I’m the first to admit that Bitten By Productions has a bit of a mixed record. As lovely as it would be to say that every show we’ve ever done was an unmitigated success, some of them were closer to mediocre and others outright sucked. Every year we’ve operated has yielded a variety of relative successes and failures; some sold every seat but weren’t great, others were fantastic shows but couldn’t find an audience, and the occasional lucky one managed both.
This year has not been perfect, but the flaws, for once, were more operational than with the quality of what we put on. At the start of the year I wrote a bit of a retrospective of our output so far, starting with Reunion and ending with The Critic. Rather than wait until we have the same number of shows as were covered in that first retrospective, I thought I’d look back over our 2017, a year that had its ups and downs but came out as by far the best year we’ve yet had as a company.
To be fair, I did touch on Springsteen in the last retrospective, but that was mid run and it was hard to be objective, or at least, as objective as I can be about something I wrote and directed. Which is to say, not very much.
Still, Springsteen was special, not least because it centred on a topic that means a huge amount to me. But it was so much more than that. The themes of the play were as personal as even a show like Regression, which I occasionally agonised over letting people see, and that odd mix of tribute and emotion made it a bit of an outlier in what we’ve done so far. But, in the hands of a pitch perfect cast, it worked. We had crowds of Springsteen fans coming to see it, we sold out multiple shows, some of which we needed to bring in twenty extra seats for and it went on to be adapted into a radio play that hit #3 on the iTunes performing arts charts, which received many reports of tears on Twitter to boot. It was a success on every level; with the critics, the audiences, and the ticket sales. That is a rare outcome.
But beyond that, it was just a wonderful, wonderful experience. Those rehearsals were raw and emotional, built around all of us exposing some pretty rough things in service of bringing these characters to life. I feel that it not only brought us together as artists, but as friends, and it’s hard to ask much more from any project than that. Springsteen was the kind of play that left the team behind it with a special, singular bond, the kind that only comes from having gone through hell to produce something we could all be immensely proud of.
It wasn’t perfect, of course. The venue was about as awful as any we’ve ever used, and the staging/set were pretty uninspired, which might be part of the reason the show translated so seamlessly to a radio play without losing much. Furthermore the use of live music didn’t work as well as the use of Springsteen’s own songs, another area where the radio play improved on its source.
But hey, in the end the show was rewarding and satisfying in a way few theatrical endeavours are. And to boot, I felt like I hadn’t fucked up telling the story of one of my idols, and that’s arguably the most important part.
Dracula: Last Voyage of the Demeter
I mentioned before that you can’t be objective about your own play, but it’s a little more complicated than that. Objectivity isn’t the only way to approach something; often, when we’re able to admit the failings of a personal project, we have a singular insight into why something worked and why it didn’t.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I can’t be as analytical about Dracula as I can the rest, because it wasn’t my play. As the first Bitten By Productions show that wasn’t written by myself, Dracula was a change of pace in a lot of ways, and I’m inclined to think it was a welcome and necessary one. Longer, with a new focus on set, costumes, and special effects, Dracula was our most visually striking show since Below Babylon, and audiences responded. It was also our most financially successful show, due to great reviews and the boost offered by name recognition, and it boasted a brilliant central performance from Greg Caine, who managed to make Dracula sympathetic, terrifying, hilarious and riveting – often all in the same scene.
Do I have reservations about it? Sure. Mainly with a few behind the scenes things that don’t need to be aired in public. But the truth is, as I also acted in this play, it’s pretty tough for me to view it with any kind of impartiality or personal analysis. I was involved enough to be too close, but not enough to really examine where it worked and didn’t. That’s a job for a writer or director, not an actor.
Following on so closely from Springsteen, Dracula completed a one-two punch of big hits, also going on to become a highly successful radio play. At this point it was hard not to feel on top of the world about where our company was. Which of course, is usually the moment a rude awakening comes along.
I hope that somewhat ominous previous sentence doesn’t imply I’m not proud of Heroes, or in any way ambivalent about it. Neither are the case. But Heroes’ success was of a different, more complicated kind to the two previous shows.
The production of Heroes started from a place of hubris, which is never a place to start anything from but then, to be fair, you only tend to recognise hubris in the aftermath. To understand this, you have to remember that The Critic, our last play of 2016, had also been very successful; not on the same level as a Springsteen or Dracula, but it had enjoyed healthy audiences and glowing reviews. This meant that Heroes came in the midst of what seemed like a wave of success, and as such I got cocky.
