Sunday, November 27, 2016

Supporting the Arts: A Circus Act

A couple of weeks ago Carey and I went to Montreal to take part in the CINARS Biennale, one of the most important international showcase and networking events in the performing arts industry.  The weeklong Biennale gathers around 1,500 participants from over 40 countries and presents more than 170 shows from Qu├ębec, Canada, and abroad. There were so many wonderful artists sharing work.  While the language difference made it difficult to see a lot of theatre, we did see a bunch of circus shows.  Montreal is pretty much the epicenter of contemporary circus with the headquarters of Cirque du Soleil, TOHU (a major circus venue), and the national circus school all located in one city block.  There was some absolutely incredible work that I’ll remember for a long time.

When not attending performances, I took part in some meetings with other artists and presenters from New England and some presenters and government officials from Quebec. I was there as part of a delegation assembled by the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA).  NEFA is the primary regional funder for the arts in New England.  Their budget is made up of funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), from the 6 New England state arts agencies, and from individual donations.  At one meeting that I attended we heard about the arts funding structure in Canada. Suffice to say, government funding for arts and culture is much more significant in Canada than it is here. The current budget for the Canada Council for the Arts is $40 million per year, but it is scheduled to increase to $180 million per year by 2020. Conversely, the NEA’s budget is currently at just under $148 million per year which is down almost $20 million since 2010.  Frankly, it is difficult to anticipate what will happen with federal funding for the arts in the US under the new administration, but I don’t believe we will see the budget quadruple in four years as it will in Canada.  In addition to federal funding, the Canadian provinces also support the arts at very high levels.  In 2014-2015, the Province of Quebec allocated just over $94 million in support for the arts.  $88 million of that was paid out in grants to artists. There are an estimated 8.5 million people living in the Province in Quebec.  By contrast, NEFA paid out $3.2 million in grants in 2015.  New England has an estimated population of 14 million people. It’s truly a testament to the work of the NEFA staff how much impact they have on the cultural landscape of the region given the relatively modest size of their budget. A feat no less difficult than many of the circus acts we saw in Montreal.

It’s not all super depressing, however. Where the U.S. does do significantly better than our neighbors to the north is in private philanthropy. On account of the high levels of government support for the arts, private philanthropy is virtually nonexistent in Canada. Artists and arts organizations in the U.S. are dependent upon significant support from private donors. As I’m sure many of you are aware, tKAPOW is currently in the midst of our annual fundraising appeal. We consider ourselves tremendously blessed that so many people continue to believe in the work that we do and choose to support our work financially.  
This coming Tuesday (November 29th), nonprofits across the country will celebrate Giving Tuesday. Started in 2012, Giving Tuesday is a global day of giving fueled by the power of social media and collaboration. While perhaps we can’t hope to ever achieve government funding levels similar to our Canadian counterparts, we do have amazingly generous people in our community who continue to make what we do possible. So, if you have anything left after the craziness of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday, please consider supporting your favorite non-profits on Giving Tuesday. We truly can’t do this without you.
~ Matt Cahoon

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Down Time?

“You must love that you have a bit of a break now.”  That is the most common thing we hear when a show closes.

Yep, I do love it. I’ll be going to a beach, putting my feet up and having drinks with tiny umbrellas in them.

Or, I’ll be catching up on all the "administrivia" that fell by the wayside or got put on hold in the weeks leading up to a production. There is an art to arts administration, I know that. Strong administration is absolutely essential to any successful arts organization. We see the result of the hard work that artists out into a show. But the work that happens in the offices, or the storage rooms, or late at night on the laptop is supposed to be invisible, right? That’s what makes it good work.

We often only realize that this important work isn't being done well or done right when it is too late. We see another headline about a theatre closing its doors, or an orchestra going under, or a museum having to sell off part of its collection.

