DWTS – or – how to use a box of tissue in one evening

I do not watch reality television as a general rule.  I’m a writer.  I like my television (and movies) to have story lines that are performed into something interesting, not edited into highly manipulative states.

That being said, I am addicted to Dancing With The Stars most seasons.  I add “most” because there have been two or three celebrity contestants who simply by breathing made me crazy-itchy-nutso and I couldn’t watch for fear I’d see them or, in one instance, hear her speak.  With that contestant, as bad as her so-called dancing was, her speaking voice was worse. Blech.

Sometimes, the complete opposite happens and every one of the contestants thrills me with their background stories and their hard work, the bond they develop with their pro- partner, even how the goofiness of Tom Bergeron plays off them.  This season, DWTS’ 20th season, is one of those ‘must-watch’ ones for me.

Tonight, one of the four semi-finalists will be eliminated.  This after a show last night that brought out great dancing (even a two-left footed bumbling boob like me could see the dancing was superior) and more heartfelt, heartwarming stories, not to mention a very simple and sweet marriage proposal!  The four celebrities remaining are Nastia (a former Olympic gymnast), a pop singer named Riker, a war veteran-model-motivational speaker named Noah and Rumer Willis, the daughter of Demi Moore & Bruce Willis.  Rumer, Ryker and Nastia came into the competition with performance backgrounds of one sort or another, an understanding of how to create an atmosphere, a story in the dancing.  They also started out a pretty good amateur dancers and have become much, much better as the weeks have gone by.

Noah is a different story because he’s not just a war veteran, he’s a double-amputee.

He lost is left arm from just below the shoulder and his left leg above the knee in an IED explosion.  He wears a prosthetic leg and foot, but not an arm.  His partner, Sharna Burgess, has had to choreograph to his skills, his desires, his challenges and still make us think, make us see that Noah is a dancer.  That Noah deserves to be a semi-finalist in this competition. Honestly, I’m not sure who is the braver one of this partnership — Noah for exposing himself to a world he never knew before his injuries and then needing to work around and with them to succeed in that world, or Sharna for going into a whole new place in dance to make it work.

Carrie Ann Inaba, who is one of the judges, said the first week, amongst her tears after watching him dance, that Noah had helped her see beyond her own images, her ideas of what dance is, what dance should be.  Not that she marked  him that way often but at least she was moving forward.

Without a knee, Noah cannot be as fluid in his movements as he might like, indeed as he should be, in dance.  It’s bloody close to impossible for him to do “rounded” floor movements although the choreography in both routines he did last night were so mesmerizing, so true to his strengths, so close to ’round’, they were brilliant.  There was one moment, at the end of one of the routines, I hoped everyone who was watching noted and remembered as they were voting — Sharna and Noah walked up the stairs together using his gait, where his left leg swings out a little to compensate for not having a bendable knee.  Matching his step in every way, from exactly how high his left leg swings up to how much bounce gets from his “good” leg, Sharna made that could-have-been-awkward walk up the stairs completely, utterly beautiful.  They made it a dance….

If I’m honest, Noah probably shouldn’t win this competition because he is not, yet, the dancer that Riker and Rumer and Nastia are, but I still gave him every one of my votes last night (and he’ll get them next week if he moves on). I gave him those votes not because I feel sorry for him, and not because he proposed to his girlfriend (who said ‘yes’, btw), and not because he’s a drop-dead gorgeous war hero.

I voted for Noah Galloway because he really has opened up the world of what dance is and should be.  He is a walking, breathing, strong reminder of why we all need dance and music and art and theatre in our lives.  We are enriched by the arts.  We are humbled, stretched, encouraged, enlightened, saved by the arts.  We are better for dancing, we are smarter for music, we are more aware for theatre, we are educated by art.

Thank you Sharna, for helping to make that happen with such brilliant routines.

