This week’s edition of Live Active Cultures calls for a different kind of introduction, because it’s a different kind of column. I’ve had a surreally stressful week, so take a side trip with me to the Uncomfortably Personal Zone. You see, even though I’m proud to plug my friends’ artistic achievements (always with appropriate disclaimers, of course), I’ve been loath to self-promote on this page. So, aside from a brief mention in last week’s column, I’ve refrained from alluding to the endeavor that’s consumed a major portion of my last few months. Until now.
As co-producer of the Empty Spaces Theatre Co., a small troupe operating in Orlando since 2004, I’ve just finished the presentation of a festival of Samuel Beckett plays at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center. More specifically, I directed Beckett’s first and best-known play, the infamous existentialist epic Waiting for Godot. In case you’ve had your memories of high school English class surgically removed (and who hasn’t, these days?), Godot is the nonstory of two schlubs making endless small talk as they stand around waiting for someone who never shows up. It’s revered among academics as an absurdist meditation on God, adored by vaudeville aficionados as a treasure trove of pedigreed piss and fart jokes – and an apt metaphor for our company’s economic experience.
I have no complaints about the success of Godot; on the contrary, our audiences ranged from respectable to downright excellent, and the response from those who saw it was overwhelmingly positive. I take little to no credit for that praise; I’m a firm believer that a good director casts the right people and gets the hell out of their way. I’m grateful I was able to assemble a cast – Kevin Kriegel, Brett Carson, Josh Geoghagan, Christian Kelty, Corey Volence – capable of taking one of the toughest scripts in theater and making it look easy.
What I am downhearted about is the response to the other major component of our mini-festival: the two series of Beckett’s short plays. Despite the novelty of seeing these famous but rarely produced works come to life with notable local talent, our company found it difficult to find a paying audience. Naturally, we anticipated these challenging pieces would have “selective” appeal but did expect more people in the seats than on stage. Our spiritual mentor Peter Brook might have theorized about theater requiring only an “empty space” and a single audience member to view it, but we didn’t intend to implement it quite so literally.
Thanks to the generosity of my producing partner John DiDonna – who has been evangelizing a Beckett celebration for as long as I’ve known him – the final performances became “pay what you want” open houses. Those hardy souls who showed were engaged and appreciative, and we’d always considered presenting this kind of work more as educational outreach than a real moneymaker. But we didn’t succeed in bringing these perplexing playlets to as wide an audience as we’d hoped.
It would be easy but empty for me to sniff, “Oh, Orlando!” and declare that this town doesn’t have a market for “serious” art. But our prior shows had equally obscure or intimidating subjects and always found an audience. I can’t blame location or publicity, since we had our favorite stage at the Shakes and generous coverage in print and over the airwaves. There’s enough else going on around town that I’d like to be able to credit increased competition, but from what I hear some other first-rate productions (Rabbit Hole) didn’t get the numbers they deserved either. I guess I could blame it on the floundering Bush economy sapping art patrons’ disposable income, but then I read that the $50 tickets to WrestleManiArt were the Red Chair Project’s No. 2 top seller of all time, and that the touring company of Wicked has sold out here at near-Broadway prices.
So, what is the answer? Where are the ticket-buyers, and how can artists find them? How can we build a better environment for small, serious theater? If you have an answer, let me know. Better yet, let the DPAC people know – they’re the ones who will be spending millions of bond-backed bucks on Mayor Buddy’s new performing arts center. Tell them what you think our entertainment ecosystem needs at the April 29 project overview and Q&A session at their downtown offices.
In the meantime, I plan on drinking away my bitterness (or at least the first few layers) at Tammy Kopko’s Going Away Bash (April 23 at the Peacock Room). Whether starring in a Tod Kimbro psychodrama, inhabiting Bette Davis or hostessing debaucherous “Cocktail Hours,” Tammy’s been among the more memorable actresses in town and will be missed once she departs for Brooklyn.
After that, I’m gonna vicariously dance my cares away at Barrettwerks (April 25-27 at the Harwood-Watson Dance Studios). Ellie Potts Barrett is presenting an eclectic mix of dances choreographed by herself, Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dance and my completely biased favorites Voci Dance. If, as Ellie puts it, “16 fabulously talented modern dancers in one room” can’t restore my confidence in creativity, what can?[email protected]