Sunday, 24 April 2011

Maria Pendolino

Maria Pendolino is originally from Buffalo, NY.  She currently lives in NYC and is co-founder of Almost Knew Theatre Company.  As well as being a director, Maria is a hardworking producer and an ace performer.  She will be flying out to Colombia in the next few weeks to shoot a role for an upcoming television show.  But before she heads south, catch her in NY for her show Typed Out, on April 29th and May 2nd  

More on Maria:

Maria Pendolino
Saturday, April 23 2011
New York City 9am
UK 2pm

Maria and I catch up on Skype.

What are you working on at the moment?

Right now, I am directing a cabaret, Typed Out-- A Cabaret of Missed Opportunities.  I found a cast of people, who all have resonated with the idea of being typed out of auditions, not being the right size, shape or ethnicity.   We selected songs from the musical theatre cannon that are all very, inappropriate.  An opportunity to perform a song for an audience, where you wouldn’t normally be seen in that role for whatever reason but a great opportunity to explore material that’s new to you as a performer.  We have a cast of 8, and we’re doing legit, classic musical theatre, from My Fair Lady, right through to the recent musical Next to Normal.  The whole cannon is represented in the show.

What is your earliest theatrical memory?

When I was about 6 years old, the Chorus Line movie came out, and I watched it all the time.  We have a very lovely theatre in Buffalo, called Shea’s Performing Arts Center, a huge, old grand theatre, built in the early 1900’s. The touring production of Chorus Line came to Buffalo and my dad got tickets. He and I sat in the front row of the balcony and I remember putting my elbows on the rung of the balcony and my chin in my hands and watching.  That was the first show I ever saw on stage and pretty much, when I got the buzz.

Who or what inspires you?

I’m inspired by great music.  Performers.  People, who when you see on stage or talking about their craft, you just get goose bumps. When you see a performer who is 100% invested in what their doing, so grounded and connected to their material, it makes me want to do it all the more.  It makes me want to be part of the shape and fabric of theatre.  That’s what so cool about theatre compared to cinema as a medium, there’s a tradition.  You’re standing on the same stage that someone else stood, the audience is sitting in a seat where someone else sat and for some reason, it feels as if you’re all connected.  There’s a thru line, a thread that connects everyone that is part of the theatrical world.  I love that when you bring directors and actors together, you are bringing a vision to life, that is fed with, and connected to, everything that came before.

How does your work as a performer inform your directing style?

It informs my style in that I know how I like to be spoken to.  I like to receive direction that is useful and still allows me to inform it with my own opinions and abilities.  When I’m speaking to my actors, I like to make sure that my vision is given to them in a way that they can digest it and still bring something of themselves to it.  I’m not the type of director that likes to give line readings or ultimatums or directives.  If it’s not in the form of a question, it’s at least with the opportunity for the actor to bring something else to the table, along with what I’ve asked for.

Is there anything that troubles you about the NYC theatre scene?

I think sometimes its difficult for new work to truly get seen.  The commercial, Off Broadway model is very challenging, to get enough money, to put on a run long enough to get a lot of audience and industry people to come see it.  You’ve got your top tier commercial venture Broadway shows, and the tier below that commercial Off Broadway and below that you have such a huge, huge raft of productions, companies and people working, the Off Off model.  It is so expensive to produce.  Renting the venue and being able to rehearse and rehearse well, not just necessarily in someone’s living room, but in a theatre space, where it’s conducive to movement and finding moments.  People are so challenged from a financial standpoint, that you get wonderful, wonderful theatre being produced for a weekend only or 2-3 performances only.  It’s hard to ask an actor to sign up, fully embody a character and learn a full script for only three performances. You can only begin to discover things as the audience reacts to it.  Once you finally have an audience in the room, something else comes alive in the play and to only have 3 performances to experience that and then you’re done, I find can be unsatisfying.  So I’d say the one thing that troubles me in NY, is the financial component of trying to produce, it isn’t just for art and art alone, it is a business. You try producing in a way, that doesn’t bankrupt you but creates something of quality.

Dream Projects?

I would love to direct a contemporary musical, something by Ahrens & Flaherty. There are new musical composers that are writing great things that have come out of the NYU writing program, a lot of great, cool material that have its roots in pop rock and contemporary musical theatre.  All of the young writers who grew up listening to Jason Robert Brown and Michael John LaChusia, with a different type of view.  I would love to direct a real full-scale musical, with an orchestra, a cast of dancers, a choreographer, the whole nine yards.

Final question.  Is the director dead?

