Saturday, January 10, 2009

Floating Trial Balloons

As the economy worsens, many arts organizations are finding their futures in peril. Large nonprofits that had worked for many years to build up sizable endowments (upon which they could rely as safety cushions) are running scared. Faced with horrifying levels of debt, others fear for their very existence.  

And yet there are some bare-bones arts organizations -- with no endowment and surprisingly little debt --that will probably squeak through a recession without much trauma.  These groups are used to working so often with so little that pulling theatrical magic out of thin air has become the bread and butter of their mission statements.

One such Bay area arts organization is The Marsh, which produces nearly 400 performances each year. Now celebrating its 20th anniversary under the leadership of artistic director and co-founder Stephanie Weisman, The Marsh is a breeding ground for performing talent, an invaluable artistic incubator which allows performance artists to stretch their wings and let the rhythms of their writing find their beat when tested in front of live audiences.  

Weisman has always seen The Marsh as a breeding ground for "transformation, possibilities and community." The first staged workshop produced by The Marsh was Marga Gomez's Memory Tricks. The Marsh's first full-length production (which also became a movie) was Josh Kornbluth's Haiku Tunnel.  Others who have workshopped their material at The Marsh include Charlie Varon, Dan Hoyle and Brian Copeland. In the past year, outstanding performances have come from such diverse talents as Ann Randolph, Carlo D'Amore, and Wayne Harris.

A special kind of environment is needed to iron the kinks out of a 70-120 minute narrative in which a solo artist works very hard to bring numerous characters to life.  While stand-up comedians often perform at contests, fringe festivals, and at comedy clubs, a performer doesn't always want to compete with cocktail waitresses, drunks, and hecklers for the audience's attention. When you're trying to isolate the strengths (and eliminate the weaknesses) of new material, you need an audience that is fully engaged.

Back in 1983, when I interviewed Carol Channing (who was then appearing at the Orpheum Theater in yet another tour of Hello, Dolly!), we discussed the challenges of keeping material fresh during a long run.  Channing was quick to tell me that: 

"There's a famous Spanish bullfighter who, when someone asked him: "Aren't you afraid of dying? Of death? Of the bull?" answered "Ha! Let the bull come straight at me as long as the audience stands up and cheers. I'd much rather die!  I'm afraid of losing the audience."

You see, there are two kinds of talents:  one is strictly for creating.  The other is for creating and then re-creating. I get my kicks and jollies out of re-creating. I honestly love it -- that's how I get my fun. That's my talent. That's what makes me tick. Once you find the right way of doing a role, hold onto it -- it's God given. It's got to be done the same way. I never change the staging or even what I do with my arms and legs. Oh sure, mentally, you can understand something you didn't understand before. But all you have to do is let your thought waver one little bit and think "Gee, I'm hungry, what will I have for dinner?" and you don't get that laugh. That's because the audience didn't hear the line.

It's the most frightening work there is. It's suicidal -- like walking a tightrope. I'll go to my grave remembering the laughs I didn't get, the cries they didn't cry, or the times people didn't fall in love. Why? Because I know it was my fault.  You can never shake that off. Those performances where you did not get it right stay indelibly imprinted on you. It's so horrible to lose the audience."

In 1978, Gretchen Cryer debuted a new show at the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theater entitled "I'm Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road." That's essentially the kind of performance you'll see on select Wednesday nights, when the Marsh Rising presents works in progress that are under consideration for an extended run. In recent months, I've attended three Marsh Rising performances.  Because the artists consider these works in progress, the press is asked not to review the actual performances.  I can, however, show you clips of two of the performers I saw.

First is a clip of Marga Gomez in action.  Fresh from a New Year's Eve gig at the Victoria Theater, Gomez was working the kinks out of some material she planned to use at an upcoming comedy festival in Florida. A familiar face to Bay area audiences, she considers The Marsh one of her comedic "homes," a safe place where she can stretch her muscles and see how audiences will respond.

Next is a clip of Don Reed performing "East 14th Street -- True Tales of a Reluctant Player" (in which he revisits a childhood spent shuttling between one Oakland home, where his stepfather was a Jehovah's witness, and the other where his biological father was a pimp).

Finally, without any video, there was the amiable Kenny Yun, who boasts of being the first Asian American to win the Russian River Comedy Contest.  The blurb for Yun's narrative, Lettucetown Lies, reads: 
"He's gay. He's Asian. He's coming of age in Lettucetown. If that's not bad enough, he's got a crush on a hick. If that's not bad enough, his friends think fun is blowing up lettuce. If that's not bad enough, he has to sneak into the bathroom to buy drugs and Donna Summer records."

So here's an interesting little factoid to ponder. On one night at Marsh Rising, I saw Marga Gomez perform to a crowd of familiar faces -- adoring fans who know her work and have supported her for years. On another night I saw Don Reed (who has been performing as a stand-up comedian for 20 years and been nominated for three Primetime Emmy awards) receive a cheering, stomping, standing ovation for his bravura performance.

But you know who had the largest and most vociferous audience when he appeared for one night at Marsh Rising? Kenny Yun. That could well be because Yun (who graduated from U.C. Berkeley) has been doing standup comedy gigs all over the Bay area.

It could also be because Kenny Yun has 617 friends on MySpace.

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