The last two days of a theatre symposium here in Boston have definitely left my mind a little overflowing. The topic was Actor as Collaborator, and featured actresses Olympia Dukakis and Lynn Cohen as leaders/instigators of the discussion. The talk dealt a lot with the feeling of marginalization (and infantilization) that actors are feeling in the theatrical process, a lot of the time (not in every case). Though the focus was on actors, directors, playwrights, designers and others were invited to be part of the conversation (100 people were invited, plus students from Emerson).
Some of the talk was emotional, with people sharing horror stories from their careers. Some students expressed their confusion about what path to take out of school--starting something small and underground or heading to commercial theatre. On Monday, we sat in a big circle, of probably more than 60 people, and went around for hours, with each person having a chance to speak. A lot of it was just about getting ideas and pent up emotions out there, but what I really appreciated was the strong sense that no matter who was speaking, the assembled crowed really listened and thought about what was being said (which gets hard after multiple hours of this).
Late in the day on Monday, we split into breakout groups, and I was in the playwright/actor group. We had about ten people, split evenly between actors and writers. The conversation was warm and generous, and confirmed yet again how much I enjoy working with and talking to actors. I think we all recognized the importance of the director in the process, but all hope for the ability and opportunity to work more closely together in the future. We talked a bit about how collaboration depends upon possessing a common vocabulary and a respect for each other's artistic process. In Rhombus, our rule is always "impressions not suggestions," which I think could be amended to say "impressions and questions, not suggestions." Trying to rewrite someone else's play is a tough impulse to resist, and the same applies for playwrights wanting to give actors easy answers (thereby short-circuiting their discovery process).
So much was said on both days, it all tends to sort of blend together into a buzz in my brain. I was struck over and over again how much we all want to work together better. However, when I spoke on Sunday, I brought up that one thing I feel is lacking in our process is a better formal (or at least semi-formal) process for when the show is over to assess how we did. It's extremely rare to be invited to a post-production post-mortem, where the entire group of people who were involved in the production gather to say, "the way we did this really worked for me." Or else that it didn't and why. Directors don't say to the actors, "how did this work for you, when I did so and so?" Or does the director ask the playwright, "How was our communication? How could it be better next time?"
An essential lack in our theatrical process is this conscious intention to learn from our successes and mistakes, in order to intentionally mold the process that we use to create theatre. Effective collaboration requires more than just everyone dumping in ingredients when the soup is being assembled. Often folks are pressed for time and money and have already moved on to the next show, but our artform suffers for neglecting this final, crucial step. What I want is a theatre scene in Boston where audience members can't wait to tell their neighbors, "you must go see this show!"
Anyway, that's something that's been on my mind lately, and it mixed together with all the other theatrical goulash of the weekend.
One last point: Jaan Whitehead, a member of Anne Bogart's board (among many other smart things she's done) talked a bit about the economics of theatre in our society, and the fundamental conflict that the arts in our society face with market capitalism and popular democracy. Basically she reminded us, in very clear language, that the economic model for theatre in our culture stinks. I knew this, but I liked the way she explained it.
Several other actors in the audience talked a fair bit about finally coming to terms with the fact that they need day jobs in order to practice their art--and we're talking about incredibly talented, well-respected actors in the Boston theatre scene. Their comments, and the whole weekend, reminded me how much I appreciate my life, and all that I'm able to do artistically, even though it may not make me much money. I wouldn't trade it. I owe the assembled horde of actors and theatre folk a big thanks for that reminder.