Thursday, August 16, 2007

August 16 - Waiting for a special guest

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to get back on the computer to blog. It’s been a pretty busy period for us. But the time has been very productive. We have been doing very well with audiences. We are averaging more than 100 people a day, which is pretty good considering we haven’t received any reviews. Many shows in smaller theatres in the venue are happy with 15 or 20 people, so this is quite good.

But it’s very disappointing and a bit puzzling as to why we aren’t getting the reviews. These certainly help business. Last year we had at least four or five reviews by this time. We have had two of the major papers in, but nothing has been printed. One of the reviewers has asked for photos, so we are hopeful the review will come out soon.

We have been appearing on the stage at the royal mile each day at around lunchtime and have been attracting large crowds. This really helps our ticket sales. Also, each day members of the company leaflet for an hour or so at various locations throughout the old town of Edinburgh. We try to target spots where there are people who we know are in town to specifically see shows. There are many people who come to Edinburgh just for the sheer joy of being around the activity. They walk the streets to see the free buskers and other free events that go on. But they aren’t really theatergoers. It’s important to hand leaflets to people who are potential customers.

We had 20,000 leaflets, or flyers printed. These are two-sided attractive color flyers that promote the show with photos, previous reviews and information about it. This is the standard that everyone hands out to potential customers. We also had a thousand posters printed up. We do all of our printing here. It is arranged so that when we arrive, it’s ready for us. We give half of our printed materials to a company that distributes the flyers to boxes around the city that they set up. They also put up posters for us around town. It’s hard to gauge the effectiveness of this kind of distribution, but for our past two visits we have used them and have had success at the box office. We just now have had to get 10,000 more leaflets printed because we ran through all we had. It’s amazing how much printed matter gets produced for this festival. The walls are covered with posters and everywhere you go you are handed a leaflet.

Today we look forward to the arrival of our provost, Linda Rinker. I know she will at first be a bit overwhelmed by all the activity. You can’t help but be. There is so much going on it is easy to get swept up by the action on the streets and in the theatres. You are presented with so many options for things to do and see that it takes a while to catch your breath. In addition to the many festivals that are taking place here, there is so much to see and learn of Scotland and its culture. Edinburgh is a majestically beautiful city. People don’t realize that Edinburgh is as beautiful as any of the great capitols of Europe. We are excited for her to see the show and experience Edinburgh first hand.

Friday, August 3, 2007

August 3 - The show is open

Well we did it: We opened today. We had a nice crowd of over 100 people. That is very good for opening. We will do well these next three days as our tickets are only five pounds. Part of that is an opening special of 2-for-1 tickets.

The show went well. We were running long so we had to cut one song. And it worked well. We finished right on time. It’s very important to do so. The scheduling is so tight that if one group goes five minutes over it can mess up all the other shows that follow. The performers and band had nice energy. The audience was engaged. We had a lot of younger folks in the audience today. The last third of the show, though, was a little strange in that the lighting board began acting weird. It was not doing what it is supposed to be doing. Consequently, scenes were darker than normal. We didn’t have a final blackout, but we got by. The audience applauded spiritedly and there were shouts of approval as the cast left the stage.

We struck the equipment, platforms, backdrop and props in about five minutes, which is two minutes under our allotted time. All in all, I was very pleased and very proud. There were moments in the production that were genuinely moving. If this show, which I have probably watched 100 times can still give me chills, I know we are doing something right.

I was nervous about the lighting and the music before the show. Yesterday we had a rehearsal in one of the large flats we are letting. It went well but we blew the plug for the electric piano when it was plugged into a wall socket without a converter. We immediately began to search for a replacement plug. After a bit of searching, we found one in an electric shop that carries converters and adapters for electronic gear. Remember, our electrical system is completely different from that of the UK. We need adapters, transformers and converters for all of our equipment. The rehearsal went well in the flat. There is something so intimate and bonding about doing the play in an apartment. I think it buoyed everyone’s spirits and gave everyone a boost we needed.