Good luck Noah. I hope the journey continues in the world of dance for you forever…

Neither a Jungian Nor a Freudian Be…

Okay all you dream therapists out there… tell me what this one means:

I was standing outside a generic theatre, not identifiable as to name or even location, and I’m not sure that it’s the theatre I am actually supposed to be attending this evening.  I am waiting for someone, anxiously looking around when a woman approaches me.  I don’t recognize her per se, but I know it’s supposed to be someone who was a former colleague of mine in a theatre for which I once worked.  She rushes up to me and says, sotto voce, “They want to give you a gift.”  And she pulls away from me.

Well, who doesn’t like pressies?  And while I wouldn’t have thought a present from this particular connection was likely, one never knows, does one?

Only now I see Dame Judi Dench coming over to me. Except… it only looks like Dame Judi, dressed like ‘M’ in the Bond movies, and not, thankfully, like either The Virgin Queen or Queen Victoria.  Instead, I know, somehow, that it’s actually a former member of the former board of the former theatre for which I formerly have worked.  She thrusts a small envelope into my hands and says, speaking in perfect received English, “Joanne’s daughter, Kimberly, thought we should give you this.”  Dame Judi walks away.

I know three Joannes.  None of them have a daughter named Kimberly.  And I wish to god I could say I know Dame Judi, but I don’t and am unlikely ever so to do.  So now I am perplexed.  Who is this Joanne and her thoughtful daughter Kimberly, and why does Dame Judi Dench/the person I know she really was want me to go to a 2,000 seat theatre and sit in the top row, corner, house right, to see a play called THE END OF THE BEGINNING?

But the next thing I know, I’m sitting in this theatre, top row, corner, house right, and I’m watching yes, you got it, Kimberly, acting very, very badly in a really badly written play that’s horribly directed.  The only saving grace is that it’s so badly lit and has so many sound effects, one cannot quite see what is going on and, blessedly, cannot hear much of what’s happening either.  The play ends, and I can finally decamp to the street outside, and I’m milling around, wondering if I should wait for something when suddenly Kimberly, who is quite beautiful, comes running up to me and says, “It was all for you!  We did it all for you!”

And I woke up.

Jeff laughed when I told him this, and I’ve been laughing too.  But… I’ve been having a lot of crazy dreams in the past few weeks.  There was the one last Monday where I dreamt I was a tomato in a vegetable bin at Wegman’s – a New York grocery store we happen to like when we’re visiting the in-laws – that kept being picked up, squeezed and then put back in the bin.  I could see the face of everyone who picked me up through my own eyes, which were obviously not visible on my tomato skin, and it was quite interesting to see how thoughtful people look when picking tomatoes.  It seems to me, thinking about these dreams in a I’m not going for therapy just yet way, that a lot of them have been about choice and about, as the play title noted, endings and beginnings.

Anyway, I thought I would write this out before the second cup of coffee and the DayCare kick in (0h, yes.  I’m packing, moving, preparing to start a new job, and fighting off a cold all at one time.. sigh) and I forget it.  Because I don’t want to forget the lesson.

Dear Mr Sondheim, You’re Wrong

I read in a recent interview given by Stephen Sondheim that he’s not sure at all that theatre, especially musical theatre, will survive too much longer. And while I may understand his concern, given the aging of theatre audiences amongst other challenges facing producing theatre companies, I think he’s wrong.

The primary thing that theatre does for us is tell our stories, even when we can’t. Sometimes even when we don’t know that we have a story to be told. We rely on theatre to shed light on things society doesn’t know how to start talking about, and we use theatre to share the exuberance of brilliant successes. We sing because the songs of theatre fill our hearts. We dance because the cadence of theatre makes our feet move. We cry and gasp, we laugh and thrill, we are who we are, all people in all times and all places, because of theatre. This will not go away, Mr Sondheim. It will not.

But even if the cycle of theatre right now is slipping  downward – and I’m not sure you’re completely right about that, either – it will just as quickly push back up again. For the past few weeks, I have been looking for work, (specifically in theatre, although I am also looking at any marketing position in a field that interests me, in case you’re hiring or know someone who is). I am astonished at how many jobs there are currently open in theatre  – astonished and pleased! And from talking with friends who are working in thatre around Canada & the US, I have a great sense of optimism about what is out there, what is possible.

