Friday, October 28, 2011

Glorious Eccentricity

Right after acting school, I got a job as a waiter. Of course. But, after a couple of years of slinging tostada salads and  #2 combos (one taco, one cheese enchilada, rice and beans) I got tired of my clothes smelling like lard and my fingers like parsley. That and the fact that memorizing celebrity cocktail preferences was never my bucket of ice. (Dean Jagger did like his Ramos Fizz, though.) One day, after the perfect service of a very complicated special order, Dustin Hoffman stiffed me. Well, his wife stiffed me. Ratso Rizzo sat there and let her. That was the last burrito.

Lucky for me, I got a job at the Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica. The Mayfair was beautiful old girl. A delightfully garish old relic straight out of the Hollywood history books. Smelled like mold and old books. It sat boarded up for years after the Northridge quake and was finally razed a year or so ago. Very sad, indeed. My wife and I went by one day to try a swipe a brick out of the ruins but couldn't get over the fence.

The new owners at the time were trying to make a go of turning it into a legit house. Alvin Epstein directed Bud Cort in "Endgame," Phillip King performed his one-man "A Dicken's Christmas," the brilliant Jasper Carrott and the legendary Charles Piece both came in for special one-offs to pay homage to the music hall roots of the place. (If you don't know who either of these performers are, Google them. You're missing out.) And then..."Sherlock's Last Case." It was directed by the play's author, the irascible and eccentrically brilliant, or rather brilliantly eccentric, Charles Marowitz.

Charles is a critic, a director and a playwright. He is known for his outrageously, sub-text oriented, collage adaptations of Shakespeare, for his collaborations with Peter Brook, and for being one of the founders, along with Thelma Holt, of the Open Space Theatre. "Sherlock's Last Case" is easily his most successful and most well-known work. Beginning with it's world premiere at the Los Angeles Actor's Theatre in 1984 to it's re-staging in 1985 at the Mayfair and through to it's Broadway run with Frank Langella as the aquiline sleuth, the play has become a regional and community theatre stalwart. Not a brilliant play, but an entertaining couple of hours.The small cast and, basically, single set makes it possible for the most technically challenged regional groups. Doyle purists hate it, regular folk love it. Bonus points to Charles for the highly entertaining "A Background Note" in the acting script.

Regarding his approach to Shakespeare, he was once quoted as saying, "Imagine that Shakespeare's play [Hamlet in the case] is a precious old vase, and someone comes along and smashes that vase into a thousand pieces. If one were to take those pieces and put them back together, the arrangement would be new. That is, I suppose, what this (production) is. Shakespeare provides the vase and I provide the glue."  The problem with this construction method is that you take a perfectly good vase, smash it to bits and hope it holds water, or even flowers, when you are done putting it back together. Of course, with Marowitz, what he ends up with isn't Shakespeare. It's Marowitz. No matter what you think of the process or the product, he has created something new and done it with flair, panache, daring and confidence.

Love him or hate him, Marowitz is one of those guys that makes the Theatre entertaining. (emphasis intentional). For a couple of years, he wrote an immensely enjoyable blog entitled, An Actor Prepares. I haven't seen a new post for over a year now, but I hope he returns to it if he is able. He is witty, sarcastic, stern, intelligent and more  than a little opinionated. Anyone remotely interested in the stage should read a little Marowitz every once in awhile. He will help remind you why you were drawn to it in the first place. Of course, if you are like me, you may also think that he's absolutely full out it occasionally, but so what? Aren't we all?.  One of my favorite entries is one of the earliest: APHORISMS FOR THE YOUNG (AND NOT SO YOUNG) ACTOR. (I'll be stealing some of these for my Facebook updates.)

Now, Charles Marowitz wouldn't remember me from a ham sandwich (figurative and literally), but I have remembered him, followed his work and enjoyed his writings lo these many years later. The world needs more Charles Marowitz's. Those glorious eccentrics who actually have something to say and say it in their own unique way. If we don't get it, that's our problem.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Non-Traditional Casting: My Crisis of Conscience

I've talked about this subject before. However, a recent article in the LA Stage Times got me going again.  Here's the elevator speech if you don't want to click and read the whole thing: Joe Stern (whose work I respect very much) of the Matrix Theatre Company (a stalwart of the LA theatre scene for 40 years) is mounting a multi-racial production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons (in my opinion, one of the finest American dramas ever written).

