Monday, July 14, 2008

In Defense of Minimalism

An Essay

In Defense of Minimalism: My Theory of Performance and Production.

When it comes to producing a show, I am a minimalist. I like a clean, open, very unadorned stage. However, recently a few people have questioned and even bucked my minimalist style of producing shows and I though t I'd offer some insight as to why I approach performing and production the way I do.

My first encounter with professional level theater was as a Sophomore in High School. I was in the chorus of Anything Goes. It was a show produced by a local community theater company known for their professional level productions. The show is set on a cruise ship and the set was MASSIVE. It took nearly six weeks to build the two-story monstrosity. I thought it was so cool. Steps, and balconies, door and windows. What a joy! By what a pain. It nearly fell over in one performance, and it took two days to destroy the dang thing after the show closed.

That was the status quo in my theater world for the next several years and I discovered that the sets we built were a part of the audience draw. Many came to see how we could out do the last behemoth. It is what I thought was the norm.

Then some things happened that changed my paradigm. I saw a production of Cotton Patch Gospel at the Ohio Playhouse in Cleveland. It starred Wayne Turney and used a compliment of 4 bluegrass musicians. No set – just the theater drapes hung on the stage. Only two props – a mission style table and a chair that became a boat, a pulpit, a hangman's platform… And this production was done in the original style – as a one man show, so Turney played all the characters. One man, a table, and a chair and nothing more. It was one of the most captivating magical theater moments I have ever seen. Turney filled the stage with characters and persona, and personality, not props. The title of the show aside, that was a religious experience for me.

I noticed the same minimalism from stand-up comics who could hold an audience spellbound with but a microphone and their persona. I saw dance companies who filled the stage with color and majesty in the costuming, and lit up an otherwise barren stage.

I began looking around and noticed a similar phenomenon on Broadway – hit shows using little or no scenery. Shows like Pippin, The Fantasticks, A Chorus Line relied on the characters and the stories they had to tell rather than the sets and scenery they told them on. I went on to do several shows myself that used representational props and scenery. The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit had a set that was only a flat wooden framework of a building. The Music Man that only used a gazebo, the production of The King & I that only used leveled platforms. And then there was the tour of Closer Than Ever. No set, only 3 wooden stools and a Grand Piano. That show set the new standard for me…
Early on I set out to be as minimalistic and representational onstage as possible because I began to realize that monstrous sets and scenery for most productions were just hiding and masking the lack of talent on stage. The smaller the talent pool the bigger the set and scenery must be. Don't believe me? Go see a musical at your local community theater. They will have built these massive sets, and invested a lot of man power into creating scenery, but the lead actress can't seem to quite sing on pitch. Another big offender is Las Vegas. Your can put any talentless jackhole on stage in Vegas and it'll still be entertaining because of the spectacle of scenery.

You see, it boils down to this for me; as a performer – actor, singer, dancer, magician, comedian, whatever – you should be able to fill a stage with your persona, and personality, with your energy and enthusiasm, and most importantly your talent. You are the scenery! If the audience starts looking around at the scenery rather than looking at you and paying attention to you, then you have a bigger problem than what is or isn't on the stage.

When I do shows I want a clean, uncluttered stage. I may use a great drop or backdrop, and whenever possible fabulous lighting (but even that must enhance and not detract), but for the most part, my desire is almost always to fill the stage with larger than life characters whose personalities are the scenery. I may fail at times, but at least it is I who fail, not the moving parts of the set – yes, it's true that sometimes those monster sets come crashing down. I've been there, done that, got the t-shirt!

So, next time you are in a show that I create and you lament the absence of an elaborate set, know that it is not there because you do not need it. If you did, you wouldn't be cast in the show!

Next: Costumes – the outward expression of the larger than life character!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Tricks of my Trade July 2008

Well, July has only just begun and it brings sad news to the Nashville Magic Community. First, It's Magic!, Nashville's only magic retailer is closing it's doors. This is sad because we have such a large magic community here, and because the theater in the shop is such a nice space to play and perform and practice. It has been a valuable tool for both pros and aspiring pros. The shop closes July 19th. Everything is on massive clearance.

Second, the Nashville OnePaper has also closed it's doors. The OnePaper has been a huge friend to magic over the last 5-6 years, and even gave me my own bi-weekly column on magic. I'm sad to see it go, but I could use the free time.

So, with Nashville losing these two magic friends, what will the state of magic in Nashville become? Well, it may just mean a return of Music City Magic. I know I plan to work hard to get the show back up and in front of an audience, to provide again a format to allow magicians to hone their acts in front of real-world audiences. Stay tuned...

Also, there is a new Magic Theater project in the works. I can't say anything more than that, but be watching this space for more info...

AND there is still some big news to come in August. I can't spill it yet, but I am so excited that I am ready to burst!!!

Catch ya on the Flip-Side!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Larger Than Life Review

Well we did it again. Our run of Larger than Life at the Center for the Arts was a huge success! In particular, we got great video and awesome photos - some things we needed more than anything to grow this show and make it a huge success!
We also got a great review from columnist Bob Pierson. See it below.
Thanks to everyone who came out!
Larger Than Life
Review by Bob Pierson

In March, I reviewed the debut of John Pyka's Larger Than Life. John called me two weeks ago and told me that he had made quite a few changes and invited me to review the show again. I am a fan of John's work so I eagerly agreed. This was one of the best decisions I've made in recent weeks. When the show debuted in March, I was impressed. The show that I saw on Sunday completely blew me away. The word triumphant comes to mind!

