Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Putting it Together

"Art isn't Easy"

                                  Al Kulcsar and Gabriel Morrow in "Freud's Last Session," 
                                  directed by Tom Holehan. Photo by Richard Pheneger

There’s Broadway, and then there’s all the rest, all the regional and local theaters across the country fighting to stay alive, to bring the magic of live theater to what some would say is a steadily dwindling, ever-aging audience. For theater demands attention, attention that extends beyond 15 minutes, attention that requires engagement, commitment…and a sense of what it is to be human, a sense of what is conferred when humans gather together to see and hear a story told, to allow the lights to darken and enter a dream.

In this age of digital entertainment, when Hamlet can be watched by a simple stroke of keys, when diversion is at your fingertips, how does a local theater group survive…and thrive? Tom Holehan, founder and artistic director of Square One Theatre Company in Stratford, thinks he has the answer: keep it simple. Apparently, it’s a good answer, because Square One will soon be celebrating its 25th season.

                                                Square One Theatre Company
Square One? Well. The name evokes how the theater got its start…it started from, well, square one. Holehan, who grew up in Utica, New York, was bitten early by the theater bug, a pernicious creature that, once it gets its fangs into you, never lets go. Holehan initially went to Buffalo State to earn a degree in journalism, but the theater called to him and he eventually graduated with a degree in theater arts. Over the course of his four years of undergraduate work he had acted, but he sensed that wasn’t his calling.

                                                        Tom Holehan
“In college,” Holehan said in an interview at the Stratford library, “I dreamed what everyone dreamed in the program, I was going to be an actor. Then I realized I was out of my depth because there were so many people better than me, and then we had these courses where you evaluate each other’s work.” This was when he realized his skill just might be in directing. As he put it, he was much better at criticizing, or improving, other people’s work. So he became a director.

And then there’s the American Shakespeare Theatre, that moribund, rotting theater in Stratford, Connecticut, that once was a New England theatrical glory. After graduation, Holehan wended his way southward, eventually landing a job at the Theatre. He worked there for seven years, during which time he met his life partner, Richard Pheneger. Richard and the other people he met at the Theatre would form the basis of Square One.

So too would his job at the Stratford Library. Though he had no formal library training, Holehan caught the attention of Edie Landes in 1985, then the institution’s director. She sensed that Holehan, with his background in theater and acting, could reach a larger audience for the library and benefit programming. She was right. Soon, he was in charge of the library’s adult programs and coordinating ‘readings’ of plays at the library. As the American Shakespeare Theatre’s light dimmed, Square One’s kindled. Those who had labored so hard to keep the Shakespeare venue alive now needed another outlet, and the Stratford library’s readings filled the bill.

                                              John Bachelder and David Victor in
                                              "Black Tie," directed by Tom Holehan 

And then there was a movie theater in the heart of Stratford running second-run films. It closed, and a fraternal organization, the Scottish Rite Masons, bought the property. Through friends, a question was asked: would Holehan like to stage plays in the venue when the Mason’s weren’t meeting? Yes, he would. And so, Square One Theatre was born, the child of library readings, the demise of a theater dedicated to Shakespeare, the closing of a movie theater and a man’s love of theater that does not blind him to the reality that boarding a plays costs money.

The Mason’s charity – free space – lasted three months, then rent was charged. “We pay a fortune to use that space,” Holehan said. “I’m not complaining, but they do very well by us being the resident tenant.” He paused and then said, “This is a business. We have to pay our bills.” And such is the reality of regional and local theater. Though the dreams are on the stage, money…funding…makes those dreams a reality.

Given access to the space, Holehan realized that nothing was going to happen if there wasn’t money to cover costs, so he drew on his experience at the library and took a chance. “We took a page out of the readings we’d done at the library,” Holehan explained. “We had a built-in following at that point. I called all my actor friends and we did a one-night benefit at that space – scene readings – and we charged $10 a ticket and we had maybe 200 people show up. We raised $2,000 – that was our seed money. That’s what got us started.”

Given Holehan’s philosophy, he started small and simple. The first year they did “A Walk in the Woods,” a two-actor play about two diplomats, Russian and American, trying to avoid nuclear war. “That really put us on the map,” Holehan said. “We got all sorts of press. It went on to theater festivals and our actor kept winning the best actor awards. It was really a great way to start. And…” Holehan added, ever cognizant of the bottom line, “it was really inexpensive to produce: only two characters and a very simple set.”

