The First Letter
It was when I was about 11 or so, that I watched my father direct a play. The actors and he were using the living room for a rehearsal. I don't remember the name of the play; it was a two character play set during the American Civil War. I was more intrigued by the rifles than the actual rehearsal proceedings, but I do remember the general drift of the play and was pleased when I saw the mounted production. It was a one act, sandwiched between two other one acts, the first of which I haven't the faintest recollection, and the last of which took place in a bar during the blitz of England. Of the three, "my father's" play I remember most, if only for the elegance of the ending: a Yankee and Reb purposely miss shooting each other, having broken bread on a bloody battlefield wasteland save for a single flower. They walk away from each other, but one knows that in the heat of another battle they would likely kill once again.
I wasn't especially moved by the play. It would not have made the cut for consideration for a Stolen Fire play, but even so, this is my first memory of theater, live and real and so unlike movies or TV.
Ironically, I wrote my first (and last) play a few years later when I was in ninth grade - ironic because it too took place during the Civil War. It dramatized the surrender of Lee to Grant. It was horrible - grossly stilted - made the Yankee and Reb play Pulitzer Prize material. But my social studies teacher did mount it, and it played before the student body of several hundred pubescent 14 year olds who were no doubt bored stiff.
A few years later I finally experienced the power of a play; was awakened to what theater could do to one on an emotional, spiritual and intellectual level. That play was Arthur Miller's THE CRUCIBLE. I had subsequently seen the play but once, and although I still admired the play, I no longer saw nor felt it with that 17 year old's dramatic intensity.
A year later I experienced another play - very different - and on a very different level. Its title escapes me and its plot was rather thin. Symbolic and subconscious, unfolding life and inevitable death, it held me with dadaist strangeness and an unsettling feeling that what I was witnessing was extreme, edgy and definitely not TV. And the play was chock full of wonderful over the top nudity.
Two very different plays, irreconcilable, but my God, what an exaltant mix. Theater in the 1960's.
So it goes.
And what do these not very interesting ramblings have to do with anything? I'll try to answer that.
Theater (live theater or real theater - as two of the local venues so redundantly advertise their usually mundane but well produced wares) has touched me throughout my life, but it wasnt until 8 or 9 years ago that I became immersed in that wonderful intensity of acting, directing and producing plays. I still saw a few plays a year up until then, but I was on the outside looking in, willing to suspend belief so long as the script and actors were believable, reveling in the immediacy of theater. But once I stepped through the threshold and into the inside of theater, my perspective absolutely changed, and would never again be the same.
(HEY KIDS, LET'S PUT ON A PLAY!!!)
I've been blessed. There's much for which I'm grateful. I've spoken wonderful words and have had audience members break into tears or laughter. I've been the first to create roles that grew within me, becoming the characters, giving them the breath of life, often to small but very appreciative audiences. I've staged and directed plays that begged to be brought to life; that to disregard these finely wrought words would be disgraceful and a disservice to playwrights and audiences alike. And almost three years ago, I began producing these plays, each of which hopefully took one to that place; of the wonder and fear, laughter and grief, that I experienced some thirty years ago.
And thus began Stolen Fire.
Each play that was produced by Stolen Fire was previously unproduced. Each play was carefully chosen to meet the criteria of a play that Stolen Fire would produce.
However, this is not meant to be a history of Stolen Fire. That once continuing story I have written before and wont burden you with here. Rather, before I head for the conclusion, I must express how proud I am of each production; and how honored I am to have been part of the birthing process that the playwrights bestowed upon me.
I have learned much over the last three years, but there is one thing that I didn't need to learn, because I had known it when I did work for Tangelo Productions in San Jose. Theater is dead.
Yes, I know that that is obvious to anyone that doesn't have some personal stake in theater. To the public, (i.e. 99% of the population), theater is most definitely dead. And I knew this, but refused to truly accept it. Good theater is life, I said. It makes one feel and think and laugh and cry. Good theater is OF THE PEOPLE - their lives, thoughts, aspirations. It is immediate. You can reach out and touch it as it touches you.
If theater is alive, if good theater is alive, it should not need to be propped up by elitist affectations. If theater is alive, if good theater is alive, new plays should be exploding all over the place, like wild flowers in spring after a glorious rain.
In my arrogance, I chose to not acknowledge the very obvious truth of its decaying body. Dead theater only exists in a masturbatory or incestuous form.
HEY GUYS, LETS PUT ON A PLAY.
YEAH, YOU CAN BE JULIETTE, AND YOU CAN BE TOM, AND I CAN SING AND DANCE AND BE THE CAPTAIN AND YOU CAN SMILE AND BE CUTE AND YOU CAN BE DOLLY AND YOU CAN BE KATE AND ALL OUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY WILL COME AND SEE US AND PAY US AND WE'LL HAVE FUN AND EVERYONE WILL OOH AND AHH AND THEN WE'LL DO SOMETHING SERIOUS BUT SINCE THEY'RE OUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY THEY WILL COME AND WE'LL BE FAMOUS AND SOON WE'LL MAKE MORE MONEY AND THEN WE'LL DO MORE FUN THINGS AND OUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY WILL COME. OH BOY!!! THIS IS GREAT!!! LONG LIVE THE THEATER. THANK GOD FOR NON-PROFIT STATUS!!! OOH THIS FEELS GOOD!!! THANK GOD FOR FAMILY AND FRIENDS!!! OOH THIS FEELS GREAT!!! THANK GOD FOR THEATER!!! IT'S MY LIFE!!! OOH THIS FEELS...HELP, I'M GETTING BLISTERS ON MY FINGERS!
