Wednesday, February 1, 2012

From Paper to Screen to Stage.

In search of an evening of hilarity, I set out with my roommates to the State theatre in downtown Ann Arbor to see Carnage featuring Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz. We figured we couldn’t go wrong with a cast like that. I also had a personal reason- Performance Network Theatre, where I am currently an apprentice, would soon be opening God of Carnage, the play in which the movie is based.

I had read the play already and knew what to expect so I was interested to see if the movie could still surprise me. Fortunately, it did! I was laughing harder than I expected and had an overwhelming sense of satisfaction as I left. In fact, even now, two weeks later, I still giggle about some of the great moments of the film.

Now I was presented with a new challenge: seeing the play. Would I find it equally satisfying? If not, how would I go about selling tickets and promoting the production? God of Carnage is a co-production with the Jewish Ensemble Theatre and Performance Network and the production team comprised of artists from both organizations had a very daunting task ahead of them—pleasing me-- post reading the play and seeing the film.

I entered the theatre on preview Thursday anxiously awaiting the (what I hoped would be magical) experience I was about to have. I had a good feeling because the cast is comprised of the very talented actors Suzi Regan, Phil Powers, Sarab Kamoo and Joey Albright. I also had my love for live theatre working in my favor, but I still wondered if I would be jolted and amused and brought to tears with laughter the same way I was with the movie.

The show began and I immediately found myself immersed in the characters. I already felt more connected to the lives onstage than I did in the movie or even when I was reading the play. So, as you can probably guess, as the story continued to unfold I was happily rewarded with a very intriguing, joyous, climactic theatre experience.

I think it says a lot about a theatrical production when it can really move somebody even after that somebody has read the story and seen the story unfold on the screen. I would have to say that the script works best on stage. I got more out of it. The arch of the story- the beginning, middle and end and all of the artistic choices were much clearer and better developed on the stage.

I would read the play again, I would watch the movie again (in fact I plan to purchase it) and I love that I am lucky enough to crack the door backstage every night and watch the performance at Performance Network unfold over and over again. It never gets old.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Dear Friend,

When I was a little girl, we used to sing: Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold. Now that I’m 42, and Performance Network is turning 30, that song has more meaning than ever, which is why I’m writing to you.

As a former member/contributor to Performance Network, you are a treasured part of the theatre family. Your support has helped us grow from a fledgling company in a warehouse to a regional artistic anchor, leading the state in awards and nominations.

But we still need you, old friend.

As we celebrate 30 years, the future is bright and our national reputation is growing, but precipitous declines in arts funding and an uncertain economy make it continuously harder to maintain excellence. To reach our full potential, we must call on ALL of our friends, old and new.

I’m writing to ask you to rejoin Performance Network’s membership this year, by renewing your past contribution of $65 or more.

For our 30th anniversary, we’ve revamped our membership program, adding benefits at many levels, and a new membership for families that includes access to our children’s matinee series. For full details, check out our website: We’ve also made it more affordable, with our Sustainer’s Club, where you can break your payment up into smaller monthly amounts.

Your support will help us continue to grow artistically and make the bold choices that keep your theatre experience exhilarating. It will enable us to hire top Equity actors, directors and designers, and provide them with excellent sets and costumes.

We use every dollar carefully, with 70% of our budget going into program related expenses, so you can be sure that your donation has a direct and significant impact. For example:
• $65 covers the electricity to run the theatre for one day
• $150 covers the fabric for one costume for “Ain’t Misbehavin’”
• $250 purchases wigs and makeup for “In the Next Room”
• $500 covers one Equity Actor’s salary and benefits for a week

Your tax-deductible gift will be gratefully acknowledged in numerous ways, including recognition in our playbill. What’s more, every former member who donates between now and December 20th will be invited to our holiday member open house, to celebrate with the staff, board and artists and enjoy complimentary wine and hors d'ouevres.

Thank you for your generous support. Your golden friendship gives deep meaning to our 30th anniversary – as we reach for the silver lining of a new, exciting future.


Carla Milarch
Executive Director

Friday, September 23, 2011

Thoughts on our 30th anniversary...

Last night, PNT launched its 30th anniversary season with a celebration like no other, which included songs, laughter, and personal stories from people through PNT's lifetime. The following is the speech that Executive Director Carla Milarch gave. Enjoy!

The first show I ever did at Performance Network was in the spring of 1998. So that is 13 years ago now? I had landed in Ann Arbor in 1995, three years earlier, after bouncing around the country after college, living in numerous cities and finally New York City, where I worked in the publicity department of the then indie-film giant, MiraMax films. It was my first professional show in Ann Arbor and it was the Network’s very first professional season as an Actor’s Equity House.

The other important first in this story is that it was the first show I ever did with a director named Jim Posante. Casting for the role of “Lucy” the spunky receptionist in the World Premiere of Larry Dean Harris’ play “Inverted Pyramid” had come down to myself and another, more well-known actress, who had done shows at Performance Network in the past. But Jim took a risk on me. He later told me that the first time he heard my voice, he knew he had to cast me. Sometimes I think Jim and I were meant to work together, and we did so on many fruitful artistic partnerships over the years, until his untimely death three and a half years ago.