When my previous job came to an end (…) I had a few days of thinking like Mr Sondheim – that the theatre world wasn’t getting it, there wasn’t any creativity left, that audiences were curling up & disappearing (mostly by dying, because the average age of most small theatre companies in rural or suburban areas is 60+).   And frankly, I believe most theatre companies have been doing a lousy job of reaching out to the younger audience that ensure theatres stay healthy and viable.

However, more and more, if too slowly, theatres are using social media in smart ways. They are finding exciting new opportunities for real interaction with their would-be audience before the patrons even show up at the door – sometimes before they even know about the door. Of course, getting people through the door isn’t just about creative marketing techniques – it’s also about creative programming. I just happen to believe that the two must go hand in hand. I don’t think that an Artistic Director for a theatre company should write the season’s programming in stone until s/he has talked with the Marketing Director.

How’s that for sacrilege?

How’s that for reality?

I worked for an AD once who decided to do a play that had no appeal to the company’s usual audience. No appeal whatsoever. The choice was made for the challenge it provided the AD as a director. I had no voice whatsoever in making the decision, which of course was ultimately the AD’s. But if I had had the chance to have some input, I would have said that this one-of was going to turn off a lot of the company’s current patrons, so we would have to work very hard to reach out beyond what were our geographical boundaries to the would-be audience for this show.  Was everyone prepared for that effort?

We were not, and I include me in this. What marketing we did was pretty much for the entire season and, except for this one play, it was upbeat & typical for the company fare. And without the social media and guerilla marketing now so cleverly, successfully used by some theatre companies, it was difficult to find that whole new, albeit very small audience, who loved this play (it was quite well done, by the way). What we did find was our usual audience walking out, very unhappy.

The decision to produce this play wasn’t wrong. What was wrong was in not acknowledging that it was something few of the usual patrons would choose to see it, but still being prepared to sell it properly to the current audience. And we were wrong to not be prepared to find the right audience. Clearly in hindsight (although I was aware at the time, just not brave enough to act on the awareness) the mistakes started when creative and marketing didn’t talk to each other as the season was being planned.

But let’s go back to the basic premise: how do we, as theatre professionals with differing perspectives and skill sets, find a way to reach a new & generally younger audience while not losing our current & generally older audience at the same time?

Being creative in programming is essential. It keeps directors happy, it keeps actors happy, it even keeps the tech people happy because they are also stretched beyond re-painting flats and re-hemming costumes from the 2007 season. And it encourages playwrights and composers to bring us new stories and new ways of telling them. It also means finding the best of our older stories and re-telling them in interesting new ways. The playwrights we know the best are the ones who have the stories worth telling again & again. A good producer will find a way to combine new with proven… and good marketing will find a way to make both (irresistibly) appealing to all audiences. Of course, you know that these are impossible goals to achieve 100% of the time. In fact, I don’t think they’re possible more than three-quarters of the time, and that’s in a sound economy. So we have cycles in theatre companies, when we’re riding high because everything we do is a smash and then we roll
over the top and at the bottom of the swing, nothing is succeeding and we just want to wave a white towel and say… no mas! no mas!

I think we have to accept that audiences want a certain kind of show. For small town and rural companies, that seems to be musicals (and often musical revues) and comedies, generally speaking by well-known writers and composers, sometimes with Broadway or Toronto records to fall back on for name recognition by the would-be audience. We can also produce shows that are ‘in the style of’ and see some good-sized audiences develop with those.

We also have to accept that would-be audiences, theatre patrons in waiting who might not even know they’re waiting for a chance, a reason, to come to enjoy live professional theatre, want something else. I believe they want to be challenged and entertained in equal part, and are willing to see combined new ideas and new methods of presentation.

Theatre is going through another period of evolution, Mr Sondheim. Not devolution and disappearance, but change and re-birth, a period that will produce opportunities for everyone who works for a theatre company – or is mad enough to start their own – to really become part of the creative team.

Because no play is an island, just as no brochure or website or blog or twitter feet alone is enough any more. We will all need each other to succeed… and I believe we will.