John has taken the advice and direction given to him, and sifted the chaff to make this show one of the best variety reviews I've ever seen. Period.

The show is in essence a magic and variety review. It is an inaccurate description to call it a magic or illusion show, as it is really a complete variety show in two acts. Sure it has spellbinding magic and illusion, but John's and the Kittens' vocal music infused into the magic and illusion made it far more than a "magic show." It was a magical show!

John's concept for the show is outlined in the program and then addressed again early in the second act. Basically, he and Lonny Divine (teaming with John) have split the show into two acts – act 1 shows the performers playing different characters, while the second act was about John and Lonny and the Kittens removing their masks and letting the audience get to know who they were under there.

It worked splendidly. John and the Kittens opened the show by taking the audience back in time to 1946 ..:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Chicago, as John portrayed his signature character Big Daddy Cool. This is the character John is best known for, and who many people expect to see when they come see his shows. He didn't disappoint. He performed his award-winning Dancing Cane and Mack The Knife Routines, along with a fabulous Bill In Lemon and two music only numbers, Minnie The Moocher and Jump, Jive & Wail. The audience loved Big Daddy Cool & The Swing Kittens!

Then Lonny took the stage to transport the audience into the far future where robots provide man's entertainment, and this robot does some spectacular sleight of hand with Jumbo coins. Lonny really could create a master class on jumbo coin manipulation. It was stunning.

John followed with another character that is gaining popularity in theater venues, Uncle Eddie Sparks. This character piece for the Egg Bag was both a hilarious parody, and an entertaining commentary.

Lonny followed with Willy the Entertainer, a redneck magician recently released from prison. Willy performed a very funny cup & ball routine using a tin can and a ball carved from prison soap! Willy was an instant hit with the crowd.

Then Michele and Patricia set the mood for John's next piece. They sang and danced to Magic Man (originally made famous by Heart) and Michelle even performed a short but nicely done Zombie Ball routine. The whole number was sexy and electrifying.

Next, John reappeared, this time as The World Heavyweight Champion of Magic Johnny Awesome. This character could only be described as a cross between Harry Houdini and Hulk Hogan, and is something John has been testing out in doses. The audience seemed to get it right away and had a fun time interacting with the Extremist! John performed a version of the "spiked" trick, but with a very cool twist. He was joined onstage by Kitten Michelle Timbres and an audience member who could "sense and avoid" danger. It was a very entertaining presentation and I can't wait to see more from Johnny Awesome. Johnny Awesome closed Act 1.

After intermission the curtains opened to reveal 3 of the Kittens who sang and danced to Ain't No Other Man. On cue, John and Lonny rolled out a large box, showed it empty and then produced the 4th Kitten. They finished the number with some impressive dance with John, who is also a trained dancer, and despite his size is remarkably graceful.

John followed this with a version of the Sword Basket in which he also sang Billy Joel's classic "You May Be Right" as he thrust the swords through his assistant Candice. The sword basket has replaced John's earlier version which utilized Andrew Mayne's Voodoo Box. This piece was fun, exciting, and a little scary. I loved it!

After the sword basket John stepped forward to catch his breathe and to address the audience. He explained the concept of the show a little more in depth and then introduced Lonny Divine again, who performed a wonderful and very original ball manipulation routine. Look out Arthur Trace, Lonny Divine is nipping at your heels.

John followed with his poignant and true story about his father inspiring him with the tricks (or games of chance as he called them) designed to get John to do chores. It was a very funny and amazing piece.

Next Lonny joined John onstage for a brand new escape piece. Lonny was chained in a strait jacket style, and Jessica and Candice sang Chain of Fools while Lonny escaped from the chains. This was the second piece that Lonny and John worked together to create, and they really work well together. It was nice to see two magicians with such starkly different styles working so well together. I hope to see more of this from the two of them in the future. Jessica and Candice's vocals were very strong and the two really compliment each other well. This was a very well done piece.

The next number was a song and dance piece performed by Michelle and Patricia. The first time I saw this number the set-up about the death of a sister, made me uncomfortable. This time John set-it up more appropriately and it worked. It was a very magical piece.

This piece was followed up with Jessica "escaping" from a plastic bag, and singing Fever while Michelle and Patricia brought a man up from the audience and danced around him and flirted with him. The whole sequence was very fun, flirty, and sexy in a very tongue in cheek manner.

The final three pieces really showed off John and his abilities as both a singer and illusionist. He led off with his moving Linking Ring routine set to an A Cappella version for When I Fall In Love. He followed this with a breathtaking levitation of Patricia as he sang Music of the Night from Phantom of the Opera. It was one of the finest magical pieces I've ever seen, and John's voice was stunning – reminding everyone why he has performed on Broadway and at Carnegie Hall. John ended the sequence with his "Snowstorm In Armenia" routine. This is a classic snowstorm that tells the true story of Nadia Romanova, a girl in war torn Armenia whose only wish was that it would snow because the soldiers stopped fighting when it snowed. John augmented the story with the song Believe. Again, John's vocals were powerfully moving, and this final piece brought the audience to their feet.

I was thoroughly impressed with this production. John has trimmed the fat and created an even stronger show than he had previously debuted in March. I predict that sooner than later, this show will be touring theaters on a regular basis, and with the way John has structured it, it could easily play a cruise ship or casino. When this show comes to a theater near you, do yourself a favor and make sure to catch the show.