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SATURDAY, OCTOBER 5, 2013

OffBook: Surving Tech Week

by Jeff Sprague

I have just endured a “tech week” that lasted two weeks. Tech week, the final week before performances begin, is always a mix of frustration, sleeplessness and, at the end, accomplishment. It is, for all intents and purposes, a necessary evil. It was not for a show at Colonial Players, but it was certainly every bit the demanding “final stretch” as one can expect to find at any community theatre. It is during this period that I often find myself asking “Why do I keep doing this to myself?” Opening night applause always answers that question.

It seems I always choose to forget about tech weeks past when auditioning for shows. I guess that is due to excitement over the new project. Then, on the Tuesday night of tech, with the clock reaching midnight and a 5:45 alarm waiting for me, I vow that I will never do theatre again. Somehow I keep going. When I see my wife, I gripe to her about it, and I use the phrase “I’m burning the candle at both ends” about 100 times a day. I’m not pleasant to be around. I worry about my health for opening night, and a myriad of other life issues that go unattended during that week before opening.

All well and good, you say. So, how does one survive it?

As tech week is a reality, we must find a way to deal with it. On a positive note, I find that tech week can be the first time that a cast and crew really becomes cohesive and a team. Prior to these rehearsals, many actors may not be called, and seeing people once or twice a week for a few hours does not give you the intimate association that you get when you spend time together into the wee hours during tech week. Also, this is when you meet your stage manager and your tech crew, and you begin to see the show move from an abstract into a real production. I must say, as an actor, I get a real thrill watching the set pieces come together, watching the props being integrated with movements, and watching the costumes, sound, and lights develop. It is then that I realize the reason for all the effort. This is in spite of running a scene 47 times and watching the director have his third meltdown of the night. That sense of "coming together" is, in the most basic sense, how I survive tech week.

2013 10 05 1Of course, you should make efforts to try and take care of yourself while going through tech. One pitfall I often encounter is failing to eat in a healthy manner. I work in DC and have to commute home and shower quickly before coming to the theatre. There is minimal time to eat, and it is very easy to be seduced by fast food and other unhealthy snacks. While I think it is ok to eat those things from time to time, it would be beneficial not to do so for most of the week. Indeed, one might consider trying to find healthier options for quick service (Whole Foods, for instance), or if you can, prepare something for the week during the weekend prior to the commencement of tech week. Easier said than done, I know. Also, I generally make an effort to wash my hands a million times over the course of tech week. One way in which viruses and bacteria are spread is via person-to-person contact. I am no doctor, but using hand sanitizer frequently is a good idea. Some people use things like vitamin C supplements as well, although I can’t speak directly to the benefits of such as I am not a healthcare professional. If you are worried about immune compromise during tech week, I suggest you ask your physician for advice.

So, there isn't much that we can do to make tech week a festival of rainbows and lollipops; however, there are a few things we can do to make it as bearable as possible. Simply, sleep when you can, wash your hands a lot, and enjoy the camaraderie of putting on a show together. Enjoy watching the fruits of your labors. That’s the only real advice for surviving tech week that I can offer.

If all else fails, remember the applause.

Until next month,

~Jeff

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SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 2013

OffBook: Small parts or small actors

by Jeff Sprague

Happy September! I hope you are all excited for a great new season at Colonial Players. I know that I certainly am. We had great successes in August with Ben Franklin: An Ingenious Life and with the craziness of the 24-Hour Project. Both were very well-received by those who attended. Now it's time to get back to the business of making theatre, and I hope to see everyone at Communicating Doors when it opens later this month.

This month’s blog entry comes from a reader suggestion (I told you that I read them!) At any rate, I was asked to contemplate the famous quip from Stanislavski as to if there are indeed “no small parts, but only small actors.” An interesting thought...

There are small parts. On the surface, it’s a pretty straightforward observation. Some scripts require a character for only a few scenes, and that person may have only minimal dialogue compared to the rest of the cast. I think, though, that the observation isn’t exactly worded correctly. While yes, there are “small parts,” it might have been better for Stanislavski to say that there are no “unimportant parts” to better get across his point. There is a key difference.

