Tag Archives: devised theatre

Origins of “Radio City Austin”

The Project

BNTC’s first production since moving to Texas will be an eight episode comedic radio serial style podcast called, Radio City Austin. We moved into the BNTC Studio in November and spent our first several months reaching out to the local community by offering acting classes and workshops. Here’s a little background on how the project came about:

The Origin of the Radio Serial Podcast Concept

I am an ideas person. I have new ideas for projects, classes, workshops and a variety of other BNTC oriented activities every day. I am also a practical person. Pretty much every time I have a new idea, my knee jerk reaction is to pull out a calculator and start doing cost benefit analysis. This is a terrible habit in the life of a creative person but a very healthy habit in the life of a business person. Since I am both a creative artist and a business owner simultaneously, I struggle to find the balance and often err on the side of over analysis in an idea’s early stages.

As BNTC’s Artistic Director, I wasn’t entirely convinced that it was time yet to begin development on our first Austin production but when this project presented itself I felt connected to it right away. The more I started thinking about the logistics of it, the more I began to perceive it as the perfect next step in our efforts to establish a meaningful connection to the city and its artists.

The idea came about by accident when I happened to overhear a conversation between two actors who were involved with work at the BNTC Studio. They were having a conversation about radio serial dramas. The second I heard the words “radio serial” my mind started racing. I got swept up in the idea of creating a radio serial style podcast and was so excited about the concept that I arranged a meeting to discuss my thoughts about it with the actor who’s conversation I had overheard. I told him all of my ideas and we exchanged thoughts on how we might approach a production. About thirty minutes into the conversation I paused to say that I wanted to make sure I wasn’t stepping on any toes. “I overheard you talking about this to another actor,” I said. “Was this a project you were already planning with someone else?” He laughed and said, “No I was talking about a completely different project that I did a while ago,” and he went on to explain the project that he had done. I realized, as I listened to him explain the actual conversation he had been having, that I had come up with this entire production idea based on a misinterpretation of a conversation I had overheard in passing. Then I had walked away and filled in all the blanks in my understanding with the ideas that excite me most about BNTC’s potential as a source of new works. Having ordered my thoughts around what I thought I had overheard, I then took the all-important next step of moving from idea to action. I broke through the “over analysis barrier” not because I had enormous personal confidence in my plan but because I believed that it was someone else’s plan all along. Then, because of my willingness to invest in the idea, I had convinced someone else to support it without even realizing that I was “giving him a pitch.” I believed he was already invested in the idea because I thought it was his idea. Then he, in turn, was inspired by my enthusiasm for the idea and began to encourage it’s further development. Up to that point, the entire project was just a bunch of misunderstandings that shaped up into an exciting framework for a new project. Once that the framework was in place and the energy was behind it, the hardest step in my creative process, that of moving from idea to action, had been taken without me even realizing I was doing it.

The Structure 

The basic idea of a radio serial podcast was easily agreed upon but finding the right structure, setting and organization of the rehearsal process was a challenge that required a lot more consideration. I wanted to go into the process as open to new ideas as possible and that meant limiting the amount of planning that took place before the writers were hired and the core cast members were selected. I am dedicated to the idea of creating new work with both actors and writers. New work is what the Brand New Theatre Co. is about. If we aren’t creating things that are new, we either have to come up with a new name for the company or move to a new city every two years. In comparison with those options, creating new work seems both easier and more enjoyable. On the other hand, creating a series from scratch with literally no idea of what the structure, plot or characters will look like isn’t exactly a low-risk situation.

I was convinced that the value of this project for BNTC was it’s contrast with the prospect of devising a full length play at this stage in the company’s development. Doing an audio serial that didn’t require sets and costumes and for which episodes only needed to be about fifteen minutes in length, gave me the opportunity to make connections with a number of writers simultaneously while also enabling me to cast and get to know up to a dozen actors in the span of three months. This was a stark contrast to the option of producing a devised play, which, with BNTC’s current production budget, would only give me the opportunity to work with one writer and with no more than four actors on a project that would take up to four months to carry out.

The tricky aspect of any project that BNTC undertakes at this stage is that none of the writers and actors who will be involved in the project will have had any previous experience devising new work together. There isn’t a standard structure for devising that is shared among various theatres. Most writers and actors have little or no training or background in devising and in any devising situation the company has to develop its own individual process.

