Theatrically Nasty Thoughts – Edition #7

Nasty Shadows are no longer on hiatus – but our return will be to a somewhat SHADOWY EXISTENCE.

I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.
– from The Empty Space by Peter Brook (1968)

I thought perhaps I should offer an explanation of sorts surrounding the recent hiatus and the current shift in focus for the Company – I feel I owe this to those of you who might be reading and to my fellow Shadows.

Important Fact: I am not a producer. I want to create theatre, not produce shows – there’s a key difference here which my status as an amateur allows me to exploit (i.e. I do not rely on theatre for survival, but merely to satisfy an inner craving).

Nasty Shadows productions posters (95% designed by Alberto White)

Nasty Shadows productions posters (95% designed by Alberto White)

Unfortunately, (or fortunately?), Nasty Shadows was never organized in a manner that could support the performance model we had established and followed: You cannot run a theatre company without box office $$ to support production costs, and/or external funding to support your work. Nasty Shadows came up short on both fronts, the former by fate and the latter by choice. (We simply never generated an attendance to support the costs incurred, and I have never tried to acquire a grant or any sort of funding. I like to function within our limited means and feel strongly about self-sufficiency – if an audience could not support what we were doing, then maybe we should not have been doing it).

Also, I have been spending more and more time – far too much – simply administrating the Company.

Earlier this year, while the spring production was in its initial stages, it became apparent to me that not only would I be unable to make that production happen at that time due to many factors, some personal and others, as noted above, having built over time of producing Nasty shows, I also needed to put the brakes on the Company’s continuing fall/spring schedule. Taking a hiatus of some sort to rethink this whole Nasty business was the opportunity I needed in order for there to be future theatrics with Shadows.

Combining the issues above with the fact that I was growing weary and wary of performing the works of others, the time seemed appropriate to change what was happening and embrace the situation as it stood. A natural byproduct of all this is that I no longer wished for Nasty Shadows to be putting on a show simply because “it was time” to put on a show. That is not why the Company was started, and its goal has always been something a little different despite us having ended up at this crossroads.

Becky Forbes, Matthew Spinney, & Michael Holmes-Lauder rehearsing The Table Experiments

Becky Forbes, Matthew Spinney, & Michael Holmes-Lauder rehearsing The Table Experiments

I was brought to face an important question: Why do this thing called “theatre”? One of the Shadow actors asked me that a few years ago, and my response has generally been a need or hunger to simply do it. Period. I now feel I want to start narrowing down my answer more precisely, and to do that Nasty Shadows has to follow along with me. I think the pursuit of answering “why do theatre?” will push the Company to explore the world of play in a new and exciting way, which in turn will yield results that may or may not be shared outside our group – and this is the biggest shift which affects both us as participants in the theatrical creation as well as prospective audience members.

The work Nasty Shadows will now begin and the way we will be working means we will no longer have fall/spring productions scheduled. It could be 6 months before we share work with the public, or it could be 2 years. It depends on the work now. Also, we are not going to be staging shows in a traditional sense when/if it comes time to share our work. Our focus will be even more on the actors, the story being told, and sharing that story with an audience of some sort, accompanied by minimal tech involvement and unusual performance space usage. We may invite folks to our rehearsal space, the park, or a bowling alley. Again, it depends on the work. This also means my worries about staging shows in a more formal manner have vanished because having to focus on that was hurting the work more than helping.

So by removing a formal “production” from the equation we get closer to a more honest exchange between performer(s) and observer – or witness, if you will, which is a term that begs a more integral participation from the audience and suggests the completion of what the performer is offering. There is no question that we still need to perform for an audience, or we’re not really creating theatre but simply playing with ourselves. Working towards performing for an audience is the crux of our endeavour. However, the mode of delivering a performance has to change. I now wish to focus on developing work with an aim to sharing that work with an audience – a witness – but without the hoopla of what we have come to expect from the “production” of a play.

I still want to make theatre, and I believe there is some interest in what we are doing, so I am trying to enable a way that we all get to play together, performer and audience.

And so, after my attempts as “producer” have failed, we embrace that failure with hopes that our small but faithful audience, by whom we are humbled and indebted, will follow as we move further into the realm of intimacy with minimal frills. And just as we embraced our minimal means with fervour and innovation in the beginning, so too will we now take advantage of this further move towards a theatre focused even more on the craft of storytelling through acting, and the relation of the audience to this event.


The quotation above by Peter Brook about being able to “take any empty space and call it a bare stage” is a simple yet profound idea that has shaped my theatrical life since first reading those words over 20 years ago on the advice of my acting teacher at the time (NOTE: Every theatre practitioner should read Brook’s The Empty Space! If you read one book about theatre, make it that book). Nasty Shadows and I have used this notion as a guide over the years, but of late we have moved more towards traditional theatres and the wonders that a performance space with technical equipment offers. It is time for focusing more concertedly on the area of the theatre that brings us together and over which we have control: the act of storytelling and by extension those that do the telling: the actors. This is all we need in the empty space for sharing with simple honesty to an audience willing to experience this form of play. (If you are still reading by this point, my guess/hope is that we will see you in the future when/if we share our work.)

