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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Friday (3/30/18) 4:16pm - ... wherein Peter makes plans for art for 2018.

Okay.  So far, we've covered how I want to go about projects, logistically (executive summary: evaluate a ton of ideas, develop a bunch of them, and only actually make a few) and what I want to accomplish, artistically (facilitate more theatrical improv; create connections between stage improvisors and other scenes).

Now, it's the tough part.  What do I actually *do* in 2018 to make that happen?

Research and Essays


Let's start with a quasi-restatement of part one: how I'm doing what I'm doing.

I don't think part two stated a goal where boldly diving in and doing a billion different projects does me any good.  Yes, there *are* times when I want to make a thousand crappy pots instead of focusing on making just the one good ones.  And that's especially true for artistic expression, where each attempt has, let's say, a 5-10% chance of connecting with an audience.  The way the math works out: if I work really hard for a long time, I make one thing with a 10% chance of success; if I spend that time instead making twenty dashed-off things, I have net 63% chance of success.

But my goal for 2018 feels different.  It feels more analytical -- like I need to stare at this system for a long time, figure out how all its gears and ratchets connect, and then quietly press the one small lever that does what I want.  It requires more planning than doing, and that's okay.  If someone asked me to multiply 1538 by 2834, I wouldn't just start naming random numbers, assuming one must eventually work.  I think figuring out how to help the improv scene is more like numbers and less like pots.

And that leads to my second point: this is going to involve a lot of research.  Like I said in part two, I don't even know how much of a sketch scene Austin *has*.  I have strong suspicions about what the average improv triple bill is like, but I don't know for sure.  (Does Roy still have resident audience members for the Threefer?  If so, I should sign on for a month.)  It's been ages since I've met up with the Austin Screenwriters Group.  And on and on it goes.  Hell, most of what I wrote about the current scene in part two is probably uninformed bullshit.

As I gather information, I'll need to write more posts, so I can analyze what I've learned.  I might collate information on "what resources are out there to train people on how to direct improv shows?"  And then I'll have a pile of data, and I'll need to write another 3,000-word facebook note to make sense of it.  And honestly, if all I do this year is just write a dozen lengthy posts letting everybody know the lay of the land in our scene, that will be a good and useful piece of work.  If there are folks in the AIC who have similar motivations to my own, my research should help them along.

What kinds of gigs?


Goals make for a good compass.

I laid out, in part two, what I want to achieve, overall, in 2018.  Now I can measure different categories of projects against whether they further that goal.  Note: this is not assessing whether different projects are fun or not, or personally rewarding or not -- this is just measuring them against the ruler of "does this get me to where I want to go this year?"

For instance, acting in improv shows?  It's fun, but it doesn't further my goals.

With a scene that already *has* hundreds and hundreds of stage improvisors, any acting gig I pass up will have twenty other improvisors happily fighting over it before I turn around.  And if my main concern about the scene is that it feels like only stage improvisors doing only stage improv for other stage improvisors, then acting in a show isn't going to break me out of that bubble.  I could make a useful exception for a show that breaks that mold, either by being cross-disciplinary or by bringing in clear direction and tech and marketing to its stage improv, but again, it just doesn't feel like the right task.

The only guaranteed benefit to acting in a show is that it keeps me connected to the AIC socially, which is an asset I absolutely need if I'm going to build any projects in the AIC.  But there are other ways to do that.

It's fun, but I really need to step off of the spire.

The Hierarchy of Gigs


In fact, the useful rule of thumb for 2018 is "the further I am from the stage, the more useful the job becomes."

For example: directing is probably more useful than acting.  If my goal is to connect the stage-improv scene to other theatrical disciplines and other artistic communities, it's useful to lead by example.  Good shows can have lasting influence, especially if I put up a show people like and then disseminate information about exactly how I accomplished it.  On the other hand, the AIC *has* had its fair share of 'marsupials' -- good shows that were kind of an evolutionary dead end, with nobody else (to mix a metaphor) picking up the baton after it finished its run.

