What did I learn from All Good Men?

Last Thursday and Saturday evening we completed the first shows with my company – Bettmann Dances. You can connect with Bettmann Dances on Facebook, or through our website. As we move into the next stage with this project, and begin preparation for my 2010/11 project, I’m trying to harvest lessons. They are diverse.

  1. Ask for more of what I need from the dancers. It was really hectic at the end, in part because I was passive about asking for rehearsal time. This is a difficult thing to manage. I didn’t want to ask for too much… we were all working volunteer, and if you ask for too much, they simply say: ok, no, bye. But in the last week of this production I had the feeling that everyone was frustrated by mis-management. Doing big projects takes a lot of time. There’s no way around that. And if I don’t ask for it, I end up simply ‘grabbing it’ through rehearsals that run over. Which is not good process. I’m gonna work on being more proactive and efficient in my scheduling.
  2. I got some really great audience feedback. Someone told me that the piece was ‘epic’, which I consider positive. This was a show of tremendous complexity. It wasn’t very abstract. The characters were complex. The soundscore was complex. There were 22 separate scenes, including the dance scenes. What I learned was to take strength from what is there, and not get depressed about what’s not there. I want people to be astounded by my work. I’m not lowering that bar. But for my first show with my company, having no financial support for myself or my dancers, I feel like we actually brought something deep and rich to the stage. One audience member thought it was very ‘work in progress.’ And while I hate that, I actually feel ok about it. I don’t really love most of what I see in dance today. Thats not a knock on my peers — most of them feel similarly. I created something thoughtful and rich that did not succeed in being undeniably powerful. Next.
  3. I ended up in a conflict with my producers. Though I got my marketing materials in on time (I have the proof – it’s not a question) our listing in the fringe guide was incorrect. They are refunding me $100 of the $700 participation fee, but refused to make any corrections online or in print. The impact on my ticket sales for this run was probably more like 200-500 dollars, but there was also the lost opportunity of getting my company’s name, and this show’s name, in front of the public. Very dissapointing… As a performer you are actually the small fish in the large producing pond. I learned that I can’t expect anyone to take responsibility for their mistakes if they don’t have to. And in my position, they simply don’t have to. I am the small fish. It’s appropriate for me to lower my expectations, so that I can be less frustrated if people don’t respect the work it takes to put something like this together. It’s not important to them, and I can’t expect it to be. A related lesson: I don’t have support where I might always expect it, and I have more support some places where I don’t expect it.
  4. There is no way to get anywhere close to what we did without a huge amount of help. Pretty much last minute I got a group of friends to serve as voices for the recording of the script. Pretty much last minute, a dancer I’ve known for a few years (Sylvana Sandoz) jumped into the production when the dancer originally cast, bailed. I can’t get anywhere close to presenting my vision without a huge amount of goodwill and effort from other people.
  5. I need to be more effective with development for my company. I did get one new board member, which is great. (Welcome aboard, Ashtan.) I had benchmarked myself to get two. I’m still hopeful, but need to recognize that I have to allow myself time to share my vision with more people who might be interested in supporting these productions. The additional lesson learned is that people want to support interesting quality productions, and are willing to really give a lot if you can provide them with that opportunity. My friend Amy wrote a preview on her blog, and a new friend, Jessica McCoy worked for free technical directing the production. I was really impressed with her work as a lighting designer/technical director… Jessica gave a huge amount and took very little to manage. Her ability to work effectively and independently on my behalf was awesome.
  6. This isn’t anywhere close to a complete list, but I need to work on some other stuff now.

I had so much fun doing this show, and am really looking forward to turning it into a film over the fall. There is a place for substantive, joyful, complexly beautiful work. I managed not be heavy-handed. I managed not to offer easy answers. It was complex, and interesting…. next. Here is the review we got:

Bettmann creates a jewel mining the commonalities in poetry, literature and dance in ‘All Good Men’

By Ron Moore, DC Examiner

Somewhere over Washington, D.C. this week Dylan Thomas is smiling. The epic poet like many writers, made a living writing in different genres as the life of a poet is all too often of the starving artist variety. Like the film auteur who makes three films to satisfy commerce so he can make one to please his muse, Thomas toiled as a working writer. But even in his pulp dramas the lyricism is still present.

Robert Bettmann took Thomas film script “The Doctor and the Devils” churned it with his creative sensibility until the cream rose to the top. Skimming off the lyricism he created a new work, “All Good Men” that premiered Thursday night at D.C.s Capital Fringe Festival with an additional performance tonight. It is truly a jewel and a tribute to the commonalities between poetry, literature and dance. Using a dramatic presentation of the script as his score Bettmann creates a symphony of movement literally bringing form and texture to the content.

Emily Horton plays a doctor with a moral dilemma; the purchase of cadavers for the teaching of anatomy seems to produce more bodies than natural circumstances should allow. As she struggles to maintain the demands of a career and reputation with the consequences of what is certainly murder the struggle is played out in exchanges with cohorts and family. The workaday movements belie the inner tension ultimately leading to the poignant stillness of contemplation as bodies literally pile up behind her.

As the doctors wife, William Smith is a whirlwind of expression. His solo dance is stunning and graceful and his character, the fulcrum of the relationships and tensions in the piece makes him the shows anchor.

Sylvana Christopher Sandoz performs with such intensity that it is unsettling; but she leaves you wanting more. Her brutal dispatch of one of the victims is played out with such ferocity that it leaves you nearly as breathless as her victim.

Bettmann as the doctors assistant struggles with his affections for the local bar girl, his grief at her loss and the moral balancing act required by his need to sate his loss with justice while realizing that society will offer no satisfaction. Bettmann plays out the balancing act as a man literally stuck in place; his dilemma pulling him yet his plight is fixed.

This leads to Jenny, poignantly performed by Rachel Merga who provides the bittersweet emotional and human core of the drama. Her hopes and desires squashed by reality take shape as Merga gracefully suffers her destiny. The dance with fate followed by its aftermath is as striking in its simplicity as it is beautiful. Her performance left you desiring a further fleshing out of her story to understand how her journey brought her to this tragic place, but especially for more of this stunning performance and performer.

The only truly discordant note was the scheduling by the Capital Fringe Festival of a boisterous performance next door that diminished at times the audiences ability to hear the score. But that distraction served as an indicator that this is a compelling piece as the audience leaned forward so as not to miss anything. It would be unfair to assume that festival organizers could match shows with harmonic tones since the festival is an amazing feat in itself but it did play a part in the overall milieu and the performers deserved better.

A new show especially by a new company is a living organism and will grow and develop and find its way. Bettmann has created a work of art that establishes his ability to mine gold out of our literary vaults and craft his discoveries into complex and beautiful pieces.

This production will be turned into a film over the next few months. Its a work that serves as an example of artistic craftsmanship and one that should inspire writers and poets to think of their work in terms of dance. Bettmann shows us the essence of literature and it is that essence that makes great art. One hopes that this performance and these performers will give us abundant opportunities to enjoy their contribution to this worlds desperate need for art and beauty.

July 18, 2009

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.