Together, we had a blast bringing my character to life in the funny and heartwarming play. Inverted Pyramid was the story of a Jewish Female Ad Executive, played by Maggie Wysocki and a Gentile Gay Man who is her first in command, played by Ray Schultz. On the day he is hired, they realize that, not only do they have very little in common, but that they push each others buttons pretty relentlessly. Over the course of the play they learn about each others’ differences, but they also learn about the scars in each of their collective histories. She takes him to the holocaust museum, he takes her a production of Angels in America. Over the course of the play they come to truly understand and love one another. With the help of their spunky receptionist, of course.

It was ultimately a story about tolerance and healing, and this world premiere was an important show for the theatre. As always at the Nework, cash flow was very tight, this was an unknown show by virtue of it being a world premiere, it took an outspoken stance on many LGBT issues, and the Network had taken a big risk in producing it. In short, it had to do well at the box office.

Now keep in mind, this was at the old Network. The crumbling technology center housed 118 seats, a small black and white tiled lobby and of course, a pole in the center of the stage. Rehearsals were held at Peter Sparling’s dance gallery studio and the dressing room was off a hallway that led to the patron bathrooms in the back. Patrons had to actually walk across the stage through the darkened backstage area to get to the hallway and during intermission the actors had to “hide” in the dressing rooms so as not to be seen. It was not unheard of to run into a patron in the shared bathroom at intermission if you really had to go. It was also not unheard of to do a show for 10 patrons if a show wasn’t doing well.

Miraculously, preview week was very well-attended. Audiences were laughing in all of the funny parts, and all of the production elements had come together nicely. The set consisted of two, giant, double sided units, one on either side of the stage, that were each mounted on rotating turntables, and each one weighed about 400 pounds. They spun around to change locations back and forth throughout the play, and were manually turned each night by two very sweaty stagehands. They only got stuck about once a show, which for the number of times they turned around, which was about 15, that was a pretty good ratio. Everyone was mostly remembering their lines, things were going well.

Except for one thing. In our audience talkback sessions every night, people kept commenting on how they just couldn’t relate to one of Ray’s character’s key relationships. His main love interest, played by the then 19 year old Danny Kahn, whom he meets toward the end of the first act just seemed incidental to people. They didn’t really care about that relationship and consequently they didn’t care very much about a pivotal decision at the climax of the play. The funny parts were hitting home and audiences were laughing a lot, but the real heart of the story was falling flat.

Sunday night, after the matinee’s talkback, Jim and I headed to the Aut Bar, as we often did, to unwind and discuss the week’s developments. It was a bit of a depressing state we were in, as the feedback that people just didn’t care was hard to hear after we had put so much of ourselves into the show. We went upstairs, parked ourselves at the end of the bar, ordered up two Labatt blue lights and proceeded to drown our sorrows.

Now, if you know many theatre people, you know that one of our great pastimes combines two of our very favorite things: drinking; and talking about the show we’re currently involved in. Jim and I did a lot of both that night. I can still remember sitting at the upstairs bar at the Aut, watching the sunbeams pour through the west windows at ever lowering angles, with the balls from the pool table clicking and clacking in the background, while we smoked, and drank and talked about the play. How could we fix it? We knew that this play had the potential to rip people’s hearts out, in addition to being hilarious. Was there something we could do do make the audience care more? It was Sunday night, and the show opened in four days. What could be done in that short a time that would fix the problem – short of rewriting the play?

As is often the case, the more we drank the clearer things got, and the more willing we were to entertain an “its so crazy it just might work” scenario, because what we ultimately concluded, was that rewriting the play was exactly what needed to happen. Because, the problem came down to basic script structure. The love interest character was just being introduced too late in the play, and he seemed like an afterthought. It undermined the relationship throughout the rest of the script, and it weakened the play. There was a possible solution, but it basically involved rearranging all of the scenes in the first act, and then tweaking the script so that the follow up references all made sense.

Sounds simple right? Well, remember those turntables I was telling you about? Each one of those elaborate scene changes had been choreographed and rehearsed down to the split second, and rearranging the scenes would mean that the entire schematic would have to be re-conceptualized, re-rehearsed and re-perfected. All of the costume changes in the first act would have to be redone, and not least of all – new lines would have to be written and learned, and rehearsed. This of course being if the either the playwright or the Artistic Director’s head didn’t pop off when we brought up our idea.

I will make my story shorter than it could be by telling you that rewriting the play is exactly what we did. The playwright somewhat astonishingly liked the idea, the script was revised, extra rehearsals were called, the new scenes and lines were written and memorized and rehearsed, the tech was reworked, and reworked and reworked, the stage hands were promised large quantities of alcohol – all in four days. And what ended up on that stage was kind of a miracle. Not only did the show open to rave reviews, and play to sold out houses, but it won numerous awards that year, including one for Best New Play.