A playwright creates his or her own universe within the script, and, in so doing, has to make a piece of theatre that is accessible to the artistic partners in the production (actors, directors, theatre artistic teams, producers, etc.) as well as to its intended audience. It isn’t enough to just tell a good story, as that can be more effectively done in a novel. In order to tell the good story effectively, there has to be a certain economy as to what is and is not included. While playwrights are not always successful at achieving this, I think, as an actor approaching the work, it’s best to give them the benefit of the doubt from the starting point. I say this to emphasize that the inclusion of the dramatis personae in a show is done so as to move the playwright’s story and message forward in the best way possible. Thus, every character who “makes the cut” of being put into the script has a reason to be there. Even the guy with three lines is important to the economic and effective telling of the story.

That’s great, you say, but what does that mean for me as someone who wants to act in community theatre, or for someone who has performed and is looking to do more shows (and, hopefully, to take on larger roles)?

I’ll start with the most clichéd, but probably most effective answer that every director will give any actor. If you take a role (any role), you need to own it as if it were the lead. Your character, no matter how many lines of dialogue or bars of music he or she has, is important to the story and is necessary to complete the playwright’s vision. If you play “Spear-carrier #3,” be the best third spear-carrier that you can possibly be. Be on time to rehearsals, take direction, and make the character memorable (in the way it is supposed to be memorable).

This raises another question that is peculiar to community theatre: should you take the role? Professional actors just starting out are, most likely, happy to take any paid work that comes their way. When you get to be famous (or, at the very least, more in-demand), you can be more selective; however, for the “starving artist” struggling to get by in New York City, “Spear-carrier #3” in an Equity national touring company might sound pretty appealing. Community theatre is, however, a pure labor of love. We all come from different backgrounds, and all have different levels of talent. As I have noted in earlier blog entries, we are all drawn to performance for different reasons (although, there is usually a shared love of creating on the stage). Community theatre is also a huge time commitment, with weekends and evenings being sacrificed to make a piece of theatre for the public to hopefully enjoy. So, it begs the question: should you be willing to accept a small (not unimportant) role if that is what is offered to you?

Classic lawyer answer: it depends. It depends on you and how important the show is to you. It depends on if you were really hoping for a specific role that you didn’t get and will be upset about it. It depends on how busy you are in your life with other things (work, family, the usual). Only you can answer that question, but it is something to figure out before you go for an audition.

I’ve done over 15 shows locally in the last seven years with many different directors. Uniformly, they were all receptive to actors selecting what roles they had an interest in attempting at auditions. They were ok with an actor saying “I only want X or Y, and will not take anything else.” It’s honest and it saves time for all involved.

Now, if you will take any role, make sure you are honest about it on your audition form. Directors will be more agitated with you if you say that you will take anything and then you decline a smaller part. Seriously, it drives them crazy. Everyone knows what is involved in doing a show. No one will hold it against you for just selecting the lead part in auditions if that is all you will be happy with. Of course, if you don’t get it, you won’t be cast. If you’re ok with that (to the extent you can be), all is well.

As a bit of personal advice, I think it is good to go out for smaller roles as well as the big ones. I’m playing Audrey II’s voice in an upcoming production of Little Shop of Horrors (not at Colonial Players), and it isn’t a particularly big role by any stretch. I don’t even go on stage! Still, doing that voice is amazingly fun, and it has been less of a time commitment for me as compared to say, when I did John Adams in 1776 (where Colonial Players, outside of work, owned me for about four months). Both are/were great experiences for different reasons. Both are/were fulfilling to me as an actor in community theatre.

In summary, let’s remember that there are no unimportant roles, but yes, there are small ones. The casting choice is up to the director, but the actor has to determine what he is willing to do before he/she gets into the audition room. Be honest about it. Then, everybody wins.

Until next month (and keep the submissions coming!)-

~Jeff

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SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2013

OffBook: The "Dark" Months

by Jeff Sprague

Hello, readers!