In The Empty Space, Brook speaks about theatre having the power to “make the invisible visible”. I like that. What he means by that is never completely explained, but that is exactly the condition of such a proposition: It stands outside of explanation and logic. That’s why I like it. I feel something resonate inside me when I utter that phrase. “Make the invisible visible.” I want to focus more on being a part of that exploration, rather than worrying about the formalities of a theatre company production and procedure.

Making the invisible visible is, I think, something that I’m attracted to in the creation of art. Those moments in a good book or a piece of music when your head is spinning with a feeling, or maybe not spinning but you are filled with what I can only describe as an understanding beyond words and logic, where your mind/soul experience a total synchronicity with, well, everything. And yet, when you try to explain or describe this later – as I am attempting to do now – you find the description falling far too short of what the actual moment provided. There is something like that which can be achieved theatrically, between performer and audience, and I’m interested in exploring that space. The theatre that has interested me, the works of Beckett, Shepard, MacIvor, have all pushed me into this space, and I hope to possibly sneak through a crack in that door with the Shadows. It will be great to explore different ways of creating plays.

Matthew Spinney, Becky Forbes, & Michael Holmes-Lauder rehearsing The Table Experiments

Matthew Spinney, Becky Forbes, & Michael Holmes-Lauder rehearsing The Table Experiments

And so, I’ve also been reading some Grotowski related material lately, about his work and interviews with him and those he worked with. Reading about his work reminds me of other groups I’d read about when I was younger where these are tightly woven groups of people – in Grotowski’s case, this goes to extremes – and this creates a certain type of space for the work to live. Working as and with other amateurs, that level of commitment is simply not feasible, but the aim is still valid and worthy of pursuit at the level we can attain. It simply means we need to take more time by the calendar in order to cover the ground we want in the hours we spend together.

I have long preferred working with familiar people as it breeds a depth of conversation that is not there with new relationships – my preference is not better, it’s just my preference, and probably says more about me than it does the method. And of course, any person is always new at some point and that is exciting as well. My interest now lies in taking a core group of people and creating a play together, however long that might take, working at a pace we can all handle. And then sharing that play in a simple manner with folks who might be interested, but this sharing would be less formal than in the past, inviting an audience to a room or some non-descript location to take part in what we’ve made. We then move onto the next piece we want to develop, and so on.

There are a number of half-started scripts and half-baked ideas I want to follow-through, but trying to maintain a regular performance schedule, administrate those productions, and find time for creative work was not happening. I managed it once with The Table Experiments, which showed me I would be better off with the time to focus. The experience also showed me that I want to work more on my own ideas rather than interpreting those of others, and that working in a performance environment with actors during the creation is something that I really loved – and, probably more importantly, it’s an aspect I need.

The past 20+ years have been leading me to this moment, I feel. I have worked with many different companies, and folks around this province, and a little elsewhere. I have been part of wonderful shows and terrible productions, delved into the works of my favourite playwrights, and staged productions that taught valuable lessons to me. I have been proud of all the work Nasty Shadows has staged and I feel that moving this group into helping me bring my own work to the stage is the next step in our/my metamorphosis.

I think bringing my half-baked ideas to the Shadows is exactly what is needed for them to become the stories they can be. For years I have been afraid of sharing my writing with anyone, and I also thought that writing was something that had to happen alone and then be brought to people in a completed form. The Table Experiments taught me that this naïve notion was hogcock (combination of hogwash and poppycock – stolen from Tina Fey’s brilliant 30 Rock television show – HA!). I’ve also certainly been taught the notion numerous times by my idols, mentors, peers, and in other situations, but:

There are no rules to creation. Do whatever it takes to make it work. Art is not formulaic and tidy. It might appear so afterwards, but that’s part of the craft.

Creating that show inside of a year from an idea I had about using a table, because it’s the only thing we ever have constant access to in rehearsal*, to the story it became after bringing the actors some scenes, and going back and forth with them from rehearsal to writing, was about the best experience I’ve ever had. (Selfish claim: To be honest, I do this for my own sake above all else, to feed my need – and this is another angle of this entire shift as I feel insecure and pompous “selling” our work since I have such self-interest in the experience. Rather, I am pleased for folks to come experience the work at all and having to sell myself was getting to be too much of a strain on my psyche/ego, but that’s another story.)

2013 was spent rethinking my theatrical ideas, and 2014 will see that thinking put into action as work begins on a new play for the Shadows, but a play I have had in process for years now. We will finally have the time to play with my play.

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[*Ironically, acquiring a table which could be used for the actual production proved to be a challenge.]