Those who know me well, know I have long been a proponent of color-blind casting whenever possible. There are too many fine actors of color not to allow audiences the privilege of seeing them ply their craft. However, I'm am truly struggling with the application of this concept to historical works. Or rather, works that rely on a very particular set of historical or cultural circumstances that by their very essence require a particular outlook towards casting.The desire to include racial diversity in our casting decisions should never be forced or seen as a marketing strategy. It should be organic and true. It should make sense given the time, place and circumstances of the play.

Now, in the case of many Shakespearean plays, we can adapt them, bend them, twist them into a concept that supports a multicultural cast. Easy-peezy-lemon-squeezy with The Tempest, Much Ado, Twelfth Night, or Midsummer Night's Dream. But even with the Bard, there are some plays that, if done straight, just do not work unless the director conceptualizes them away from their original history and deals with that shift in a creative and justifiable way. Julius Caesar, all the Henrys, Richard III, and Coriolanus for example are real people from a particular place in history.

Now Joe Stern is no dummy. He knows what he's doing and even in the article, he specifically states the challenges he faced in casting this play the way he did. The play was written in 1947 and takes place in 1946 with World War II still fresh in everyone's mind. It is set in the Midwest, where a racially mixed neighborhood was, well, let's just say, highly unlikely. Granted, the issues examined in this play are universal and large. Which then begs the question, what does the casting do to advance the meaning of the play?

Now, I'm pretty confident, there will never be a mixed race cast of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson. Nor should there be. David Henry Hwang's first play, FOB, must be cast is a particular way. It is too specific. How are those plays any different that the Miller play? Does age make it susceptible? Are the concepts presented by the drama so large and universal that casting really doesn't matter? Just thinking out loud, I guess.

You see, for me (I think, any least right this second) we have become so concerned about non-traditional casting that we fail to advance the real issue. Playwrights must write for a multicultural society. Producers must nurture playwrights of all nationalities. Film, TV and the theatre must continue to fight racial stereotypes not just by selective casting, but by play selection. The issue is really about creating for a multicultural society in the first place, instead of trying to shoe-horn multicultural casts into existing works of the theatre.

Then again, I guess what I would really like is that it wasn't an issue at all. The best actors would get the part regardless of race, color, creed, or sexual orientation. I wouldn't have to think then.

Oh yeah, go see All My Sons at the Matrix: Here's the website for tickets. Regardless of what I may think I believe at this moment in time -- this is a great play, with an excellent cast, at a theatre known for exceptional productions. I'm going. Maybe it'll help me sort things out.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Supporting Casts Make the Movie

...or TV show or play. I watched the season premier of the US version of Prime Suspect. Now before you say anything, no it is NOT the same as the original UK version with the fabulous (and still hot) Helen Mirren. Not supposed to be. Apples and oranges. Same title, sorta the same premise and the lead character has the same first name. Whatever. It's a good show. I like it. Maria Bello is strong in a part not typical for American TV. BUT (notice the capital letters for emphasis?), what I truly love about the show is the supporting cast. Great character actors you've seen a million times yet probably don't know their names. Brian O'Byrne, Kirk Acevedo, Peter Gerety -- all actors you have seen hundreds of times. These are the people Liz and I always say, "Oh, I love that guy! He was in that other thing. What's his name?"

     The idea that a great supporting cast can save an otherwise forgettable movie is not a new one. My in-laws used to say that when they were young they would go see any movie that had Thomas Mitchell or Barry Fitzgerald in it. For me it's Ward Bond. And Thomas Mitchell. And Ruth Hussey. Oh, and Edward Arnold, H.B. Warner, Mary Astor and a dozen other character actors that will always turn in an amazing performance no matter what. If fact, I'll go so far as to say that  John Wayne was so incredibly famous because, in every movie he ever made, he was surrounded by great supporting players. They made him appear better than he really was.