I'm very happy to report that I actually got a bit of feedback after last month's blog, and I'm going to do my best to incorporate some of that over the coming months. Today, however, I'd like to talk about some of the exciting things happening at Colonial Players over the next month. As we all know, August is "dark" with respect to our regular season, but that doesn't mean that we are devoid of activity. In fact, that is far, far from the case, and I would like to take the opportunity to discuss two very fun and, even better, virtually free things happening over the next few weeks.

ben franklin an ingenious manMany of you may remember Ray Flynt from our production of 1776 last Spring, where he masterfully portrayed Benjamin Franklin. His comedic timing and sonorous baritone were highly regarded by audience and critics alike, and as someone who shared the stage with him, I can tell you that he was a delight to work with. Having spoken with him over the course of that production, I came to learn that the Colonial Players production was his third outing as Ben Franklin, and that he had truly grown to love the character. Really, I should say that he grew to love the man, as he was, of course, very much a real person. Ray has become such a Franklin devotee, that he has crafted a one-man show about the man, and he will present it at Colonial Players on Friday, August 16th. Free and open to the public, this will be a one-time performance celebrating a truly remarkable figure in our nation's history. Having worked with Ray, you can be assured that it will be a performance of exceptionally high quality, reflecting many years of devotion to interpreting this most important founding father. You won't get any singing this time, but you're sure to be enlightened and entertained. Congrats, Ray, and we the Colonial Players and the community look forward to seeing you.

In my post last month, I briefly alluded to the 24-hour theatre project that is slated for the weekend prior to the Labor Day holiday weekend (the penultimate weekend in August). Ron Giddings will direct this mystery show, and it will be auditioned, cast, rehearsed, and performed all within a 24-hour period starting Friday, August 23rd with the final performance Saturday, August 24th. In my last post, I made a joke about the lines being made-up due to the pressure of memorizing within a single day. While I certainly can't say that this won't happen to some degree, I didn't mean to suggest that the playwright is cavalierly disregarded during this endeavor. As always, actors will try their very best to remember the dialogue as written; however, as this is a very short amount of time to learn lines, a few "creative" interpretations are bound to occur. This can really add to the fun of the show, by the way (lemonade out of lemons and all that).

An interesting thing about the project is not just that the actors must memorize blocking and lines within a single day. Indeed, the show must have the full complement of technical assistance, and it is a complete, two-act production. It'll have props, costumes, lights, the whole deal. While I, like everyone but the creative team associated with the production, am in the dark on the actual show, I feel I should assuage some fears from some of you who might consider auditioning but are worried about the time crunch. For one, at least when this project was last done in 2008, I can tell you that the show was more of an ensemble piece. That is, no one actor was expected to memorize Hamlet in 24 hours. The lines and roles were divided fairly evenly, and there were available roles across a broad range of ages. Both genders were equally represented as well. I can't promise that this will be the case, but am guessing that it will be similar for 2013's production. No doubt, if you do get cast, you'll spend all of Friday evening and Saturday preparing to perform, but it is not "too much" by any stretch. Quite the opposite, it's a great way to bond with fellow actors, and the satisfaction of producing this thing in a day gives a very natural high that is hard to beat with any other PG-rated activity. I encourage those of you on the fence to give it a try. If not, at the very least, come and check it out. In 2008, it was a "pay what you can" event where donations were appreciated, but no set price was listed. Don't think that this means that the show won't be of a high calibre, however. Indeed, I can assure you that 2008's Months on End, produced in 24 hours, was every bit the high quality theatre patrons of Colonial Players have come to expect.

So, all you lucky Colonial Players fans, you can see that we have an exciting month planned for the end of summer. I highly encourage everyone to check out these events, and of course, to come back in September for the beginning of our new season.

As always, ideas for the blog are needed and will be considered. I am very appreciative to those of you who responded to my last request, and be assured, you'll be seeing some of your thoughts in future entries. For those who want to submit an idea, you may send an email to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or post a comment on the Facebook page for the the theatre.

Until next month-

~Jeff

Webmaster's Note: We are looking into a way to allow reader commentary directly on the blog itself. We are hopeful that we will be able to add such a feature in the near future.

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SATURDAY, JULY 6, 2013

OffBook: The Community Theater Critic

by Jeff Sprague

The heat of the summer is upon us, and so we enter the “dark” times at Colonial Players. That is to say, we have successfully wrapped up one season, and we still have a couple of months to go before Communicating Doors kicks off our new one. “Dark” is really a misnomer, of course, as the auditions for that show are right around the corner, and thus technical and artistic efforts for the new season are already in full swing. I think we can all look forward to a very entertaining slate of shows.

