Tag Archives: theatre

Here: A Captive Odyssey (William Head Prison Theatre)

A play performed in an actual prison by inmates? Who could pass up a chance like this? Not me and FG, who drove the 40 minute drive down the windy road to William Head Institution, a minimum security jail overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Performing since 1981, this year, and for the last three years, they’ve been writing their own plays. Here: A Captive Odyssey is the product of an intensive 6 month writing/production effort by the William Head on Stage Theatre Society (WHoS). As they said after the show in the Q&A: ‘every day a new script’. Warning: spoilers dead ahead!

Here: A Captive Odyssey Synopsis

HERE: A Captive Odyssey is a tale that is spun from archival research and oral stories of William Head, with inspiration from the book Quarantined by Peter Johnson.  Two inmate friends are finishing their final years of their sentences at William Head and find themselves on a time-travel odyssey back into the history of William Head, complete with shipwrecks and sea monsters. Through drama, movement, shadow puppetry and live music, audiences will experience a haunting time-travel vortex that whirls through centuries of both First Nations and settler occupation.  Before it was a prison, William Head was home to First Nations fishing grounds, a Scottish pioneer’s sheep farm, small pox quarantine centre, hospitals, dormitories, fumigation rooms and schoolrooms.  This land has many intriguing and surprising tales.

Admission

You can’t bring anything in with you. Wallets, cell phones, gum packages, and purses all have to be left in the car. Each couple is allowed one set of keys (to get back in the car). All that you can bring in is your ID. The jail itself is right along the water. Picturesque. At the parking lot is a tower overlooking the water, a double set of chain link fences, and a guard station. They check your ID and you sign in with the name and time. The security guard give male visitors an invisible stamp that shows up under a special light. It’s an all male facility.

From there, two six man vans shuttle visitors to the gym, which is a minute or two down the road. The drivers are excited to host the event and are happy to tell stories about the prison. The last escape they had was a couple of years ago when a prisoner floated away in a coffin. Too bad the drive wasn’t long enough to learn more. A coffin? What, you would paddle with a stake? Very industrious. But I guess jail brings out industriousness in people, especially after many years.

Crowd

Full house, all age ranges. Estimated capacity of the gym for the audience is 160. Lots of young folks in the 20s. Different than the regular grey haired crowd at the Belfry and McPherson. Tickets are a bargain $20. Large cast and crew. Roughly 22 acting roles and 3 support roles (lighting and music).

Economics

Assiduous readers will recall that the economics of live theatre has been one of my preoccupations. Here runs 12 times. Let’s say they fill up each time (if they had more shows I’m sure they’d sell out as well, quite a bit of good buzz in the air). So that’s 12 * 160 * $20 = $38,400 in revenue. Now, divide this up by the 22 acting roles, the 3 support roles, and the other writers, directors, and so on. Let’s say the number is 30. $38,400 / 30 = $1280 each person. That’s $1280 for 6 months of part time work. Let’s say they put in an average of 20 hours per week for 6 months. That’s a total of 520 hours (26 * 20). In the end, it works out to a renumeration of $2.46 per hour. I think this is part of the reason why so many theatre shows outside the jail are one man shows. $2.46 an hour is not enough to get out of bed for most folks.

But here’s the question of the day: are the prisoner-actors compensated or do they receive monetary consideration for their efforts? Presumably, they will get out one day and when that day comes, they’ll need some cash to keep them afloat while they look for a job, get a place, and integrate back into society. You’d probably need, say, $3000 to get a place, put down deposit, pay for a couple months rent, get some clothes, food, etc., Can they save up for this in jail employed at various tasks? To me, it’s a fascinating question.

Here The Play

It wasn’t till the end that the play came together for me. With plays I’m either really sharp or really obtuse. Genres that I know well, I’m pretty sharp. Take horror. If a guy goes down to check out something in the cellar, you already know before he goes down what’s going to happen. He ends up in trash compactor (or something like that). But if I’m not familiar with the genre, I’m thick as mud. With this play, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Actually, that’s not true. From the blurb, I had expected a documentary style play, more a history lesson than a drama. I was wrong. It was both.