     Classic movies (you know, like you see on TCM) are great examples of putting together great actors around certain movie stars to make a movie work. Oh sure, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are perfect in His Girl Friday, but imagine what that movie would have been like WITHOUT Gene Lockhart, Abner Biberman or Clarence Kolb. The same holds true today. If a movie has a star I don't necessarily care for or don't know all that much about, I will take a risk on it based on the people around him. I am not a big Leonardo Dicaprio fan. I, generally, just never believe his performance. However, I went to see Inception when it was out. The supporting cast made that movie for me and, as a result, I actually enjoyed Leo.

     Not all character actors were or are movie stars, or even famous for that matter. The cast in Prime Suspect is a perfect example. And quite frankly, not all movie stars should be famous. They should be characters actors, second fiddles that make up a great cast. Ben Affleck (for my money) can't carry a movie on his own -- as the star. But, he is a very capable supporting actor. Dare I say, excellent. Shakespeare in Love and State of Play are examples of Ben's ability to create memorable performances -- just not leading ones.

     This idea is true on stage and on TV, too. Broadway has made a living lately by injecting "big name" stars into limited runs of things. Of course, the regular cast of Chicago does all the heavy lifting while songwriter and former American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi dances around as Roxie Hart. Somehow it's all forgiven when the the supporting players make her look like she belongs there.

     So, before you blow off seeing any movie or TV show or play, look up the names NOT on the poster. If it's a classic film and has Ward Bond or Thomas Mitchell in it, for sure watch it. It'll be great! Guaranteed.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Why I Hate the Business of Acting or, "Why, Grandmother, what big brass balls you have."

My wife and I come from the theatre. We met doing summer Shakespeare some 20mumble years ago. We love acting, actors, the theatre, film and, yes, even television. We try to see as much as we can. We stay up on who's doing what, articles, books, new plays. So, naturally, we find ourselves deconstructing things, re-imagining productions, reviewing the performances we see, the directors'  choices, and so on. If you have stumbled on this site, no doubt you do the same.

One thing we continue to talk (read: lament) about is the "business" of acting. From workshops to head-shots, from trade magazines to web site design. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people luring you to spend money with them with veiled and sometimes not-so-veiled promises of "reaching your goals," booking more jobs" or "learning the secrets" to the business of acting. Cold reading workshops abound. Camera technique classes are ubiquitous. Photographers specializing in head shots, in Los Angeles anyway, are as common as Starbucks.

It seems more and more that the business is overtaking the craft. Judging from the increasing number of times we see transitional figures in popular culture being provided undeserved acting opportunities, it appears there is no end in sight. For example, Justin Bieber got a two episode arc in CSI; Eminem did a quasi-autobiographical turn in 8 Mile. Most recently, Justin Timberlake has been working none stop on the big screen. Okay, I get it. It is a business after all. Networks and production companies have a right to make money and try to attract the largest number of people to their product as possible. No problem. And, yes, I know this isn't a new thing. It just seems more prevalent than ever before.

But recently, I have feared for what this says to young actors just starting out. It says you don't need to train to become an actor. It says fame is more important that art. I says personality and appearance is more important that humanity and understanding. The business of acting reinforces this.

Recently, my wife told me of professor at her university who has published what one articled called the "Quintessential Book on Acting." Wow. Really? One book? In this particular interview the author (also an actor) is quoted, “I did all the work for the actor and distilled everything they need to know into a readable and usable form. This is the only book the actor needs.” The article goes on to say that "the author intentionally designed the book to be short and physically small enough to go into an actor’s back pocket. This way the actor can quickly refer to it as needed."

Again, wow. Where was this book when I was just starting out? You mean that my classmates and fellow actors didn’t need to read Shakespeare or Mamet? We didn’t need to know about Kristin Linklater or Cecily Berry? We wasted all that time studying world history, literature, languages, race relations, bigotry, jealousy, greed,  power, current affairs, family dynamics, ego, stage directions, costumes, beats, inflection, sense memory, Stanislavski, Meisner, Strasberg, Boleslavky, Chekov, Don Richardson, Peter Hall, Neil Simon, Tennessee Williams?

Apparently, if you listen to the business, actors no longer have to experience life. Apparently, to study the human condition is unnecessary. Technique has given way to pure celebrity. Well, and a quick read that tells you everything you need to know.