I don’t think the director is dead.  I think people sometimes think you don’t need one. Laughter.  Even if you are performing a monologue or a song by yourself, it’s always a great idea to have someone that’s outside of you being a mirror. That outside person there, watching to see if what you’re attempting to do is actually landing. The director is a very integral part of anything we do in a theatrical medium and good directors know how to bring the best out of actors.  So I think the director is still alive. Somewhere out there…

Thanks Maria for your thoughts!

Happy Easter everyone!  I am glad to have resurrected Maria from the pool of stupendously talented directors I’ve had the privilege to work with in the past.  

Enjoy your Sunday everyone, and for my readers in the UK, enjoy this summertime weather!!

“When you stand on the stage you must have a sense that you are addressing the whole world, and that what you say is so important the whole world must listen.” Stella

Monday, 18 April 2011

Simon Muriel

Simon Muriel works in television and lives in Bristol.  He is currently hovering between Location Director and Producing Director roles and has worked on programs such as My Mum’s Gay Wedding for BBC 2 to Warship for Channel 5.

Simon Muriel
Saturday, April 16th 2011
The Bristolian, 1pm

What are you working on at the moment?

Well, right now I’m working on a slate of documentaries for a corporate client in the field of Solar Technology. I do this work through the in between broadcast documentary projects but I guess you’re more interested in my tv work?

I’ve just finished a location directing role on a new 3 x 1hr series for ITV on homelessness (airing on ITV1 in early May). In the UK there is a government run scheme known as ‘supported lodging’ in which volunteers are encouraged to offer a spare room in their house to someone who is homeless. It’s a pretty bold ‘big society’ attempt to reintegrate people who have had a really tough time back into the mainstream society. This being ITV, we followed four well-known figures as they opened their doors to lodgers who really needed their help. Needless to say there were plenty of challenging situations and delicate storylines to navigate as an objective obs doc location director.

Can you expand on what a location director is?

This kind of film-making requires a real ‘fly on the wall’ approach and the best way to achieve that is with as few crew members as possible, so in this instance by  ‘location director’ I really mean ‘self-shooting location director’ ie taking on the role of camera, sound and directing all at once as a kind of one man band. Of course in obs doc ‘directing’ is a passive thing. You don’t direct the action, you just film it in a certain way, from certain angles etc, so that it can be cut together to form a narrative. The skill of location directing/self-shooting in obs doc is to capture the truth of a situation (often a very emotionally intimate situation) as though you weren’t there. It is sometimes much harder than it sounds.

How did you get started in television?

I left university with a degree in English and Latin, That didn’t really leave me with much of a defined career path. I always enjoyed the documentary form and always dreamed of working in the industry and when I heard that there was the chance of some work experience in San Francisco (a uni friend’s dad owned a production company there) I leapt at it. I worked as a production assistant for a few years and began to learn the ropes as a cameraman. At film school in Sydney I consolidated all that experience and have been freelancing in reality and ob doc genres since I returned to the UK in 2004. I continue to live by / in fear of that time honoured freelancer’s mantra: ‘You’re only as good as your last job’!

Who or what inspires you?

I’m inspired by loads of fantastic documentary directors. I love watching films that have an eye for the small things in life, those incidental moments that can be so revealing like with Nicolas Philibert’s ‘Etre Et Avoir’. I also have a great respect and admiration for investigative filmmakers who really lift the lid on issues like Errol Morris in ‘the Fog of War’ and Nick Broomfield.

For the most part though, I’m inspired by the people I film. The nature of this kind of work is that you are often filming fascinating characters doing extraordinary things. I have a great respect for people who really grab life by the balls and make the best out of their situation.

You worked on a program in Afghanistan. What was that like?

That was a series called Air Force Afghanistan, following the RAF in Kandahar, the main airbase in Afghanistan. It was a series for FIVE, so it was not exactly high journalism but I think it shed quite a fresh light on our perception of what life is really like in a modern warzone.

There was plenty of high drama and kinetic action but it was often the more mundane aspects of life in a warzone that proved the most revealing. Like when the crew of the Hercules we were following on a sortie to Kabul got out of the plane at the airbase there and excitedly hurried over to the Thai take away to pick up a curry. As tracer from enemy fire filled the night sky on the return journey, the radio chatter was just about how many raw chillies they’d all eaten. Incongruous but true.

That was the first of my jobs with the services and I came away with a renewed respect and admiration for the work they do in such extreme circumstances and the manner in which they do it. I have to say that it made for fertile obs doc ground too. Everywhere you look there are fascinating characters doing extraordinary things.

So when you’re filming like that are you looking for themes or for the story to develop on its own?