Last month, I made a plea for reader feedback, and received a couple of “likes” on Facebook. I’m grateful for that, don’t get me wrong, but that didn’t exactly get the discussion ball going. I’m going to really try and not be repetitive in my topics, so I shall yet again ask for you, the reader, to head on over to Colonial Players’ FB page and comment away on what you would like to have discussed here.

So... what to talk about this month? Well, as there isn’t a current show going on, I had to think on it a bit. Strangely enough, it sort of hit me while I was on a lunch break at work. I was surfing the internet reading one of the online local theatre reviews, and I realized that the critic responsible for the article, who had ostensibly seen a show that I had also just watched, had a completely different reaction to the performance than I did. It seems everything that I felt was excellent wasn’t mentioned by her, and the enumerated strong points were things I thought could really use improvement. What, I wondered, was the deal? I don’t have a simple answer, but it certainly gave me an idea for a blog entry. What is the role of a community theatre critic, and how should actors (and directors, designers, etc.) respond to them?

I said I don’t have a simple answer on why people react differently to shows, but that doesn’t mean I need to have a wordy one. The reasons for differences in opinion on the quality of a show are because, amazingly, people are different and enjoy different things. People are complex, so the reactions are complex. Simple, J. Well, great, you say, but does that add to or detract from the value critics provides to the community of community theatre? And what, frankly, should their role be? I’m so glad I asked.

For one, critics have a duty to inform the public as to the artistic and technical integrity of a theatrical piece. Community theatres should not be immune from criticism. We charge $20 a head to see a show at Colonial Players, and while that is a bargain compared to professional houses, it is more expensive than a movie ticket, and a paying patron has the right to know what he or she is getting involved with. That said, the critic must (and I have to repeat this) MUST realize that they are, in fact, reviewing a community show. The actors and directors are not professional, and there are varying levels of experience and talent involved. Why does this matter? Because we are volunteers. We are parts of the community just like the audience, and we are doing it because we love it. Constructive criticism is helpful; however, “scorched Earth” reviews don’t do a whole lot for anybody (except, maybe, the ego of the person who writes one).

So there it is: the critic of community theatre should give constructive criticism in their reports. They should point out the good, and the areas which need improvement in their view. They should be honest, but decorum should be there too. They should not be nasty.

Should actors read them? Well, actors WILL read them, regardless of what I say on this blog. I always read them, and when I get a bad one, I pretty much become inconsolable for a period of days. Ask my wife. If ever there was a “First World problem,” that’s one. I still go on, though, and I NEVER change my performance. That, my friends, is where the real answer lies. Indeed, by the time you read the first review of your performance, you’ve already invested upwards of eight weeks in rehearsals and in doing the show. You’ve taken notes from your director, are following his/her vision, and have found the character’s voice. That you were cast at all means someone thinks you’re good. That you are taking direction means you are part of the artistic vision of the show. A critic might not like that. A critic is one person. If the critic has offered constructive criticism, look for the honesty in the comments and take it to heart (or, if you don’t agree, acknowledge that reasonable minds can differ). Don’t change what you’re doing, but reflect on it. If the critic is just being nasty because they, for whatever reason, aren’t fans of the show or of its performances, complain until your voice gets hoarse and realize that it’s just one opinion.

That’s really all you can do.

Alright, send me ideas for future blogs!!! August is another “dark” month, although we do have the 24-Hour theater project coming up then. For those that don’t know, this involves casting and rehearsing a show, then performing it, within a single 24-hour period (the show itself is a secret and isn’t revealed until after casting decisions are made). We last did this in 2008 with a performance of Craig Pospisil’s Months on End. I was in it and, like most of the cast, ended up making up most of the dialogue. It’s really some of the most fun you can have with your pants on, so if you don’t plan on auditioning, at least come and check it out. See you in August!

~Jeff

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SATURDAY, JUNE 1, 2013

OffBook: Balance

by Jeff Sprague

Last month, CP produced In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play). This was a charming story of empowerment and self-discovery that was alternatively poignant and very funny. While I enjoyed the story and the performances, it really got me to thinking about how fortunate our organization is with respect to the types of theatre we can put on the stage.

