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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Bad Morning: Bobby Keniston Talks More About Rejection


Greetings, and welcome to Theater is a Sport.  I am your host, Bobby Keniston, and I keep this little part of the internet to write about theater.  As always, feel free to comment below if you agree with me, or think I'm full of poo.

Today's post is a bit more personal than usual--- I tend to like to act like an instructor of sorts, give out tips and advice, but, today, well, I've had the wind knocked out of my sails for a little bit.  I'll be fine, of course, I'm used to it, but, for the moment, I'd rather just write and see what happens.

I've talked about rejection before, but it bears repeating for anyone who is interested in pursuing theater, acting, and writing as a livelihood, or even just as a hobby.  You are going to face a great deal of rejection, and you have to learn to deal with that and not let it knock you all over the place.  At least, don't let it knock you all over the place for too long.

So this morning, I check my email, and, lo and behold, there is a nice rejection note from a nice company for a play I recently submitted.  It is a company I have other plays published with, and a good relationship with--- I like them a whole lot, love how they handle my plays, and am grateful for the work they do getting my plays productions all around the country.  I like the company so much, I gave them an exclusive first look at this new play, when, usually, I submit to a few companies at the same time.

Okay, so I should be used to rejection by now, shouldn't I?  I've been in the business long enough, and have certainly been rejected plenty of times.  Yet this rejection has hit me harder than many others, and I am trying to figure out why.

You see, usually, the second I get a rejection notice, the first thing I do is submit the play to another company.  It's good for the soul.  So I did that very thing this morning.  I went to another company I love, who have an online submission form.  I uploaded the play, filled in all the information, revised my synopsis to make sure it was as good as could be, spent a good half hour making sure everything was as it should be, and when I pressed the button to submit, and error occurred, telling me to try again later.  So, I don't really have that feeling of satisfaction yet, the feeling of moving on and trying again after my rejection.  I'm not going to let a computer error keep me from submitting to this second company, of course, but I just can't fill it all out again at this moment.  I don't have the energy.

So here I am, thinking about my rejection.

It's natural, and, indeed okay to feel bad about being rejected.  In fact, it's not easy to feel good about it.  It's all right to think, but not to wallow, and so, hopefully, this blog post will help me move things in the right direction.

So why is this one bothering me so much?  Here are some thoughts:

1.  I haven't had a play rejected in a while.  My submission numbers have been down this year, and every play I have submitted has been accepted.

2.  I really thought this company was going to accept this play.  Which, I guess goes to show, you shouldn't be overconfident about such things.  I just thought this particular company would think itself a good home for this particular script.  Alas, that is not my decision to make, and, nor should it be.  This is a fine company that knows what it is doing, and, if they don't think they can sell this particular script, then they made the right decision.  Again, their rejection letter was kind, and very mindful of the fact that I am currently one of their writers.  I shouldn't have assumed they would like this one as much as some of the others I have with them already.  (Of course, it's not necessarily a matter of "liking" the script, but whether they feel its right for their catalog--- two very different things)

3.  Many of the plays I write are accepted without a prior production, so I've never really seen them on their feet.  This show, however, I produced with my hometown theater as part of an evening of one acts.  I directed the play, had a great cast, and I saw fist hand how well audiences responded to the play.  So much laughter and cheering!  People loved it!  I've never had such positive feedback for a play I've written and directed!  And my hometown doesn't necessarily get excited about theater all that often.  I know the script is easy to produce, has witty dialogue, but is also poignant--- I've heard the laughs and seen the other emotional impacts of it--- so, I guess, what I'm saying is, I know that the play PLAYS and PLAYS WELL.

4.  Because it was so successful in production, perhaps I was riding high on the script as a surefire win.  It's easy to do so when you see how much an audience loves it.  It's like you've got proof that it should be a "hit", because your individual production was a hit.  But the page and the stage are two different things.

So, yeah, I'll get over this, and fairly quickly, but I am going to allow myself to feel upset about it for a while.

Perhaps that will make it all the more sweeter when the script does find a home.


To Learn More about my published plays, CLICK HERE, OR HERE, OR HERE, OR HERE!

I've started a new blog where I am writing a short story every day for a whole year!  Each story will be between 100-250 words.  Please check it out!  (I've had too much rejection for one day).  
CLICK HERE to read my new blog!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

What To Do When You Have a Bad Performance

Greetings ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Theater is a Sport.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and this is my little place on the internet where I talk about (or, really, write about) theater.  Why? Well, because I love it.

I'm a big Red Sox fan, but a few nights ago, they were pounded by the Orioles in a big way. Last night, however, they fought back against Toronto and wound up winning the game.

What does this have to do with theater, you might ask?  I'll tell you.  There's a reason I call this blog "Theater is a Sport", and it's because I believe that theater is a sport.

And, like baseball, or any other sport, an actor, or an entire cast, can have off nights.

Lord knows I've had them.  Whether you keep tripping over your lines, or staying in your head, anticipating blocking, or tripping over the set, some nights just feel like a disaster to an actor.  Please believe me when I tell you that this happens to everyone.

The first thing to do, if you feel like your having a bad performance, is to try to get out of your head, and salvage the rest of the night.  Take intermission to try to relax and re-focus.  Accept that you screwed up in the first act, and realize that you can still knock 'em dead in Act Two.  A bad performance is all mental, meaning, all thought.  Get those thoughts out of your brain.

Now, if you can't salvage the performance for yourself, and you reach the end of the show feeling as miserable as you did all the way through, accept it and move on.  For one thing, it probably didn't come off as badly as you might think.  And please, please, if you had friends or family in the audience, and they talk to you after the show, complimenting you on what a great job you did, just smile and say "Thank you so much!"  I know it's hard.  You'll want to say, "I felt so off tonight!  This was my worst performance ever!  I was so much better in rehearsal!"  Don't do it.  For one thing, it's rude.  It's telling your loved ones that they don't know a good performance from a bad one, and that's not very nice now, is it?  And, like I said before, everything you were going through in your own mind was probably not as visible to the audience as you think it was.

Don't let one bad performance ruin a run.  In the school or community theater, you probably have somewhere between 3 and 6 performances for a production (maybe more, but we're not talking month or yearlong runs, here).  The more you focus on a bad performance, the more you open yourself up to repeat them.  If, in fact, there is a section of the play that is repeatedly bad or feels under-rehearsed, by all means, talk to the director and others involved about working towards cleaning up that scene or section.  It's okay to want to keep growing and getting better, even if you're a few performances in.  In fact, that should be the goal.  To keep getting better and better and more comfortable with the material.  But, let's say you had a random incident where you blew a line you had never missed before.  Don't obsess about it.  That's like asking to mess up again.

Above all else, remember that theater is an imperfect medium, which is why it is so magical. Mistakes happen when you're performing live.  Embrace it, accept it, and keep moving forward to the elusive goal of perfection, which you're not going to reach.  It's the journey that matters.  It's the dancing on the head of a pin, the experiment of creating something with a group of people that matters the most.

Just keep your eye on the ball, and everything will be okay.

Monday, April 27, 2015

My Favorite Dream: Writing With Love and Zest


Greetings, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Theater is a Sport, back after spring break.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and this is my own little piece of the internet where I talk about whatever's on my mind in the realm of theater.

Recently, I've been re-reading a great deal of Ray Bradbury and watching old interviews with him on YouTube.  What stands out most about this prolific writer (who not only wrote novels and short stories, but many plays and screenplays as well) is his incredible zest for writing and for life, and how he constantly used one to fuel the other.  To him, writing was inspired play, and he kept the words "Don't Think" taped above his typewriter to remind himself the importance of trusting his intuition and subconscious.

For those who are not familiar with Ray Bradbury, he was the great mind behind such books as Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, The Halloween Tree, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and over 300 published short stories.  He wrote a number of plays, one of my favorites being The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, and wrote the screenplay for John Huston's classic film adaptation of Moby Dick.
Here's the man himself, Mr. Ray Bradbury
I have been trying to write like Mr. Bradbury lately.  No, I don't mean by copying his style or his themes or plot ideas--- I mean, I have been trying to reconnect with the youthful sense of play in an attempt to write with zest again.

It's not always easy.  Writing can be difficult.  It's frustrating when the words won't come, when a sentence or a line of dialogue doesn't read the way you want it to, when you simply can't seem to communicate your thoughts, or when the tank seems completely empty, devoid of any ideas one could possibly care about.  