There is, indeed, an art to arts administration. And like the arts it supports, it can be messy, confusing, and full of doubt.  Here are just some of the ways that manifests itself (this week anyway):
  • Enter receipts and update budgets. We were over in some areas, under in others. What’s the bottom line on this show?
  • Return some canvas storage bins that we didn’t ending up using on the set because they were the wrong size. That helps the bottom line (every little bit helps, right?)
  • Wash the costumes from the show and return them to storage. Do we have enough hangers for the things that we bought for this show? Should we bother saving this orange t-shirt?
  • When will we finally organize the costumes in storage? We always say we are going to do that and then just stick them on the first available space on the costume racks and can't find them again. Is that why we spend so much at Goodwill?
  • Update the email list. When does the next e-newsletter need to go out? How much growth has there been from this show? What is the open rate/click rate?
  • Update our database with all the people who attended the last show. How should these people be coded? Do we get enough data about ticket buyers from the ticketing system?
  • Check in on the marketing plan. What gets posted to Facebook now that the show is done?
  • Schedule rehearsals for the next play reading. When will we get the cd of images of works of art we are supposed to use with this show? Where is the copy of our license agreement? When are the royalties due on that?
  • Segment lists of lybunts, sybunts, and prospects for the fundraising appeal. Do we need envelopes? What is the goal for this year? Where’s that budget?
  • We’ll need to get these appeal letters signed. When is our next board meeting?
  • Update the website. Do we need to add more photos?
  • We got that grant award last week. What paperwork do we need to send back?
  • What are we forgetting?
Hug your arts administrator, your managing director, your stage manager, your wardrobe tech. They deserve it.  Artists could not thrive at arts organizations without them.

~ Carey Cahoon

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Anton Chekhov, Aaron Posner, Cameron Crowe?

Last night theatre KAPOW opened Stupid F%cking Bird by Aaron Posner. Posner’s “sort of” adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull poses questions about the nature and purpose of art. Why do we make art? Who is our art for? What does it mean to be an artist? Does art reflect life, or do we try, often in vain, to make our lives reflect our favorite works of art? These questions are enormous; it is up to each individual to find the answers for her or himself.

Stupid F%cking Bird is my first show with theatre KAPOW and I have loved every moment of playing Nina and working with this dedicated and talented group of artists. However as any artist knows, it is one thing to be invested in the art you are making, the question is, will others connect with your art? My parents saw the show last night and when I was able to talk with them about it, my father said something I found very interesting. “Your relationship with Trigorin was just like one between Pennylane and Russell in Almost Famous. It was the same story.” He went on to say that he wondered if Cameron Crowe had read The Seagull and was inspired by the Nina/Trigorin dynamic when he was writing the screenplay for his early twenty-first century rock n’ roll masterpiece.

Of course, I have no idea if Cameron Crowe has read The Seagull, or if the doomed romance between a teenage groupie and a famous rock star was in any way inspired by Nina’s adoration of the brilliant, narcissistic writer. Still, there are certainly recurring themes here. There are other parallels to be drawn as well. Both stories deal with the struggle between “art” and “fame,” persona and reality, our desire to connect and our desires.

If we go back far enough in dramatic history, we can find many other parallels. (The similarities between Chekhov’s Konstantin and Shakespeare’s Hamlet have inspired dissertations.) But the takeaway for me is that the very questions and struggles that plague artists also inspire art. My dad loves rock n’ roll and has never read The Seagull. But he was able to see similarities between the characters and story of Almost Famous and the Chekhovian-inspired characters in Aaron Posner’s modern adaptation. He found something he could connect with there. Maybe he’ll read The Seagull one day, or maybe he’ll be content with what he got out of Bird last night. Either way, those works of art inspired discussion, thought, and ultimately, connection. Not earth-shattering, but perhaps just enough.
~Emily Karel

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The O'Neill Dilemma

Eugene O'Neill's father James was a famous actor. He played Macduff opposite Edwin Booth in Macbeth, and was a renowned Romeo (onstage and off). But he was best known for his role in The Count of Monte Cristo, a part he played regularly over more than forty years. It wasn't long before his popularity in the role became a trap. The San Francisco News Letter complained that his performance had "degenerated" from art to mere commerce. O'Neill tried to turn to other works - notably Julius Caesar - but when those flopped financially he found himself back in The Count to recoup his lost money. Thanks in large part to his son's retelling of the story, O'Neill's dilemma has become a warning trope to actors who repeat a role: This way lies artistic peril.

theatre KAPOW just completed its fifth production (in four years) of The Burial at Thebes, Seamus Heaney's adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone. Each year we remount our production for Saint Anselm College, as part of the College's Conversatio course for first-year students. The production helps us pay the bills for the rest of the season. Four of our company have appeared in the same roles in all five productions. Yet with some effort on all our parts, we have avoided the artistic peril.