Karen, our previous blogger, once wrote of her involvement on the play selection committee for the theatre. I have also served on the committee, having been part of the team that picked the 2010-2011 season. From sitting in those meetings a few years ago, I can tell you that one of the most interesting aspects of how scripts are selected comes from this particular community theatre’s ability to offer shows not only for our audience, but also for our artistic and technical volunteers. That is, the conversations of the play selection committee not only focus on “butts in seats,” but also on what type of talent we will be able to draw to any individual show. Ideally, everyone benefits from a season; however, for many of us who have “worked” with other groups, we know that many places aren’t as considerate. Seriously, how many times can you do The Odd Couple? On the flip side, what fun is it to only do shows where you think you need to write a term paper after the curtain falls? Who would come then? This got me thinking about the nature of community theatre and why we do it.

No one gets paid at CP. Not the director, not the stage manager, not the board president, not the lighting designers, and not the third spear-carrier on the left. So why? Most of us work jobs just like everyone else. Lawyers, dentists, college professors, welders, accountants, computer programmers, and teachers: they all tread the boards on nights and weekends. They all man the booth and help put fake wine in 30-year-old bottles. There are probably as many reasons to do a community show as there are volunteers, and I certainly don’t presume to speak with one voice for everyone. Still, there are a few constants. I’d venture to say that most of us enjoy the aspect of creating something for our neighbors to enjoy via a collaborative effort, and we work hard to ensure that what is being put on the stage isn’t, to use a technical theatre term, sucky. It doesn’t always work, but you learn in failure as you do in success. At least for me, I think the ability to escape the mundane is a huge draw as well. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a creative outlet at work, and to be able to be someone else, who might be totally different from you, is usually a very cathartic exercise. All that said, if you want people to pay to see you (which, in case you aren’t paying attention, we do), you also should want to be pretty damn entertaining.

2013 06 01 1My point, then, is that there has to be a balance between what audiences will flock to and with what fulfills the emotional and intellectual needs of our volunteers. They need not be mutually exclusive, and one thing that will keep me volunteering with CP is our ability to recognize that. I know I sound a little repetitive; however, this is a theatre that does not insult the intelligence of our patrons. We might lose a few ticket sales by doing Frozen or Sunlight, but we also draw different audiences and committed patrons who don’t just want to see Rodgers and Hammerstein. CP has been doing this since 1949, and it’s hard to argue with that kind of track record.

There’s a place for singing and dancing. There’s a place for Neil Simon. CP has been doing these shows for years, and will continue to do them. There is also a place for The Vibrator Play, for Rabbit Hole, and for Kindertransport.

Our current production, Taking Steps, is a farce. We started the year with a classic comedy, did a political drama, did A Christmas Carol for the four billionth time (lovingly, of course), did a unique three-person show utilizing physical comedy and classic theatrical techniques, did an intimate two-person drama about a platonic relationship between people in vastly different stages in their lives, did a classic musical (with 25 singing dudes!), did the aforementioned dramedy about sexual awakening, and we are now ending it with a good ole British farce. What a great mix of the familiar and the new! Another great season at CP. Another year with audiences and volunteers in mind, and another indication that we have a very special place for our fellow Annapolitans to congregate and enjoy the magic of storytelling.

I’ve been getting a lot of suggestions about people wanting to post comments on the blog. I am not in control of that; although, I hear through the grapevine that this is something being worked on. There may be technical limitations to this, but I am unsure as to the exact details. Frankly, if I understood technical matters, I’d be Bruce Wayne (not a government lawyer who does community shows every now and then). I’m flattered that at least one of the 12 of you who read this might want to share an opinion, and to facilitate it, I suggest that you leave a comment on CP’s Facebook page. I check that from time to time, and am always looking for new things to write about. And yes, I realize there are no interviews with the cast of In The Next Room as I mentioned last month. I never got around to coordinating that because of, you know, that thing that I have to do eight hours a day/five times a week. I won’t promise future articles anymore; you’ll get what you get and like it (or hate it, or whatever). Still, I definitely want to hear suggestions from the CP community about topics to explore. If you have them, I’ll consider them. If they don’t suck, I’ll use them.

See you in July-

~Jeff

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