May 30, 2013

What is New and What is Abandoned

Paul Valéry 
I am part of a New Works thread of local playwrights where I live and recently the discussion touched on the vague phrase "New Plays." 

A local critic made a passing statement in a review about a recent production at one of the area's larger theatres. Despite the fact the work had not been transferred to New York yet, it had received development and productions elsewhere before playing in the Dallas area. The critic cited this and, therefore, did not consider the piece a "new work."

This launched a discussion about what constitutes a "new play."

My belief is that the phrase we use, "new work," is too vague to have adequate meaning nowadays. For instance, a few years ago, Dallas had a slew of Sarah Ruhl plays presented over the course of a year, year and half. Every play presented had been seen at multiple other theatres around the country either previously or at roughly the same time they were being shown for Dallas audiences. All of the plays were published. But Sarah Ruhl (and I really do love her stuff) was marketed as a "new playwright" presenting us with "new work."

When does a play stop being "new?" This is one of the things I struggled with when I worked as a Literary Manager. 

Theatres are often, and usually in an unspoken way, reluctant to do honest-to-goodness new work. That is, unless it is a world premiere. It seems preferable to find a piece that has some legs, but is still under the national radar. Proven enough, but not something everyone else has had a crack at yet.

The problem here is, there is no name for this kind of work. Could we call it "new-ish?"

As I've progressed as a playwright, I have formed my own theory on the definition of what constitutes a "new play." It is new, or in-progress/development, as long as the original creator(s) of the piece are still working on it.

Poet Paul Valéry famously said "a poem is never finished, only abandoned." This is how I regard plays. Only when they are released into the world, outside the involvement (and protection) or the original creators, only then is it no longer "new." This includes publication. If a play is published or otherwise available in the marketplace for anyone, anywhere to produce, then it is no longer new.

This does not preclude the playwright from still working on the piece, it only acts as the dividing line representing when a play is no longer "new."

A play is, like a poem, never finished. I think sometimes theatre artists are too quick to move on from one project to the next. We enjoy our gypsy encounters. But sticking with something over a long time can be beneficial. It can't indefinitely stay new, but it also doesn't necessarily need to be pushed out into the world too quickly. I profited hugely by taking my solo show CHOP around to various festivals and playing before different audiences over a two year span.

There is an anecdote about the director Peter Brook (one of my long distant mentors). Directors usually leave the production process after a play hits opening night. Not Brook. He watches it and continues to work on it well into the run.

He rehearsed a scene from his production CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS on the day of the final performance in Paris. The play had had a lengthy run. Asked why he was rehearsing on the final day of the run, he replied, "There's no reason that tonight's audience should be denied a potential improvement."

I love that.

Brook knows there's always room for improvement and, though it is the goal to strive towards, perfection is impossible.That's how it is. Theatre is ephemeral, perishible, but that is where it draws its strength from. It isn't set. You can keep going back to the theatre. It is the only form of artistic expression that can be changed at any time.

I conclude with another Paul Valéry quote. Here he is explaining the thought behind his "never finished..." saying: 
In the eyes of those who anxiously seek perfection, a work is never truly completed - a word that for them has no sense - but abandoned; and this abandonment, of the book to the fire or to the public, whether due to weariness or to the need to deliver it for publication, is a sort of accident,  compared to the letting-go of an idea that has become so tiring or annoying that one has lost all interest in it.

May 28, 2013

WATCH THE SKIES just released!

Stump Films released their new short, WATCH THE SKIES, on Vimeo on May 27. I'm an actor in it and proud to be involved. Turned out awesome. Take a look.

Watch the Skies from Ben Davis on Vimeo.

May 27, 2013

Photos from the Improv Workshop at Big Sexy

On May 25th I taught an improv workshop entitled Structured Play at the Alternative Comedy Theater as part of the 5th Annual Big Sexy Weekend of Improv. Here are some pics courtesy Travis Mendina.