I have always and honestly believed that the best actors in America are not making movies or starring on TV. They are in regional theatres spread across the country. They are working tirelessly in 99-Seat Plan  (what we used to call Equity Waiver) houses in Los Angeles and in tiny Off-Off-Broadway showcase venues in New York City. They have transitioned into other professions in order to make a living. They have left their once passionate relationship with the craft of acting to become writers in Washington, massage therapists in Santa Monica, counselors in San Jose, teachers in Arizona, university administrators in L.A. and food servers in the Big Apple. Unfortunately, with the business of acting entirely cut off from the nation's best training centers, there is no balance. No feeder system that gets the best actors into the system of Hollywood or the factory of Broadway.

Of course, if you buy this one book….

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Short Fall From a High Horse.

I've never been accused of being conceited. As far as I know. Arrogant, yes. Wiseacre, certainly. Smart-Ass, all the time. Conceit is that special characteristic that is claimed by a small percentage of people who, for some reason, have been lead to believe their poop smells...well, fragrant and nice. Like lilies or lavender. Call it pride, call it hubris, it is arguably the original and most serious of the Seven Deadly Sins (I'm not a religious person, so understand this isn't about the nature of sin as much as it is the nature of ridiculous people, so...). 

A few weeks ago, teen heartthrob Justin Bieber made his "acting debut" on CSI:Crime Scene Investigation. Okay, we all know what that means. Famous person gets to do something he is not qualified to do because he is famous. Happens all the time. I don't like it, but it happens and it's here to stay. Fortunately, I can complain about it and somehow I feel better afterwards. Series regular Marg Helgenberger, an Emmy Award winning actress of some note and quality, mentioned in a French magazine interview that the little pop-star boy was "a brat." Apparently, the young man is quite the "prankster" and locked a producer in a closet and put his fist through a cake that was on the Craft Services table. After Ms. H made those unflattering claims, Master Bieber tweeted, "It's kinda lame when someone you met briefly and never worked with comments on you. I will continue to wish them luck and be kind."

So, in other words, if she really would have taken the time to get to know you she would have excused your childish behavior because you are just too irresistible to stay mad at. But, of course. Actually, it's kinda lame when an inexperienced, young guest actor strolls onto a set and behaves like a douche bag.

Now, the ONLY reason I'm ranting about this little tidbit now, as opposed to a few weeks ago when it happened, is because I finally watched the episode (part one of a two-part story arc) with the little darling. Had he been a genius acting prodigy or turned in a brilliant performance full of depth and emotion or held me glued to the screen with his deep, sinister gaze -- okay, I would cut him some slack. He didn't. He was a dull. He was boring. He was out of his league.

Here's what young men and women like Mr. B need to take away from this seemingly innocuous case of brattiness:

1) CSI is a major TV show and has been on the air a long time. It makes the network a ton of money. A couple hundred people come to set everyday and take their jobs very seriously. They feed their families and pay their bills based on the work they do on this particular show. That is not to say they don't have fun on the set. I know for a fact they do. But if there are the occasional pranksters on set, it is because they have earned the right through years of hard work and dedication to the show.

2) Producers actually do important things. They run the show, keep things on schedule, watch budgets, and contribute some pretty essential elements to a successful show. This same producer may have been the one to approve you being cast in the show. Might have even been the one to guide the writers through the script that gave you the words you would say when the camera started to roll.

3) The Craft Services table is for everyone. The food and drinks and snacks provided are paid for by the production company and meant for the whole cast and crew. So by being so cute and adorable as to put your fist in a cake meant for everyone -- well, let's just say that you showed little class and even less maturity. Wasn't there any other way to exhibit your overwhelming cool and childlike sense of humor?

Under the right circumstance and with the right artist, there is no reason why performers cannot pursue these cross-over careers. (Besides, it gives me stuff to rant about!) Here's a caveat: At the very least, be professional when you show up. Another, no doubt better, actor was passed over because your agent did a good job pulling off this little promotion stunt. At best, get some training before hand. Take some classes, learn some lingo, watch some episodes of the show, learn about the people you'll be working with. Fans of this show are passionate about it. Don't piss them off by wasting their time with your own ego.