What you’ll do in a situation like that is latch on to your character first, you’ll look for the person who is at the heart of a story who has that spark of personality, something interesting about them that will make them watchable on screen. You then plan your shoot so that you are with them on a day that they are likely to be at the heart of an interesting situation. The hope is that you can follow the story as unobtrusively as possible with that character playing the lead role in a naturally unfolding drama. Themes tend to come out more in the editing process.

Any technical differences when shooting an observation doc versus a more structured narrative?

You have no control in obs doc. Directing the action goes against the very nature of the form. I like the kind of directing where the action is playing out in front of you and you’re figuring out how you’re going to film it without getting in the way, being completely unobtrusive and not affecting the story yet covering it in a way that’s dramatic. You tend as a result to shoot obs doc in a much simpler, more practical style. Keep the lens wide so that everything is in focus as much as possible, grab your cut aways when you can when there is less action.

In other genres of course the role of the director is very different and it is all about having total control over a situation. Then you have plenty of time to get as creative as you can on the shoot. Covering the action from several different angles, often repeating the action over and over again to accommodate this.

Have you ever had a situation where your work has been censored in any way?

Chuckles.  Not sure if censored is the right word, but one series I assistant produced never actually went to air.  It was a film for Channel 4 about a 40 year old guy from Putney who suffered from well… lets just say it was a form of sexual addiction! It was around the time of the Channel 4 Big Brother fiasco and I think they understandably wanted to avoid any further controversy. It’s a good film actually but I guess there are some taboos that even television isn’t yet ready to break…?!

Dream projects?

I am really passionate about obs doc. Although it can be exhausting work, and completely all encompassing, there is no more rewarding an experience than to capture drama as it plays out in real life and craft that into a narrative in the edit. The series I’ve really been pushing recently but hasn’t quite happened—YET, is an access doc following the Gurkhas. A series following a band of young men from selection (where they’re whittled down from 27,000 to 200 in the Nepalese foothills) through training in Yorkshire to deployment in theatres of war with the British Army. It would be a real privilege to film and make for fascinating viewing I think.

Final question.  Is the director dead?

I don’t think the director is dead at all. In the world we’ve been talking about, the opportunities are all around you. Budgets may be being cut for programming but that opens up new opportunities for the multi-skilled. Cameras and edit suites are affordable and anyone can go out there and have a go at making their own films. It’s not just self-shooting location directors who are taking advantage of this new trend. Have you heard of the new kid on the block now, the ultimate one man/woman band who not only produces and directs but also cuts their own films: the “Preditor” or  producer/editor?

There are plenty of people who would argue that TV is being constantly dumbed down but it is really a case of supplying the demand. There is a lot of rubbish out there for sure but equally there have never been so many great documentaries being made.  And at least, with all that rubbish around there are lots of opportunities for new directors to cut their teeth and learn by their mistakes. The responsibility lies with the commissioners to keep commissioning the ideas that people want to watch. As long as they do that, there’ll be no shortage of directors ready to make those films.

Thanks Simon for sharing your thoughts!

"In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director." Alfred Hitchcock

"Every cut is a lie. It's never that way. Those two shots were never next to each other in time that way. But you're telling a lie in order to tell the truth."  Wolf Koenig

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Andrew Dawson

Andrew Dawson is a performance artist.  He has directed and choreographed for the theatre and opera.  He has worked on several creative endeavors with companies such as Aardman Animations, Red Cape Theatre, and the Metropolitan Opera. His production of The Idiot Colony won Fringe First and Total Theatre Award Winner, Edinburgh 2008.

More on Andrew Dawson:

Andrew Dawson
Friday, April 1, 2011
London, UK 9:45am

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m touring and developing The Articulate HandI got the grant from the Wellcome Trust, to create a lecture performance demonstration, about hand impairment.  I hope to be taking it to the World Science Festival in June. This year, I will expand the show to a bigger piece that will tour in America next year.  I’m also choreographing A Midsummer Nights Dream by Benjamin Britten, for the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg.   That opens in July.

Who or what inspires you?

Robert Lepage.  Particularly, when I saw The Dragons’ Trilogy many years ago. Also Peter Brook, in terms of theatre.  In dance, Merce Cunningham.  I spend a lot of time being inspired by art.  Visual art.  That makes a bigger impact on me. People like William Kentridge and Anish Kapoor.  The sculptor David Smith, Antony Gormley.  Douglas Gordon.  Henry Moore, Andrew Wyeth.  Films, David Lynch.   Particularly, a film called The Straight Story, where he wasn’t all weird and wacky, but just about a guy traveling across America on a lawn mower.  I thought that very inspiring and the sort of film that looks like a painting.