When this happens, one could do worse than to follow those two words of advice taped up on Mr. Bradbury's desk:  DON'T THINK.

While writing certainly flexes intellectual muscles, it is truly at its most rewarding when it is an emotionally engaging experience.  When the play or story you want to write comes flying out, and you laugh, love, and cry along with it.  If you have this investment, it is a safe bet that an audience may as well.  

When you're deep in the act of creation on a first draft, it is often beneficial to surf the tidal waves of inspiration and intuition, even if they seem dangerous.  Especially if they seem dangerous.  Too much thinking can kill a project before it has started to live.  Don't let that happen.  Remember, your brain is always there to switch back on for the act of rewriting.  

I can't tell you how many times I have to tell my mind to shut up (even now, writing this blog post, I've had to shush it more than once).  Every now and then, I close my eyes, take some deep breaths, and invite my characters to talk to me.  I visualize them, ask them questions.  They don't often steer me wrong.  Ray Bradbury once said that there is no need for writer's block, so long as you are willing to listen to your characters and your subconscious mind.  The more I read his work, the more I believe he is right.

So each day, for a few weeks now, I approach my notebook or computer, not with a sense of worry about what may come out today, but with a joyful anticipation of what I am going to create.  I am recapturing the "play" in "playwright".  

And I thank you, Ray Bradbury, for the inspiration.  

REMEMBER:  WHEN IN DOUBT, JUST STOP THINKING!  Breath, relax, and tell the story that needs to be told.

To learn more about my plays, CLICK HERE,  OR HERE, OR HERE, OR FINALLY HERE.

I've started a new blog!  I am writing a story a day for a year!  Each story will be between 100-250 words!  If you would like to read and follow, you can do so by CLICKING HERE.  

Monday, April 20, 2015

On Saying Goodbye to Your Character and Your Play Family

Greetings, and welcome to Theater is a Sport, my own little place on the internet to talk about all things theatrical.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and I'm a playwright, an actor, and a director.  I'm also an all-around theater geek, and proud of it.

Recently, a production of The Jungle Book I directed for the Center Theatre, my hometown theater, came to an end.  It has me thinking about when a show ends, and that feeling of letdown that we in the theater experience when saying goodbye to a character and cast of people who have become your family.  So, that's what I'm going to talk about today.

First, I'd like to share this quote from Daniel Day-Lewis, arguably one of, if not the best film actor of the last thirty years or so, about disengaging from a character:

"There's a terrible sadness. The last day of shooting is surreal. Your mind, your body, your spirit are not in any way prepared to accept that this experience is coming to an end. In the months that follow the finish of a film, you feel profound emptiness. You've devoted so much of your time to unleashing, in an unconscious way, some sort of spiritual turmoil, and even if it's uncomfortable, no part of you wishes to leave that character behind. The sense of bereavement is such that it can take years before you can put it to rest."

Now, perhaps we don't all  invest as much of ourselves when we do a play for the community theater or a school show, but, to be honest, I do, and I think Mr. Day-Lewis has described the feeling in the best way I've ever heard it described.


When you are putting on a play, there are weeks of rehearsal, often with people you may not know, or, other times, with a gang of actors you've performed with many times before.  As days go by, you learn to depend on one another, trust one another, complain about one another, praise one another, and, yes, love each other.  You may not always like all of your cast mates, but I do think you grow an indescribable bond with each of them.  After all, you are a group of people who have come together with the purpose of creating.  The act of creation is a powerful one, not to be taken lightly.  For weeks, you have sacrificed time to focus your energy with this group of people.  You have been pretending to be someone else to tell a story.  You have thought what it would be like this character, and, to some extent, whether you are a method actor or not, you have been doing your best to become this character, if only for a few hours a night, for the sake of the audience.  You invest feelings and actions that come from you, explore "as ifs" that get you thinking about your own life on this planet.  


It ain't easy to just shake off.  At least, it's not for everyone.  It's absolutely fine if you are a person who can shake it off--- in fact, you may be one of the lucky ones.  


For those who are more like me, folks who feel a terrible loss after a show closes, here's a few tips I have found helpful...


--- SAY GOODBYE TO YOUR CHARACTER:  Start a personal ritual of how you can say goodbye to a character.  Don't be concerned if it would appear silly to others or not.  It doesn't matter.  It's not for other people, it's for you and your character.  How you say goodbye is a private matter.  


---ALLOW YOURSELF TO GRIEVE AND "MISS IT":  There's not shame in missing a play.  There's no shame in wishing you were still up on that stage, giving your lines, playing your actions... it's an exhilarating and joyful experience.  You've made new friends, possibly lifelong friends.  It's okay to miss spending this time creating with them.


--- GET SOME REST:  You deserve it.  Take it easy for a few days.  Pamper yourself as much as you can.  


--- JUMP INTO A NEW CREATIVE ENDEAVOR:  I have found this to be very helpful.  Try out for another play!  Write some poetry or a short story!  Bake!  Knit!  Sing!  Anything that feels creative and lovely to you.  


And most of all, remember--- these moments in time you shared with your cast and the audiences who watched you, this shared experience lasts forever.  Energy lasts forever, so do these moments.  


And chances are, if you live in a small community, you're going to be acting with these people again sooner than you think.  


Please feel free to comment below with your tips on saying goodbye to a show or character! 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Ten Minute Plays With Two Characters for Youth and High School Groups

Greetings everyone, and welcome to Theater is a Sport.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and this is my blog where I talk about all things having to do with theater.

Today, since it's Friday, and I have nothing better to do, I thought I would indulge in a little self-promotion.  When I first started getting my plays published in 2010, a whole new world was opened up to me by my editor at Brooklyn Publishers.  He encouraged me to write ten minute plays, duets for two characters, monologues for a single actor or actress, and skits involving 3 or more performers.  I had never focused on writing ten minute plays before, but there is a definite market for them.  It's relatively easy and cheap to produce an evening of ten minute plays and offer a great deal of variety for the audience.  And, of course, there are speech and forensic teams at high schools all across the country that are looking for ten minute monologues and duets.

So I began to write some ten minute plays.  At first, it was quite a challenge, as my mind seems to always stretch to half hour one acts or full-length stories, but, once I started getting the hang of it, I really began to enjoy writing these short, self-contained plays, and consider many of them to contain some of my best writing.

Below are a list of some of my ten minute works, followed by a little description.  I have decided to share only the duets today, as they tend to be my most popular ten minute works, and are all suitable for either productions or forensic competitions.  Please click on the title to learn more about each play, or to even order it if you're of the mind.

BIG BAD WOLF GETS BUSTED!
When the Big Bad Wolf meets Little Red Riding Hood on the way to her grandmother's house, he gets a whole lot more than he bargained for!  This ten minute duet is a twisted take on a classic story, perfect for middle schools and high schools.

COMPLAINT DEPARTMENT
Jeffrey Butter just wants to return his cell phone.  Unfortunately, the Returns Department is run by a very bizarre young woman named Helen, who insists on calling in the "Complaint Department".  But, hey, complaining is good for the soul, right?  Another duet.

CONFESSIONS OF THE EIGHTH DWARF:  A BEHIND THE FAIRY TALE EXCLUSIVE!
In this ten minute play, the eighth dwarf, known as Conspiracy Dwarf, is on the popular talk show, Behind the Fairy Tale.  He plans to tell the TRUE story of Snow White!

DEATH AND PEZ
This is one of my most popular ten minute duets.  Reggie is a hard-working high school student, and is busy studying when Death knocks on his door.  The Grim Reaper (or "Necessary Reaper" as he likes to be called), teaches Reggie a little lesson about living life to the fullest, while Reggie tries to bargain for his life with his Pez collection.

END OF THE MOVIE
At 17, Derek has had enough.  He plans to leap off the railroad trestle in his hometown.  That's when he meets Kelly, an unorthodox Angel-in-Training.  Here's a testimonial from Gail Wagner, who directed the play for the Reedy Point Players:  "Another winner from Bobby Keniston!  This play won our theatre One Act Festival and was awarded an Ensemble award at the state level"  By the way, this is my most widely produced ten minute duet.

A FORGETFUL REMEMBRANCE
Colin and Mya, an elderly couple, sit on a park bench, reminiscing about their married life together. While Colin is forgetful about many things, there is no doubt about the love he has for his wife.  This is another popular ten minute duet of mine.  Here's a testimonial from Laura L. Abuhl, director for Trinity Christian School:  "This piece is touching, emotion, and yet full of hope.  Thank you, Bobby, for writing it."