Dribble Funk Solo Improv with Brad McEntire

May 23, 2013

Interview with Adam Szymkowicz

Brad McEntire

Playwright Adam Szymkowicz interviews playwrights and here's an interview he just did with me.

A bunch of my friends, colleagues and betters had been interviewed previously.
 Now that I've been interviewed too, I feel so legit, like the weird little world of theatre I'm creating out here in Dallas is slowly making its way onto the national scene!

Adam is a pretty accomplished playwright in his own right. One of the things he's recently been involved in is a web series called Compulsive Love. Check it out on YouTube. Funny stuff.

Summer Improv Workshop with Brad

I'm teaching an Improv Workshop entitled Structured Play at the Big Sexy Weekend of Improv sponsored by the Alternative Comedy Theater.

Saturday, May 25, 2013 from noon to 2 PM

Info HERE and HERE.

May 20, 2013


Brad McEntire
Untitled, a photo by dribblefunk on Flickr.

WATCH THE SKIES preview trailer

Watch the Skies (Official Trailer) from Ben Davis on Vimeo.

Premieres on Vimeo May 27th. I've seen it. Really well-produced short! Spread the word...

Draw Things That Have Meaning To You

"Draw things that have some meaning to you. An apple, what does it mean? The object drawn doesn't matter so much. It's what you feel about it, what it means to you.
On his blog, Struts and Beams, TJ Dawe has posted a letter Sherwood Anderson sent to his son - an aspiring painter in Paris - in 1927. Anderson was in his 50s at the time. The whole article is worth a look, but the above quote really sang out to me. It applies to why one creates art, no matter what the art happens to be. 

Original post HERE.

May 15, 2013

On being an artist vs looking like an artist

Last month I attended a neat gallery opening and talk by Austin Kleon, a writer and artist best known for his Newspaper Blackout poetry. During his presentation, he pointed out a slide of himself working in his studio wearing cargo shorts. He stopped his rehearsed lecture for a moment and kind of off-handedly mentioned a pet theory he had about how some artists are really concerned with looking like artists, while others actually don't care so much what they look like so long as they actually create like artists. Cargo shorts, he said, seemed to catch a lot of grief but they were really utilitarian. And he stated he'd like to have utility over fashion.

Bill Cunningham at work...
I was reminded of this recently when I watched the documentary Bill Cunningham New York. Mr. Cunningham is a fashion photographer in New York who records both street wear and high society fashion. He is fascinating for a bunch of reasons, but one thing that sticks out the most to me is how he has pared many aspects of his life down to sheer simplicity so he can just do his job well. He lives simply, eats simply and, most importantly for this discussion, dresses simply. He wears essentially the same khaki pants and blue work smock every day. It is utilitarian and practical. The other result is that it is idiosyncratic. It is his "look."

I was reminded of others who have really individual "looks" with an emphasis on utility... like the Bauhaus designer Lazlo Moholy-Nagy in his coveralls. Or fashion journalist Angelo Flaccavento in his ever-present high-water baggy pants, tight jacket, glasses and pen in breast pocket. I admire both men for being kind of no-nonsense and craftman-like in how they did/do their jobs as well as how they dress for their jobs. What strikes me about them both is that the thought seemed to be first, "what do I do," not "what should I look like I do." The thing is, they also look like what they do, you know, authentically.  

Lazlo Moholy-Nagy

Angelo Flaccavento
I like blue button-up shirts and wide-leg pants. I don't think about it much, but it is my look and for what I do most (write plays, perform improv, draw) it works as a sort of uniform. I don't particularly look like an artist. But I make art, so...

Maybe there is a romantic ideal of how artists are supposed to dress. Maybe the media and fashion industries have co-opted what real artists wear (and wore in the past) and have given us back a stylized idea of it and mass produced it for optimum sales.

Artists, in particular, seem to fall prey to the marketing of what they should look like. I'm not sure accountants have that problem. or carpenters. Or plumbers.