I chose this story to share tonight because for me it exemplifies so many of the things that make Performance Network special, and so many of the values that are our touchstones to this day. That story could have played out in so many different ways. Many directors wouldn’t have even bothered to listen to what a brand new actor had to say about a script, and would have blown off the feedback or told me that it wasn’t my place. But Jim was open, he listened, he made a place for my new voice, my new perspective.

Many artistic directors wouldn’t have been willing to commit the extra resources, the extra time and energy and dollars and headaches to getting the script just right, and would have settled for just a very funny comedy, which wouldn’t have been a terrible outcome – but Dan Walker was relentless in his pursuit of excellence, and he worked around the clock on this and numerous occasions to ensure that what went on the Network stage was the best it could be. Many brand new actors would never have felt safe enough to chime in about how to rewrite a play their first time out. But the environment at the Network was so welcoming, so egalitarian, and I knew almost instantly that every member of that company, every actor, every designer, every turntable operator was listened to, and valued, and recognized as an irreplaceable part of the whole.

I’m older now. I don’t smoke or drink Labatt Blue anymore, and I’m sure that if I actually remembered how many I drank that night 13 years ago, I’d probably be a little queasy. My dear Jimmy is gone too soon, and these days I direct more plays than I act in, and I don’t have to listen to the actors if I don’t want to. But I hope that I always do, even the brand new ones. And I hope that I always remember to commit nothing less than 100% when the choice to bring something truly wonderful to life presents itself. I hope that I’m never too safe, or too timid, or too tired, or too secure to take a leap of faith when it’s needed. Because that’s what I learned from the people who came before me, and that’s what I hope to pass along to the people who come after.

After all, we’re producing important, engaging, inspiring, socially relevant, non-profit theatre. It’s so crazy, it just might work.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Teletubbies and Tape: Technical Rehearsals as an Assistant Director

After three weeks of rehearsing our upcoming production Next Fall in our rehearsal space at PNT, affectionately called the Mosh Pit, yesterday we moved into onto our set-in-progress in the theatre.

A move into the actual theatre is always an exciting one for cast and crew—the large space in which to play, the danger of acting in what amounts to a construction zone (the actors wear shoes at all times to guard against a stray nail or two!), and of course the anxiety of the oncoming previews which start in one week. One of the funny and unique things about the transition from rehearsal space to playing space here at PNT is the fact that the actors have to face a different direction when they perform. In the Mosh Pit, actors face West, and in the theatre, they face East. This causes some disorientation for the actors who suddenly find that they cannot trust their internal compasses. Though we have rehearsed the exits and entrances and transitions for weeks, occasionally the actors find they have no idea which direction they are meant to go. Stage left or stage right? East or West?

The transition is also a matter of acclimating to the set. In the Mosh Pit, we have the floor taped out to represent where walls and doors would be on the real set, but it pales in comparison to using actual working doors and taking entrances and exits in between walls and set pieces. At first, everything takes a little longer than usual, but it is remarkable to see the actors taking the space into their bodiesthe real actions of entering a room, the real adjustments to props. Whatever disorientation the actors might feel upon entering the new space is moderated by the comfort of the ever-more-finished world in which they'll be playing (though they might say "living" as characters).

During one scene in the play, the character Adam is moving into his new apartment and has to enter the scene carrying a large box. When we ran that scene last night we quickly realized that the box was just about the same size as the space allotted for his entrance (the "gap" as we call it) so he could barely fit. After several desperate—and comicalattempts to enter, our director Ray solved the problem by changing the location of the entrance to the upstage gap. It worked just as well.

At another point in the play, the character Butch asks his son Luke where the bathroom is and Luke replies, “In there.” Last night, however, there was some confusion. Luke pointed to the kitchen. There is not, let me say, a toilet in the kitchen. In that same scene, Luke is moving items from his bedroom and stuffing them into the closet in an effort to “de-gay the apartment” before his father arrives. Of the victims of the de-gaying, one is a Truman Capote book from the bookshelf and another is a Tinky Winky doll (the allegedly gay Teletubbie from children's television). Last night, when we rehearsed with the actual prop, our Tinky Winky decided to speak. He exclaimed, "Uh-oh" and "Hugs!" and proceeded to giggle. None of us knew it was a talking doll, least of all Luke, who proceeded to talk back to Tinky Winky in an equally cartoonish voice.

Of course, at another point in rehearsal, one of our actors accidentally exited into the closet, which of course prompted a flurry of jokes about his character Brandon “coming out of the closet.”

Tonight is our second rehearsal in the theatre. After seven more hours of construction work done in the space, the set will surely present a new set of challenges. A freshly painted floor. A new (and smaller) couch than we are accustomed to using. A heavy bed that our hardworking Assistant Stage Manager has to figure out how to push out on stage by herself. Such is the joy of technical rehearsals. A new adventure awaits us every day.