Teaching is probably more useful than directing.  Lindsey has done amazing work with her dramaturgy classes, getting across, among other things, the idea of asking "Why this play now?" and thinking of a show in terms of its overall impact on an audience, rather than what it's like to play in it.  She created that class so she could teach stage improvisors about theater, but it also puts them on the path to being effective directors by giving them the basic tools for conceptualizing a show.

I have no idea what I could teach or what I would be qualified to teach.  I'm not sure what topics would have a comparable impact to Lindsey's dramaturgy work.  But the gig is out there, and it has clear potential, and I'm pretty good at running a workshop, so it's worth thinking about.

Coaching is probably more useful than teaching.  If everybody's a stage improvisor, and nobody's a director, a coach might be able to -- not to direct, but to facilitate a troupe making directorial *decisions*: i.e., I'm not just training a troupe to address basic improv mistakes and recommend things to practice, I'm also helping them think through what makes their troupe unique, why their voice is important to hear now, what effect they want to have on audiences, and how they can best work with tech (if not a whole production team) to maximize that impact.

Alternative Gigs


And there have got to be improv gigs outside the usual coach/director/player framework.

What about something like a 'show consultant'?  There's a director putting together a show run, or a troupe putting together a new format, and I sort of swoop in, help them hammer out their "why this play now", make some suggestions for drawing up rehearsal plans, and swoop back out again.  I'm not part of the performances, I'm not part of the rehearsals, and I'm not not any part of the day-to-day directing.  Put in terms of part one, I'm purely and explicitly helping out with Development, and leaving Production to the team.

I don't think that's tenable now, because (1) I don't have such a good reputation as a director that people would literally want me to come in as a 'improv-direction consultant', and (2) I don't think most directors would dream of bringing in outside help.  (Inexperience breeds defensiveness[1] -- and since there's such intense stage-improv focus in the scene, few of us have as much directing experience as we'd like.)  I might could accomplish the same things by being a dramaturg for a show, but those tend to continue their work through Production (at least in improv-land) and focus more on educating the cast and crew than helping with direction.

Even less tenable, but still intriguing, is somehow being a production consultant.  Someone's halfway into mainstage rehearsals, or a troupe is preparing a new format, and I stop in, maybe watch a rehearsal, and tell the director my outsider's perspective: here's what's working well, here's what's not quite hitting, here are some exercises you could do to get closer to that.  I say this is 'even less tenable' because I'd have to very delicately frame this as "helping the director realize *their* vision," rather than being some meddler who's trying to impose his own.  "What's your vision for this project?  Okay, let's see how close you are to the target, and give you options for scooting the rest of the way there."  So it's specifically coaching the production details for a specific show run or format.

I also wonder if I could just churn out show formats, sort of the same way RPG companies put out games.  I'd basically write up a pitch format that gives all the specs -- cast size, show format, lighting and sound recommendations, source materials, theme, tone, "why this play now" -- and post it to the Internets for any troupe to take it on that would like it.  Or maybe I work out a licensing deal: here's a cool improv show.  You want to do it?  Pay me some nominal fee ($1), and make sure you reasonably follow the terms of the spec.

(I went down a whole rabbithole with this -- I'll post more thoughts about it tomorrow.)

But it might be best of all to just serve as a 'connector' -- to step fully back from the creative side, and from the shows, and just tinker with the logistics of the scene.  Try and build a community of podcasters where we can share resources and information.  Get the AIC's screenwriters connected to the Austin Screenwriters Group.  Start reaching out to (say) the theater tech program at UT, in case there are any fledgling techs hungry for board time.  With projects like this, I wouldn't be doing art at all, but I'd be doing the best possible work towards helping good art happen.

What kinds of meta-tasks?


So now that I have a bead on general preferences for what I want to do, I want to focus on the nuts and bolts of it: what will I do, day-to-day, to make this happen?  Once I've got this set of posts finished (*sigh*, yes, it's taking me a while), what do I do the next day?