Treat the opportunity respect. You can screw around when you go on tour. Hopefully, one of your back-up singers won't steal a loaf of bread from your dressing room.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Don't Blame the Actors

Every once in a while a really good actor will make a terrible movie. Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier and James Mason all were in Boys From Brazil. Forrest Whitaker played a role in Battlefield Earth. Jeremy Irons did Dungeons & Dragons. Hey, everyone has rent or a mortgage to pay. You have to feed your family and buy your kids shoes, right? It's understandable. No one can be brilliant ALL the time. Not the actor's fault the movie sucked. In fact, I'll go so far as to say it's not the actor's fault THEY suck in a movie. That's right, I said it.

How many times have you sat through an awards broadcast while the winner proceeds to thank everyone that "helped them win" the award? Their agent, the other actors, the director, the producers, their lawyers, their managers, the studio heads, their reiki master and pilates instructor, whoever. If actors feel obliged to thank all those that made them good, why are those same actors not allowed to blame those same people when something comes out bad? Certainly, if the actor can't point fingers - for fear of never working again - the viewing audience should certainly be understanding enough to know all the people are to ultimately blame for an awful film.

For all the cliche, film making truly is a collaborative process. So is theater, so is television. That  collaboration starts way before the camera begins to roll. It starts from the moment a writer puts pen to paper (okay, turns on his computer, get the point). This "process" then goes through an evolution that would curl Darwin's toes. Producers who have an interest in a certain property, studio heads who green light the project, directors who actually cast and make the film, casting directors, agents, managers, and finally the actors gets a call. "Hey, we got a job that pays money. Want it?" There are not a lot of actors who can make a movie based on their name alone, so you have to look at the whole process when it comes to assigning blame for a real stinker.

Actors do not work in a vacuum. They are assisted in the creative process by a whole host of creative types not the least of which is the director. It is a rare artist that can direct himself. A poor job of directing a good actor can have terrible consequences on the final product. Directing isn't just setting up the shot and pointing the camera. Sometimes even directors don't do that. The director gives shape and tempo to a film or a play. The result of poor direction can very easily be a poor performance. By the very nature of his job, an actor is dependent on a director to help him craft a performance. Magic doesn't just "happen" when the actor steps in from of the camera.

A poorly written script can  submarine the greatest actor. Did you see Catwoman? I rest my case. Actors say words. Even the greatest actor in the world cannot save a bad script. I usually love Rob Reiner as a director, but North is perhaps the worst script of all time. Good director, good cast, bad words.

Sometimes a casting director or agent is to blame, working so hard to push a particular A-list actor into a roll that he or she has no business playing -- for whatever reason. Other times it's the producer or the studio who is to blame. How many times do we have to suffer through the flavor of the week to realize the fallacy in that kind of thinking?  "Hey, let's get Hottie McHotness to be in this movie! People love her! It'll be huge!"

For the most part, actors look for work. They need to work to make money to pay for stuff. They want to do the best job possible so they can get more work. Until you get to be a Johnny Depp size star, you take what you can get and you aren't all that picky (I mean really, SyFy Channel Originals put a lot of actors to work). So the next time you see a really crappy movie cut the cast some slack. Besides, it's very possible to enjoy a terrible movie. Come on, who doesn't want Ghost Rider on DVD? Eva Mendez is hot, even in those atrocious clothes (Lizzy Gardiner) and the Ghost Rider effects are cool (SPI)!

I'll end with one exception. Two words: Green Hornet. In fact, it was this movie that got me all PO'd on this subject in the first place! I missed it when it was originally released and just got around to seeing it On Demand. When an actor is actually responsible for getting a project made and then makes most of the decisions, then he is absolutely to blame. He and the studio knuckleheads who bought into a bad idea. Just because someone has an idea, doesn't mean it a good one.*  Seth Rogan is totally to blame for what is one of the worst comic book adaptations of all time. He was a producer (okay, good property, could work), a writer (there wasn't a script to speak of so that's not good) AND the horribly miscast star (I mean really, shouldn't the Hornet be, I don't know, handsome?). Don't blame Jay Chou (Kato), he gave it his best shot. Tom Wilkinson was great for the limited screen time he had. Christoph Waltz made the best of terrible dialog. Cameron Diaz lifted every scene she was in. Oh, and don't blame my Facebook friend Jill Remez who got lots of camera time as one of the Sentinel Reporters. Rogan should have known better to cast himself and shirk on the script. His ego got in the way.

