Teaching theater to those who have forgotten what its like to play

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Flashback Theater Co. | Let’s Play! February 2016

I see a lot of reluctance in younger people to test the waters of creativity. Without step by step instruction, they are frozen by the inability to carry on. In theater, you must be willing to try new things. You cannot rely on how something has been done before. Collaboration is reliant on everyone taking risks and expanding their creativity. And theater is a highly collaborative activity.

In my mind, Let’s Play! fights the urge of our newest generation to only do what is already expected. It heightens the need to think on the spot and deliver a creative product because it is being performed in front of an audience in real time. There is no rehearsal, no plan to make sure everyone knows what to expect. Participants quickly learn the “Yes and…” rule because there is no safety net.

Hosting Let’s Play! one night a month doesn’t seem sufficient for combatting the underlying issue though. Just last week, I was talking with a mom who said she knew a child who was punished for failing the CATS arts test by taking away access to the very resources that would improv the score. Recess turned into practice testing for this child, and they were banned from the “extracurricular” classes including (you guessed it) music and art.

Having worked with a couple of high school aged students who have been conditioned to think in the testing mindset, I have no doubt it is one of the factors that contribute to the need for step-by-step instruction and the inability to think creatively. Not only that, but drama is no longer seen as a worthwhile course in high school curriculum. Some schools have tried to maintain a drama program through clubs but it can hardly have the same educational effect on students as meeting on a daily basis.

My high school drama class was a lot of improv and creative thinking. It was a class I eagerly looked forward to every day. I enjoyed the challenge of it but also the freedom and empowerment to create my own stories. I convinced my best friend to join me and despite her reluctance to speak in front of crowds, she was able to later admit she had a lot of fun in the class as well.

So how to translate my positive theater experiences into future learning opportunities for others?

Let’s Play! was a concept I dreamt up in the middle of the night. The initial event allowed people to cast, rehearse, and perform a 10-minute play in the space of just two hours. It was open to everyone and was free to attend. About two dozen people attended – with most choosing to stay in the audience. Since then, Let’s Play! has been held with various themes in mind: Improv Games, Storytelling, Mock Auditions – but the initial thought of creating a space to come and play is still the same.

As a child, I very easily slipped into games of pretend. Whether it was “playing house” or “cops & robbers” my siblings, cousins, and friends had favorites to act out over and over again. The basic concept of playing house might have stayed the same but the variations of storytelling kept us entertained for hours. As I grew older, I adapted theater games into party games. I distinctly remember a New Year’s Eve party as a teenager where we played improvisation games for hours. (I might add this party was at the house of the aforementioned best friend who reluctantly admitted loving the drama class.)

My desire to create Let’s Play! stemmed from those memories of play-acting and improv games. But what once came very naturally to me as a child now needs constant effort to keep the storytelling juices flowing. And I think its the same for many others. Where there are a few that can jump up and deliver a one-liner with perfect comedic timing – some of those who come to Let’s Play! opt out of the acting part entirely. The most successful Let’s Play! to date has been Storytelling, where stories are read from books and acted out. I believe it is successful because it gives participants a bit of a crutch to lean on – but there is still plenty of room for creativity!

Practice makes perfect – so over time actors who return to Let’s Play! on a regular basis  get better at improvising and storytelling. After about a dozen Let’s Play! events, I can see more confidence in one of the actors who initially waited for suggestions from stagemates.  I believe Let’s Play! has proven that you can teach theater to those who forgot how to play – it just takes consistent reassurance and practice.

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Reconnecting to Somerset this year and my surprising encounters

Somerset, Ky downtownWhen I decided to begin Flashback Theater Co, there was never a question of where. My little Kentucky hometown of Somerset isn’t so little anymore, and while it has matured in the areas of business development, tourism and selling alcohol, the arts have pretty much stayed the same since I left in 2007. (The old library was converted to an arts center in 2008, but considering the county took out a block of buildings including an art gallery for the new judicial plaza I’m considering that a wash.)

Still, as much as I knew about Somerset before packing up my car in January – there have been some surprises.

