion of perfection.  You are far more likely to reach "perfect" (or the closest thing to it), if you forget about the concept entirely.

5. AUDIENCES ARE FORGIVING:  Okay, I know some of you will be thinking, "Not all of them!"  And, okay, that's true.  In this society, there are plenty of hate-watchers out there.  But so what?  You're not doing it for those people.  And I do believe, by and large, particularly in the amateur markets (who I mostly write for anyhow), audiences want to see you succeed.  They want to have a good time.  They've had a long week, want to relax, watch a show, and get lost.  They're not there to point out your flaws (I know, I know... some are... but, again, do you really care what people like that think?).  I'm sure you've all heard the old remedy for stage fright:  "Picture the audience in their underwear" or "picture the audience naked".... I've never done this.  I think it could cause it's own problems of unexpected laughter or arousal.  But, I understand the point.  Instead of picturing the audience naked or in their underwear, instead, picture them stripped of any power invalidate your belief in yourself.  See them stripped of the mythical "audience" label and just see them as human beings who want to have a good night, just like you want to have a good night.  They play a part in the play, too, after all.  We're all sharing this moment of time together, so don't think of them as some external force, but rather, invite them in.

I'm not a therapist or anything like that, but I just know that these are some thoughts that helped me through my little crisis last summer.  I hope you find them useful, and please feel free to share any tips and thoughts you might have in the comments below.

Thanks for reading my blog, and remember--- keep up the energy, make a deal with your brain, and put yourself and not your insecurity in the spotlight.  You're gonna be great.  I promise.