The Process

Starting to develop a new devising process is difficult and intimidating but the fast and furious nature of trying to produce eight new scripts in three weeks actually felt more liberating than intimidating. It gave me the opportunity to turn up the heat from the very beginning and keep everyone focused on getting any idea that came through their head right out onto the table. It can be very difficult building openness and trust with a new group because no one wants to suggest a concept or improvise a scene that makes them appear to be less “creative” or “talented” than the other members of the group. Fortunately, one thing that is more scary than the prospect of having a “dumb” idea is the prospect of having no script at all when the audience arrives. The serial will be presented as a reading, not a play, which means rehearsal time is short. There is no time for worrying about what might go wrong. There is only plunging ahead, staying open to new ideas and being honest as quickly as possible about what isn’t working in order to have time to make adjustments.

The writers began working with the actors from the get-go. In fact, I auditioned the actors first and invited some of them to come along to the writer’s audition. This gave me the opportunity to see how each actor dealt with the challenge of experimenting with prompts provided by writers. It also showed me how the writers dealt with the challenge of allowing an actors’ interpretation of the writer’s ideas to open up new directions for plot/character development.

The wonderful thing about a devising audition, is that you don’t have to reject talented people just because they don’t fit a specific part. Instead you write the role for the actor. On the other hand, neither writers nor actors can be cast based on only their writing or acting ability. The main challenge in the audition process is to try to weigh out, in a very short amount of time, who will be open to collaboration and who will struggle with give and take once they get attached to their ideas. There will always be some struggle in the devising process but there is nothing that puts the breaks on collaborative creation more quickly than a collaborator who has a tendency to foreclose on their own ideas rather than allowing their creativity to be influenced by other people’s contributions.

As soon as the series was cast, the first challenge I was faced with as the coordinator of the overall creative process, was to sort out everyone’s schedules. On the up side, I was blessed with a talented cast of in-demand actors, improvisors and writers. On the down side, being in demand meant that most of my performers had very limited schedules. The first real challenge for the writers was to come up with a plot-line that was flexible enough to allow actors to miss episodes while maintaining each character’s role in the overall plot development of the series. We started with a full-cast and writers workshop to brainstorm possible scenarios that would engage our own interest and the interest of an Austin audience while also allowing us to introduce new characters from one episode to the next without disrupting the plot. After the initial workshop, I met with a couple of the writers to map out the overall plot structure.

We then moved on to the workshopping phase during which I directed two weeks of interactive meetings between actors and writers. The structure of each meeting varied depending on the particular writer’s approach and ideas. Some meetings took the form of round table character discussions. Some meetings looked more like improv rehearsals; and one meeting even involved exercises influenced by Suzuki Technique which involves a lot of stomping around with your legs contorted into strange positions.  At the end of every meeting the writer was tasked with the challenge of combining their portion of the overall plot structure with their workshop experience in order to produce a draft of an episode.

Ideally, I would like to develop a devising process that involves a lot more give and take between writers and actors throughout the development process but this project, for BNTC, is a lot more about laying a groundwork for exchange and getting to know a number of different artist’s processes. Later, I hope that some of the ideas and approaches that came out of these workshops will resurface in more extended devising projects but for now the idea is just to push past the initial psychological resistance that occurs when trying to create something new, with new people, in a new environment. I believe that the result will be something that we can all be proud of but that we also have great ideas for improving on as the podcast develops.

We are quickly coming to the end of phase two, the “solo” writing phase. For the most part the writers are working on their own to complete their drafts but, of course, the fact that each person’s episode has a major effect on every other person’s episodes means that the writers are in constant contact throughout the writing process.

When the drafts are complete we will have rehearsals that are open to writers and later run-through rehearsals with the final drafts of the scripts. The rehearsals for early episodes will begin next week and episodes that occur later in the season will be rehearsed while we are already in the process of recording the first several episodes.