So there! Don't blame the actor -- unless the actor is also all the other guys, too.

Watkins, out. Curling up with some popcorn, Caffeine Free Diet Coke and the Special Edition DVD of Ishtar: The Director's Cut. Dustin Hoffman, right?

*More on that little notion in a later rant. Creativity is not learned nor is it just given to people in authority.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Wayne's Rules for Being a Great Boss

You are about to unlock the keys to being the best boss in the world. For free! That's right, you read that correctly. No, you can't buy these on TV. You don't have to buy the book or the DVD. Yes, they really are free. Best part? There's only FOUR of them. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. There is one catch, however. You must practice them and believe them, because I've got news for you -- they work.

I've had a few bosses in my day. Been a boss. too. What happens too often on our capitalistic, money and success oriented society (oops, starting to get a little preachy) is that if we are fortunate enough to make our way up whatever corporate ladder we happen to be climbing, we start to believe our hype. We start to believe that we actually deserve the praises and the raises. We start thinking that we are entitled to people carrying out our directions because, somehow, we have been anointed as "in charge."

I've got news for you, regardless of your training or your experience or your education, there are others that can do your job. Many others. I know, I know, you don't want to hear that. In fact, you may decide I'm so "full of it" that you stop reading this and surf on over to the Huffington Post or your fantasy football league. That's okay, I'll take that chance. A warning: As you read these, you WILL say to yourself, "That's not me," or "I don't do that." You do. You really do. If you are a boss, you break at least two of the rules below and probably more. Admit it, face yourself and agree to change your bad habits. You, and your staff, will feel better for it. Oh, yeah, and you'll all be more productive.

Okay, here we go. The four rules that will make you a GREAT BOSS.

#1 - Stop with the meetings. You have too many. Most meetings are totally non-productive, unorganized and serve only to piss off your staff for taking them away from their actual work. Your meetings are mostly your attempt to get yourself organized. Stop it right now. Meetings are not, or shouldn't be, a place for you to impress your staff with your authority and ability to move around the room with graceful aplomb by asking everyone for updates or status reports that either you already know about or can be shared in another way.

#2 - Don't use the big "Boss Words." You know what they are: "Accountability" and "Responsibility." Besides you are probably using them incorrectly anyway. When your staff hears you use these words, all they really understand is that you are going to blame them if something goes wrong. Responsibility can be shared, accountability cannot. If you create an environment of trust and respect where hard work and collaboration is encouraged and allowed to grow, those words will never have to come out of your mouth.

#3 - Refrain from the easy hires. Don't hire (or keep) someone just because they seem to agree with you on everything. Ass-kissers can't be trusted. You've got the job already. YOU are the boss. Hire people that can contribute something NEW to your staff, department or business. Hire a rebel. (NOTE: I didn't say hire an idiot.) Sure, It might be uncomfortable for a while. You might have to learn how to deal with a new way of looking at things. You can handle it.

#4 - Be willing to learn from your staff. You are not omnipotent. You don't know everything.  As much as you would like to believe you are better than everyone else because you are their supervisor, it just ain't true. You staff is smart. They do actually care about what they do 8 or 10 hours a day. Believe it or not, they probably know more about certain aspects of the business than you. Watch Undercover Boss sometime then tell me bosses know everything.  Oh, here's the kicker: You may think listening to your staff -- actually LISTENING and considering their input -- makes you look weak or stupid or unqualified. It doesn't.
There you go. Now you are on your own. Oh, and these rules work in any business. Whether your a movie director or a CEO of a widget factory. Let me know they work out for you.

Next Rant: Don't Blame the Actor. This is where I spout off about what makes makes a movie good or bad and why most critics don't know what they are talking about.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Free Advice to Non-Profits: You Ain't Doin' Enough!