I was arrogant and stupid enough to deny what was obvious, and instead chose to believe that if one makes available the opportunity to experience new theater, that the people will come; people off the streets, from the neighborhood, not just family and friends. And some of it came to pass. Nearly every performance did bring in someone who hadnt been to a play (if ever) in a long time. Some "devoted" theater goers, even took the risk of experiencing "something new". And every play broke even, or made gas money for the actors, techs, designers. And the playwrights were paid up front, before production, $250 and more. Yes a small amount, but on par with what the "industry" pays. And if I could have paid more, I would have. I made nothing. In my arrogance, I was determined to pursue this course, because it would eventually pay me back. And the pursuit is all that should matter. Sure.
Stolen Fire could not have existed without the good graces and tolerance of Charlie and Trish Goodman, the owners of the Excellent Center. They didn't charge me for the use of the Center. They believed in my dream, if not always (and perhaps they did) in the content of plays. In return for the free facilities, I was able to pay playwrights and all those associated with the production. I was able to charge $5 for admission. I didn't want money to be the one factor that kept people from attending a performance.
Because I simply refused to accept that theater (except for those wonderful money-makers [God, bless'em] - children's theater and musicals) is dead, the plays could have been free, and still nobody would have gone, except for those creepy morbid ones that always show up in a funeral home, to peek into the casket and receive some gross gratification peering at a dead body.
OH THEY DID SUCH A GOOD JOB ON HIM. HE LOOKS ALMOST ALIVE.
Why is it that the average theater goes looks like he or she is but a few moments from the grave??
Anyway, (yes the conclusion to this tirade is almost upon us), what has come to pass is that Stolen Fire has taken a turn for the worst. Life support just isn't cutting it. Time to pull the plug.
This year Stolen Fire attempted to bring "Land's End" to San Francisco. For those unfamiliar with the work, "Land's End" is an extraordinary work written by the gifted storyteller and playwright Gary Carden, I had the pleasure of producing and directing "Land's End" at The Excellent Center, and KNEW that it MUST continue, that it would be gift to all that would experience the wonderful words that came from this man. After negotiating with Gary, I secured the rights to take "Land's End" to San Francisco and Los Angeles and on tour. I decided that we would first open in San Francisco. I believed that San Francisco would prove to be the exception to the rule, that theater, good theater was alive there. (Yes, I AM an idiot - but for a brief time, I did believe that theater was alive. I am a bloody IDIOT!)
The play was glorious. The performances stunning. No one came.
I ultimately spent close to $14,000 to open and continue playing at The Noh Space in S.F.. of which more than $5000 was spent on publicity in the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner, both of which wouldn't even be courteous enough to review the play. (I was subsequently told that I was suppose to give that money to the reviewers themselves if I has wanted the play to be reviewed. It is difficult to believe that they would be so corrupt, but having been reamed as it was by my own naivete', I may be willing to believe that it's possible.)
I took $12,000 out of my IRA, paying yet another $2500 or so in penalties. I took out a loan for $2000 more when at the close of the play it became apparent that not enough cash flow would cover my accrued dept.
HEY BOY, IF YOU WANT TO DANCE, YA GOTTA PAY THE BAND.
I don't know when I'll finish paying the band. Probably within two years. Stolen Fire is broke. I don't have anymore cash to pump into it. Having produced on a shoestring, what is left is nothing. On the average it cost $1500 up front to produce a new play (Stolen Fire style). So even if my heart was in it, there would be no way to produce any new plays for at least two years. And I don't think my heart is in it.
Practicing dead art can be gratifying to a limited extent. Masturbation will always be with us; a ritual that lingers or becomes more elaborate; even a preference.
People bond with each other to share; to share feelings and thoughts, body and spirit. Sharing is why we put up with each other rather than beat the crap out of each other. Some can't share. They take, often by force. Some don't take, even if handed to them on a silver platter. But for most of us, we build our lives and relationships around sharing (for better or worse, for richer or poorer).
Theater is sharing. If there is no one to receive, there is no sharing. One is alone. One is dead.
So now I reach the conclusion of this missive. I am ready to call it quits. I think that my life would be better off no longer committed to a dead art.
Had I not been so stupid as to venture into San Francisco would I feel differently? Probably. But that doesn't alter the fact that I am without resources, financial as well as spiritual, to continue on. What I've been experiencing for the last five weeks is what I would sometimes feel during the darkest moments of tech week with a production that needed revelation and I needing a hopeless amount of energy and time.
I need concrete advice. There is STILL a part of me stupid enough not to recognize the obvious; that believes, art, be it dead or alive, is worth the effort, regardless of cost.
I can't continue feeling this way. I must let go and forget. No regrets.
So it goes.
More Replies More Letters in Reply
The Interview With Billy Houck of New Times
Contact us at: Stolenfire@fix.net
(Last update September 12, 2002)