Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Play(ing)'s the Thing

Catherine Bryne said something at Hamlet rehearsal last night that I think a lot of us are feeling: "I feel terrible saying this, but I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy playing this character."

You would expect that getting cast in a play with the reputation of Hamlet (um, okay, perhaps there’s only one play in that category) would bring a serious actor a lot of joy. But it seems that I’m not the only one around suffering from Paul Rudnick’s Disease (a serious psychological disorder characterized by an illogical, unnatural dislike or distaste for the greatest play in the history of blanket statements). Since writing the first-read-through post below, I have had several people whom I didn’t even know read blogs remark on how much they enjoyed reading it, how they have similar feelings about Hamlet.

It turns out that there are more than a couple of us with similar responses to the play, and especially to being part of it. I generally prefer tackling lesser-known works like Richard II and Measure for Measure, where the audience knows of the play more than they know it, and where the preconceptions are less likely to be obstacles for them to accept a bold acting or directing choice. (And we certainly made our share of those in Measure.) But Hamlet is more than a play, it's a fixture in the canon of world literature, it's scripture, it's pop culture. It's all those famous speeches and moments and scenes. And it's locked in the collective subconscious in a certain way: Gertrude is a certain way, Ophelia is a certain way, Hamlet is a certain way.

So it's a thrill to talk to Catherine, and to other actors, about the discoveries they're making with characters so deeply rooted in our cultural literature that they may as well be pure tropes. It's a delight to see some non-traditional casting (Prasad Tupe and Katie Ford's Rosincrance and Guildensterne) bear great fruit, and my favorite part of the night is when Jeff Cole and Liz Blake come rushing up to me individually or in a pair, thrilled to share what they've discovered about the extremely dynamic relationship they have developed between Hamlet and Ophelia. As for Horatio, well, let's just say that the "loyal friend" stereotype doesn't quite satisfy me as an actor, and that I'm working hard below the surface.

Strong, bold choices are growing all across the board, from 'Rick Gray (the Ghost), Margie Mills (Voltemand, etc.), Tim Sakiavicus (Claudius), and Jonathan Adams (Polonius), and the fight between Jeff and the wonderful Joe Carlson (Laertes) is looking fantastic even in early stages. Vanessa Passini's fight choreography is a wonderful mix of the urbane and desperate, and the actors have such a long stage to work on that it should be absolutely epic. Hamlet is shaping up to be unexpected and thrilling.

One actor asked me when I cast him in the show, "Andrew, are you sure I can do this?" I say to them all: Yes, you can. We can do this. We're doing it. As long as we treat this play like a play and not like a dusty, holy museum piece, we can do anything with it.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The NEA's "Artists in the Workforce" Study

Kerry Hugins, our excellent bookkeeper and dear friend, sent me this report after a delightful lunch discussion today. It was released in June of this year, but I hadn't read it.

It is the National Endowment for the Arts' "Artists in the Workforce" study. Every American professional artist should read at least the Executive Summary. Click here for the full 150-page version.

I've copied the cover page, hoping it will entice you to read more:

June 12, 2008

Washington, DC -- Today, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announces the release of Artists in the Workforce: 1990-2005, the first nationwide look at artists’ demographic and employment patterns in the 21st century. Artists in the Workforce analyzes working artist trends, gathering new statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau to provide a comprehensive overview of this workforce segment, its maturation over the past 30 years, along with detailed information on specific artist occupations.

“Artists now play a huge but mostly unrecognized role in the new American economy of the 21st century,” said NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. “This report shows how important American artists are to both our nation’s cultural vitality and economic prosperity of our communities.”

Numbering almost two million, artists are one of the largest classes of workers in the nation, only slightly smaller than the U.S. military’s active-duty and reserve personnel (2.2 million). Artists now represent 1.4 percent of the U.S. labor force. While Artists in the Workforce is not an economic impact study, it does report the average income of various artist categories. Based on those statistics, artists earn an aggregate income of approximately $70 billion annually. The study compares artists with the labor force in general, reporting on factors such as geographic distribution, racial, ethnic, and gender composition, employment status, age, and education level. Among the key findings:

Demographic trends

  • Between 1970 and 1990, the number of artists more than doubled, from 737,000 to 1.7 million – a much larger percentage gain than for the labor force as a whole. Between 1990 and 2005, the growth of artists slowed to a 16 percent rate, about the same as for the overall labor force.
  • Women remain underrepresented in several artist occupations. Men outnumber women in architecture, announcing, music, production, and photography. Women outnumber men in the fields of dance, design, and writing.
  • Like the larger labor force, the artist population is becoming more diverse. The proportion of Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian artists grew from about nine percent of artists in 1990 to almost 15 percent by 2005.

Geographic distribution

  • Opportunities for artistic employment are greater in metropolitan areas. More than one-fifth of all U.S. artists live in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington, and Boston. Half of all artists live in 30 metropolitan areas.
  • Unique regional concentrations emerge. New Mexico has the highest share of fine artists, Vermont has the highest proportion of writers, and Tennessee, the highest proportion of musicians.

Employment and income

  • Artists are entrepreneurial – 3.5 times more likely to be self-employed.
  • Artists are underemployed – one-third of artists work for only part of the year.
  • Artists generally earn less than workers with similar education levels. The median income from all sources in 2005 was $34,800 for artists, higher than the $30,100 median for the total labor force, and lower than the $43,200 for all professionals.

