Monday, January 31, 2011

It's good to be challenged.

Had an interesting discussion with friends last night about whether Knoxville already has too many theatres for its size. Paul made some strong arguments that this was so. Should we be discouraged? I certainly wasn't - for one simple reason.  And here I must walk a tightrope between honesty and tact, but imo, Knoxville has too few theatres that aim to astonish and emotionally engage their audience every single night.

Theatrically, we're stuck in a long-time cycle of low expectations, low self-esteem and low quality. "The audience is too stupid to get it. " and "It's good enough for Knoxville."  are two phrases I've actually heard spoken in local theatres - one professional, one community. It's an epidemic of mediocrity. No wonder so very many people here pay big money to fly to New York twice a year for their theatre fix.

There are two ideas central to our still-being-developed mission statement. High quality and maximum impact. High quality doesn't necessarily equate to spending oodly-gobs of money on sets and costumes, although the same high standards should apply there as well. I've seen a number of productions locally that mistook slickness for quality. For us, high quality is very personal - it's demanding the best of yourself and everyone you work with. Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago was founded on the principle of aiming for a better performance every single night of every show. A lofty goal, but one that excites and motivates me.

Can the Flying Anvil Theatre be the Steppenwolf of Knoxville? Can I fulfill my secret fantasy of becoming the Pat Summit of Knoxville theatre? Why the hell not? All it takes is an uncompromising commitment to choosing exciting, emotionally engaging plays performed by professionals who are passionate about pushing themselves and their craft past their limits. It's about understanding that the reason for our existence is the audience. Our job is to open a dialogue that challenges, entertains and ultimately, changes us all. We'll earn our paychecks like anyone else  - by putting out a competitive product that people want.

Are you rolling your eyes yet?  That's okay. We have a lot to prove. But I am motivated by memories of evenings in the theatre that left me emotionally drained, exultant, speechless, awed and altered. The six hour Dragon's Trilogy by Theatre Repere - performed on the stage at Clarence Brown. Steppenwolf's Grapes of Wrath. My first Broadway musical - Pippin. And I am bouyed by memories of theatres I've worked at that actually made money by putting the focus on the people in the seats - not to pander to them, but to invite them to share in an emotional adventure.

So even if there is too much theatre in Knoxville, I am certain that what Staci and I intend to offer is different and needed. And worth every penny we'll charge for it. If it isn't, well, then we don't deserve an audience.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dreaming a theatre into being

So last night, instead of sleeping, I designed our lobby. Played with color schemes and worried over lighting. I came up with some group sales ideas. I even imagined what I would wear to the gala opening! All fun - far more fun than the logjam of paperwork we're amassing as we negotiate the deep legal waters.

But here's a question for any and all - what would YOUR perfect theatre looks like? What would it produce? Where would it be located? How would you be involved? Give us your opinions, please. Help us dream this anvil off the ground!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Inspiration, dedication, determination

Ellen Stewart, the Mama of LaMama, died on January 13, 2011. I can't stop thinking about her.  I'd seen a production of Lanford Wilson's "The Rimer's of Eldritch" at her theater on East Fourth Street soon after moving to New York City. Ellen introduced the play looking like a gypsy - all spangles and bangles and wild, wild hair.  Someone whispered "That's LaMama."   "Who?" I said.  (Hey, I was young.)

In 2007 I had the opportunity to be one of the artists in residence at her theatre center in Umbria, north of Rome. Although we were told Ellen was there, weeks went by without seeing her. Finally one night she joined us after dinner. It was obvious she was ailing, but that didn't diminish the impact of her presence.  We pelted her with questions about her career - all of them some form of "how did you do it?"

 "It never occurred to me I couldn't."

Those words carry special significance as we work to form the Flying Anvil Theatre.  Ellen Stewart was a fierce fuse, an incredible role model of inspiration, dedication and determination.  I was in Italy for a month, writing, eating pasta, and breathing the same air as Ellen.  Is it too much to hope that a few  molecules rubbed off?          Staci

    NY Times Obituary for Ellen Stewart

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What I want.

I want a theatre that treats the audience like co-creators. I want to honor the sacred space between actor and audience. I want to make people laugh so hard their cheeks ache and bellies hurt the next day. I want to hear grown men sob during the show. I want people's eyes to shine as they mill about the lobby at intermission. I want my actors to be incredibly proud of the work they do every night. I don't ever want to be satisfied. I want to sell out shows and have to extend them. I want to take big, big risks that scare the bejesus out of everyone. I want comfortable seats and enough toilets in the women's bathroom. I want a state of the art lighting system. I want a bar in the lobby. I want to change lives. I want to pay actors a decent wage. I want rabid fans and volunteers who feel like they own the place. I want to say "yes!". I want long, indulgent production meetings, where we have intense discussions about colors and textures and metaphors and myths. I want to bring my dogs to work. I want to laugh. A lot. I want plenty of money for productions. I want to produce the best theatre in Knoxville. Scratch that. The best theatre in Tennessee - in the Southeast. I want an advisory board that holds us accountable and demands our best work. I want to develop a national reputation. I want to produce new, astounding work. I want to find new audiences, new ways to involve current audiences. I want to make money - have I said that already? I want to find something essential and life-changing in every production and share that with the audience.  I want to kick some serious ass. Is that too much to ask? Tough. It's what I want.


Friday, January 7, 2011

Anvils Away : CoolestOne.Com

Anvils Away : CoolestOne.Com

My friend Jim Ramsey forwarded this - fire in the hole, baby!

We kick things off.


Here's who we are - Staci Swedeen and Jayne Morgan. Two long-time friends, theatre artists, writers and teachers and perpetual dreamers who are about to embark on an odyssey of creation. Does the world need another theatre? We think so. As long as it produces stories aimed square at the heart and the gut of the audience. Who doesn't want to be moved, to feel something profound?

Join us as we feel our way through the process...balancing hardnosed fiscal realities with pie-in-the-sky hopes. Make that an anvil-in-the-sky. Because if anvils can can we.

Hey y'all, watch this!


Wild Dreams

Have you ever had someone call your bluff?

I have.  And it’s making me nervous.

Years ago in New York City I took one of those jobs that actors take to help pay the rent. And although the job was short term (handing out Virginia Slims cigarettes at Kennedy airport – remember those days?)  that gig had a long term impact on my life.

Two other young women had also been hired to hand out cigarettes.  One of those women was tall.  I took an instant liking to her.  We decided to stand together in one section of the airport (Two Tall Women) while the other woman (okay, she was short) went off somewhere, never to be heard of again.

The second day of work all of our cigarette samples were stolen.  Our boss told us to keep showing up, more samples would be delivered. They never were.  Instead Jayne and I had a two week long coffee break. We discussed everything from our current relationships (hot, volatile, bleak, so very 20’s) to our long term aspirations (grand, large, filled with confetti and glitter.) 

I’m not sure we actually discussed starting a theatre at that time – but I know I would have been nodding my head and saying “Yes, great idea!” if the topic had come up.  So it was at a little coffee shop at JFK that the seeds of the Flying Anvil were first planted.

Flash forward to 2011.  I’m in the process of moving to Knoxville.  Jayne and I are in the process of starting a theatre.  I’m excited.  I’m scared.  My bluff has been called.

I found an entry in my journal yesterday that says “In order to succeed beyond your wildest dreams, you need some wild expectations.”  We’ve got those in spades. Now let’s see what cards we’re dealt.

Have you ever had your bluff called?  How did you respond?