This summer during our annual retreat at Chanticleer Gardens we dedicated five class sessions in what we called the Michael Chekhov Practicum to rehearsing just the first scene of Antigone, each day from a different starting point in the actor's art: psycho-physical center, quality of movement, atmosphere of place, expansion and contraction, rising and falling. Apart from the pure joy of exploring a great story, we learned that the first scene alone remains full of new possibilities for us. We haven't come close to plumbing the depths of the Antigone story.

A month later we began formal rehearsals for this latest production. The design and staging elements remain largely the same. But the four actors who were returning for the fifth time each found a newness in the work. Each of us had the experience of hearing or seeing something in a new way, and thus each of us could realize new relationships and possibilities. For me that was the result of a new starting point. If last year was all about what Chekhov called psychological gesture, this year began with the atmosphere of corruption, and the corruption of flesh and morals that runs through the play. That atmosphere generates an odor, an imagined sensation on the skin, and a visceral experience of corruption. That experience of the atmosphere led me to an enhanced understanding of Creon's action through the play. He's not only "saving the city;" this year he's purging the corruption, and again that action carries him from the beginning of the play to the very end. The experience of atmosphere led also to a new quality of movement - less flying this year, and more molding. And then to a new experience of psychological gesture that develops from expanding and contracting in the atmosphere. Purging is a kind of expansion; the defense against or retreat from corruption is a kind of contraction. And those new or refined gestures led further, to a new consideration of archetype. This year, Creon is not so much a king as he is a priest (who else has the work of saving the people or purging the corruption?). Antigone, in my mind, becomes a priestess, or nun, or sacrificial virgin. And thus we arrive - in fairly rapid fashion - at a deeper layering of the relationship between the two characters.

Of course we still encounter the usual troubles that plague almost every production in almost every company - too little time to rehearse, uncertainty about the receptivity of the young audience (which this year was superb), and so on. But the lesson of this year's remounting, and of all great plays, is that we never really "close" a production, or "put to bed" a great role. We've discovered that there's a lot of work left for us to explore in this story, and that as we continue to incorporate trainings with rehearsals we can avoid "the O'Neill Dilemma." Next year's Thebes won't be a mere repeating of the old chestnut for us, but the opportunity for our deepest artistic growth.

~Peter Josephson

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Through with Read-throughs

"Usually, a first day of rehearsal goes something more like this. The actors arrive. The entire theater staff arrives, occasionally along with some board members. We eat stale donuts and mill around nervously. The artistic director says a few words. The director does a presentation. The designers do a presentation. The playwright says some awkward heartfelt things. It’s something like an ad campaign, but for who? We’re still trying to convince the theater to do our play, but they’re already doing it! We tell the actors how the play will look and sound, proud of our work, but because we’ve done the work already, the actors’ very particular imaginations won’t influence any of our big plans!
Then we sit down nervously, surrounded by a ring of about fifty people (depending on how big the theater is), and we read the play out loud at a table. The pencils are sharp, and the actors do a strange dance of auditioning for each other. The day ends, we are all relieved, and the next day we actually begin rehearsal. What if the first day of rehearsal could contain more joy? More costumes and fewer packets of information? What if it were as secretive and intimate as children building a fort, covering themselves with blankets, sitting in the dark, saying to the outside world: keep out, keep out, for now…"
Sarah Ruhl, “On the First Day of Rehearsal,” 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write on Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I love Sarah Ruhl. Her plays are genius, but this little book of 100 essays has become my guidebook for theatre and life. I’m sure many of us have, on a number of occasions, experienced a read through just like what Sarah Ruhl describes above. It feels much more like ritual than rehearsal and without question there is a sense in the room that it is just something we need to do before we can start actually rehearsing. Lost in the ritual is any sense of purpose. Why do we do this? What is the point?