     Throughout my career and in my current business (Dirigible) I have worked with a quite a few non-profits. Primarily, performing arts and sports groups, occasionally health-related causes or foundations. I have learned two things in my 10 years of working with non-for-profits.  
     Number One: Most Boards of Directors suck. If your first reaction to this statement is, "Oh, well, we have a great board," I want you to ask yourself two very simple questions. 1) Is each member of the board required to give or get "X" amount of dollars in donations? 2) Are all the board members actively involved in all other fund-raising efforts? If the answer is no to either (it will probably be no to both), your board needs an overhaul. Now! They suck.
     The typical response I get when I explain this to board members is always the same. "But, we volunteer our time to serve on the board. Our time is worth something." I've heard it a thousand times. Guess what? You aren't building a float for the Rose Parade. You aren't volunteering for a bake sale at the local hospital. You aren't handing out water at the local charity's 5K fun run. You are on the board of directors for an organization whose programs and mission depends on your efforts to raise money for and promote the organization in the community. If you can't do it without playing the my-time-is-more-important-than-anyone-else's-card, then don't serve on that board. Yes, you have other duties. Yes, there are other things that a board is responsible for. Yes, you probably have someone on staff who raises money, too. But it is part of your job to raise money. If your non-profit doesn't have money it doesn't exist. Period.
     Okay, I'm done on that subject. For now. But it is a serious issue and an all too common one. From large youth sports organizations down to small community theatre groups, this element of your board is hugely important and sorely neglected. Don't ignore it.
     The REAL purpose of today's rant is second on my "things I've learned" list. Drum roll, please. 
Number Two: You are not doing enough for your sponsors.
     I don't know if you've seen a newspaper the last couple of years, but the economy is kinda, how shall I put this nicely, messed up. If you are doing the same thing for your sponsors that you did last year and the year before -- you are going to loose them.
     There was a time when sponsors donated to organizations because they wanted to help out the cause and maybe get a little tax deduction. We'll give you 100 bucks and you put a business card size ad in the program. There we're a sponsor! Those days are over. The tax deduction ain't enough. You simply MUST provide some sort of marketing value through the sponsorship. There is too much competition for sponsorship dollars on every level. From the local community choir to the youth soccer league your kid plays in, every non-profit simply MUST get more creative in how they attract sponsors and how they treat them once they get their money. The days of making a phone call once a year to a local business and holding out your hand to collect the check? Over. An ad in the program and a link on your website IS NOT ENOUGH no matter how awesome you think your organization is.
     First thing you have to do is create levels of sponsorship. "Gold," Silver," "Bronze," whatever. Try to be inventive and have the levels be something related to the organization. Each level will have a variety of things the sponsor gets for donating at that level. This is called your sponsorship inventory. Put a price to each level and don't waiver. Your sponsors will want everything you've got, but they only get what they pay for. Plus, if one sponsor finds out that they paid more for a certain level than another sponsor did, you have trouble on your hands.
     Now, you may be thinking, "Wayne, we don't have any inventory. All we do is have a couple concerts every year." (Or, you are a youth sports team and all you do is play eight or 10 games per season.) I'm telling you right now, you have more than you think and there is even more you can create in order to have more things to sell. You may have tickets, programs, flyers, newsletters, press releases, stationery, business cards, t-shirts, a website, or social network sites that are all great places for sponsor recognition. Anything you print something on can be a place a sponsor might like exposure, whether it's a ticket or a program or hotel key card. If you do an interview with local TV or newspapers MENTION THE SPONSORS. If you send out a press release, put a small tag about your sponsors in the boilerplate (the About Us section).If you do any fund-raising events (I mean ANY.  Even a bake sale!) Invite your sponsors to have a presence either with a table (to hand out info) or to actually participate in the event. Whatever you are doing now -- do more. It is getting harder and harder out there to raise cash and your non-profit is not the only good cause in town.
     Final thing: Thank your sponsors. Not just the person who wrote the check, but the people who work for the person who wrote the check. Say it in a letter when the sponsor first comes on board, say it in person whenever you see people involved with the sponsor. While this may sound silly, but make sure your BOARD OF DIRECTORS knows who the sponsors are so THEY can thank them and talk about the sponsors in their circles. You do all this and your sponsors will continue to see the value in supporting YOU. If you lie down on the job, they'll go to the food bank or the ballet company or the charity down the street. It's that simple.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Falacy of Non-Traditional Casting -- I think....