Well, that's all for today.  Some time I'll do another blog post about my ten minute monologues and my ten minute pieces with three or more characters.  Feels right to focus just on the duets today.

Thank you for reading and considering my work.  I hope you have a great weekend!

As always, please feel free to comment below...


Thursday, April 16, 2015

My Two Proudest Moments as Director of "The Jungle Book"

Some of the Cast of "The Jungle Book" at the Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcroft, ME
Greetings all, and welcome to Theater is a Sport, my little place on the internet to talk about all things theater.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and you can find me here pretty much five days a week (Monday-Friday).  Why?  Well, because I love theater.

Since early February, I have been honored to be the director of "The Jungle Book" at the Center Theatre, right here in my home town of Dover-Foxcroft.  Every spring, the theater does an all-youth cast show, and, happily, I applied for the job to direct and was hired.

It's been a lot of work.  The cast is comprised of kids between the ages of 3 and 17.  Obviously, that's quite a big range!  It's been a challenge for me to find different ways to communicate with different cast members, and making myself understood by everyone.  There have been times when the process has tested my patience (I"m proud to say that I passed), and, of course, many other moments where it has given me great joy.  

I want to tell you about my two proudest moments as the director of "The Jungle Book".  And, the reason they are my two proudest moments, is because I had nothing to do with them.

Of course, as a director, I try to make sure the kids are prepared for anything.  But that's not always possible....

Last Sunday, during our matinee performance, all was going well.  In fact, it was my favorite of the three performances to date.  We were near the end of Act One, everything was smooth sailing, and I was watching the show from the back of the auditorium (in the shadows), and really enjoying it.  And then, the power went out.  

Black stage, during a big group scene with almost every character present on stage.  

To be honest, I expected within seconds for them to be worried, maybe even panicked, which I would have understood.  I expected some shouting out, some "What do we do?", or maybe a mass attempt to clear the stage, which, in the pitch black, could have been dangerous.  

But they stayed right there on stage.  I walked down to the foot of the stage, as did the stage manager, and whispered that they were doing a great job, and to just stay in place, and, when the lights came back on, to just keep going.

Fortunately, the lights came back on relatively quickly.  And the moment they did, BAM!, as if there were NO INTERRUPTION AT ALL, they kept going.  They picked it right back up with the same energy and focus as if they and the audience had not just been in the dark for a few minutes.  They didn't miss a beat.  

My second proudest moment was yesterday, when we spent the day performing for school children. The kids had FOUR (!) performances of the show yesterday for surrounding area schools.  Talk about a long day!  

Midway through the third play, something went wrong.  A character who was supposed to be onstage, didn't come on stage.  I figured they had just missed their entrance, but would run on.  The cast members onstage started improvising and ad-libbing, keeping the scene going,  I headed backstage to find there had been a bit of a costume mishap.  And all this while, the kids onstage kept going and going and going.  Without looking panicked, without breaking character, without freaking out.  They didn't give up.  They kept acting and improvising their hearts out, as if nothing in the least bit was out of place.  I'm telling you, I have never seen adults work to cover a scene so well!  It blew my mind.  

"Where did they learn how to do that?," I asked myself.

And then, when the mishap was sorted out, the actor went onstage, proud and confident as though nothing had been wrong.  Amazing. 

The thing is, I can't take the credit for it.  

And that is why it makes me very proud.

For those in the Dover-Foxcroft area, the final 3 performances of "The Jungle Book" are Friday, April 17th at 7 PM, and Saturday April 18th at 2 PM and 7 PM, at the Center Theatre.  You really should come check it out!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Filing Your Taxes When You're A Playwright

Greetings, and welcome to theater is a sport.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and this is my little piece of the internet to talk about all things theater.  Yay for me.  Got some thoughts, get a blog--- why not?

I tend to write about what's on my mind for this blog, and what's on my mind right now is taxes, since the filing deadline is tomorrow (April 15th).  Now, taxes and theater do not an exciting combination make, but, there are a few things I learned as a playwright for schools and community theaters (the "amateur" market, as it is annoyingly called) about filing taxes made from royalties that not everyone may know, so I figured I would pass it along today.

First off, if one of the companies you're published with pays royalties only once a year, then they will send you your tax information with your royalty payments.  Others that pay twice, or quarterly, will send them out with the last payment you get of the calendar year.  The forms they send you are 1099-Misc forms, for "Miscellaneous Income".  The only boxes that will have anything in them are the payers address, the payer's federal identification number, the recipient's identification number (SSN), and then box number 2 for Royalties.

Here's the important thing to remember from this blog:  nothing is withheld from your royalties.  No Federal Income Tax, no State Income Tax, no medicare or anything like that.  This fact, of course, makes a big difference in how one handles their money.

Since nothing is withheld from your royalties, that means Uncle Sam is going to want his cut come tax time.  I know some playwrights and other artists under the 1099-Misc will make quarterly payments to the IRS, a kind of withholding as soon as they receive their funds.  But most people I know, myself included, just set aside money as soon as we receive our royalties.  If I get a payment from one of my publishers in October, and say it's for $1,200.00, I will 20% and tuck it into an account that won't be touched, so that I can have it ready to pay my taxes if need be.  I found that 20% is a good enough number for me that covers the bases.  Of course, I'm very poor, so I don't have to pay too much in too often, but, you get the idea.  So, with this $1,200.00 check, I would take $240.00 of it and squirrel it away.  Not necessarily a great feeling at the time, but better than worrying about paying it down the road when it's already been spent on your new sunglasses and meal or two at a restaurant with your sweetheart.

I do the same with every check I receive for royalties.  A simple, clean 20%.

A few other things to think about:

Since being a playwright means you are your business, think about saving receipts for certain items that are for your business--- obviously paper, printer ink, writing supplies will add up over time.  Certainly any travel expenses, like to a theater conference to make connections and hawk your scripts should be able to be used as deductions.  I once heard that going to the theater as "inspiration" and "keeping abreast of market trends" can be deducted by playwrights, but in all honesty, I've never tried.  That would certainly be cool though, wouldn't it?

So, that's all I really have on the subject.  If you're a 1099-MISC like myself, and you have other suggestions, please comment below.  Hey, tell me I'm wrong, if you want to.  I've only done what has worked for me over the years, and would be happy to hear other ways of handling our precious money.

All the best to you, and thanks for reading!  Not the most glamorous post, but I hope you found it somewhat helpful.

Monday, April 13, 2015

RESPECT for the STAGE

The Center Theatre, Dover-Foxcroft, ME
Greetings, and welcome to Theater is a Sport, my own little place on the internet to talk about theater. My name is Bobby Keniston, and I'm an actor, writer, director, and all-around theater geek (and proud of it).

Today, I want to talk a little bit about "the stage".  Some are fancier than others, some are bigger than others, some higher off the auditorium level, and, of course, some theatrical performances are not even held on a stage.  Yet, however grand or humble your space may be, there is something important to respect about it:

IT'S WHERE THE STORY IS TOLD.

Up or down there, on your stage, or in your performing space, is a separate place from the auditorium or "house", whether your play breaks the fourth wall or not.  It is where the lights hit the actors and the actors tell the story.  In the wing, actors wait to come out as characters.

I guess what I'm trying to say, at the risk of sounding a bit silly or cliche, this space, this stage, is where the magic happens.  It is the focal point for the spectators to become one with the performers, and to be sucked into your story.

Actors must respect their magic space.

And here are some thoughts on how to do that:

1.  GREET YOUR SPACE.  I know this may sound way out there, but an exercise one of my professors in college had a cast do was to walk around the space and say "HI!" to everything we saw. This was also a bit of a vocal warm-up, as we were projecting the word "HI!"  Silly as this may sound, I found that it gave me an appreciation for the stage we were using that I never really had felt before.  It is good to know every little nook and cranny of the area you're performing in.

2.  IMAGINE THE FEET THAT HAVE "TREAD THE BOARDS" BEFORE YOU.  I have mentioned before in this blog that I was fortunate enough to have Lakewood Theater as my summer home growing up.  It is a historic theater in Madison, Maine, and the stage has been acted upon by many a famous person, including Humphrey Bogart, Betty White, John Travolta, Jessica Tandy, Geraldine Page, and Hume Cronyn, just to name a few.  It's a very old theater, and, when I'm performing there, I sometimes like to imagine these people who were there before me, waiting in the wings or in their dressing room, nervous and excited about going out on stage.  Even if the stage you are performing on is younger, and, perhaps without an "illustrious history", it doesn't really matter--- people who have come together to CREATE something have been waiting in the same wings you are now waiting in, or standing in the same spot delivering lines as you are now.