Production and Distribution

Each episode will be recorded in the BNTC Studio in front of a live audience on Friday nights starting April 6th and running through May 25th. Tickets to attend a live recording can be purchased from our online ticket office. We are currently only selling tickets for one show at a time so you’ll only be able to buy tickets for the next available performance. If you would like to reserve tickets to a specific production, however, you can email brandnewtheatre@live.com to request your seats.

The recordings will be distributed as a podcast. More information about the release date will be posted here on the website as it gets closer. If you would like to be on a mailing list to receive information about podcast distribution you can let us know by emailing brandnewtheatre@live.com.

Practice for Being Human – September 11th

Not surprisingly, in light of the ten year anniversary, I’ve been thinking a lot about my experiences on September 11, 2001. Also not surprisingly, in light of the current direction my life is taking, I’ve been thinking a lot about why theatre matters (if, in fact, it does). Today, I’m going to try to share a few of my thoughts on both things. I hope they make sense to someone besides me.

I was living in “America’s Biggest Small Town” somewhere in Texas and attending college in 2001. On the morning of September 11 everyone in the school was being heavily incentivized to attend the inauguration ceremony for the new college president. I wasn’t looking forward to spending a morning listening to a bunch of old people give speeches about a “president” that I had not been involved in “electing” but I was under the influence of an extra credit bribe. I rolled out of bed feeling especially grumpy, shuffled into some clothes that were debatably more presentable than my pajamas and walked out into the lobby of the dorm. I was met there by my dorm director who was usually bubbly, full of enthusiasm for everything about life and always very attractively made-up. That morning she burst out of her apartment with her usual level of energy but her attitude was very different than I had ever seen it, so was her appearance. She was angry, her hair was a mess and she wasn’t wearing any makeup.

“I can’t believe we are having to do this!” she exclaimed the second she caught site of me. It was the kind of thing I would normally say. I’ve never been the compliant type.

“I know.” I said.

“I don’t want to go anywhere! I just want to stay in and watch the t.v.” she said. I agreed with her (thought I would rather have staid in and slept) and began to walk away.

I was in college. It was before 10am. My brain was moving slowly. As I walked away, I began to assimilate the information. A, usually very enthusiastic woman, was complaining. A, usually very nicely made up woman, was walking around in a semi-public area looking more disheveled than I looked. She wanted to watch t.v. Maybe there was something in particular on the t.v. that needed to be seen.

I stopped just before reaching the door. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“Look!” she said, pointing. I turned and took in the television for the first time since I had entered the lobby. It wasn’t usually on in the mornings. From the moment I saw the screen, my mind was engulfed in a confused haze and stayed there for the rest of the day. The sound was turned down low, I couldn’t hear what the newscasters were saying and I couldn’t process what I was seeing. I can’t remember exactly what time it was, so I’ve never been able to figure out if what I saw was a replay or if I was actually witnessing the moment when the second plane hit the South Tower. I had no idea where the images I was seeing were coming from. It looked like New York City but I couldn’t comprehend something like this happening in my own country.

I must have asked questions. I must have turned up the volume on the t.v. I must have stayed for some time and absorbed the images that were coming across the screen. I don’t remember any of it clearly. I remember being confused. I remember not being sure that these things were really happening, in real time. I took in as much as I could handle and walked out of the dorm.

I saw people gathered in front of the college chapel, lined up for the inauguration ceremony and assumed they would all be talking about what I had just seen. I walked over to them hoping that someone would be able to explain it to me.  As I got closer, it was apparent from the sounds of their small talk, that most of the students standing outside had not seen a television yet. Only a few minutes before, I had been just like them but, now that I had some awareness that something much bigger than our mundane lives needed our attention, I was angry at them for their ignorance. I saw my brother’s girlfriend standing by the door of the building and went to her.

“Do you know what’s happening?” I asked.

She told me that she had called my brother and that he had refused to come to the inauguration because he wanted to watch the news. She said, “He says we are probably going to go to war. He says this is going to change everything.”

I wanted to leave before the ceremony started. I wanted to watch t.v. but somehow it felt morbid and voyeuristic to want to watch other people suffer. I decided to attend the ceremony thinking that surely someone would make an announcement. I thought it would be meaningful to be with other people when the announcement was made. I wanted to pray with them. I wanted to have an opportunity to talk about what this meant.