There’s two main characters. They’re both in jail. One of them has his act together and a plan: do good works and get out of jail sooner. The other one is a slacker. They are fishing buddies.

Well, it turns out that the slacker hooks a magical sea monster that sends him time travelling from 1700s William Head to the present. The other fellow spends the play looking for his friend.

As the slacker travels through time, he witnesses the horrors of slave labour, court room injustices, and sees the effects of smallpox. When he gets back to the present, he understands that life is short: a life without a plan is an unlived life. He resolves to work hard to get out of jail. His friend, meanwhile, has also made positive strides: he reconnects with his estranged sister.

Reception

Fantastic play. The audience loved it. Lots of talent. Raw talent, as most of the inmates did not have theatrical experience. But it wasn’t the talent that made the play. I think what made the play was that everyone took a big chance putting it together. The audience recognized this and showered the players and the producers with applause. The risks they took in putting this on stage were real. And so was there enthusiasm. The difference is like the difference watching NBA basketball and college basketball. Of course the talent in NBA basketball is better. But boy do they play out their hearts in college. The prison production is like watching college basketball.

Perhaps my favourite part of the play was the Q&A session at the end. The audience got to ask questions to the players. Questions like: ‘How does being in the play help with rehabilitation?’ or ‘Do you plan on pursuing theatre on the outside?’. A lot of honest responses on how hard it was for them to open up to the process of theatre and work together. Some funny responses as well: one guy said that he volunteered because he thought ‘it would be cool to play a prison guard’.

What struck me the most is how likeable many of the actors were. They didn’t seem like they belonged in jail. They just seemed like regular dudes. Which they probably are. So this was eye opening. And the best thing was how genuinely happy they seemed to be to be able to put on Here: A Captive Odyssey for the packed house. Kudos. A real play by real people. Something real at stake: some kind of redemption, perhaps? I’m sure there were some tears in the eyes of both the spectators and the players by the end of the night.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work.

Economics of Live Theatre

In the last month, I.ve been to two performances. The first was a production of Macbeth put on by the Blue Bridge Theatre Repertory at the Roxy that was discussed in this blog. The second was eatingthegame put on by Hong Kong Exile at Metro Studio discussed here. Have you ever wondered about the economics of theatre? Here.s my take on the economics of live theatre based on the rate cards from the Roxy and Metro Studio.

Here.s the rate card from Metro Studio:

Metro Studio Rate Card

Metro Studio Rate Card

Let.s work it out in the most advantageous terms from the point of view of art. Or in other words, how to make the show as profitable as possible. Here.s the base price scenario for the Metro Studio:

$575 (not for profit rental rate) + technician ($98, based on minimum 4hr call) + front of house manager ($70, based on minimum 4hr call) + production manager ($120, based on minimum 4hr call) + projector rental ($40) = GRAND TOTAL $903.

Here.s the rate card from the Roxy:

Rate Card Roxy

Rate Card Roxy

Let.s make it out in the most advantageous terms from the view of art. Or in other words, how to make the show as profitable as possible. Here.s the base price scenario for the Roxy:

$650 (not for profit rental day rate) + concession manager ($72, based on minimum 4hr call) + technician ($88, based on minimum 4hr call) + $2,000,000 public liability insurance ($150, estimate from top of head) = $960.

So, best case scenario for a theatre troupe to stage a one day production at the Metro Studio is $903. By best case, these are only the fees incurred to the venue. The writer, director, actors, assistants, costume/set designers, makeup artists, etc., are all working for free. You say: ‘Maybe the rental rate shouldn.t be included in that figure if the Metro Studio is inviting a troupe to perform in their space’. Well, the Metro Studio wouldn.t be in business for long if they didn.t get rental revenue so that figure should stay in.