This is a tough one. Not so much a rant this time as it is a continuing mind-bender that, for me at least, has no solution and never will. It also comes with this caveat: I am a white male. The vast majority of parts written are written for guys like me. This we know.

When young actors are in training, be it in college or at an acting school, there is never any thought as to limiting what characters you may someday play onstage. We are schooled early on that actors are actors and should WANT to play all different kinds of roles not just those defined by the color of our skin or our gender. In fact, many of us seek out those roles that may not fit perfectly into a typical "type-casting" scenario. We are led to believe that young leading men can play old character parts if the make up is good enough. (I mean come on, Olivier's Othello? Nailed it!) We are trained to think that the amazingly talented African American in our Acting III class is certainly capable of playing Falstaff. (A little padding here, some stipple there, viola!) How many great men of the stage have tackled Lady Bracknell? (Answer: A bunch!)

Then we are sent off into the real world. The world of types; the world of TV; the world of the Peter Principle. For years I was cast in every Neil Simon comedy on the West Coast. I was Leo, George, Felix, Sydney, Paul, you name it I played the straight, white guy. ("Straight" as in not the funny one.) But my acting school days we're still fresh in my bones. I longed for the chance to play Shylock the Jew (you'd think all my Neil Simon roles would have qualified me!), Othello the Moor (Olivier wore black-face), Tony Montana (Oh, wait, he was Cuban. Does that count as white since Pacino played him?)

The trouble we run into is that some works of theatre, film and TV really do require a certain race or gender to be cast in certain roles. They just do. Max in Bent kinda HAS to be a white male. He just does. The whole point of Troy Maxson in Fences requires that an African American male take us on that journey. And here's the part that is hard for me to parcel: Color blind casting only goes one way. Which really means it's not really color blind. Seems kinda like affirmative action for actors. Now, I am NOT suggesting we do away with affirmative action. I'm just saying that with actors, with the theatre, with all things of a creative nature, it seems like it should be different conversation. It just seems like we shouldn't even be talking about it. Of course, we can mount an Asian version of a Tennessee Williams play; Of course, James Earl Jones can play King Lear; Of course, Lawrence Olivier can play Othello; Of course, Macbeth can have an integrated cast.

Let's face it, casting Shakespeare plays with multi-racial casts is old news. Adrian Lester is the latest in, relatively, short list of actors of color to successfully deliver the bard ( Even the histories are less about the actual people of history as they are the bigger issues and themes that have resulted in the passage of time. It's when we start to approach non-Shakespearean classics and contemporary works (okay, basically everything NOT Shakespeare) that we seem to get wrapped around the axle.

I think the answer lies not in trying to force race and gender issues for their own sake, but to create more diverse properties in the first place. (Tyler Perry productions are not my cup of tea, but you have to admire the fact that he is writing and producing specific new material for black actors and a particular audience. Barring a floodgate of "diversity projects" all of a sudden getting green lighted in Hollywood or produced in regional theatres nothing will change, I fear.) If we can't do that then we just perpetuate the problem. In an opening night speech by Des McAnuff, the artistic director hit the nail on the head. And while he was talking about Canada, it remains true for us in the lower 48, "Ours is a multi-racial society ... If our audiences can’t find their own reflections on our stages, as Shakespeare’s audiences did on his, we cannot possibly claim to be speaking to Canadians [or society] today.

What if we didn't worry about "non-traditional" casting and just worried about "casting?" You know, acting school style.What if we were to cast our shows with the best actors that came to the audition? I know, I know, the wheels would fall off of Hollywood and dozens of agents would be unemployed and casting directors would actually have to learn something more about acting than shirt size and hair color. But what if?

Bottom line is this: Someday I would really like to peek into an audition and have no idea what was being cast. I'd like to see all kinds of shapes, sizes and colors. I would like what I learned in my acting classes to be true. I think, anyway... (Oh, and I'd really like to see Helen Mirren play Prospero. Wait, they did that already?)

Addendum: Here's another take that's pretty good, too. A short article by Phillip W. Chung.