Until this winter, I hadn’t worked as a producer since 2003, when Pavement Productions, my little indie production company, staged my play “Altered States of America.” We were still riding high from producing a hit–“Delusion of Darkness”–and figured we’d kill, we had a good rep with the critics, we were doing a big “important” show dealing with big “important” topics.
And we died. Critical reaction was lukewarm. Audiences were small. A couple times we cancelled shows because the cast outnumbered the audience (learned my lesson there–we run even if we’re empty to keep the chops up). There were a multitude of reasons the show failed, none of them artistic, which just kills your soul more than doing a show that sucks. I’d go home each night and listen to “Wild Horses” over and over until I was exhausted enough to sleep. At the end of the run, for the first time working as a producer, I couldn’t pay my cast or reimburse my backer. It was no fun. (“Altered States of America” went on to be a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, so there was some vindication there, but it was bittersweet.)
So I hung up my producer hat, not really knowing if I’d ever wear it again, but I ended up taking it off the shelf because the time was right, the situation right, I had the right collaborators, and because of the reason I got into the theatre in the first place: there was a show I wanted to see done and no one else in town would do it (for plenty of good reasons that had nothing to do with the piece). So we did “Dead of Winter” on a small scale, at the right ticket prices, and we did very well, sold out a bunch of nights, spent some wonderful theatre time together with a sweet little theatre family, and, indeed, had a bucketful of fun.
I was going through my archives this weekend, trying to find some documents, and it certainly didn’t feel like 17 years of work, the impressions and memories of productions back to the beginning still vibrant. And it struck me, having now been produced in theatres big and small, with padded seats and metal folding chairs, with state-of-art instruments and clip lights, that what theatre really comes down to is a one-to-one transaction between production and audience member. Whether you’re getting a nice paycheck or you’re writing the checks, what matters is the transmission. And that can happen in a fantastic performing arts center with a carpeted lobby and brass water fountains or it can happen in a tiny dance studio around the corner from a barbeque bikers joint. It can be a big weighty drama that burns the audience down or fun, entertaining stories. What matters is the experience. The relationship. It’s intimate and intense, and it’s different every time. And then it’s gone. Over. Never to be repeated the same way. You give it life then let it go.
I like having my work staged in big professional theatres, and I like getting a check and not having to be anything but the playwright (like that isn’t enough work). But it’s good to go back to the place you started because it reminds you why you began, why you’ve kept at it, what it’s all about.
What is it all about? Well, hell, if you could name it, you wouldn’t have to do it.