Sunday, March 29, 2009

Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd blog

This is the blog of the creative process of Arena Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre's co-production of 'Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd.'

The show closed on March 28th '09, and there won't be any more entries published. However, the comments sections after each entry will be open for a time in case you want to make comments or ask questions. You can also contact Arena Theatre Company (there is a link to our home page on the right).

This blog followed the creative process throughout the rehearsal process and the premiere season. You will find an archive on the right hand side, and there is an extensive labeling set up to allow you to easily navigate to places that are of most interest to you. We hope it is of interest to theatre goers and theatre makers alike!

Arena Theatre Company.

Vaudeville closes at The Malthouse

Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd had its final performance of its premiere season last Saturday night. The final show was a really good one. It’s always good to finish a season with a show that everybody feels good about. In companies of artists that work together often the end of one show is not usually a point of exceptional significance. More often than not the next rehearsal or workshop is scheduled into the not too distant future.

When a group is assembled for a specific project, the final performance naturally holds more significance for everybody. The professional theatre in Australia mostly works in the latter model. It is predominately independent theatre companies that work in the former.

The last question I was going to look at in the process of building a work of theatre is how the play developed and evolved throughout the season. I attended the play in each of the weeks that it played to try to get some kind of a sense for this. The thing that perhaps struck me most is just what a complicated question this really is.

For plays in which the artists are highly skilled and experienced, the performances night to night vary incredibly subtly. It seems an obvious thing to say, but at an experiential level it is the audience reaction that seems to vary considerably night on night, while the performance doesn’t change much at all.

Also, it seems to me that perhaps a person needs to go along nightly to fully understand whether subtle changes they see are part of a trend in the development of the performance, or just a subtle shift in a single show.

For me, the most obvious development in the show was the performers’ continued ability to work in finer and finer detail. The responses and offers to each other within the world of the play were getting more and more sophisticated as they were able to live inside it every night. This is particularly clear in the moments when the performers aren’t the centre of focus in a scene; these moments would begin to fill with all kinds of thoughts and moments related to the character and moment that enriched the world of the play.

I spoke to Chris to get his thoughts on how the play developed through the run. Firstly, Chris attended the show through all the previews and first two nights. After that he attended 2 shows a week for the rest of the run. For the shows he didn’t attend he relied on the detailed show reports given by the Stage Manager for how the show was progressing.

His feeling is that the show got better and better through the season. Having said that, Lally reported that two of the early shows she had attended but Chris hadn’t conveyed a heightened feeling of ‘magic.’ They were in agreement that a later show they attended together did not quite create as magical a feeling. So, he thinks it was not necessarily a linear progression.

Chris personally really enjoyed the final performance. Partly this is because of the improvement in the show, but also because he felt that he was in a similar position to any other audience member. With no more shows to do, his responsibility to give notes or work to keep improving the show had ended and he could just watch like everybody else.

One thing that became apparent to Chris through the season was that the second act had a particular running time that worked best for the play. The best shows consistently had a second act running time of 70 minutes.

There were occasions that the second act would get down to 67 minutes. This was too fast. It indicated to Chris that the important change in rhythm that was supposed to happen toward the end of the second act wasn’t happening as it should have been. At this level of practice, 2 minutes worth of time is quite significant. A consistent note from Chris was to make sure that the cast took their time in the second act and didn’t rush through some of the more poignant moments and sequences.

It is a feature of work in this country that very few plays get more than a single season. This is particularly the case for works that premiere at the big theatre companies because of the resources required to remount. Somewhat ironically, it is easier to remount shows that were begun on no budget because having worked on the show for nothing to begin with, people are often happy to continue on that basis if they have faith in the project.

Should Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd get another season Chris has identified a few key things he would like to work on. Firstly, there are a number of scenes from previous drafts, or scenes that were cut during the rehearsal period, that he now knows have a place in the piece. He’d like the opportunity to work on the play again to replace some of these scenes.