Holehan’s experience working with many theater groups taught him many things, chief among them was, “that they try too many things too soon.”  What he learned from that was to keep his productions “small and beautiful.” His philosophy is, “grow slowly.” He eschews the big, 40-character musicals. They have their place, but not at Square One. “I refuse to go crazy,” he said. “We keep our expenses low but we also pay all of our actors.”

                                  Lillian Garcia and Pat Leo in "Distracted," directed by
                                  Tom Holehan

Square One’s season encompasses three plays, and Holehan leans towards “plays with ideas,” for he wishes to both entertain and enlighten. But there are constrictions. “Our space is very limited,” Holehan said. “It’s a platform stage. There’s no fly space,” referring to scenery that can be stored above the stage and lowered when necessary, “and we can’t nail anything to the floor. That’s why we’re not going to do Oklahoma or Phantom of the Opera, we’re going to be reasonable given our space limitations.”

And then there’s the audience. Go to a Square One production and you’re not going to find many teenagers filling the seats. Square One faces the same dilemma that most regional and local theaters face – the demographics skew, well, elderly. “We pander to them,” Holehan said, “but they take chances with us. They trust us, for the most part, but they know what they like. They really like the period dramas, something solid and classical. A lot of older plays with a ton of characters and a lot of costumes, and it’s usually just one set.”

Holehan hesitates from calling them “comfort food” plays, but there’s a solidity to them that harkens back to a time when most plays developed characters over three acts and the audience became involved rather than confused…or shocked.

“They’re good, old-fashioned, well-constructed, beginning-middle-end plays,” Holehan said. “Those are great to do every once in awhile.”

When weighing what his season might consist of, Holehan often scours the coverage of off-Broadway productions in The New York Times. “That’s where I’ve discovered a lot of the plays we consider,” Holehan said, “because off-Broadway is sort of our size.” Case in point, a recent Square One production was Freud’s Last Session, which won the Best Play Award from the Off Broadway Alliance.

Still, it’s a balance, a very delicate balance. “The space, the type of play what we can afford to do. They’re not all going to be winners. It’s very hard. One thing I’ve learned,” Holehan said, “you’re only as good as your last play. We always try to end with something that will leave the audience with a good feeling so they will subscribe for the next year.” Hence, the reality. Unless you have donors with deep pockets you have to play to the audience…but, without the audience, what is theater? What actor wants to emote to empty seats, what playwright wants his or her words echoing in a vacant theater? As Holehan noted early in the interview, it’s a business and the bills must be paid. Do you stage Waiting for Godot or Doubt, No Exit or Freud’s Last Session? There’s a time, a place and an audience for every sort of play, and Holehan, though he possibly would like to direct Godot, wisely opts for Doubt.

“It’s just business,” Holehan said, “and it’s been working pretty well.” He’s been able to keep subscribers. He’d like more, but he’s happy with what he’s got.

Well, it is business…and yet it isn’t, because there’s the creative side, the bringing together of actors and script and scenery and…everything that constitutes theater.

“I know what I like to work with,” Holehan said. “There are just people you trust and when you don’t have much time between shows…we don’t have a lot of time. We have about a dozen people that we use regularly because I trust them and they like working with us and, in rehearsals, it’s like short-hand. That said, every year we have at least a couple of new people and it often works out but it often doesn’t. You want to give people a chance, but…I’ve had experiences where I took a chance and look what happened. It’s so hard to get everything right, there are so many factors that go into making a successful show that, well, I don’t want to work that hard.” In other words, Holehan would rather work with those he is comfortable with. “One of my mentors in college told me,” Holehan said, “casting is 90% of your work. You get the right cast, the right people in the right roles, and the play just plays itself.

Holehan mentioned one of Square One’s recent productions, Freud’s Last Session. “I had one of the easiest times, ever directing Freud, because those two guys (referring to Al Kulcsar and Gabriel Morrow) just knew what they were doing. Gabe was brand new to us and he’s terrific.”

It was fortunate that Kulcsar and Morrow were so easy to work with, for Freud opened Square One’s season, a time always fraught with many distractions, most of which have little to do with boarding a play but have everything to do with survival.