On Saturday morning, we had our first rehearsal for Stupid Fucking Bird. Before heading to the theatre, I re-read Sarah’s essay and was determined to avoid the typical read-through. We only allowed ourselves a 2 hour block for our first meeting because we were also scheduled to rehearse The Burial at Thebes that day. This is a cast in which some people have worked together a number of times and some people are completely new to tKAPOW so, yes, we spent a few minutes on introductions. And, yes, we spent just a few minutes explaining what we had in mind for the physical playing area. But, when it came time to dive into the script, I wanted to approach things a little differently. Stupid Fucking Bird is an amazing script and one of the things that makes it so great is that it very deliberately blurs the line between actor and audience. So, for the first rehearsal I set up 8 chairs in two rows of four. The two rows faced each other with about 15’ between them. Then we read the script, but rather than remaining seated, the actors moved into the open space between the chairs and walked through the whole show.

It was fascinating to watch the cast make decisions about where and how to enter, where to play the scene, and how to exit. If they felt chairs were needed they would drag them into the space and then take them with them when they exited. I was fortunate that so many of the cast members were off or almost off book so there wasn’t much of the awkwardness of having to balance your script while moving through space.

In this way, the first rehearsal was just that. A rehearsal. But, a rehearsal virtually free of rules. The actors went where they wanted to go and got to be in complete control. And, you know what? There were some moments, some real moments, created during that two hour rehearsal. Moments that I can guarantee we would not have found sitting around a table. Is it performance ready? No, but I truly believe that the cast learned more about the show, their characters, and their ensemble than they would have in a typical read through. Most importantly, I think this rehearsal set a tone for the rest of our work. It will be a process where the actors will be empowered to take risks, to explore, to play. I’m not trying to claim that there is anything really revolutionary here. I know that many theatres have long since abandoned the read through, but for us it was a new approach and I am really encouraged by the results. I’ll be very curious to see how many of the little discoveries from the first rehearsal end up in the finished product. Until then, we’ll have a lot of fun building blanket forts.

~ Matt Cahoon

Monday, August 22, 2016

Theatre as a Universal Language

Some of my favorite theatrical experiences as an audience member have been shows performed in languages other than English. As I've discussed in a previous blog, Teatr Zar, a Polish company that performed at Charlestown Working Theater a few years ago, put on one of the best pieces I've ever seen. I've been fortunate enough to see shows in Italian, French, Farsi, and ASL (which I'll grant included lots of English). In all of these cases, the power of the performances have had the ability to transcend the language barrier. It takes a special performer to bridge the gap of understanding, but when they are able to do so the results are profound. I suppose this is a reality with which opera fans are quite familiar.

As I write this, I'm on a plane back from Italy where I have spent the last 9 days in residence at LaMaMa Umbria International. I was last in Italy in 2013 for LaMaMa's Directors' Symposium. This time I was in Italy directing an original, one-woman piece entitled Bea and Me. The piece was written and performed by Marybeth Berry, a friend I met during the 2013 symposium. The show explores Marybeth's personal life story dealing with domestic abuse at the hands of her husband who died of cancer. As a means of unlocking this story, Marybeth wrote the piece as a conversation with Beatrice Herford an early 20th century monologist widely recognized as a pioneer of solo performance. The play deals with complex themes and features an equally complex format. We spent most of our time in Italy refining the script so as to improve flow, timing, and message. The piece was performed twice at Cantiere Oberdan, the host venue for the LaMaMa Spoleto Open.

About mid-week, one of the organizers of the LaMaMa program asked us how we were going to address the language issue for Italian audiences. Honestly we were so heavily involved in script edits and staging rehearsals that we hadn't really considered that at all. I reached out to an Italian friend of mine for help, but with time so short, the decision was made to just present the piece in English. We figured that if nothing else, the playwrights currently working at LaMaMa (a group of about 12) would come to the show and the language would not be a problem for them.

Friday night, the night of the first performance, came and we only had four people in the audiences, all Italians (some with very limited English). I gave my curtain speech and had the first in my lifetime experience of having to pause while it was translated for the audience. Marybeth pressed forward with her piece and the audience was absolutely enthralled. As a side note, I've never seen an actress embrace having an audience to play for as much as Marybeth did that night. Her story burst forth from her as if it just needed to be released. The performance reached its end, the lights dimmed, and our little Italian audience absolutely went nuts. They clapped and clapped and then clapped some more. It was clear that while they may not have understood all of the language (or Marybeth's crazy accent which is two parts South Carolina drawl with one part Rhode Island speed), but they were moved. They were moved because Marybeth was moved. The emotional tension in the room was evident and it needed no translation.