The Talent – I can’t believe the depth of talent that has been hiding in my little hometown. I knew there were people who had some experience with community theater and children’s theater but very talented people with professional training have been finding me too. My cast for And the Tide Shall Cover the Earth popped out of nowhere. These actors are ready to work, and have a good mix of experience levels. They are willing to be challenged, and are rising to the occasion at every rehearsal. The same was true for my Nibroc cast in February. The opportunity to hone their skills is being met head-on by each and every actor and I have the honor of pushing them as a group to make productions come alive.

Pricing Mindset – There is a skewed version of pricing in Somerset that I haven’t quite come to terms with. I’ve had this conversation with a few other people who have moved to Somerset from larger towns and have also had to adjust, but it still astonishes me. What people will pay for housing rent in Somerset is almost the same as in Cincinnati – except in Somerset, the place will be in notably worse condition. And small expenses don’t make sense either. Some lunch spots will charge $10 for half a sandwich, chips, and a drink – an order I regularly would get in Cincinnati for $5. I can only imagine its so the business owner can make enough money to cover the over-inflated rent, but its still a bizarre pricing structure for a place I thought would have lower living costs.

As for theater tickets: the college theater department charges $6 for their shows and can pretty easily fill their 120 (or so) seat theater for a one weekend run. The presenting series at the Center for Rural Development charges about $35 for a show, and comes nowhere near to filling their 750 seats. At the Star Theater in nearby Russell Springs, tickets range from $8 – $12 for adults, depending on if the show is a play or a musical. I settled on charging $12 for FbTC’s adult tickets, but with the odd pricing everywhere else, only time will tell if this is the right position for us.

Opportunities for Collaboration – I have been pleased to find several opportunities to expand the reach of the theater company through collaborative efforts and partnerships. Some of those opportunities are still being explored but I am confident most of them will come to fruition. Flashback is filling a niche of the performing arts previously unaddressed in Somerset, and I am looking forward to connecting with as many other organizations as possible to strengthen our community together.

What has been most surprising -funny enough- is that other people are surprised when I am willing to work with them. I guess its something that makes sense to me but the standard reaction to a proposed partnership is fear. Fear of not being in complete control of an event or fear of losing audience members stops otherwise interesting and productive collaborations in their tracks. Although in my experience you can only gain more art lovers, as they typically will support more than one organization.

When I made the commitment to stay here, I did not know for sure there would be talent and partnerships. Now I know they are here, and I hope to keep running into them at every turn.

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Flashback Theater Co. is a producing theater company with the mission of exploring the world, our past, and theater. Learn more by visiting the website http://www.flashbacktheater.co

My Vision

So you’ve heard the what and the why. Now I’d like to tell you how.

The company I am founding will begin with a small festival and a large amount of passion. It is my intent to give you, the audience, the theatrical experience described in my last post of this series, binding us together as a community. I want to tell stories that are truthful and insightful, while staying true to our identity as the Lake Cumberland region.

Flashback Theater Co. MissionYou may be wondering why “Co.” and not “Company”. This theater will be more than just a company. It will be Collaborative. It will be a Community, a Cooperative, a Conversation.

Let’s give people in our community the chance to choose theater as a profession in the long-term, without the fear of never having something to eat. Let’s get friends and neighbors excited about seeing live theater on a regular basis. Let’s stimulate conversations and build our community’s relationships. I hope you are as excited about this as I am, because without you it can’t be done.

Today marks the start of our crowd funding campaign on Indiegogo for our first ever production, coming in February 2015. If you are excited about having a theater company in Somerset, Kentucky, please visit the Indiegogo campaign page to learn more about how you can help  Flashback Theater Co. reach its goal of raising $3,500 in three weeks.

 


In case you missed it:

Part I: Getting there – how I prepared to start a theater company
Part II: Why a theater company?

 

Aside

My crazy late night idea

Have you ever woken up with an idea that you can’t get out of your head? It happened to me at 1 am this morning.

A crazy idea for a flash play festival

It has been my intention to create a production for FbTC in the spring (that’s Flashback Theater Co. for those of you who haven’t been paying attention the past couple of weeks). However, I have been so encouraged by everyone who has shown their support on Facebook that I cannot contain myself any longer! I want to meet everyone who has made the effort to follow the company’s page – what better way than through creating theater together?

