Ann Arbor Theater Vixen: Jenn McKee's Blog











{November 15, 2009}   High school reviewers, crowd participation, and playwriting

Recently, a program I’ve been working to get off the ground at AnnArbor.com – wherein high school students interested in arts criticism go to other local schools’ productions and write reviews of the shows – just launched. We’ve run one review on the site thus far, and this current weekend, there will be three more reviews coming in. Huzzah!

I’m really excited about this because I love the idea of getting young people interested in grappling with/enjoying theater – writing about it demands a whole new level of engagement – and I feel good about building the program from scratch. This is my baby, professionally speaking, and there’s not many things I can say that about. I’m looking forward to seeing how the program evolves and grows, and to mentoring the students. My hope is to figure out a time for us to meet in person regularly so we can talk about the practice of theater reviewing and brainstorm other potential projects for them. (The Blackbird Theater’s Bart Bund expressed an interested in having students review the company’s professional shows, too, and we may get to that; I thought as a starting point that when I have an extra ticket – when Joe has to stay home with Lily – I’ll offer it up to the student reviewers, so they start to get exposed to the professional stuff happening on local stages. We’ll see.)

In other news, I was recently at “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some)” at Tipping Point Theatre for Between the Lines, and it’s one of those shows that occasionally integrates members of the audience. The irony of this is that in many cases, these bits were really enjoyable, but I sooooooo didn’t want to be the one involved.

Case in point: at one point, actor Michael Brian Ogden came up to my section and took a seat. I was by myself in a three person row, so I momentarily panicked and then blew a sigh of relief as he proceeded to the row behind me. I then noticed that I’d parked my backpack and the book I’d been reading before the show on the aisle seat next to me, perhaps as an unconscious “don’t include me” sign. (Or maybe Brian recognized me as a critic from my previous interviews with him at the Purple Rose, but that doesn’t hold much water since another actor briefly incorporated Monitor critic Bob Delaney into the proceedings.)

So what am I so scared of? It’s the pressure to think and respond quickly, I’m sure. I’m never less funny than when I’m trying desperately to be funny off-the-cuff. I’m the anti-improviser. That’s why writing was so appealing to me. With writing, I can sit on something in draft form for days, tweak it, make it say precisely what I want to say in the way I want it said. In a theater situation, I’m pretty sure I’d get stuck and go mute.

As I previously mentioned, though, I often enjoy it when it’s happening with others who are more successful at the whole “go with the flow” idea. Crowd interaction often brings energy and spontaneity to a show, as well as humor. So good work, you other patrons. Keep carrying the load for me, would you?

(As a brief side-note, there’s one exception to my feelings about this issue: the show I desperately WANT to be included in every time I see it is “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” but this stems from my secret past as a spelling bee nerd. I want to test myself again, so how far I can get.)

Finally, I’ve been dogged lately by an idea I have for a play, but it feels like such an act of hubris to to try and write one myself. I’ve never done it before – my training is in writing fiction, non-fiction, and a little poetry – but the narrative seems tailor-made for a stage rather than a story. We’ll see if I have the guts to attempt this. Time, as always, is the first hurdle to overcome. But then, even if I followed through, I’m not sure what I could possibly do with it. “Here. Do my play. I promise a great review.” 🙂

In closing, I wanted to mention a site that some of you may not be familiar with: Ann Arbor’s Ron Baumanis, on his blog, reviews musicals produced in the area and beyond, and because he’s someone who’s long worked with theater groups himself, I always find his perspective to be insightful and valuable. Enjoy!

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Dave Davies says:

Jen,

Dave Davies here. Love the blog and would like to comment about the improv portion of it.

I was the one who called out Bob Delaney as Santa Claus on opening night at Tipping Point. I’ve known Bob for a few years and could not resist the temptation of having Santa there on opening night.

Most folks prefer not to get picked on in an improv show BUT, as I’ve stressed to students in the various improv classes I’ve taught over the years, the number one job of any improviser is to make the other folks on stage look as good as they can.

I’m also the one who has to find an audience member to play Mr. Potter’s wheelchair every performance and, some nights, I can feel the nervousness of the “volunteer”. Those times I’ll throw constant encouragement their way like, “George, even my wheelchair is smarter than you!” or “This is the smoothest ride I’ve ever had!” Typically, by the time the bit is over, that person is feeling pretty good about it and has a fun story to tell. I generally try to pick a guy who is there with a few folks or, even better, there with his kids.

So, while most folks are convinced they don’t want to be noticed, those are the ones who seem to have the most fun. Kind of like a roller coaster in that regard. I hate to go on them the first time but can’t wait to go back the second.

Thank you so much!
–d@VE



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