I know a few really fashionable, hip, trendy folks who also happen to make great art, but they are a stark minority compared to the many more hipster-ish fashionistas who talk a good game, but, when it comes down to it, don't produce.

Either way, this kind of thing has been on my mind lately. 

May 12, 2013

So that's where that comes from...

I never really know how these things start. This is because I am usually well into the process by the time it occurs to me that this idea had to come from somewhere originally. I'm talking about getting ideas for plays and this weekend I'm just sitting down to start a new one, from scratch. And I know exactly where the idea is coming from this time... my wife.

Ruth was telling me about an assignment she gives to her students in one of the college English classes she teaches. The students have to imagine themselves in the future travelling back in time to interview an important writer. They also have the option of bringing the writer through time to the future to be interviewed. Either way, Ruth asks them to give a short, creative explanation of how and why they or the writer time travel.

And time travel has been in my brain lately. And how time stops. And how celebrity works. And what exactly is "selling out?" And what is the future going to be like. And a bunch of other things.

I'm on a roll lately with the plays. Just this year I've rolled out CARTER STUBBS TAKES FLIGHT, SHARK BITES AND SIDE EFFECTS (granted, for a 24 hour play thing, but...) and DINOSAUR AND ROBOT STOP A TRAIN.

I'm hoping to bang out at least two more plays this summer and fall... a solo piece about a haunted goldfish and now this next bold full-length idea that may be chock-a-block full of big ideas. Both are in the "notes" stage of progress for now. But...


Interesting things are afoot...

May 5, 2013

My review of my review...

Now that CARTER STUBBS TAKES FLIGHT has ended, I can post one of the reviews of the show. I make it a rule to never post negative press during the run of a show. It is hard enough to get people out to the theatre to make their own minds up without putting up with someone smack-talking your work in the paper or a blog.

To a large degree, I really only see reviews and criticism as marketing tools. If there are a few good pull-quotes, great. If not, oh well. Most reviews are not memorable to anyone but the artists directly involved in the show itself. And though I really like when critics "get" the work and even moreso when they enjoy it, I never really celebrate good press. I also don't really lose sleep over "bad" press. This is because it is really hard to get good, actual criticism. Also, my own awareness of the value and purpose of my work is pretty solid.

That said, I got one of the best, though most unflattering reviews, I have ever received during Sundown's run of CARTER STUBBS TAKES FLIGHT. I do not know the reviewer, Kristy Blackmon, and admittedly, The Column is not a leading source of great criticism, but a few things really struck me about the review...

I do not agree with many of her points, such as the definition of fable, the moral message of the play, bringing up questions with the assumption that these questions also must be answered in the piece, and so on. I won't go point by point through the review and nit-pick. All I'm saying is, she had an opinion and I had another opinion.

What I do appreciate, though, is the intelligence she brings to her criticism. She took the play seriously as a piece of theatre. Though it was presented on a  super-small budget, tucked away at a dance studio in Denton, Texas, she approached her review as if she were going to see a new work at the National Theatre. I really, seriously, appreciate this.

This write-up made me, legitimately, question and think about the play. I went back and scrutinized sections of it.

I also appreciate she calls bullshit on a few things like the badly taped rotating backdrops that  looked awesome, but were honestly kinda shoddy.

I also was pleased she was complimentary to the director, cast and crew. On the whole. Their contributions were apparent and recognized, just as they should have been. 

All that said, beyond matters of sheer opinion, I was also bothered by a few things.

Despite some of the more intelligent analysis, I was surprised at how much she misinterpreted parts of the piece or grafted unintended meaning onto parts. Her confusion over cannibalism in the play, for instance, was over-thought and she missed the main point of "eating one's fear." 

She also labels parts of the play "real life" and "fantasy" even though, there is no such differentiation in the piece. Carter has one brief "dream" sequence. I guess the whole thing works as a memory play as well (like The Glass Menagerie). But her categorizing huge sections of action into "real life" and" fantasy" is a fabrication separate from the play itself. 