In The Idiot Colony, we follow three women in a mental asylum in post WW2 England.  The production was visually stunning and very visceral.  (I saw it twice!)  What drew you to that subject matter?

The three girls, from Red Cape Theatre that created the piece, came to me with a whole file of testimonies and research on mental asylums, where women in the 50’s were locked up for no good reason.   They’d had an illegitimate baby.   They’d had a relationship with a black man or stole money. Not real mental health issues, but were locked up for the rest of their lives, practically forgotten about.  I found the testimonies very moving.   I like that theatre can be a reflection on real life and give us a different perspective.  We found that the hairdressers in the institutions, that came from the outside, were the people that got the closest to the patients.  Because they’re allowed to touch their heads.  Because the hairdressers could make that contact with them, the patients talked to them more than to the doctors, so in a way they found they got more therapy there.  I found that whole thing completely amazing. 

Can you tell us a bit about your work as a performer and how that, if at all, informs your work as a director?

I don’t see myself a practical director. I discovered performing, not acting, and I always wanted to correct my own work.  So I was always, sort of, developing this visual style, wanting to tell my own stories.   That informed me as a director, because I see it from the performer’s point of view.  I’m always trying to create those pictures with them.   I find myself more as the collaborator, than as a director.  The phrase director, just sounds like you’re pointing, telling people what to do, which I know directors don’t do.  But there is something in the word, that feels like your above everybody, where its more you’re in the mix.  You just happen not to be in it.

In the age of rapid social media connection, do you feel that theatre makers have to catch up or somehow adapt to what seems to be the shorter attention spans of audiences today?

I think yes, they do.  We all need to try to keep in step with things that are moving.  I heard the other day on the radio, that teachers are using the fact that kids have mobile phones in the classroom, to find out information on their phones.  Rather than trying to ban the phones, they are trying to use it.  Sometimes that works, sometimes that’s not going to work, and the same is true with theatre.  We have to embrace modern social technologies. In some ways it’s fantastic, it helps us spread the word.  Decide to do a workshop or performance?  Put it on facebook, and you know that 400 people already know about it.  You haven’t had to spend anything on advertising.  You can make a short film, put it on you tube, and if you’re lucky, people will discover it.   For the fact that you’ve got that outlet for work is fantastic, of course it doesn’t necessarily make it better work.  It’s a bit like the invention of the pencil.  It meant everyone could have a pencil but it doesn’t make everyone into an artist.  So it depends what you do with it.  Yes, we have to absolutely embrace it.  I haven’t quite got to twitter yet, but I might have to.  In terms of people’s attention spans, we still have to work at slowing people down. People are very happy to go the opposite.  You get your fast and furious blockbuster movies but people will still want to go on retreats and do yoga. There’s room to embrace and expand with it.

In the light of, recent arts funding cuts, what advice would you give a young director  or choreographer starting out on their career?

Be honest about their work.  Be honest about the way they approach funding.  The Arts Council has been cut, but they’ve also given a lot and upped their money to organisations and new people.  There are other places to get money.  The thing about getting funding, is that you have to have, genuinely, a good idea.    Funding bodies aren’t stupid.  They’ll spot a good idea when you’ve got one.   You might apply four or five times and fail, but you get the idea of how to tick the boxes.  I’ve always gotten funding for projects I really believed in.  I think in the first 3 lines you can smell it.  In terms of making work, be truly honest and genuine.  And to start.  It’s hard without money, but because of facebook and you tube, you can start to get your work out there.  If you don’t do anything, then nothing will happen.

Dream projects?

One would be to make an installation.   To make a theatrical type of installation.  I love the change of rhythm an audience member has to go through.  Rather than turn up for a show at 8, see the show, then leave.  Installations mean you can spend 5 minutes or 3 hrs depending on the work.   That interests me, to meet the audience in a different way, and that you can create work and not have to be there. The other dream project would be to put together a group of 6 or 7 actors, a little company and do a show.

Final question.  Is the director dead?

No, I don’t think the director’s dead.  I think there are more and more exciting young directors appearing.  There’s always the thrill of live theatre.  Even if we televise it or live stream it.  There has to be people out there, looking at other people, guiding and creating stories and pictures.  That role will always exist and that’s very exciting.   You need to have leaders and followers in every situation and in a way the director, maybe that’s all he is, is a leader and an instigator. Sometimes we feel lost and need some directing.

Thanks Andy for sharing your thoughts!

And for your patience!  Had some technical difficulties this week and will now refer to Andy as Magneto in future posts. 

"You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive." Merce Cunningham