For the Roxy (which has 20% or so additional capacity), the best case scenario for a theatre troupe to stage a one day production is $960. By best case, these are only the fees incurred to the venue. The director, actors, assistants, constume/set designers, makeup artists, etc., are all working for free. You say: ‘Maybe the rental rate shouldn.t be included in that figure if the Roxy is putting on a performance in its own space’. Well, the Roxy would.t be in business for long if they didn’t. pay their property taxes, upkeep their building, pay the hydro bill, etc., In other words, the rental rate should stay in the figure.

At eatingthegame at the Metro Studio, the crowd was estimated at 50. At $20 a ticket, that.s a revenue of $1000. So, if the troupe didn.t have to travel from Vancouver and got paid absolutely nothing for the performance and the rehearsals, the show would make $97.

At Macbeth at the Roxy, the crowd was estimated at 70. At an average of $35 a ticket (including student / senior discounts & flex passes), that.s a revenue of $2450. So, if the troupe got paid absolutely nothing for the performance and rehearsals, the show would make $1490.

eatingthegame was a one show deal at the Metro. The economics are ouch. Good thing it is a one man show.

Macbeth went on for 14 performances. $1490 * 14 is $20,860. The bad thing is you have to split that number between 10+ actors, choreographers, director, set designers, and so on. Let.s say to make a Macbeth happen, four weeks of labour for 20 people are necessary. That.s a very optimistic estimate. That.s 3200 man hours. Let.s say of that $20,860 profit, $5000 goes to materials: props, setting, costumes, and so on. That leaves $15,860. $15,860 divided by 3200 man hours equals a wage of $4.96 per hour. Ouch. No wonder in the economics of theatre there are sponsors but not investors.

I.m Edwin Wong and my heart goes out to all the brothers and sisters out there Doing Melpomene’s Work because from the economics, it looks like it.s a tough go.

Macbeth Review (Shakespeare by the Sea July 17, 2014)

Do you prefer Springsteen.s Nevada to Born in the USA? How about dining?-mom and pop or Michelin all-star restaurants? Do you prefer baroque and rococo furniture or the Eames aesthetic? If you had said ‘Nevada’ or ‘hole in the wall restaurant’, or ‘Eames’, then the Victoria.s Shakespeare by the Sea production of Macbeth is just your ticket.

Both Nevada and Born in the USA are great albums. But, of the two, Nevada is the more honest album.  Honest in the sense that it.s a guy with his guitar recording on a four track in the garage. Just vocals and guitar. No E Street Band or million dollar studio to hide behind. The same with the mom and pop restaurant. It.s honest because the focus isn.t on the linen, the service, the water feature, or the Picasso hanging beside you. The focus is on the food. It.s the same with Eames furniture. The focus is on functionality. If it.s stylish, it.s not because of the acanthus leaf carved into the armrest or the barley twist leg. It.s stylish because there.s beauty in honest design.

The Shakespeare by the Sea Macbeth is about honesty. Honest in the sense that Nevada is honest or Skinnytato Restaurant on Johnson Street is honest. When I called to reserve a ticket a few hours before the performance (turns out it was a good idea) the director took the call. No Ticketmaster. I would later see that, in addition to being director and manning the phones, Robert Light was also impresario, usher, and stagehand. Lighting consists of daylight. Heating is provided but the sun and ventilation by the wind. Shelter is provided by a 25’x40′ tent which covers the stage and the audience. A green painted plywood box raises the stage half a foot off the ground. There are five exits and entrances. One at each corner of the tent. The main door where one enters the tent (directly looking onto the stage) is the fifth entrance. Being set up on Clover Point Bluff, the tent is oriented towards the south. That is, the backdrop of the stage is the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Except for the exits and entrances, the tent is enclosed all around. Behind the stage is a window through which the strait is visible. But not an infinite or ‘floor to ceiling’ opening: the wooden stage extends about three feet up on the rear before the window starts. This is good, as it provides the stage with a boundary. Actually, the window can function asa sixth exit, but only the transgressional Porter character seems to be able to make use of it. The spartan simplicity forces the attention to the action. Like Duncan says, here the air is good.