We also had to rehearse last night until one a.m. and then again before the show today. After the show today I gave notes and we began our busking schedule. I had a radio interview at 6 p.m. and brought along six members of the cast to do the last song of the show acapella. It went very well. They sang beautifully. Tomorrow we begin performing songs on the Royal Mile stages. It’s a great way to draw an audience. We do a few songs while the rest of the group is working the crowd, talking up the show and handing out leaflets. It’s important to do this as competition for an audience is fierce.

There are more than 1,500 groups from all over the world that come to perform here. There are 380 venues listed in the Fringe program. These venues include churches, schools, cafes, clubs, outdoor spaces, parks, museums and every available and conceivable space that can hold a performance.

This is my eighth time at the Fringe. I have been here seven times with WestConn. And I’ve come on my own once. We began the program in 1995. I’ve seen every conceivable type of theatre during the years I’ve come to Edinburgh, but one can still be amazed and transformed by the work done here.

I’ve seen an incredible performance of “Medea” in a basement room that held 10 people. It was done by a Polish actress, Sophia Zelinka, who had been a member of the famous Cricot theatre company for 30 years. It was truly amazing; one of the greatest theatre experiences of my life. And that space held less than a dozen people. That is why people come to Edinburgh. If you are adventurous and search things out, Edinburgh will renew your faith in the theatre as an art form that can touch your soul.

August 2: Getting closer

We stayed in the theatre until 2 a.m. last night. Dan Hassenmayer, our brilliant lighting designer and Dean’s Award winner from the School of Visual and Performing Arts finally finished all of the cues. It was an arduous task. Working in a foreign country, with foreign equipment is difficult enough. But we had a lighting board programmer who wasn’t very good or very fast recording the computerized lighting cues. A gentleman who runs a large theatrical equipment rental company and owner of all of the equipment in the venue bailed us out and volunteered to stay on the board until 2 a.m. writing all of the cues for us. He was a lifesaver and we are indebted to him.

It’s one thing to design the lighting for a show. But that creative work then has to be programmed onto a piece of electronic equipment (a lighting board or console) in order to make it happen. We have a very complicated show, probably the most intricate of any of the shows on the Fringe. And we are dealing with complicated computerized lighting instruments and video in our show. With a constant parade of shows in each space, groups are given only a few hours of technical rehearsal time. We had more than any group in the venue and had to be finished by last night or we would have been in trouble.

The production manager of the venue, that’s the Gilded Balloon, was generous enough to give us extra time. He extended last evening’s time one hour. And he has given us the opportunity this evening to do a dress rehearsal at 11:15. Again, after the performance of “Puppetry of the Penis” comes down. Sounds a bit odd, it does. My God, I think I’m getting a Scottish accent.

I hope all of this insider theatre theatre talk doesn’t confuse people. “Comes down” is the term used when a show is over. Venue is just another word for theatre. There are many venues in Edinburgh taking part in the Fringe. Our venue, the Gilded Balloon, is the Edinburgh University Student Center. It is the oldest student center in the world. It has seven theatre spaces, four bars, two cafes, a box office, administration office, press office and so forth. It is huge, and very old and beautiful. We are in the Debating Hall theatre. It is the premier space in the building. It was originally a real debating hall. It’s got beautiful wooden paneled walls and high ceilings. It seats 300-plus people, which includes a wrap around balcony.

Oh, the phone is ringing. I am trying to put together a full rehearsal of the show this afternoon. Everyone got some sleep and now it’s back to work. The student flats are big enough to rehearse in and we will begin at 2 p.m. today with musicians and all. I’ve got to go. More later. And pictures, too.

Aug. 1: On the ground in Scotland

Everyone arrived safe and sound. The 27 company members got off the plane more than an hour late. They were a little bleary-eyed and it was raining as we loaded ourselves and our gear onto the two Tommy Tooters’ buses.

It was right to the theatre for most of them. We had three shifts of people working with the lighting on the stage, while the other kids went back to their flats to get settled in. One toilet wasn’t working, one flat was missing a microwave; but the flats are nice and comfortable.