When I think about that inauguration ceremony now, I am ashamed for the president of the university. I cannot reflect on it without feeling that the entire event made him appear small minded and deeply selfish.

There was no announcement. There were no prayers. There was not a moment of silence or a time for people to turn to one another to ask questions, discuss or shed tears.

We followed the program for the event just as if nothing was happening. It was a disturbing experience standing in a dark room singing a hymn, pretending that nothing was out of the ordinary. The last verse of the hymn used a metaphor about soldiers fighting a war. I couldn’t sing. I felt insulted, confused and sick.

Later in the ceremony my creative writing instructor read a poem he had written for the new president. The poem was spoken from the perspective of a well known former president of the university reflecting on his own experience and giving insight to the new president. One line stated, “I pray you never have to see your boys go to war.” The day it was written, that line had been a kind sentiment and a reflection on the pain of the past. The day it was read, it became an erie foreshadowing of the direction in which our country had suddenly found itself moving.

I was convinced until the last moment of the ceremony that someone was going to say something about the events of the day. When we reached the end of the program I walked out feeling stunned and angry. The major donors and community officials who were in attendance ambled over to a picnic on the lawn and students rushed off to their afternoon classes.

I tried to tell myself that people just didn’t know. Those who did know were in shock. When they had time to process what was happening they would respond.

I waited for the response. Being a Resident Assistant in the dorms, I felt that perhaps it was my role to facilitate a time of discussion, reflection and prayer. I put up signs inviting dorm residents to join me that evening. No one came. I went around to people’s rooms to find out if they had seen the signs. People were in. They had seen the signs. They just had a lot of homework to do, tests to study for, plans for the evening.

I know that there were people on campus who were deeply affected by that day. I know that all over the school there were people like my dorm director, my brother and my future sister-in-law who were trying to process that day in their own ways.

Sadly, I also know that there were people who simply didn’t care. They didn’t know anyone in New York City. It didn’t feel real to them.

I will confess, a thousand thoughts ran through my head that day but I don’t remember feeling very much emotion. I responded emotionally to the people around me but I could not emotionally grasp the reality of what was happening in NYC, at the Pentagon and on Flight 93. When I thought about it, I just felt dazed and blank.

I was in need of some way to put that experience into perspective. I was in need of some way to connect with my own community in order to empathize with those communities that were immediately affected by the tragedy.

The inauguration ceremony was an opportunity for everyone on my campus to respond, to process, to identify. Using that gathering as an opportunity to bring people together around something much bigger than their own preoccupations might have resulted in a campus full of compassionate, socially active and, in my opinion, more deeply human individuals. Instead, as a result of the administration’s choice to ignore the events, the entire campus was emotionally euthanized.

People processed the events of that day on their own or, possibly, in small groups but there was no sense that our community, as a whole, was in any way connected to the greater community of those who were suffering.

That’s what I’m reflecting on today. It seems important to me but it leads to several questions: Does it matter that there was no public recognition of this tragedy at my university? Does a “community response” have more relevance than an individual response? What does any of this have to do with theatre?

Maybe the answer to the first question seems obvious. Yes, someone should have said something in the ceremony. This event completely and permanently changed the status quo for our American lives. It was wrong that it didn’t alter the plans for a largely meaningless campus event. But what good would it have done to change those plans? What difference would it have made for the people in that auditorium?

There are some concrete answers to those questions. It might have motivated people to “take action.” They might have been more likely to give blood, donate to the red cross and participate in other relief efforts. That would have made a literal and tangible impact (however minor in the grand scheme of things).

But I think there is something less concrete that was missed that day. Connecting with other people’s pain makes us better at being human. That is not something I can quantify or even give very good examples to express but it is something I know to be essentially true. People need to take time to understand one another. They need to take opportunities to reflect on the realities of one another’s existence on this earth.

Tragedy in such massive proportions is incredibly difficult to grasp on a personal level but eventually it comes to effect our every day lives. It changes the way we travel. It changes our relationship to war. It changes our political views, religious views and social interactions. Before we experience all of these changes, we need to experience the reality of the event that leads to them. We need to connect to it, talk about it in all it’s complexity, feel the pain of it’s reality. If we do not do these things we cannot take a human approach to the subsequent changes it brings into our lives. Without a connection to the tragedy itself, we experience these changes as inconveniences, distant events and opinions. We don’t experience them as expressions of a deeply complex and life alteringly painful reality. If we don’t connect to that reality, all of our experiences with the fallout are less empathetic, less insightful, less human.