Equivocation Review (Belfry Theatre May 24, 2014)

Sir Robert Cecil, a sometime spymaster for King James I commissions a recalcitrant Shagspeare (Shakespeare) to write a play on the Gunpowder Plot. So it begins. Shagspeare is caught between a rock and a hard place: either reveal his sympathies to the conspirators and lose his head or write a patriotic propaganda piece and sell out his Muse. Like so many things in life, he confronts an either/or situation when he would rather see a both/and proposition. To get around the either/or catch-22, the players equivocate. Hence the title. In the main, Equivocation really isn.t a play but is rather a play about a playwright struggling to write a play. Metatheatrical. A reflection of a reflection of reality. A perfect play for clever audiences. That it had a successful run in Victoria is something Victorians can be proud of.

Now, the play within a play structure of Equivocation allows dramatist Bill Cain to do a few things which would be more difficult in a more conventional straight shooting drama. Since dramatists are frequently busy with life as they compose (and not, as the Romantics would have it, withdrawn in some cave or out in the wilderness communing with nature), Cain adorns the primary story with secondary plots from Shag.s life. If the main theme is the ‘write me the play’ and ‘I can.t write the damn play’ banter between Cecil and Shags, there are also all the other things going on in Shags life that are brought into the fold: his estranged relationship with daughter Judith, workplace drama within his acting company, and his interviews with the gunpowder conspirators.

The effect of layering plot on subplot overtop demiplot diffuses the flow of the action. Because Cain borrows scenes from Shakespeare, it.s easy to spot changes in the dramatic tempo (especially since he borrows mainly from Macbeth, the most taut of Shakespeare.s plays). There is more dramatic punch when the players play out on the blasted heath the encounter between Macbeth and the witches. More dramatic urgency. The actors move quicker. They speak quicker. They make louder sounds stomping around the stage. Same goes with the storm on the heath scenes borrowed from King Lear. Side by side one can see the dramatic power Shakespeare wields next to Cain. But what Cain gives up in raw power he gains in contemplation and reflection. Reflection on the nature of equivocation (in the conspirator interviews). Reflection on artistic and worldly responsibilities (in the dialogue with members of the acting company). Reflection on the place of the playwright in society (in the dialogue with Cecil). Reflection on the power of drama to sway popular opinion (Cecil.s thoughts on Othello and Merchant of Venice). But note so much of the power of the play comes from the dialogue; the ‘dramatic’ action scenes are largely borrowed from Shakespeare. In a way Equivocation reminds me of Tarantino.s works. Tarantino also layers his works so that the action proceeds herky-jerky. And in between the herky-jerky outbursts is this strange and wonderful dialogue. Like when, right before the concluding scene of Kill Bill, Bill goes on a philosophical rant comparing the place of Superman with Spiderman in the world with Uma Thurman looking on in disbelief. But coming back to Equivocation, this brings us to the character of Judith, who, like Bill in Kill Bill, functions like a mouthpiece of the writer more than a character within the closed confines of a play or a movie.

There is something about Judith. She doesn.t quite fit. She talks about things outside the play which have little bearing on the action at hand (e.g. her distaste for soliloquies). Her manner of speech isn.t affected like that of the other characters–it.s a very natural discourse as though she were talking in her own voice and not an actress upon the Belfry stage. She is aware of the audience and has the capacity to address the audience directly. And she does so with the playwright.s own voice (e.g. at Shagspeare.s wake as the closing of the play). This got me thinking: I wonder if she functions as a chorus?