Education level

  • Artists are more educated. Artists are twice as likely to have a college degree as other U.S. workers.
  • The share of degree-holding artists rose between 1990 and 2005.
  • Among artist occupations with the highest educational attainment levels are architects, writers, and producers.

In addition, the report profiles 11 artist occupations, including actors; announcers; architects; art directors, fine artists and animators; dancers and choreographers; designers; entertainers and performers; musicians; photographers; producers and directors; writers and authors. Each occupation profile describes key characteristics such as median age and income, and includes data on employment sectors, such as non-profit, business, or self-employed. Artists in the Workforce also features 60 supporting tables with detailed information about artists by state, region, and metropolitan areas, gender, racial, and ethnic designations, and other categories.

“This report brings cohesion to a large, diverse, and important constituency served by the NEA,” said Sunil Iyengar, NEA Director of Research and Analysis. “It recognizes artists as a distinct and dynamic component of the total labor force.”

Artists in the Workforce assembled data from primary sources such as the U.S. Census Bureau’s 1990 and 2000 decennial censuses and the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) averages for 2003-2005. This report is the first attempt to study artists by using ACS data. The study focuses on Americans who named an artist occupation as their primary job. It is estimated that 300,000 Americans have secondary employment as artists.

NEA Office of Research and Analysis
Artists in the Workforce is the latest offering from the NEA Office of Research and Analysis, which has conducted authoritative and comprehensive research on artist workforce patterns and other subjects for more than 30 years. The NEA Research Division issues periodic research reports and briefs on significant topics affecting artists and arts organizations. Artists in the Workforce and other reports are available in print and electronic form in the Research section of the NEA website, www.arts.gov.

I have not yet delved into anything deeper than the executive summary, but it's an eye-opening study, painting some very clear pictures of how far we've come--and how far we have yet to go. It also gives an interesting perspective on an angle we artists have yet to capitalize on in getting a stronger voice in community affairs, the angle that we are an irreplaceable part of the economy, both as service providers and consumers.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Lloyd Shockley

Please see this post from Bruce Miller on the recent passing of Lloyd Shockley, on the Barksdale Theatre blog.

Lloyd was a friend, and a terrific actor. His many roles include two that are quite connected to Richmond Shakespeare just at the moment: Claudius in Hamlet opposite David Bridgewater (our Henry IV this past summer), directed by Gary Hopper, and McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in which our very own 'Hamlets', Jeff Cole and 'Rick Gray (son and father, respectively) will also appear later this year for Henley Street Theatre. Lloyd's "McMurphy" in the Barksdale 'Cuckoo' is indeed now the stuff of legend. Thanks to Bruce Miller for the post.

-------Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

This is the Big One.

It begins tonight with the first read-through.

Richmond Shakespeare begins our fourth season of the Richmond Shakespeare Theatre at Second Presbyterian Church with a little-known work called Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. A cast of eleven makes the largest ensemble we have yet assembled for our downtown space. It seemed only fitting to give this grand play an epic-sized (comparatively) cast.

I'm sure Grant, who's directing (his first time directing a Richmond Shakespeare production in three years), will have some very interesting perspectives on the show. I'm also sure they will be much smarter than mine. But I'm in the cast, and I'm going to write about that point of view.

My secret shame is that I've never been terribly crazy about this play. I have always preferred the antics of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the poet-politics of Richard II, and lately the raw passions of Measure for Measure. It's not exactly that there's anything wrong with Hamlet, it's just that other plays speak more to me. I'm more moved by King Lear's intensity and As You Like It's love-devotion than by Hamlet's inner struggle.

I think we all have an idea of what Hamlet is. It's "To be or not to be." It's "O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt" (also a Dream Theater lyric, by the way). It sure as heck is a bunch of "Words, words, words;" it's a long, long play. It's a guy in black with ruffles about his neck complaining and procrastinating. It's a play that could be over in ten minutes if Hamlet would just get up off his butt and do something, right? Take the Olivier picture here for example. This is just everything people who hate Hamlet hate about Hamlet.

I've acknowledged to myself recently that maybe this is the problem: I don't dislike Hamlet, I just don't love the idea of what I remember Hamlet to be. So I'm looking at it with fresh eyes as we begin this process, throwing my preconceptions aside, open to finding the wonder that the world has seen in this play for 400 years.

We're fortunate in this production to have a Hamlet named Jeff Cole to breathe his own kind of life into the role. Jeff is a dear friend of mine from years past, and he brings an openness and honesty to the role that I think we'll find refreshing in the shadow of our ideas of the play's awe-inspiring intellectual poetry. He's also a great guy and a blast to work with.

The late, great Dr. James Parker, who shared my passion for the History Plays, and in particular Richard II, once spoke to me of Hamlet. We were sitting in his cave-like office in the VCU Performing Arts Center discussing Shakespeare and musicals, and he intoned like a religious pronouncement: "Andrew, Hamlet isn't about procrastination. It's about waiting for the right moment."

Richmond Shakespeare is no longer waiting for the moment to produce Hamlet. We start tonight. And while I don't get to say any of the Dane's famous lines, I do get Horatio's gorgeous "Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." No small peanuts. That would be the best last line ever if Fortinbras didn't walk in. Rewrite!