3.  ALWAYS BE IN CHARACTER WHEN YOU'RE ONSTAGE.  This is hard, of course, and all actors do their best, but, whatever you do, don't break the reality of your magic space by waving or winking to an audience member that happens to be your friend in real life.  You'll have plenty of time to talk to them later on, at a pub or a restaurant.  When you're onstage, you're onstage.  You're in a different world.

4.  APPRECIATE THE SPACE EVEN AFTER THE FINAL CURTAIN.  You have just spent a few hours helping to tell a story. You have worked hard to bring the audience into the world you and your fellow cast have created.  You have created an aesthetic to draw people in to a story.  Now that the show is over, don't just break that completely.  Change out of your costume before going into the house to meet your friends and family, and don't greet them by crossing the stage as if it were just another surface to walk across.  Come down into the house out of the stage doors, not from the stage itself.

I know this may all seem odd, to make such a big deal out of an area where one performs.  But I have found that being on stage, in character, in front of a captivated audience, to give some of the greatest joys and excitements of my life.  The stage has given me this.

The least we can give it in return is respect.

Thanks for reading Theater is a Sport.  If you want to learn more about me, click HERE, or HERE, or HERE .

And, while you're at it, you can check out my other blog, where I am attempting an experiment to write a short short story every day for a year, between 100 and 250 words.  It's an experiment I'm nervous about, but excited for, and really hope I can make it.  You can check out that blog by clicking HERE.

Thanks again, and feel free to comment below with your thoughts on theater in general, or respecting the stage specifically!

Friday, April 10, 2015

OPENING NIGHT

The Marquee

For the last seven weeks or so, my energies have been largely given to directing a production of "The Jungle Book", an adaptation by Vera Morris (one of the many pseudonyms for the prolific Tim Kelly), available through Pioneer.  Tonight is opening night.

I don't know about other directors, but, for me, a rehearsal process can feel like a lifetime, but, no matter what, when we get to opening night, it always seems to have blown by. Opening night really is a night for directors to freak out--- after all, aside from a few last notes and a pep talk, there is absolutely nothing we can do.  

The venue for this production is in my hometown of Dover-Foxcroft, ME, at a lovely place called the Center Theatre.  SOCP, the group attached to the theater that produces plays in-house, is an abbreviation for "Slightly Off-Center Players".  And this production is put on specifically for children performers to be a part of.  No adults in the cast whatsoever (though, one of the teenagers in the group is very close to eighteen).  I have children from the ages of 3-17 in the show, with most being in 9-12 area.  I've never done a play with that had one as young as three (as well as a five year old in the cast, too), and this play has presented new and interesting learning opportunities for me.  

I am, of course, proud of the kiddos hard work throughout this process.  It's not always easy being in a play, sitting still for direction, and focusing energy on the task at hand as opposed to letting fly in all directions.  In a sense, I have watched the play go from chaos, and evolve into the shape of what a play should be.

And here we are at opening night, and there are about a million and a half more things I would like to impart to the cast, but, given the opportunity, probably couldn't think of more than a handful.  Remember not to turn your back to the audience.  Don't block one another in the group scenes.  Don't upstage your fellow actors or yourself.  Keep your hands out of any pockets.  Keep your feet still.  Keep the volume up.  No matter what, STAY IN CHARACTER.  Things I have told them many times already, with varying levels of success, but still want to keep reminding them before an audience sits down to watch them.  

I will give them a pep talk tonight to tell them how proud I am of them, and how if they keep their energy up and believe in themselves and the hard work they've done, then they will soar.  And all of this is true.  And then, they will go backstage, I will be in the auditorium or talking to people in the lobby, or going outside and freaking out a bit.  I'll most likely stand at the back of the auditorium as the play is going on, and try not to pace, because I don't want to distract the kids, and as soon as the lights go up, part of me will have a nervous breakdown.  Not because I don't believe in the kids.  But because I know that there is nothing for me to possibly do any more to help them.  And that's a hard thing to let go of.  

The nervous breakdown will subside in a minute or two, and, before you know it, the show will be over, and I'll be telling the kids what a great job they did, yet warning them not to get over-confident because we still have a lot of performances.  I will look at the other adults on the crew, and I'm sure we'll all smile and say, "They did it," and then, "We did it." 

At every point in a rehearsal process, a director most likely asks themselves, "Why do I put myself through this."  And after tonight, after opening night, that questions is immediately forgotten.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Dress Rehearsal

Greetings ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to theater is a sport.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and this is a little piece of the internet that belongs to me, where I talk about all things theater.

Dress rehearsals are on my mind today, because, well, tonight, I have dress rehearsal for a production of The Jungle Book I have been directing for the last seven weeks or so in my home town of Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, for my home town community theater, The Slightly-Off Center Players.  I have twenty-four kids between the ages of 3 and 17 in the cast, my charges, my students, my actors.  And, after tonight, the show no longer belongs to me--- it belongs to them (and the stage managers, of course).

Dress rehearsals can be painful for a director, and they can be joyous, and they can be stressful, or a huge relief, or all of these feelings and more at once.  It is the last chance for a director to make any major changes through notes.  Theoretically, it is the last time that a director can even stop the rehearsal to make changes if need be...

REALLY TRY NOT TO DO THAT.

I'm going to really try not to stop and make any adjustments tonight.  It's difficult.  There will be moments that my brain is screaming for me to stop, I know this, but my goal is to not do it, to write down whatever I need to say, and maybe run a part after ward if necessary, but to not stop them during the run.

Why?  The cast needs to run the show, and they need to run it in performance mode.  They need a run-through where the safety net isn't so obviously there.  They have to know that, no matter what happens, they must find a way to keep going.

This is particularly tough when you are directing children, believe me.  You have spent all this time being their guide, their teacher, and hopefully a mentor of some sort. It's not easy to watch them up on stage if something goes wrong and they are obviously uncomfortable.  But, hey, it's dress rehearsal.  The time to learn how handle it is now, not when there are over a hundred people in the audience.

When you're a cast member in a play, you might feel a pang of loss when the show reaches its final performance and, alas, you say goodbye to a character.  For a director, the dress rehearsal is kind of like the last night for them.  Certainly I will be there opening night (and, for this show, for every performance), and I will be giving pep talks, and maybe tiny notes for anything glaring that hasn't been fixed, but, essentially once the curtain goes up on opening night, my work is done and over with.  There is nothing more I can do.  Once the show begins in front of an audience, well, I can no longer do anything to help.

And I NEVER go backstage to talk to a cast at intermission.  Well, almost never.

I truly believe that a director has to separate from the show in order to give it wings.  That's why a dress rehearsal is so difficult... you have so much more you want to say, but the time is running out, and, you just have to hope what you do say will sink in, be implemented, and make the show work as best as it can.

As I director, I want a great show.  But I want it to be a great show not for me or my personal glory, but for them.  I want them to be proud of it, feel safe and prepared.  But that will not be up to me tomorrow night when the curtain opens.  Tonight is my last chance, in a three hour rehearsal window, to finish my job up in a way that will help make them shine.

All while not stopping them unless I absolutely have to.

No pressure.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Joy of Acting


Greetings and welcome to theater is a sport, my own little place on the internet.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and, if you've ever wondered what I look like, see the picture above and add a beard.

Since January, I've been very busy directing.  I directed a play I wrote called Waiting to be Probed:  A Love Story, and I am currently in upweek for a production of The Jungle Book, starring 24 children between the ages of 3 and 17.

I love to direct.  It's a great feeling, corralling a group of people together with the similar aim of creating something.  I love to have a vision realized, and changed and added to by the input of other creators.  I love the responsibility of making stage pictures and moments that will hopefully be found compelling and interesting to watch.

Having said this, I'm getting pretty tired, and I'm looking forward to doing some acting this summer. I have been cast in three productions at my summer home, the historic Lakewood Theater in Madison, ME, and I can't wait to just focus on building my characters, and being responsible in my own little way to help tell the story we are telling.  I have the distinct pleasure of playing E.K. Hornbeck in one of my favorite plays of the last 100 years, Inherit the Wind (easily in my top 20), Mr. Applegate, the devil, in Damn Yankees, and Cookie in the new musical comprised of Gershwin tunes, Nice Work if You Can Get It.  