Before there was drama, there was the chorus. This is going back to sixth or seventh century BC-perhaps even earlier. The chorus would hymn praises to the gods. At some point, one member of the chorus stepped outside of the chorus to address it. That was how the first actor came to be. As things developed, two and three actors would emerge from the chorus to engage it in an antiphonal game of alternating call and response: that moment marks the birth of ancient Greek theatre. In time, the actors took more of a central role and the chorus’ importance diminished to the point where it was reduced into an atavistic tailbone tacked onto the tailpiece of drama. Finally, the chorus altogether disappears. But what the chorus was good at was speaking in the voice of the playwright (to convey, say, some moral the playwright thought appropriate). It could also act as a living wall between the on stage illusion and the off stage reality (the chorus is is aware of both realities and can address the actors from within the play or the theatre-goers outside the play). What I wonder is whether Cain had intended Judith to function as a sort of one woman chorus. That would explain how her character seemed to me to be part of the action yet also curiously aloof and distant to the action. As chorus, she wouldn.t really be a full-fledged individual but could somehow represent the playwright or even the community. If Cain had intended Judith to be a chorus type figure, kudos to him. It.s been awhile since dramatists have put choruses or chorus type figures on the stage (they still do it in operas, so perhaps operas are the true heirs of the ancient stage). The last that comes to mind is TS Eliot when he tried it in Murder in the Cathedral. Because the chorus represents community, there is much to be said about putting the chorus back into drama. Chorus is the all-too-human voice of drama. But it is true, no modern playwright has managed to integrate the chorus into the play successfully. I have a large reward waiting for the one who is able to manage this feat and to make drama whole once again…

Did Equivocation remind you of another historical play by a twentieth century playwright? Some hints. Here.s what I.m thinking of. A play set in England (two generations before the Gunpower Plot). Catholics and Protestants are going head to head. Either allegiance to the king at the cost of selling God out or allegiance to God at the cost of the true king. Plenty of equivocation. Yes, you guessed it: Robert Bolt.s 1960 A Man For All Seasons. Instead of a conscience ridden Shagspeare there is Lord Chancellor Thomas More. Instead of Cecil as the agent of King James, there is Thomas Cromwell as the agent of Henry VIII. Catholic More attempts to maintain his allegiance to Henry VIII who divorces his wife against the wishes of the Pope. This is not unlike Shagspeare.s catch-22 of either writing a propaganda piece or putting his neck on the line. Like Equivocation, there is much psychological storm and stress in A Man For All Seasons but little action. The bulk of the play consists of speeches where More justifies his position by equivocating while Cromwell attempts to get More to turn the wrong phrase in a chess match of words. The one difference between the two-and it is a large difference-is that while the action is diffuse in EquivocationA Man For All Seasons starts off with one question and puts that question through every variation until the play.s end. It.s power is highly focussed.. The question is, ‘What would you sacrifice for what you believe is right?’. Every character, from More to Rich and from Norfolk to Alice, exists for one purpose: to examine the singular question from different perspectives. I leave you with this question. Which do you prefer? The diffusive Equivocation which manages to combine comedy, satire, history, and tragedy or the laser like intensity of A Man For All Seasons? Are the differences between them a reflection of how audience tastes have changed from 1960 to 2010? Or?

My own feeling is that it is a bit of both. Art reflects contemporary mores. Today we multitask and so too our dramatists multitask the action into many parallel segments. And because we multitask, we don.t like things that are overly complex (since it would be too difficult to do many complex things all at once). So too perhaps the distaste of the soliloquy is something thoroughly modern. I wonder if the soliloquy occupies the same position as the rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo in the 1980s. They are both blazing set pieces, full of fire and weeping. Complex creations. It used to be in the 1980s that a song would have two or three solos (think back to Van Halen glory). Now I can.t think of a single song that has come out in the last five years that has any soliloquy-or I mean guitar solo. Funny how the technology and art moves in unison. Times change. And playwrights change with the changing times.