Here I am,somewhere over southern France and I find myself contemplating what lessons from this experience I can take with me to my work at home. tKAPOW has always been committed to producing the very best of dramatic literature and that commitment will not change any time soon. What I believe I will continue to explore as a director, however, is performance that is highly expressive and storytelling propelled by strong imagery. I will challenge my actors to consider those audiences members who may not be able to rely on understanding of the language alone. I hope that this approach will help us create productions capable of transcending language all together.

~ Matt Cahoon

Friday, August 5, 2016


Season 9 is here! It's actually hear, here. (See what we did there?)

It’s hard to believe, but tKAPOW is about to start work on our 9th season.  Since the very beginning we have prided ourselves on choosing scripts representative of the highest quality of dramatic literature.  As many of you may know, we generally program a piece by (or inspired by) a European playwright in the fall, a comedy in the winter, and a piece by an American playwright in the spring.  We also like to plan our seasons around unifying themes.  I’m really thrilled with what we have put together for season 9.  

Here are some fun facts about season 9:

  1. All three of our “mainstage” shows are comedies which means season 9 will be the funniest season to date.  
  2. With a combined 17 roles in the three shows, season 9 will be one of the largest seasons we’ve ever produced (by comparison, season 8 was the smallest season to date with only 5 combined roles).  
  3. All three shows feature musical instruments (more on that later).
  4. For the first time ever, tKAPOW will be doing a musical!

The season 9 theme is HEAR, HERE!  The shows in the season will all have a musical element (HEAR) and will all feature a meta-theatricality that sheds light on the shared experience of the artists and audiences when they are present together (HERE).  It’s going to be an amazing season with multiple NH premiere productions.  

We’ll kick off season 9 (after a quick stop in Thebes and a reading at the Currier) in early October with Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird.  Posner describes the piece as “sort of adapted from The Seagull.”  The show was written in 2013 and this will be its first production in NH.  It’s a very smart and funny script that roughly follows the same story as Chekhov’s classic play.  tKAPOW has produced plays by European masters including Strindberg and Ibsen and have always wanted to explore one of Chekhov’s full-length pieces (we did several of his one-acts in 2015).  It just turns out that in this case we’ll be looking at Chekhov through the words of one of America’s great contemporary dramatic voices.  As you can probably guess by the title this is something of an irreverent adaptation.  I promise that this will be a fun night of theatre as the lines between actor and audience are blurred and someone plays a ukelele!

In March, we’ll explore another piece that comes to us from a European master when we tackle Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist play Exit the King.  My father once told me that it was the funniest play he had ever seen. Okay, he told me more than once. In fact, basically every time that tKAPOW has done a comedy my father has told me that Exit the King is the funniest show he has ever seen.  So, you know it was only a matter of time before tKAPOW dove into this one.  The show is pure madcap fun as poor old King Berenger refuses to believe that his time on earth has come to an end.  

And, yes, in April, after years of saying that we’d never do it, tKAPOW will be jazz squaring our way into the world of musical theatre. Kind of. For this show we’ll be returning to the work of Sarah Ruhl, a tKAPOW favorite whose Eurydice we produced way back in season 4.  I truly cannot express how much Sarah Ruhl’s work has inspired me.  Her grasp of the English language is amazing and while she is a very efficient writer she manages to develop moments of such profound depth.  So it is with her piece Melancholy Play: A Chamber Musical.  The reason that I say it is kind of a musical is that Ruhl originally published the piece as a play with a cello.  Approximately 10 years after its original production, she, along with composer Todd Almond, reenvisioned the piece as a musical complete with a string quartet and piano.  It’s beautiful.  Don’t let the name fool you, this is a very funny play.  We’re especially excited about this project because we will be collaborating with the NH Philharmonic.  We last worked with the NH Phil on their concert showcasing music inspired by the works of Shakespeare.  This collaboration will be more substantial and, we hope, will help both organizations reach new audiences.    

As the summer all too quickly fades towards fall, I look at the work ahead with a great deal of eager anticipation.  In just a couple of days we will be holding auditions for Stupid Fucking Bird and Exit the King and that process is always an exciting one.  Soon after we cast the show we’ll be heading into rehearsal.  It’s amazing how quickly each season comes and goes.  I hope that you will continue to check back HERE to HEAR what we are up to.  Before we know it, we’ll be headed to season 10.

~ Matt Cahoon