After spending a good deal of time directing and writing, acting feels almost like a vacation.  Please don't get me wrong--- acting is hard work, and a craft I have the utmost respect for.  What I mean to say is that acting, in comparison to directing, is pure playground.  It's giddy exploration.  You are responsible to yourself and to your scene partners.

You needn't worry about the bigger picture, the grander vision.  Your responsibility as an actor is to bring your character to life, and, in doing so, telling your piece of the story.

I'm often surprised when I see actors worrying about the bigger picture, criticizing a director's choices, things like that.  I get it, of course--- every person on stage and off, has opinions about how things should be.  I suppose I have even been that way in the past.  But, now, for me, at the community theater level, I am simply grateful to act and to not have all the aesthetic choices left up to me.  Certainly, as an actor, I have strong opinions of how my character should look, move, talk, react and behave.  But I have no interest in figuring out the greater problems of how to stage everyone, unless that's the job I've been hired to do.

As a director, particularly as you get closer to performance, you have to be ready for questions constantly, from actors, designers, volunteers, the producer, pretty much everyone.  And when you're working with children, you have to be ready for a great number of those questions to feel like a non sequitur, but still try to answer it as seriously as possible, because, while you may not understand their concern or where it is coming from, it is a genuine concern for them.

It's nice not to have to have the answer to all of those questions for a while, and just focus on yourself, When I got my new scripts, the first thing I did was highlight my lines and read through all of them for the first of what will wind up being many, many times.  Since Inherit the Wind is the first one up, I have already starting learning lines, searching for a character arc, doing research on the real Scopes trial and H.L. Mencken, who my character is loosely based on (or inspired by).  It's the fun kind of homework that comes with breathing life into a character--- analyzing a script, looking for actions, creating a physicality and a rhythm of speaking.  It all feels like play to me, which is a beautiful thing.  I don't need to worry about how the lights are going to create the transition from the courtroom to the town square... not my job, and I'm glad it's not.

I give my all to directing when I'm directing.  I keep so much in my head, that sometimes it feels like it might leak out between my ears.  It's a joy, but a joy that comes with a great deal of pressure.

Acting is a joy with its own pressures, of course, but the pressures are not as far reaching, and the rewards are far more immediate and sometimes quantifiable.  You see, a director's work, when done well, should almost be invisible, where, an actors' work is right there in plain sight for all the audience to see and hear and applaud.

Acting is creation without worry of the budget or how much dough the show rakes in for the theater. Acting is being there, and giving your all for rehearsals and performances, but not for production meetings

Yes, acting is my vacation.  I mean, after all, who wants to sit still and relax during a vacation when you can be creating something?

Thanks for reading my blog.  Feel free to leave comments about your feelings and experiences with acting and directing below.  And if you like my blog, please feel free to follow it!

Until next time...

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Playwrights for the Youth and High School Markets


Welcome to Theater is a Sport, my humble place on the internet to talk about all things theater. My name is Bobby Keniston, and I often introduce myself as a playwright for the youth and high school markets, and I'm telling the truth when I do.  I have thirty or so plays published for young people (with many that have crossover appeal for community theaters), and you can learn more about them by clicking HERE, or HERE, or HERE, or HERE.  

Now that I've gotten that self-promotion out of the way, today I would like to talk about playwrights for the youth, high school, and community theater markets.  Not just because I am one, but also because, to be frank, I don't think writers in this market get much attention or acclaim, but I'm convinced that what we do is not only vitally important to the survival of all theater in general, but important contributions to our overall culture at large.  And no, I don't just believe this so I can feel better talking about what I do at Thanksgiving while other family members have promotions and raises to go on about in conversation.

So what is a playwright for the youth and high school markets?  Well, quite simply, it is a person who writes plays to be performed either for or by children and/or high school students.  These are two types of what are known as "amateur markets", simply meaning that they are plays written for non-professionals to perform. I don't love the term "amateur market"  In truth, I've seen so-called "amateur" productions, both from schools and community theaters, that could really knock anyone's socks off, so there's nothing wrong with being an inspired amateur onstage, and yet, I find the term a bit condescending.  

So who decides what makes a play for the "amateur market"?  Well, once again, it simply means that it is a play that is designed mostly to have non-professional productions, and, perhaps, has never had a professional production (there are, of course, exceptions to this).  Yet, on the other, hand, many schools and community theaters do plays outside of the amateur market all the time.  For example, The Actor's Nightmare by Christopher Durang has been a very popular one act with high schools for years, though it was written to be a companion piece with his longer one act Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All For You, to complete an evening of theater for an Off-Broadway run.  And, there's Almost, Maine, by John Cariani, which is now one of the most produced plays by schools and community theaters across the United States, and it started out Off-Broadway and in regional theaters.  Not to mention the plethora of schools who have performed plays by Neil Simon, or productions of Our Town by Thornton Wilder.  So, who decides?  The writers, in terms of their intended audiences, and the publishers, in terms of how they market the play.

The types of plays and playwrights I'm talking about, who focus a great deal of their energy on the youth and high school markets, are the ones who are found in the catalogs sent out to drama teachers across the world every fall and spring.  The names that keep popping up in the glossy tomes mailed out by Pioneer, Eldridge, Brooklyn Publishers, Playscripts, Inc. (in the youth and high school section), Heuer, Big Dog Plays, Dramatic Publishing and so forth.  Growing up, my father was a drama teacher and director for middle schools, and I would always look through these catalogs.  names like Tim Kelly, Craig Sodaro, Pat Cook, and many others would pop up over and over again.  I knew their names long before I had ever heard of Harold Pinter, Eugene O'Neill, or even Neil Simon.

Tim Kelly published over 350 plays in his life, and he died at the age of 67.  While he was alive, his plays were performed over 6,000 times a year, and were translated into almost a dozen languages.  His easy-to-produce, flexible cast plays were everywhere.  Google his name, and you will see a headline from when he passed away by Playbill magazine:  TIM KELLY, PROLIFIC PLAYWRIGHT FOR AMATEUR MARKET, DEAT AT 67.  Mr. Kelly was thought to be the most published playwright in America.  He studied at Emerson College, and got his MFA in Playwriting from Yale.  He talked a great deal about making a living writing plays for the "Way, way, way off Broadway markets".  He also admitted that critics would never like him or take him seriously.

Here's the deal, though:  how many of us read The Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham before we ever read a novel?  I would say most of us.  How many of us read books like Charlotte's Web and Harriet the Spy before we ever read Great Expectations?  Nowadays, which is a kid most likely to read first--- the new Magic Tree House chapbook or The Lord of the Flies?  One might say there's a natural progression in a reader's life from Flat Stanley to the works of Beverly Cleary to mid-grade readers to Catcher in the Rye to Dickens, Tolstoy and Balzac.  And chances are, young folks tackle Goosebumps before they jump into Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe.

I cite these examples in the progression of a readers life for one simple person:  no one calls young people "amateur readers".  Even Young Adult fiction is called just that--- Young Adult.  And while writers like Beverly Cleary, Louis Sachar, John Green, and Judy Blume may never be mentioned in the same reverential way people talk about Philip Roth, John Updike, or Joyce Carol Oates, their work is still celebrated, and people are able to glean the importance of work for young readers, and accept them by and large as literature.  There's even a National Book Award given each year for a book designed for young readers.

In my opinion, and completely from my perspective, I don't believe, outside of drama teachers, that people truly understand what goes into writing a play for the youth and high school markets.  We don't just dive in because we figure it will be easier to write for kids than adults. It's not.  People can argue about the merits of a Tim Kelly play, and I may grant that many follow a certain formula, but, speaking as a playwright, it is not easy to write a play with speaking parts for at least 20 kids, that can also be doubled if necessary, and to move this story through a dramatic arc with simple settings, and appropriate dialogue.  It is not a simple task.  It takes work, creativity and imagination.

Those of us who write for the youth and high school markets do so because we believe in the importance of theater in education.  Just as a readers' life progresses as they grow up, so does a performers'. Plays for young audiences are important.  Young actors need scripts that were written for them, with them in mind.  So do community theater groups.  My name might never be mentioned next to Harold Pinter or Edward Albee's, but I would like to think my work is one of many gateways that inspire a kid to grow up and read these men's fine work.