Posted on December 28, 2013, in Theatre Stuff, Theatrical Stuff and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Well, let me say THANK YOU, Joel, for your kind thoughts about the Company, and for jumping into the discussion – that is part of my aim with these posts.

    Rather than speak abstractedly about the ideas you put forth, I’m going to put them in a Nasty context.

    While I see your points about not wanting to perform to an empty space and/or perhaps there is a responsibility of some sort to try and inform the public of what they are missing, there is also something a little pedantic in this approach which, for me, borders on telling people what is best. And, I’m stretching your idea here, Joel, but heading in that direction is just not something I can or want to do. I can only speak from my own experience, and about the type of theatre I want to be a part of.

    For me, this all ties to the issue of time and how to spend it. I have ‘X’ amount of time to give to theatre, some of that is time on my own and some of that is time gathering with other practitioners. How much of this time do I want to spend on publicity and all those lovely “business” related chores of theatre? I want to spend as little time as possible.

    Word-of-mouth. That is the key. Spreading theatre by word-of-mouth. Word-of-mouth means somebody thinks you should try their suggestion, that they think it is worth your time and investment – and, they have nothing to gain by your decision, but still feel it’s worth basically staking their reputation and taste.

    I cannot think of anything in my life that I enjoy or that has become a part of it based on advertising or publicity. Nothing. I trust in word-of-mouth to know about music, books, appliances, vacation spots, politics, etc. Certainly one must be discerning, but it’s always word-of-mouth that has led me to the best things and adventures I’ve encountered. I am hoping folks think our theatrical offerings worthy of spreading by word-of-mouth. I think that is the only reason we have the audience we do have, and not because of the tireless hours of trudging for publicity on my end.

    Bottom line: I want to spend my theatre-time doing theatre. If it costs nothing to stage the show, then I have no financial concerns. I trust in at least one person arriving when we share our work, and that is more than enough to complete the bond of the theatrical process. I then hope that person will tell others to come, but I cannot continue worrying about that as it just wasn’t healthy.

    And while there is nothing inherently noble in minimalism, I think it’s also important to be practical and be sensible about what is available to you. For us, this does not amount to much. Again, time is a factor. Without raising funds in some manner, which requires time, you cannot hope to have much available in terms of resources. Again, my interest in theatre just leans towards the nuts and bolts, as it were, and all I need is bodies in a room sharing a story with other bodies. People being together. I have had major fun in performance spaces and using what they offer, but we cannot carry down that road any longer, so we embrace a “poor theatre” and go from there. We’re still doing what matters most, and that is what I want to maintain.

    My aim now is to spend as much of my theatrical time playing as possible, and as little of that time administrating/producing. Yes, my hand is forced in this direction for financial and other reasons, but c’est la vie, and the Shadows will still play, which will hopefully still fill a certain theatrical niche.


  2. There is so much meat in this post — it is wonderful fodder for discussion. Let me start off, though, by saying how happy I am that Nasty Shadows will be re-animated. Theatre in Fredericton would have been poorer for its absence.

    I hope you don’t mind, but I will use your post as a jumping off point for some thoughts of my own that I have been turning over of late:

    You raise a number of good points about performance, promotion, and the audience. You say that you are not a producer, though in many respects you will likely remain a producer, in spite of the refocusing of the company. We in the amateur theatre community do not generally have our own graphic designers, printers, and expansive marketing budgets. However, we still want to reach as wide an audience as possible, so we resort to scouring the city for every scrap of free promotion we have time to find. Certainly we do not want the art to suffer for our focus on getting butts in seats, but nor do we want to be performing *in* an empty space, *for* an empty space.

    Speaking of empty spaces, it feels like there is a balance to be struck that depends heavily on the work being presented. I don’t believe there is anything inherently noble about minimalism. Sometimes we are forced to do without because we are poor, but costumes and props and spotlights and comfy seats exist to enhance the immersion of the experience, as you well know. If abused they may become a crutch, but that is only a reason for judicious consideration, not wholesale abandonment in advance.

    Finally, there is the question of the audience. Is it enough to simply create the best art we can, even if it is only seen by a couple dozen people? Or is there not some evangelical compulsion, too? This idea that, if only Joe Q. Public knew and understood the extent to which he could be moved and impacted by live theatre, he would spend $20 on a ticket to a Nasty Shadows show and not on a movie ticket and concessions at the Cineplex. Fredericton is a city full of working professionals: we have two universities, the provincial legislature, a sizeable hospital, and a good number of engineering firms, among many other middle-class employers. However, the theatre-going sophistication of the city is such that the only shows that consistently sell out are the high school musicals and Christmas at the Playhouse. Should we be actively trying to evangelize to these people? How do we reach them and convince them to attend a Nasty Shadows performance for the first time? Should we even bother? Do we just put up a bunch of posters and hope for the best?

    I hope I haven’t strayed too far from the topics you’ve broached in your post. Thanks, as always, for your insight.

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