Saturday, August 15, 2009

devil in the details (producing part one)

Theater is a game of illusions; convincing an audience that there is more (or less) than meets the eye is part of the game. Which is why my (amply articulated by now) abiding interest in politics makes sense: the magician's trick of making a routine practiced exhaustively appear spontaneous is a skill every politician envies. We're supposed to enjoy the spectacle, but not the circuitry behind it.

It makes the fact that making 2009 the year of Government is Trying to Kill us with Healthcare Reform Theater so fascinating, since it's the 40th anniversary of one of big government's more spectacular achievements. Yet, if you listen to certain elements of the right-wing extreme, government intervention has spelled only disaster throughout our history.

Craig Nelson's "Rocket Men," a riveting account of the Apollo moon landing, provides convincing proof that theater is like rocket science.

Not for the intelligence required, or the prestige, or the gobs of money that were and still are thrown at NASA (some would say at the expense of the NEA: President Johnson said "We can do it all," and how wrong he was).

Instead, I find the parallels between theater and rockets in Nelson's description of how rocket propulsion works:
The essence of rocketry is combining fuel, flame, and oxidizer in a combustion chamber to create a continuously exploding bomb, the force of which is directed through a throat, and then a nozzle. If the liquid fuel pumped into the chamber isn't immediately ignited, however, it builds up, causing varying degrees of explosion -- known as combustion oscillations -- some of which can be more powerful than the chamber is designed to hold. The result is that the motor regularly blows itself up [...]

Repeated trial and error of an engine model that contains thousands of parts, with every success preceded buy hundreds, thousands, of failures; as Nelson puts it, "more of an art than science."
You rarely can explain the moment where things went wrong: once a rocket explodes, the potential culprits number in the hundreds, scattered across an airfield. Here's where theater is a bit like rocket science but turned on its head: instead of finding the elusive detail that makes things go wrong, in theater you tend to hunt for that magic ingredient that made things go right.
Cast member Roy Clary ("Henry") and Associate Producer Jessica Hochman at The Third Seat's First read through on-site, Ceol Irish Pub.

Now, we've been lucky so far here at COItc in that our airfield isn't littered with too many shards of blown-up engines. I think we're rather pleased with our output -- even though we do try to learn from mistakes when we make them.

But if theater is like rocket science, producing theater is rather like the bureaucratic effort that went on behind the scenes to create and fund NASA; if successful, it's an effort that goes largely unnoticed. It's only when the rocket blows up that questions are asked about how that was allowed to happen.
Roy Clary and Laurel Lockhart ("Estelle") in the finished product.

There are two moments when the sister movements of Libertarianism and small-government Conservatism seem like good ideas: (1) when I get my pay stub with state, federal, and city taxes excised, and (2) when I do the paperwork for an Equity showcase.

Suddenly I wonder why it is that we've placed all these red-tape-ringed barriers to progress when the source of our greatness clearly lies in the derring-do of individuals who flaunt the status quo and bravely set out into uncharted waters. Ben Franklin didn't care about paperwork and approvals.

These are also the moments, of course, when I conveniently forget that Columbus had Isabella, the Founders had slaves, Babe Ruth never had to compete with black baseball players, and the Greatest Generation had the New Deal, the GI Bill, and Social Security. So shut up, Grover Norquist.

At the off-off-off-on-the-other-side-of-the-East-River-Broadway level where COItc dwells, producing duties tend to consist of caring for any elements of production not covered by someone else. You're not fighting for the glorious spoils, you're sweeping up table scraps: that set has to go somewhere after you close, and it's the producer's job to figure out where (answer: the producer's [my] living room). In the three years of sweeping in between designers' fiefdoms, I've developed theories as to why the rocket hasn't blown up too spectacularly.

A producer must be invisible
In a meeting of more than two people, a producer should be silent.

In a meeting of two people, a producer should *not* be silent. (Like the MTA says, if you see something...)

A producer must get the hell out of the way
It's a strange alchemy, and whatever personality type one is when they approach producing, it's guaranteed to be ill-suited to the job at hand. Type A know-it-alls will micromanage themselves into a disaster. Church mice will lose control of the ship. More than the actor, more than the director, the producer must be all things to all people. You must become the smoke-blower-in-chief. Most importantly, none of the good ideas can come from you -- they have to come from the people you hired.

Like the paper-pushing bureaucrat who lines up the government funding, when your job goes well, as a producer you are an unseen ally. The rest of the time every single actor, designer, and crewmember will curse you as the ogre responsible for their lack of resources, inability to create freely, and pretty much everything that needs to be blamed on someone.

The producer's hand is the invisible hand of government, paving roads, shoring up infrastructure, and getting none of the credit, but all of the blame.

[More bitchy wisdom to come]

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