Secondly, Chris talked about working on the piece’s “organising structure.” This is a really interesting concept that Chris uses in his understanding of what makes it theatrically logical for one scene to follow another. What is the larger theatrical structure that gives meaning to how scenes and moments follow one another? Chris says that the organising structure of the first act is clear and powerful; that the performers are doing their show in an empty theatre for an imaginary audience. The organising structure for the second act, however, is more complicated than that. He thinks that he would develop his understanding of the organising structure of the second act further if there was to be another mounting of the show.

The concept of “organising structure” is one that could be very useful to young theatre makers trying to build new work.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Vaudeville - Time to Talk. Part 2.

This post is a continuation from yesterday's about the Time To Talk on Tuesday night. So, if you've not read yesterday's post yet, it appears directly below this one.

Peter Clarke began the discussion by getting all of the creatives to speak about their contributions. Then he opened the forum to the audience to ask whatever questions they were interested in getting answers to.

This is an approximation of how the discussion unfolded after this point. This is mostly paraphrased; even things that are in quotations are not direct quotes.

“What from the research informed the script the most?”
Chris and Lally fielded this one; they mentioned three things. The stories told to them by Frank Van Stratten; writer, broadcaster and theatre historian. The figure of Hugh D. Mackintosh, entertainment entrepreneur of the era. A video that Chris and Lally watched in which old vaudeville entertainers talked about why vaudeville died. All the old performers had different thoughts for why it had 'died', but ultimately the sense that the pair got from watching the film was that all of these performers found it impossible to move on.

Chris then went on to talk about nostalgia, and that the deeper he researched the vaudeville world, the more he realised that many of the acts just wouldn't be well received today. He came to the understanding that it is far better that piano players in black face, comedians doing racist jokes and the like, are better off left behind. Nostalgia can give these acts a sheen of romantic allure, but this is likely at the expense of seeing these acts for what they really were, and at the expense of allowing artists to move on.

“You've set the play in 1914. Would you have a ventriloquist as raunchy as that in 1914?”
Good question. The answer to this question came from a few different people. It's an interesting and complex question. The first answer was that perhaps you wouldn't find an act as raunchy as this in 1914. However, in the context of the piece, this show is not a typical 1914 vaudeville show. In fact, it is a dismal failure. Their acts are actually turning people away. Secondly, we don't really know how raunchy the acts of that time may have been. We do know that some of these acts were very bawdy, and quite flagrant in providing their audiences with titillation. Certainly there's no shortage of racy puns and inuendo in Shakepeare, which was three centuries prior. It might be a misunderstanding to presume that standards in today's theatres are more liberal than in the past. Having said that, Chris concedes there may be some anachronism in some of the phrases the characters use. The balance is in what serves the work as a piece of theatre for today's audiences, and what is historically correct. After all, it is an artwork first, not an historical document.

The follow up question to this one is; “Are the actors playing to an imagined audience in 1914 or the Beckett Theatre?”
Another interesting question. The cast field this question between them. The actors seemed to have differing views on this. Some discuss that they imagine that they play to a 1914 audience, others that they don't think about the audience because there is not supposed to be one in the first act, still others say that it is impossible to play to anybody BUT the audience that is in the theatre at the time; anything else might sound clever, but it is actually not possible to play.

“How much input did the actors have into the construction of the show?”
Lally says that on this piece she and Chris were determined they would have a 'finished' script that wouldn't change much over the rehearsal period. However, as regular readers of the blog will know, the script was still being worked on right through the rehearsal period and cuts were being made through the preview period. Chris says that while the cast had no specific role in developing the script, their instincts for what was working and what was not was invaluable to the process.

Finally, Peter asked Chris and Lally for any final comments or reflections they had. Lally reflected that she's really happy for the show to be in the hands of the actors now. She was so frantic in the lead-up, that it's real relief that the cast now owns the show. Chris said that he has just begun to watch the show as a spectator rather than a director, but it will not be until next week that he could really enjoy the show.

The forum was well attended, and was a relatively long one; a reflection of how interesting the show is, and also a reflection of the fascination that comes with experiencing how Chris has managed to successfully weave so many extraordinary elements and layers into the piece.

Once again, our thanks to Peter Clarke. If YOU have any questions for any of the team don't hesitate to send them in and I'll see if I can get an answer for you!