The same can be said about her assumption that the piece is about how "modern man struggles to find meaning in a meaningless, capitalistic world that inevitably drives him to drastic action in order to break free of the social structure that is crushing his spirit." I suppose Carter is looking for meaning in much the same way as every character in every story is looking for meaning, but this is a given. Water is wet. So? And what do social structures have to do with anything?

She also comes off overly jaded and cynical when saying the content is "tired" and "this is a story that has been told so often it is nearly impossible to make fresh." Perhaps she has seen the story before. Too bad this prevented her from seeing what was new in this retelling of it. 

I will give her credit, even though the final words in her piece stung the worst. She gives me a back-handed compliment by way of encouragement. If I stick to it,  with a little more "experience and seasoning" my work will eventually have "maturity" and  may "cross from provocative into something truly meaningful."

That's fair. That's how I feel about Ms. Blackmon's review as well.

#   #   #


Reviewed Performance 4/13/2013
Reviewed by Kristy Blackmon, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Sundown Collaborative Theatre's production of Brad McEntire's Carter Stubbs Takes Flight, currently running at Green Space Arts Collective in Denton, brings me back to the underground experimental theatre scene of the 1990s, where exploration of the Post-Modern existential dilemma placed focus on message and mood instead of a traditionally linear storyline. It is a provocative show meant to inspire conversation about cultural norms, identity, and expectations in a modern world. Playwright Brad McEntire classifies Carter Stubbs as a fable, a short tale with a central moral point. According to this brief and most basic definition, the label is accurate. The play is short, without even an intermission, and the moral message is very clear: modern man has forgotten joy in favor of obligation and routine. Many traditional elements of the fable are either noticeably absent or underplayed however, and the classification does more to cloud the intended message than it does to emphasize it.

Director Tashina Richardson presents a bare-bones production that strips all frills away from the show, preventing any technical distractions from the actors and the script. The technical elements such as set and costumes are deliberately simplistic, and their minimalism itself becomes a central facet of the production. Richardson converted a tiny room into the theatre space, placing about fifty folding chairs at the edges of the room and staging the set backdrops against one wall to create an "upstage" area. She and Lighting Designer Natalie Taylor use a simple but creative light design that makes heavy use of footlights, emphasizing shadows and silhouettes in the more fantastical parts of the play. The similarities between Green Space and a traditional black box theater pretty much end there, but it doesn't matter. This isn't a traditional play, and the lack of a traditional space doesn't hinder it. 

Several plain black wooden boxes of varying size and two black wooden chairs serve for set pieces. The backdrop is innovative: five cardboard rotating stands, each with three sides, portray the interior of the Stubbs' home, the interior of Carter's office, and the otherworldly tropical island on which the more magical scenes of the play take place. The actors turn each piece as part of choreographed scene transitions, which keeps the action moving quickly. 

It is a creative solution to the problem of limited space, but the packing tape holding the cardboard parts together and the rudimentary stenciling and drawing of different scenic elements draw too much attention to themselves. Minimalism for the sake of artistry is one thing, but it should still be done well. While the set pieces are inventive and seem sturdy enough, their slapdash nature is an unnecessary distraction in such a small space. 

The costumes by Joey Harrington, by contrast, achieve both the creativity and simplicity of the set while still being well made. While the characters in the non-fantasy sequences are in nicely stylized street clothes probably pulled from cast members' closets, the primitive inhabitants of Carter's alternate reality wear attractive and artistic cardboard masks and tropical skirts made of strips of paper that supplement the tribal beats of handheld drums nicely when the actors move. The effect is aural as well as visual, and it is quite successful.

The plot centers around Carter Stubbs, a man stuck in a miserable marriage and a dead-end job folding instruction manuals. He and his wife Felicia may once have had some common ground, but it has long since disappeared by the start of the show. He ignores her in favor of work, and she in turn grows vicious. 