Tonight we will be working our tech rehearsal from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. We begin right after a show called — are you ready — “Puppetry of the Penis.” Yep. This show has played all over the world and is a smash hit in every language. Actually, there is not much to say. It’s more of a visual show.

Anyway, we are here and working hard.

July 24: Shortly before leaving for Scotland

We have one week left to put this show together; we will be rehearsing every night. We have a new Romeo, who gives the show a slightly different aura. And we have a new Lady Capulet, which will be played by a woman, rather than a man as was the case in the campus production. I am very confident that we are putting together a unique and provocative show.

We are selling tickets: We have more than $8,000 in advance sale tickets, which means more than 500 tickets. But considering the size of the venue and the number of performances, this averages 25 people a show. For a 250-seat theatre, this is just making a dent.

We will have to drum up business to compete with the more than 1,500 shows that will be performing at the largest arts festival in the world. And we have to sell tickets to try and make back some of the over $80,000 it is costing us for this trip — all of which has been raised by the theatre arts department. We have received some anonymous help, which has gone into five student scholarships that help defer some of the cost for the students. Another three students have been helped with small grants from the university. Our dean, Carol Hawkes, has given us some financial support with a grant.

It’s expensive going over to the United Kingdom this trip. The pound is two-to-one against the dollar. The last time we went over, the pound was $1.65. Now the pound is worth $2.00. The effect of that increase on the amount of money we are spending is huge. And people in Edinburgh realize that they can make a killing renting their flats during Festival. This has made this trip very costly. It also will cost us more to eat, take cabs and buy any supplies we will need while we are over there.

Part of my work as producer includes booking seven flats for student and faculty housing. We will mostly be in a lovely residential neighborhood called Marchmont, which is close to our venue and just adjacent to a lovely park called the Meadows.

As producer, I also have to arrange the airfare (through our State travel agency) and transportation once we arrive in Edinburgh. I have to find the theatre, and arrange to have posters and leaflets designed and printed. We hire a distribution service that puts up our posters and puts our leaflets in displays throughout the city. We have to place ads in the Fringe program and we have an ad on the Fringe Web site. I have to deal with the Fringe office, the venue office and the press. This year we also have some video promos of our show on You Tube. It’s amazing and quite convenient for overseas companies to have most of the advance work done on the computer. There is very little snail mail that goes back and forth. Even the press and promotional work can be done via email.

The minute we hit the ground in Scotland, we will be selling and promoting our show. Each day I get reports from the Fringe office on ticket sales. Competition is fierce and all the groups competing for an audience will be on the street “busking.” This is when you get out on the street and talk up your show. We will also be performing on the stages that dot High Street or the Royal Mile, which is the main thoroughfare of the old part of the city. It is closed to traffic and clogged with tourists and performers in a giant free-for-all of performances and promotion. It’s quite energizing and can be overwhelming at first.

It is a tough schedule. Our students have to be prepared for the rigors of this kind of trip. We will fly all night and wake up in Edinburgh. There is a smaller advance group going over a few days earlier to set up the technical aspects of the show and build a few platforms that we will use for the show. The second group will be the bulk of the performers and musicians. They will arrive after the all-night flight and go straight to the theatre for tech rehearsals. We will have some food for them when they arrive. After this rehearsal, the students and faculty will get to relax in their flats.

We try to make it clear to students that this is not a vacation. They must think of this trip more as a professional tour. Most of all, it is important for students to enjoy the creativity around them. They will have great opportunities to meet people and come into contact with diverse cultures. They will get an education in world theatre and world culture. They are encouraged to see as many shows as they can and meet as many theatre people as they can.

We get to see many shows for free. At our venue, the University of Edinburgh student center, there are seven theatres, a number of cafes, bars and a restaurant. We get to see any of the shows there for free. There is also a special performers’ cafĂ© where all of the performers congregate to chat and socialize. It really is a wonderful experience for any artist and is especially important for student artists who are contemplating a life in the arts. The arts have a slightly more exalted place in Europe. There is a much greater appreciation and respect for all of the arts there. And it rubs off on our students. They will be appreciated and respected much more so than in the States. This is thrilling for them: to get the respect they deserve for all of their dedication and hard work.