I am hereby suggesting these alternatives for the term "amateur market":  how about "the thespian-in-training market"?  Or maybe "Future Stars market?"

Perhaps we can just call it the "Youth and High School Market" and realize that it's just as important as any other market?

Thanks for reading.  If you have any thoughts, comments, or suggestions for alternatives to "amateur maket", please feel free to share them in the comments section below.

Monday, April 6, 2015

A Great Full-Length Play for School and Community Theaters

One of the scenes from Bees are in the Park, performed as a stand alone piece at the Delaware Theatre Arts Festival by the Reedy Point Players

Greetings everyone, and welcome to theater is a sport, my little place on the internet to talk about theater.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and I am a playwright, an actor, and a director, but, most of all, a full-on theater geek.

Today, I'm not feeling incredibly well, so I thought it might be a good day for a blog post focusing on a little self-promotion. I mean, what the heck?  I have the blog, I might as well use it to promote myself from time to time, why not?

A play of mine I'm very proud of, but which doesn't seem to get a whole lot of productions, is a full-length comedy drama I wrote called Bees are in the Park, the title, of course, coming from an old rhyme my sisters and I used to shout out when we were kids--- "Flies are in the city, bees are in the park, the boys and girls are kissing in the d-a-r-k dark, dark, DARK!"

A VERY popular play for school and community theaters these days is a play called Almost, Maine by John Cariani.  I was even in a production myself a few years back.  I am not surprised that it is so widely produced with school and community theaters--- it's funny, has heart, has colorful characters and dialogue, but, most importantly, it is easy to stage and easy to rehearse.  Being a collection of ten-minute, somewhat interlocking vignettes, most with only two characters at time, is kind of a dream for a community theater director.  It's easy to get everyone you need to a rehearsal when you're only rehearsing a two person scene, after all.  And then, it's just a matter of putting it together.  It also is very flexible--- you can double or even triple up some of the parts in the play, or, you can have different actors for each scene. All of these factors, along with the simple settings, make a play very easy to produce, particularly for schools and community theaters with a limited budget.

I wrote Bees are in the Park to be a simple to rehearse, easy-to-produce play, in the same vein, though, believe it or not, I was well in the works of developing it before I ever heard of Almost, Maine.  And, I need to be clear--- it is a VERY different play, with a different feel to it, and very different characters.  However, Bees are in the Park  is a series of interlocking ten to fifteen minute scenes, all taking place at the same park on the same day.   Here's the official synopsis from Brooklyn Publishers website, who so kindly published the piece:

"A beautiful park on a beautiful day is the setting for this full-length interlocking collection of vignettes:  a would-be stepdad and a grumpy little girl, an overprotective mother and her special needs son, a teenage boy trying to tell a girl that he loves her for the first time, and an old couple looking back on their long and lovely life together are the characters who make up this richly textured, poignant, and funny play. Easy to stage, with strong opportunities for character study with young actors, or a perfect community theater piece, Bees are in the Park has something for everyone."

There are seven scenes and epilogue.  They are as follows:

SCENE 1:  SUZY AND THE WOULD-BE STEPDAD in which a young man is taking a little girl to the park.  He used to date the girl's mother, but she broke up with him, and he has missed being a father figure to the little girl.

SCENE 2:  SIMPLE ARITHMETIC in which a teenage boy tries to tell a teenage girl that he is in love with her, but is afraid of ruining their friendship.

SCENE 3:  A FORGETFUL REMEMBRANCE, in which in elderly couple look back on their married life together.  This scene is a real tear-jerker, and may be one of my favorite scenes I've ever written.

ACT TWO:

SCENE 1:  NURSING, in which the would-be stepdad talks to the mother of a special needs boy, as their charges play in the sandbox.

SCENE 2:  SANDBOX, in which Suzy and Albert, two little kids, make a connection while playing.

SCENE 3:  KNOWING WHAT'S RIGHT, in which the teenage girl from Act One, Scene 2, talks with the elderly man from Act One, Scene 3, and he gives her some wise advice.

SCENE 4:  THE NEW MATH, in which the teenage boy gets his answer from the teenage girl.

EPILOGUE:  TOO MUCH, in which the would-be stepdad says goodbye to Suzy after their day at the park.

What I tried to accomplish with this play was to create scenes that have their own individual arc, but also contribute to form a dramatic arc for the piece as a whole.  It is a play about different kinds of love and connection, and I believe, has feelings any audience can relate to.  The play runs about 90 minutes (the Brooklyn website says 70, but I think that's a bit low), and should be performed with an intermission.  It can be performed with as few as 2 males and 2 females, or with as many as 4 males and 4 females.

What I may be most proud of in this play is that it examines the world through different age groups: children, teenagers, a man and a woman in their early thirties, and an elderly couple. I recommend that the parts of the 7 year-old kids be played by actors who are older, or even teenagers, pretending to be little kids.  I believe this offers an excellent opportunity for young actors and community theater performers to work on character study.

With simple settings, it really is a play that any budget could perform.  The park can be as simple or as complex as the director likes--- it's the characters and stories that sell the play.

Here's a testimonial form a school group who did the play.  It comes from Martin Kois, the director for Sierra Lutheran High School:

"This is a perfect play for a smaller theater group, with opportunities to explore many different aspects of acting all at once and get real, meaningful drama without requiring elaborate set or costume.  This show is amazing and has incredible heart!"

I tell you, it was a good day when I read that comment on the website.

I wrote this play with a great deal of love in my heart--- I know it sounds silly or sappy to say, but it's true.  I wrote this play with love, in the hopes of being honest about it, and avoiding sappiness.  If you are interested in reading more about the play, and reading a free sample, you can visit its page on the Brooklyn Publishers website by CLICKING HERE.  Again, the only thing I would say, is that the play is longer than listed there, running about 90 minutes.

Thank you for taking the time to read about a play I am very proud of.  Please check it out if you are interested.  And, if it were to become a big hit, and be produced by hundreds of schools and community theaters across the country... well, I'd definitely be okay with that.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Playwriting Contests and the Myth of Exposure

WINNER!!!!!!!

That's a nice feeling, isn't it? To be a winner.  Whether it's $20 from a scratch off or first prize in a pie-eating contest, it feels nice to win something.  

For playwrights, it is an especially nice feeling, since, to be honest, we tend to lose so often. The writer isn't really the top of the food chain, unless you already have a name like Mamet, Albee, or Kushner.  

Oh, boy.  I almost hesitate to write this post, because I know plenty of folks will disagree with me. But hey, no one's forcing me to share my thoughts on a public platform, right?  So, if you read this post and disagree with me, feel free to post in the comments below (I ask only that you keep it clean, as this is intended to be an educational blog).

Every year, playwrights all over the world enter playwriting contests, hoping against hope that, unlike the slush pile of submissions at theaters and producers' offices, their play will have a chance to stand out and even to win.  And we all need a win now and again.  And after all, if you're paying an entry (reader's) fee, you know you work is going to be read and thoughtfully considered, right?

Let's not get ahead of ourselves.

I used to enter a great deal of playwriting contests, but I don't anymore.  The biggest reason is that I can't afford to.  Seriously.  Even some of the smaller entry fees ($10 or $15) add up, if you're entering a whole bunch of them.  And I have found that the prizes offered are just not secure enough for me or my checking account to take the risk.  

Before I offend anyone, let me first say that there are number of great playwriting contests out there which offer a great deal to a playwright, and are definitely worth considering submitting to.  There are theaters that are genuinely looking for new and upcoming talent, and exciting, fresh plays, and hold these contests in the hopes of discovering an unheard voice in the business. I salute these contests.  

Many playwriting contests, however, are simply fundraisers for the theater or group that is holding it. There is nothing wrong with this. There are plenty of worse fundraisers for a theater to have than one which offers a chance for an unproduced playwright to get their moment in the spotlight.  And I will be the first to admit that theaters need all the fundraising they can get, and, in order to keep theater solvent and relevant in our society, theaters, especially regional, little and community theaters, need to keep their doors open.  

But not to the extent where artists and writers are disrespected and, quite frankly, cheated.  

There was a contest I used to enter for a college theater company, that offered a first prize of $1,000.00 and a production, and offered a second prize of $500, and a third of $250, with possible productions for the runner ups.  I found this to be a contest worth entering, though I never won, and the reading fee was $25. I imagine this contest was flooded with submissions, as the prizes were pretty impressive, and the college was a moderately famous one with a well-known theater program. I encourage playwrights to enter such contests, I really do.