First and foremost, I need to give myself some short span of time (five minutes or ten minutes), every day, for brainstorming project ideas.  And honestly it's not so much brainstorming -- five minutes isn't enough time to get much momentum going on that -- but trapping any ideas I might have had rattling around in my head during the day and writing them down.  The idea is to gin up a huge heap of terrible ideas, and let that be the wide end of that "Evaluation" funnel I was talking about in part one.

For a stretch of 2016-2017, my goal was to have three projects going at all times: one in a preliminary, idea-gathering phase (e.g., brainstorming), one in a more concrete development phase (e.g., outlining), and one in nuts-and-bolts production (e.g., actually writing).  I'd spend half an hour a day on each project, with my little Angular stopwatch ticking away.  There are things I like about that -- especially in early stages of projects, it can help keep my brain awake if I can "change channels" between a few different efforts. 

But looking back at part one reveals that, for this year, those proportions are off.  So I'm hoping, in 2018, I keep up the "three half-hour chunks" arrangement, but that instead, I spend most of my time running my slushpile of ideas through Evaluation and Development.  In the rare cases I really do put something into Production, I should throw *all* my time on that 'til it's done, if possible.

And frankly, for the next few months, I'll be mostly doing research anyway.

I also need to weigh how badly I want to finish my half-finished projects from 2017.  But actually, I think that's not so bad: all I have left on my plate is the puzzle game I'm writing with Marc and my fantasy novella that's in the middle of draft two.  My gut instinct right now is to push through on the puzzle game, and put off the novella indefinitely.

Finally, I need to be really open to trying out non-improv art forms.  At the very least, that helps with connections.

What kind of subject matter?


Regardless of the types of positions I take on, I think I need to take stock of what subject matter is interesting to me now.

One thing I realized while I was watching Spotlight is that I've gotten tired of escapism.  At least as a *consumer* of art, I don't want art that takes me away from the here and now.  I need art that makes me feel like I'm even more intensely here and now.  And I suspect that, as a producer of art, I'll enjoy the same thing.  The world is hard, but I want to engage with it.

It's 2018, and the whole world is distraction, and I don't need more distraction from art.

And that's not to say I'll eschew genre work.  I still love genre fiction.  I doubt I will ever tire of it, because these are the stories where I'm guaranteed that stuff will actually happen -- there's a dead body, and somebody's solving the crime, and that means there's a plot.  I'm not trapped in some middlebrow literary novel for five hundred pages watching an old white authorial self-insert wonder whether he should cheat on his wife.  Give me the tried and true bones of calls to action and fighting adversity and changing the status quo, or (for theater) treading on shallowly-submerged secrets for the first act and then blowing them all out by the end.

And I do wonder if I should aim for work that's more personal.  My whole life I've been eking out work that's been pretty removed from my own life.  I've written a bunch of spec scripts of TV shows that have nothing to do with me.  I've produced shows that were all extremely stylized in their ways.  I'm not saying I should shoot for straight-up biography, but I should re-evaluate my gut feeling that my own experiences have been mundane and not worth writing about.

Closing thoughts


Let's be honest: I'll probably fail at this.

And that's okay.  The goal I've set myself is "take one corner of my artistic scene and try to shift its basic structure," and that's plainly impossible.  I'll fall short.

What matters, then, is where I *land* when I fall short.  I think it's reasonable to say I could get some shows going, by leadership or influence, that aren't quite so hyperfocused on stage improvisors to the exclusion of theatricality and audience response.  I can reach out to a few communities and have a go at forging artistic connections to those scenes. 

And hopefully I can find the folks who have been hitting up against these same limitations in the AIC -- the people who are blindly feeling, with some puzzlement, other parts of this same elephant.


And if, in the end, I fail even at that, I'll at least be failing at the right things.

____
[1] And of course, I only have three shows under my belt as a director, so count me "inexperienced" too.

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