Carter's life revolves around routine, and this theme is echoed nicely in the choreographed offices sequences. His work is predictably mind-numbing, his co-workers are predictably annoying, and his boss is predictably overbearing and merciless. Richardson and Choreographer George Ferrie inject some life into these scenes through the use of humorous and thematically relevant movement sequences, but on the whole this is a story that has been told so often it is nearly impossible to make fresh: modern man struggles to find meaning in a meaningless, capitalistic world that inevitably drives him to drastic action in order to break free of the social structure that is crushing his spirit. The overall feeling that I have seen these plot innumerable times drags the show down.

The fantasy sequences are more interesting. Carter's opening monologue, directed to the audience, is recited as he flies through the clouds, which are portrayed by the ensemble as they hold Tackett up and carry him around the stage. He winds up crash landing on the beach of a tropical island, where the primitive inhabitants inform him that in order to overcome his soft heart, he must fight a tiger. 

The symbolism nearly overwhelms here, so much so that the meaning is lost. The natives worship a king named after a popular soft drink who indulges in cannibalism, which suggests modern worship of pop culture at the expense of humanity. However, it is by this king's command that Carter fights the tiger, which gives him a strong heart. This seems to symbolize an internal battle that the post-modern Everyman which Carter represents must win in order to regain a sense of identity, but by the end of the show, the metaphors have become too mixed to really work. Are the primal islanders something to aspire to or a source of revulsion? Perhaps this is the question we are meant to ask: what is "civilization" and what does "primitive" mean? The problem is not that McEntire doesn't answer these questions for us, but that he doesn't seem to know himself.

If we have forgotten the joys of our childhoods in the mundane stresses of adult responsibility, it remains unclear what McEntire's solution is, or really even what the point of the fantasy sequences is.

All of the actors perform well. Kasey Tackett gives a good performance in the title role, playing the straight man to the supporting characters' comedic foils with a deadpan delivery and spot on sense of timing that keeps the pace moving. 

Lauren Belmore's performance is a high point. She displays a talent for dark comedy, playing Felicia with confidence and committing herself fully to her choices. Her comedic timing provides a much needed balance to her cruel treatment of Carter, keeping the domestic scenes from becoming emotionally stifling. 

David Helms, both as Carter's boss and his fantasy land king, does a good job of conveying all the symptoms of Napoleonic syndrome, and Robert Linder as Carter's soon-to-be-retired coworker Henry provides moments of much needed levity in the office scenes while helping to ground the show with bits of wise advice. As the lawyer, Linder delivers one of the funniest performances in the short play.

With Richardson's creative approach, her and Ferrie's nicely done choreography, and the imaginative and largely successful technical elements, Sundown gives us as commanding a performance of Carter Stubbs Takes Flight as I think possible.

Ultimately, it all isn't enough to overcome the problems with the script, though. The "real life" scenes at times are pat, and the fantasy scenes at times are confusing. For a show just over an hour long, the messages and themes are too convoluted and unclear. McEntire's wit and intelligence are obvious, but the themes he explores are tired, and he brings nothing new to the table with this play. His skill with dialogue is undeniable, and one gets the sense that he just needs some more experience and seasoning to give his work the maturity it needs to cross from provocative into something truly meaningful.
Original post HERE.

May 2, 2013


Besides grabbing a quick PR pic with Ruth and Swearingen, I also put together a short little promo video... a kind of trailer for the player.

You can see that the budget we're working on is through the roof...

More info about the show HERE.

Pics from the Improvised Play Festival

I performed as part of the improv duo FUN GRIP on April 12, 2013 at the Hideout Theatre in Austin, TX. It was the 3rd Annual Improvised Play Festival. Here's a few pics captured by our pal Tyler Bryce. I applaud the Hideout for really concentrating on theatrical improv with the IPF. At its core, longform improv is just really really pure theatre.

What I dig about seeing occassional photos of Swearingen and I doing improv in action is that we really are acting. You can see the focus and commitment on our faces. I'm proud of the way we do our thing.