What’s it all about? The Art!

Have you ever wondered why it is that some shows just blow you away?  The kind that leaves you feeling as if you’ve just gone through a life event?  Those moments are the magic of theatre.  Now we all know that this isn’t the case for every show.  It may not even be the case for most shows, but it happens often enough that we know it’s possible and it’s something we want to experience again.


While the base for these moments of wonderment lay in the foundation of a play, the writing, it is the artistry of the production team and the performers that bring us to crescendo or give us the beauty of the entire structure.  Yet there is more involved than sheer talent.  It is the alchemy of dedication, commitment and the secret ingredient, trust.


Often, it is said, 10,000 hours of practice are required to achieve proficiency in virtually any effort.  Or as the old adage goes, practice makes perfect. If your goal is to be a pianist, then the practice is in the playing of the piano.  If your want is to become a great baseball player, you are seen running a lot of drills, spending time in the batting cages and playing a lot of games.  And so too in theatre, the practice is in the doing.


The practice that takes place in theatre is often thought to be in the rehearsals.  That hardly comes near the time required to achieve wonderment.  Rehearsal is the time for discovery and choice.  And while doing scene after scene and play after play helps in the process of practice, the element that is the secret ingredient, can only be achieved over time.  The real practice comes in doing show after show with people that we trust.


The daily regime of an actor, learning lines, exercise, study, not to mention auditions, are just a part of the rigor of an accomplished actor.  The one thing that is not accomplished alone is the secret ingredient.  Feeling safe with lines is fine, feeling that the body, the instrument, is in tune is fine, but without others, trust is just an idea.


Many of the basic exercises in acting classes instill learning trust, trust by students falling blindly backwards believing that they will be caught by their fellows before they hit the floor, trust in following the lead of others in physical movement without the fear of looking foolish.  There are many others, but you get the idea.  It’s a learned behavior.  With time it nearly becomes second nature yet, putting yourself in the hands of others is never quite natural.


Recently my wife and I went to see Rogue Machine’s latest production, El Niño.  In the notes there are several references to different artists who have worked previously with Justin Tanner, the playwright.   Some had worked with him for a good part of 30 years.  French Stewart, who co-produced this production with John Flynn, had long been a member of Tanner’s now defunct Cast Theatre.


When seeing shows around town, it’s not unusual to see familiar faces that regularly work together. Bill Brochtrup is often on stage with the likes of Rob Nagel, Angie Bird, Kitty Swink, Deborah Strang or Armin Shimerman.  Amir Levi pops up on stages all around town working on various projects with the likes of Jamie Robledo, Bill Salyers and Rebecca Metz.


These are just a few of the many that we can often see on a variety of stages.  If you look closely, these are also many of the same people you see regularly on TV and film.  They are working actors.  Not working as in constantly employed series regulars (though some are), but working as in constantly working on their craft.  Each and every one of them has a theatre they call home.


Recently, an old friend related a story of an audition he went on.  He has a recurring role on a now long-running popular cable TV series.


“Had a rare Saturday commercial audition.  Call-back. 1st one from my new commercial agent.  Was feeling the Luck of The Irish on my side, it being St. Patrick’s Day and all.  Got paired up with a younger guy who knew me from a popular TV series … We get called in and my scene partner (and newly-discovered fan) must’ve been star-struck by the chance to work with me.  He had the first line and promptly flubbed it. Instant lame duck audition tone set.  Barely got through one pass of the script…usually you get a re-direction or two but instead we got a loud “Thank You” from the director who never bothered to look up.  No, Thank YOU…for wasting my time.  Luck of The Irish?  More like Murphy’s Law.”


Yes, each time someone new comes into the mix, everyone involved puts their own credibility on the line.  The ante of risk is raised.  It’s no surprise then when looking at a playbill, we will see often recurring partnerships.


Be it the Antaeus, Rogue Machine, Sacred Fools or Pacific Resident Theatre, there are places where actors go to get a workout, practice, ply their craft while minimizing risk.  These are membership theatre companies.  LA has a number of spectacular membership companies, those mentioned above as well as The Actors Gang, Open Fist, Circle X, to name just a few.


For actors, Los Angeles is a destination city.  Much of the paying work available to the craft of acting takes place here.  Television, film, industrial casting, voice work, much of it is cast here, so LA is a logical place to be if you’re looking to make a living.  The result is there are around

250,000 members of Screen Actors Guild that reside in LA, and of those nearly 9,000 are members of Actors Equity Association, the union for stage actors and stage managers.  That is a lot of talent seeking some forum to practice and exercise their craft.  None provide a better opportunity than live theatre.


What translates down to us in the audience is value added.


The theatre scene in LA is like no other because the dominant principles behind many of these productions are excellence first, the purity of the work, and the commitment from the artists, unfettered by many of the considerations that can impede commercial theatre.  When passion is the coin of the realm, when the thrust of creative purpose drives an effort before the concerns of satisfying superiors who interfere with vision, the result is more likely to culminate in trust, co-operation, sublime theatre.


There is nothing quite as honest, quite as passionate or quite as emotionally effective as a well-executed piece of theatre.  Everyone from artist to audience ferments in the experience and we are all made a little better.


While commercial theatre can achieve these moments, the probability of seeing unspoiled work is far more likely when those of substantial talent can exercise and ply their efforts without the impediments of the commercial world.  That is why these membership companies are so vital.


Everyone, from the stage hand to the lead, the director, the writer, understands that the work is what is important.  We benefit by witnessing the unadulterated effort, the unfettered stretch of talent reaching for the stars.


Would commercial success on stage be nice?  Absolutely.  But opportunity for that will only come when we realize the value of what we have and we then spread the word that LA Theatre is a must see.







About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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