Here’s the idea: a 10 minute play festival, put together in just one and a half hours! I have no idea if it will work or not but I think it will be so much fun to try. If you want to take part, check out the Facebook event page here.

Each play will get a director and actors by luck of the draw when you arrive. Rehearsal time of one hour will begin shortly afterwards – when time is up we will watch everyone’s play. Obviously, no one is going to memorize a script in that amount of time, and this isn’t about getting a flawless piece onstage so I am sure everyone will have their script in hand or nearby. It is designed to give you the excuse to take chances and make strong choices because if it flops, well – everyone knows it was rehearsed in only an hour!

This is crazy enough it just might work!


For those of you who have been following the series about why I started FbTC: it will continue soon. This idea was so immediate that I wanted to get it out there first. So don’t worry, you’ll get Part III soon.

 

Why a theater company?

In the last post, I chronicled (as briefly as I could) what led to me starting a theater company in Somerset. Now I want to tell you why.

Theater is inspirational. Onstage, you can be anything and do anything. The exhilaration of a shared experience binds you to friends, family, and community.

woods and lake

Telling a story in theater is more than just words. It is lights, costumes, sets, sounds, actions, emotions, and so much more. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In theater, you must rely on everyone else, even the audience. And when something goes wrong – which it will – you must continue to trust that everyone is working together to make it right.

Theater captures our mindset and history in a unique way. It can provide an insight into our subconsciousness. If you have ever seen great theater, you understand what I mean. If you have not, then all I can tell you is: it is a breathtaking and awe-inspiring experience. And once you have that experience, you will go back over and over, hoping for a repeat. Not every production attains it, but every production aims for it.

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to see Amazing Grace in Chicago before it goes to Broadway. It was such a beautiful and profound piece of theater, and perfectly exemplifies what I am trying to articulate in this post. I will write more about that later – it was a wonderful reminder of exactly what I am saying in this post.

Everything I describe above was how I felt from a young age. It is not until now that I even try to put it into words and still it is such an experiential process that I do not do it justice. I only attempt it now to impart some understanding of what I want to give to my hometown.

Theater-goers in Somerset have to travel at least 2 hours to see professional level theater. There is only one LORT theater in Kentucky: Actors Theatre of Louisville. Knoxville’s Clarence Brown Theatre is perhaps the next closest. My vision is for Somerset to become the home of Kentucky’s next regional theater company. 


This is Part 2 of 3 in a series about why I am founding a theater company. Come back next week for Part 3: My Vision!

Read Part 1

Visit Flashback Theater Co.’s website

Getting there – how I prepared to start a theater company

When I was a little girl – maybe 6 or 7, I was thrown into a church Christmas production at the last-minute because someone dropped out. I wasn’t in the show originally because my mom thought I was too young but desperate times…the show must go on..and well you get the idea.

That was my first experience in theater. I loved it. A few years later, I heard an announcement at school about auditions for a children’s production of Beauty & the Beast at the local community theater. I remembered my earlier performance experience and the feelings of excitement and accomplishment at the end of the show. I knew it was time to take the stage again. I begged my mom to take me to auditions and she warned that I might not get a big part – or even cast, but I insisted and ended up with the role of  Spoon in the Beast’s castle. I played my part well. When the Beast yelled, I shivered with fear. When Belle entered in her gown, I “Ooohhed” and “Ahhed” with amazement. I was rewarded for my emphatic reactions with a part in the next production…and so my “career” in community theater began.

Sommerrenae as Bertha Mae

Bertha Mae “Virgil and the City Slickers”

"Wizard of Oz"

Scarecrow “Wizard of Oz”

When I left for college, I thought I would pursue acting. That lasted about two months. Many of my friends have heard the story of a professor describing walking into a café and ordering hot water to mix with ketchup, making it a free meal of tomato soup…but they heard it in the context of how it made one of my best friends leave the program to pursue engineering instead. What they don’t know is that it also changed my perspective of what I wanted to do. No longer was acting an option for me because spending days auditioning and eating watered down ketchup was not my idea of a great life. I added a minor of Entrepreneurship to my Theater degree. 