More and more, as I look through the list of playwriting contests I find on Reddit and other places, I see theaters offering a contest with a reading fee, where the prize is a production of  the winning play. If you look closely at some of these contests guidelines, they reserve the right not to select a winner, even.  But, if you do win, your play is produced at their theater, and you gain exposure for your play! Isn't that great?  And, now, you can add an "AWARDS/HONORS" section to your resume!  But does it say that you will receive any royalties from this prize-winning production?

I'm really not trying to be flip or sarcastic here, I promise.  The one award I have ever won through my playwriting, is, in fact, listed proudly on my resume, and, is included in cover letters for submissions to theaters and producers.  As I said before, we all need a win from time to time. However, what playwrights should also want, all of the time, is for their work and career to be treated like any other profession, and to be compensated accordingly.  I'm not saying a playwriting contest is only worth entering if the grand prize is $1000 or even $500.  What I'm saying is, in order to be a professional playwright, you need to be treated like a professional playwright and be paid for your work. It's not unreasonable to expect this. 

But what about exposure, you may ask?  Yes, playwrights need exposure for their work, this is true. And, yes, perhaps there are some circumstances where giving your work away for free in exchange for exposure for you play could be wise. If your play is going to be produced in an Off-Broadway venue, or a regional theater with a great reputation, reviewed by the New York Times and other major publications, then, yeah, that may just be a contest worth submitting to for no financial recompense. However, it is my belief that major venues are actually the types of places, by and large, that respect their artists enough to pay them what they deserve.

But any exposure is good exposure, right?  I mean, it doesn't have to be a huge venue to make it worthwhile.

I don't know.  Yes, it is good for playwrights to be produced.  I won't deny that. We all want to see our work performed, or at least know our work is being performed.  And yes, we should all support the little and community theaters across the country.

Still, it is my firm belief that we should support the arts only to the extent that an arts organization supports artists. Why should writers work for free when no one else is expected to?  Why should I support an arts organization that doesn't support my work, or value it enough to write a check for it? Is this organization really worth supporting, if they pay a professional in the industry with simply "exposure"?

My answer is no.  You can't claim to be a supporter of the arts if you're not supporting artists.  I repeat myself only because I believe this strongly.  

Unfortunately, it looks like I am in the minority.  Plenty of theaters receive enough submissions to such contests, because there are so many playwrights who are willing to exchange their work for exposure. Again, I understand this.  It's like submitting your short story to a literary journal that pays you in complimentary copies.  Hey, at least your work is out there, right?  And playwrights face so much rejection, an inherent desperation can grow inside, a need to see their work on a stage, a need to be validated, to be good enough. Only, unlike literary journals, there's no way to gauge what the "circulation" or audience size your production is going to be exposed to.  And, honestly, chances are, no one with any clout in the industry is going to be watching, who will then call you up and say, "Hey, I saw a production of your play at the So-and-So community theater... let's take it Broadway!"

I think my major problem with playwrights giving their work away for free is that, I feel, in some ways,  it strips away the validity of playwriting as a career, as work that is created to make a living. It gives a craft and art form that I take very seriously the scent of a pursuit followed by a an eternal hobbyist, one who is happy enough to sit at the kids' table and have their report card hung on the fridge with a "good job" magnet. Playwrights who are willing to give their work away for free devalues all playwrights who want to make a living. Personally, I think my work is worth more than a bumper sticker for my parents car that reads "PROUD PARENT OF A PRODUCED (BUT STONY BROKE) PLAYWRIGHT". 

So often, playwrights bemoan the state of affairs in the industry, how impossible it feels to get ahead, to make a living doing what we love to do. Perhaps the beginning of change comes with playwrights, en masse, believing in their work enough to expect payment.  At least something.  Say no too much and you'll starve, but they gotta give us something. Look at the reality of giving away your work to a contest, and even paying to give it away, and ask, Does this really validate my pursuit as an artist? Does this really make me feel like a winner?

If it does, go for it.  However, I would recommend to any playwright to save the money they would spend on contest entry fees this year, and instead, put that money into producing your play yourself. Make friends at local community theater, see if they'll let you use the space for a 50/50 split at the door. Get your actor buddies to help you out.  I promise you, more than likely, the experience will be just as valuable as winning a small contest somewhere.  You'll get to see your work live, in front of an audience, and you'll have more control over how it's presented.  You may not make a profit, but even if you break even or lose a few bucks, the experience will be worth it (I can say this, because it always has been for me).  Invite every newspaper in the surrounding areas to review it.  Create your own press kit. Blast it all over social media.  Make audience feedback cards, the works.  Doing this makes the production all about your play, and not about a theater's fundraiser.  And you get the joy of knowing you were proactive, and the final result is that your play had a production and you can see what works and what doesn't.  This is your work.  Don't wait for "them" to discover it and give it "exposure".  Expose yourself.  (Okay, that doesn't sound quite right...)

Again, I'm not saying do away with contests altogether.  Just read the fine print.  Make sure it is a contest that respects you.  Because if it doesn't, it's not a contest worthy of your respect or your work.  


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Understanding Shakespeare

The man himself
Greetings and welcome to Theater is a Sport.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and this blog is my own little piece of the internet to talk about all things theater.

I was troubled the other day when I saw a fairly new edition of a Shakespeare textbook of the play Romeo and Juliet. If you opened it up, on even number pages you found Shakespeare's text.  On the odd, adjacent page, you had Shakespeare's text translated into more colloquial English. At the risk of sounding like an old timer, the Shakespeare editions I approve of are either the Oxford or the Norton's (with an edge to the Norton's).  Yes, this contains footnotes, but it never attempts to "translate" a text that is already written in English! I can't help but think that teaching kids from such a "we've done all the work for you" text will only guarantee that the students will NEVER have an appreciation or an understanding of Shakespeare. To me, this method of teaching makes about as much sense as assigning the Cliff Notes for Great Expectations instead of the novel itself.

Needless to say, this makes me sad. And I'm sure Orwell is somewhere in the Afterlife weeping.

Perhaps this is controversial, and I certainly don't want to offend hard-working English teachers across the country, but, quite frankly, I don't believe high schools, by and large, teach Shakespeare very well.  There is a certain myth of terror when a student approaches Shakespeare--- "I'll never understand it!," and, in my experience, little is done to shatter this myth for students.  And it boils down to this one thing:

SHAKESPEARE IS TAUGHT AS LITERATURE.

This is all well and good, and, indeed, Shakespeare's plays are literature.  The problem arises that Shakespeare is taught in the same way English teachers teach novels that are great literature.  And therein we find the problem.

PLAYS AND NOVELS ARE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT LITERARY MEDIUMS

Yes, these days, I can sit down and read a play by Shakespeare simply for literary enjoyment, because I've been reading his plays for years and have an understanding of them.  I never may have had this understanding, however, if it hadn't been for my high school English teacher Dawn MacPherson Allen.  When we read Shakespeare in her class, she took the class time to have us read them out loud.  And not just a portion of them out loud.  We read them out loud start to finish.

Shakespeare, like all playwrights, wrote his plays to be performed.  His language is meant to pass through an actor's tongue.  It was written to be visual and physical, and, ultimately, provoke feeling from the audience, whether it be laughter or tears.

Analyzing Shakespeare's plays in terms of literary techniques and such is certainly valuable toward an understanding of the text, but, in my humble opinion, the best way to understand Shakespeare's work is to study it as an actor and a director would study it.  Want to get a grasp on Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech?  Tackle it as an actor would.  How does it relate to me?  How would I act if my father had died, and my mother married my uncle shortly thereafter?  How would I feel if everyone I thought I could trust suddenly seems to be playing me?  What are the big "as ifs" in my own life that help me see what Hamlet is going through?

And then, by the very action of speaking the language (that, yes, is ENGLISH), with a focus on trying to perform it, a student will begin to internalize the language, and the more they practice, the more the language feels like an extension of their own.

No, not every student in an English class is destined to be a great classical actor, but that's no the point.  After all, not every student in an English class is destined to be a great literary scholar, either. The point is to expose Shakespeare's writing to students in the way it was meant to be consumed.  As a play.  Will some students still understand it better than others?  Certainly.  But my guess is that at least more students will be ACTIVELY ENGAGED in figuring him out, instead of letting some watered down text tell them what Shakespeare is trying to say.  AND THIS IS WHAT WE WANT. Students learning to figure out what great works of literature and great works of theater mean to them.