That leads to the second question. If each person processes the event and responds individually, is there any need for a “community response?” Again it is difficult for me to pinpoint concrete support for my instinctive belief that a sense of community in times of tragedy is important. Ultimately, I think it comes back, once again, to connecting with humanity. We need to be present with real people. We can empathize with the people we see on television but only distantly. They do not see us. We cannot reach out to them physically. It is always necessary to remember that each of us is only one of billions of people trying to exist on this plant but it is, perhaps, more necessary than normal to have a vibrant reminder of the closeness of other people’s existence when we are processing a large scale tragedy. We need to see just how many ways people respond. We need to interact with the depth of one another’s emotions. We need to speak about what we have seen and give others an opportunity to be heard.

I cannot make a simple list of the benefits of this type of connection because I don’t think they are straightforward or easily defined. I can, however, point out (without having done any research but still with assurance that I am not making a wild unfounded assumption) that every culture everywhere in the history of the world has used gatherings of one kind or another as an opportunity to process the realities of their lives. We sing communally. We pray communally. We gather for the purpose of listening to people speak about issues that are relevant to us. We express ourselves artistically in front of others. We give time, money and energy into the effort of observing and discussing other people’s artistic expressions. We have a need as human beings to interact in communal ways. These communal expressions remind us of our own humanity, the humanity of others and the reality that their is more to our lives than our own individual experiences.

That leads to my final question. What does any of this have to do with theatre? My experience on September 11, 2001 was a life changing example of what happens when people who have the power to speak, to create community and to inspire a more human reaction, choose instead to carry on with their usual plans and place undue importance on meaningless ceremony.

Depending on who you are and how you relate to the world my story may bring about a completely different thought process for you (I’d love to hear about that) but, as I think about it in reference to what I have to offer, I am compelled to apply this experience to the way I make theatre.

Theatre can very easily become ceremony for the sake of ceremony. It’s creators can get so caught up in what they think their event should be about that they can suffocate the expression of what the event needs to be about. In every community, the people who gather to empathize, explore and be entertained, have shared experiences that need expression. I want to create theatre that is local enough to reflect those shared experiences, flexible enough to respond as those experiences change and small enough to give audience members a sense of personal connection with the event.

To be honest, I don’t exactly know what that looks like. I know how depressed I get when I see a play that in no way achieves these goals. I know how much more alive I feel when I go to a play that does achieve them, even in part. But I’m not entirely sure I know what it looks like for me. That may make me seem aimless or unorganized but I think what it really reflects is my willingness to let the process of devising theatre yield it’s own results.

For me, it is important to have a broad idea of what I think theatre should achieve before I begin creating it but if my ideas are too specific, I won’t have the flexibility I need in order to respond to the discoveries that come about in the creative process. Like the people who planned the inauguration ceremony at my university I could easily get so caught up in what I’m trying to do that I fail to realize that what I’m doing is no longer important. Theatre that is created without a sense of what it is trying to express, misses the opportunity to speak into the realities that surround it’s expression. Theatre that is created with too rigid a sense of what it is trying to express, misses the opportunity to adjust to the changing needs of it’s community.

My experience on September 11, along with a number of other life experiences has convinced me that sometimes people need to practice being human. Intimately encountering another person’s humanity can be difficult on many levels. One of the difficulties it brings about is the fact that it causes us to reflect on our own humanity. People come up with many different way of avoiding the reality of their own humanity and the humanity of others. At my university, on September 11, 2001 the popular approach was denial and avoidance. I believe that theatre can be an intermediary…like humanity with training wheels. It can give us the opportunity to explore what it is that makes us real while pretending that what we are experiencing is fiction. I imagine I’ll write more about this concept in the future but today I wanted to remember one of the sources of my belief in the importance of what I do. I help people to be more human, I create an opportunity for people to explore their humanity in community with others. I have seen first hand how failure to provide those experiences creates silence and isolation. I hope that what I do will instead create space for compassion and community to emerge.