“The set was so complicated,” Holehan said, “and whenever you open the season there’s all this…the program, ads to be sold. There’s a ton of work to be done, so you’re hoping the show will go smoothly so you can give time to everything else.”

When a play opens at Square One it runs for three weeks, not a long time for the actors to mature into their roles. Holehan is there for every performance, watching what is happening on the stage but also listening to the audience, often surprised by the reactions from the house.

“The audience tells you so much,” Holehan said. “You work for weeks on a piece and then the audience laughs at moments you never dreamed they would find funny. I love when that happens. I love discovering things like that and the actors do as well. We don’t have long runs – the actors do it in front of an audience maybe 10 times, and at the end of the run you feel like the cast is just hitting its pace – wouldn’t it be great to run just a few more weeks. For the most part you always want to run a little longer just to see what direction the production takes. I don’t know if we run long enough to see dramatic changes – I know actors get more comfortable, they find laughs, they learn how to hold for things. Every performance is different.”

Holehan believes that the ‘hard part” is the rehearsal period, bringing the play together, working out the blocking, interpreting lines, deciding what “business” will or won’t work, the abject boredom of tech rehearsals. Once the curtain rises, he tells his actors: “We’re through the hard part; let’s just enjoy it.” There is also a time when rehearsals provide diminishing returns – an audience is needed to see how the production plays. Holehan subscribes to the idea that plays aren’t meant to be read in the quiet confines of a study, they are meant to be performed. That’s when they come alive.

Holehan is also a founding member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and writes reviews. Wearing two hats can, at times, present problems. For example, Hartford TheaterWorks recently staged Freud’s Last Session. Holehan attended the opening night performance but decided not to write a review. His own production of the same play was still fresh in his mind, perhaps too much so. Yet he is not loath to turn his critical abilities on himself.

“I’m pretty self-critical,” Holehan said. “I’m very critical of other people’s work and I’m very hard on myself. I hope I am. There have to be standards. You know, I think I’m a better director, work well with actors because I have acted. I understand where actors are coming from.” However, Holehan shies away from doing line readings, that is, coaching an actor on how to say a line. He often has to bite his tongue, but he understands that the actors “can’t do it like you would do it, they have to do it the way that’s comfortable for them.”

When a show closes, Holehan grades himself. He seldom gives himself anything higher than a B. “I don’t have a lot of A’s in my resume,” he said. “You can’t wear blinders,” he said. “You have to be self-critical.”

Square One has survived for 25 years while other theaters have come and gone. The theater’s longevity is due in large part to Holehan’s philosophy: do what you can do and don’t try to be anything other than what you are, and what you can accomplish.

“Be realistic,” Holehan said. “Start small. There’s nothing wrong with doing a two-character play with a minimal set. If you work very hard, if you get two wonderful actors and material that’s engaging, that’s theater. You don’t need a $500 costume or a $10,000 set. Those are initially interesting, but at the end of the day it’s the material you pick and the actors you’ve got doing it that people are going to remember. Who’s going to ‘hum the sets’ as they leave the theater? Start small, grow slowly and don’t waste money.”

Holehan is satisfied with Square One. He has a wish list – he’d like to have a thrust stage to work with, he’d like to have some fly space, he’d like to have the budget to do an occasional musical, but he’s realistic, and he’s aware of the demographics that dictate what he boards. Yet he’d like to see more young people in the audience.

“Kids are such great audiences,” he said. “They see a play and it’s like…magic.” Yet he is somewhat fearful about the future of live theater. He knows there is nothing like seeing a play, yet young people have so many distractions, so many demands on their time, that they may never get the chance to experience one of humanity’s most basic pleasures. As arts programs are cut in schools, as the bottom line becomes more important to judging the value of education, there is the possibility that Hamlet may be subject to cost analysis: “To be or not to be” changes to “To earn or not to earn.” Yet, though Holehan admits he subscribes to the half-empty glass philosophy, he soldiers on, and Square One has existed for 25 years. There is hope.

“Long live the theater,” Holehan said.


1 comment:

  1. Tom Holehan....Ted Davis here with greetings from Thailand and Cambodia...Remember the Normal Heart...? I sent you a IM on Face Book. If this is the same Tom that directed me in The Normal Heart, it would be nice to hear from you after so long...Many tides have come and gone...Thank you.