I humbly submit that Shakespeare should not only be taught by English teachers, but by Drama teachers.  I also humbly submit that everyone who wants to be a high school English teacher should be required to take an acting in Shakespeare class for college credit.  (Of course, I think all teachers should have to take an acting class or two anyway, but that's for another blog post.)

Thank you, Mrs. Allen, for teaching me to appreciate Shakespeare by reading him out loud. You've made my world a much richer place because of it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Taking Matters in Your Own Hands: Self-Producing and its Benefits for Playwrights

The Original Cast of  The Re-Programming of Jeremy rehearsing

Greetings everyone, and welcome to Theater is a Sport.  Yesterday, I talked about writing a play with a message, and how and why I wrote my play The Re-Programming of Jeremy.  If you would like to read that post before reading this one, you can click HERE.  Today, is kind of a Part 2 about the life of a play of mine that means so much to me, and still remains unpublished.

So, to pick up:  I had written the first draft of Jeremy, and rather quickly.  I let a few special people read it, and then sent it to an editor of mine to see about publication.  Yes, I know that might seem strange--- in the professional theater, writers always seek productions long before publication.  I must confess, though, that, as a writer for the amateur market mostly (schools and community theater), most of my plays are published before there is ever a production of them.  It's just the nature of my little slice of the business.

In any case, the editor didn't want to publish it.  While he admitted it was a good play, he thought the subject matter a bit too dark, and way too controversial for the school market.  I disagreed, and still do--- gay teen suicide is something that happens. Bullying is something that happens. Misguided religious zealotry is something that happens.  And plays can be a great way to open up discussion about all of these matters.

I did have some doubts, though, not about the subject matter, but the play itself.  Did the structure work?  Would this series of monologues actually play, or would it drag?  And really, with questions such as these, there's only one way to find the answer.  You have to see it in production.

So I decided to produce the play myself.  Something I had never done before.  And, of course, I had no start up capital, and no real idea on how to go about it, but, what the heck?  I had to see the show on its feet, and do my best to get it in front of an audience.

My first step was to create a little production company, which was really a "Bobby Keniston Doing Business As" company.  I went to the Town Office and filled out the paperwork, so I could open a bank account for my "business".  I opened it with $25, the minimum amount out of my own pocket. And then I got to work.

I figured, since I had no money to pay anyone, I would direct the play myself.  I am blessed to have a great number of actor friends I have met over the years with my experiences in community theater, and I asked people to read the script and to be involved with the show.  I was elated that so many said yes.  The original cast was Alyson Saunders, Michael Pullen, Hannah Weston, Sue Burke, Lucas Bret Boffin, and Raelene Keniston (my mom).  I had difficulty finding someone to play the role of Jeremy's father, so, I wound up playing the part, because time was ticking away.

The theater I grew up at, which was literally my summer home all through my youth, and now, my adult years, is a beautiful, historic place called Lakewood Theater.  (You should CLICK HERE to learn more about them, after you read this post).   The general manager is Jeffrey Quinn, who has watched me grow up, and is a dear friend of mine.  Even still, I was nervous to approach him with a proposition.  You have to understand, one of the most expensive parts of mounting your own production can be rental fees for a stage or space.  And Lakewood Theater, which was designed way back in the day to be a Broadway style venue in Maine, would normally cost quite a bit of money to rent.  Much smaller venues, even in Maine, can charge up to $500 a night.  So, I was nervous about making my pitch to Jeff, which was basically, "Hey, Jeff, after Lakewood's last show of the season, can I use the space before you close up for the winter?  I'll split the door with you, 50/50."  He told me yes immediately.  I will always be grateful to him for that.

It helped tremendously that the play was simple to stage--- all we had to do was represent seven different spaces with a piece of furniture and a few props.  At the last minute, a cast member got a friend to run the spotlight for us, and we were good to go.

Though I had never done it before, I jumped into marketing.  I emailed someone I knew from the Morning Sentinel, a newspaper out of Central Maine, and he got me in touch with a reporter who came to one of our rehearsals and talked to us and took pictures (the photo above).  I expected a little story in a sidebar somewhere, and would have been happy with that, but, to my surprise, the story of my play was on the front page, the picture above the fold, with the headline:  "A Play For Our Times at Lakewood Theater".  Above the fold!  My cast and I couldn't believe it.  (I could believe a lot of the negative comments on the online article's page, though--- people writing in that the play was a "gay fluff piece", and that bullying wasn't really a problem.  I expected that.)

As with most low-no budget theater, the cast did far more than was expected of them, including securing their own costumes and many  of the props.  It is not hyperbole to say that each one of those wonderful people owned that first production just as much as I did.  It belonged to them, because they came to it with such love and belief in the story (and belief in me), and they will always be some of my favorite people in the world because of it.  I count them all as my friends, and something even more, something that can only happen when a group of people create something together.

During the rehearsal process, I decided that we waited too long to see Jeremy, the title character. He had one big monologue near the end.  I came up with the idea to have him almost "haunt" some of the other characters speeches, and even say lines with them.  I found this to have a poignant effect, and it got the wheels turning for a re-write.

We performed at Lakewood Theater September 30th-October 1st, 2011.  We had a good turnout, which included a Catholic youth group, and members from Equality, ME.  As advertised, after each performance, there was a discussion between cast and crew and audience, which was magical.  We talked about the issues of bullying, tolerance, acceptance,  The audience would ask questions and I would try to answer them as best as I could.  I was, once again, very impressed with my cast and how eloquently they answered questions directed at them, particularly the seventeen year old boy who played Jeremy.

After the success of those two shows at Lakewood, I brought Jeremy to my hometown theater, Center Theatre, in November of that same year, with most of the same cast.  Hannah was unable to reprise her role, but another excellent actress stepped in and took the part, by the name of Marisa Murray. Marisa immediately gelled with the cast, and her own take on the role, which, while different from Hannah's, was equally effective.

So...

I had performed the play four times, and had some ideas.  I let a few more people read the script.  A good playwright friend of mine named Bradley Hayward (you should check him out by CLICKING HERE) read it, and said he liked it a lot, but was wondering if there were a way to make Jeremy more active.  I agreed.

I wrote subsequent drafts, and started the play with Jeremy, talking directly to the audience. This improved the play's structure as well.  Now, we had a Jeremy who WANTED something.  He wanted to know who he was, he wanted to hear his story through others' mouths, so that he could put it all to rest.  This made a big difference.

This revised draft sat on a shelf for a while, until I was contacted by David Valdes of St. Paul's School in New Hampshire, who wanted to read the script.  He had somehow heard of the play through the different articles written about it in Maine newspapers. He read the script, asked if he could produce it with his high school group, and I had the pleasure of travelling down to see it.  St. Paul's was very kind to me, providing me a lovely guest room, and the opportunity to talk to some amazing students who worked really hard in bringing my play to life.

Since then, there has been interest in The Re-Programming of Jeremy in other places and media. Some wonderful folks in Delaware are trying to raise money to make an independent feature film of it.  I adapted the play into a screenplay, and found the opportunity to address other concerns about the piece.  I had received criticism that the play was against religion because of the extreme character of Rev. Becky Martin.  I never intended this, of course, as I actually identify myself as a Christian.  So I added the part of Pastor Tom, who was only mentioned in the original script, as a more compassionate view of Christianity, and, I added the character of the Vice Principal at Jeremy's high school, again, only referred to in the original, to take some of the heat off of Rev. Becky, by being someone who truly didn't care for Jeremy.  I incorporated a great deal of these changes into the stage play as well.

Right now, I feel, after five years and several rewrites, that The Re-Programming of Jeremy is in great shape, and, it remains a play that I am very proud of.  Had I never produced it myself, I may have never been able to make it the best play that it could be.  This is why I encourage playwrights who are frustrated to find ways to produce their own work.  It teaches you so much, and, you get to see first hand what works and what could be stronger in your script.  It also gives you the joy of seeing your creation come to fruition, and you can't really put a dollar sign on that.

So, while it's true that the play has never been published, The Re-Programming of Jeremy has taken on its own life, and is a play that has effected audiences.  If you're a producer for community theater or school drama, and would be interested in reading the script, feel free to drop me a line at theater.is.a.sport@gmail.com.  The licensing fees are negotiable, as it is a play that I would love to see reach more an more audiences.

Thanks for taking the time to read my post.  Have a great day.