You can’t get a degree in theater without working on productions – so I took up costuming. The costume shop was a perfect environment for me. I already had some sewing and craft experience from my aunt and granny as well as spatial reasoning from my dad so learning how to put patterns together was a piece of cake. When I designed for shows, I had to learn to manage a budget and costume crew members. Plus, I was able to get experience in the inner workings of productions – how directors work with designers, stage managers, and actors.

In 2010, I attended the Southeastern Theatre Conference in Lexington, KY. My friends were there to audition and interview for jobs – I was there for the experience. In the conference’s program, I saw an ad for a graduate school that had a program for “Arts Management.” The proverbial light bulb went off. I didn’t know anything about the program but I knew that was my next step. After some research, I found I lived within a stone’s throw of one of the top arts administration programs in the country, at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM).

Everything was falling into place: studying theater and entrepreneurship prepared me for the arts administration degree. Back in my home town of Somerset, the downtown area was growing and renewing: a new judicial center was built, the old library became an arts center, restaurants were opening, and the county passed a measure to begin allowing sales of alcohol. Soon both Somerset and I would be ready for a new theater company.


This is Part 1 of 3 in a series about why I am founding a theater company. Come back next week for Part 2!

Learn about Flashback Theater Co.

 

5 Reasons to Make Seeing Art a Habit

art should be a habit

I love theater. I try to see a play or musical at least once every month. If I could afford it, I’d go every week! The first year of grad school, I didn’t go at all. By the end of that year, I was questioning why I was getting a degree in Arts Administration…but then I worked at Arena Stage for a summer and saw a few productions while I was in D.C. Suddenly I remembered how passionate I am about theater, and committed  to seeing something – anything – every few weeks to keep that passion alive.

Not everyone is as passionate about an art form as I am about theater, and that’s okay. But here are a few reasons to encourage you to make seeing art a regular part of your life.

5. To challenge yourself.
Art often asks questions we have never asked ourselves. Finding your answer to challenging questions makes you grow as a citizen of the world. It helps you see issues you may have ignored or just never even knew existed. There was an Edinburgh Fringe show a few years ago about human trafficking. I wasn’t fortunate enough to see it but the concept was really amazing: The show started at a street corner. The audience would load up in a van and ride with an actor playing the part of a recently abducted woman who would be sold as a prostitute. The van took them to a warehouse, where the woman was abused and kept prisoner. The audience had no choice but to follow the story as they were now a part of it themselves. You can bet the audience never forgot the feeling of being in that van, not knowing where they were going or how long they would be there. Suddenly, human trafficking is real to them and not something they can easily ignore.

4. To open a dialogue with others.
Art is an easy topic to talk about with a stranger. You can compare what you see or hear with what they see or hear, and it can help you make new connections with the people around you. Yesterday I was waiting for my carry out order at a restaurant and another customer stopped and asked me why I looked so tired. This led to a conversation about how much he loves classical music and the symphonies he has attended because I told him I work for the conservatory. He immediately felt connected to me because he loves art and my job is to make art happen.

3. To commit ourselves to an in-person experience.
How often do we stop to experience a moment? It gets harder and harder with each new technology that comes along. Buying a ticket to an arts event – a play or an exhibit or a symphony concert- commits us to being in that moment. Investing in something with our hard-earned money makes us value and prioritize it.  It would be silly to buy a ticket to an exhibit and then sit on a bench answering messages the entire time. You can do that for free without spending cash on a ticket!

2. To give us a topic to post, text, or talk about later.
Taking a break from internet, texting, and emailing helps me to remember what life is about: experiences. Yes, it is great that I can stay connected to people who live far away but I honestly can’t remember what my last Facebook post was about ….and what’s the point of talking to people if you have no new experiences to talk about? (And it won’t hurt my feelings if your excitement for an exhibit encourages new people to come to the next one! 😉 )

1. To see amazing art.
I am constantly in search of the theater piece that takes my breath away. There is nothing quite like it. I go to see theater because I don’t want to miss the next production that leaves me speechless. Ensemble Theater Company’s Next to Normal, the Broadway tour of The Phantom of the Opera, a production of Bye Bye Birdie my college produced. These are part of a collection of memorable experiences that I will always strive to add to. If I weren’t in the habit of going to theater, I would have missed these. For every show that stands out there are 10 shows that don’t. But seeing the not-so-great shows is so worth it when you find a masterpiece!