Reteaming with Dexter Bourke, who previously directed The Last Supper in 2015 was a no
brainer. I gave Dexter full autonomy, letting him handpick the cast he wanted and essentially handing the whole project to him while I focused on Dracula and the impending release of Boone Shepard’s American Adventure. Usually this wouldn’t be a problem, except all of this happened just a month and a half out from opening night.
Heroes isn’t a long or complicated play, but it is a two hander and that means that two actors have to learn a huge amount of dialogue. With only a limited amount of time to learn, explore, and develop their characters and the script, it’s hard to expect the best from anyone and when I came in to watch a rehearsal one week out from opening, what I saw was decidedly not the best. It was, frankly, panic inducing.
This part of the story had a happy ending. The Heroes team, who were a dream to work with, immediately gauged my unease and asked what could be done. Then, to their unending credit, they did it. Heroes opened to well-deserved five-star reviews.
What it did not open to were good audiences. This is another area where hubris got me good. I figured that after Springsteen and Dracula people would flock to see our shows. That turned out to be untrue, especially when the show was a strange little thriller with no name recognition and two actors we had never used before coming only a month after our previous play. Heroes boasted the first time since Reunion that a Bitten By show performed to an audience of one, an embarrassing inevitability of indie theatre that I thought we were long past. And, while there were some decently populated shows in there, generally it was pretty sparsely attended. The audiences who saw it seemed to love it. There just weren’t that many who saw it.
But the overall ending for Heroes was still a happy one. Matt, one of the actors, suggested we take it on the one act play circuit, and it went on to win multiple awards for best actor, script, and production at various festivals. By the end of its run, thanks to the prize money, it had matched Dracula as Bitten By’s most financially successful show.
Mistakes were made and lessons were learned. But ultimately Heroes joined the first two shows of the year as a huge success, one that is a testament to the ability of Dexter, Matt and Blake to surpass the ridiculous schedule I imposed on them to put together something special, something that blew people away in theatres all over the state.
Around the time of Heroes cooler heads had prevailed regarding our schedule of plays. While I always loved the idea of having multiple shows in rehearsal at the same time, that creates an oversaturation that may in part answer for Heroes’ less than stellar theatrical run. At the start of the year The Commune, our first ever co-production (with Angelique Malcolm’s Class Act Theatre) had been scheduled for November and very swiftly all my ideas about having a show between Heroes’ May season and The Commune had been shut down. Instead we had time, time to think, plan and, most crucially, workshop.
For The Commune we did something new; a two day workshop over the course of which we took the script to task, refining, re-writing and tweaking until we had something rock solid, something we all had a little ownership in. With that done, rehearsals started in earnest and I took a step back.
I had fears about The Commune, fears that grew as opening night approached. With a made-up mythology centring around weird names and strange rituals, would it be met with laughter rather than discomfort? But, in the hands of arguably the best cast we’d ever assembled for a show, it was fine. Tension built beautifully from the first moments, and Ashley Tardy’s assured direction imbued the silences with menace, yearning and weighty implication. Reviews were great and several people who have frequented our shows said it was the best yet.
Whether that’s true or not, it’s hard to say. The Commune was possibly the most well executed of our plays, but I don’t think it ever really reached the same depth as something like Springsteen. Nonetheless, it engaged and thrilled audiences, and that’s all we could ever ask for.
But, like with Heroes, The Commune struggled to fill houses. I don’t really know why. Maybe the time of year, maybe the slightly higher ticket prices, maybe the subject matter. I will never be the type of person to guilt trip anybody over not ‘supporting the arts’ or whatever, because my attitude here has always been that we’re not asking for handouts, we’re providing a quality product that is worth your time and money. With The Commune that felt very much the case, it just didn’t seem to help very much. And short of being that annoying guy on Facebook clogging up your newsfeeds with endless plugs, there’s not a heap I can do about it.
But, like every show this year, lessons were learned. Namely that we need way better publicity (or any publicity) and maybe bigger, better venues where we won’t have to contend with the many limitations that faced us this year. What, to me, is indisputable, is that Bitten By Productions is now operating with a professionalism and consistency that we’ve never had before. It’s no longer just my whims steering this ship; with a full committee in place, the plays we choose and decisions we make are measured and well thought out. Now all we need to do is ensure that we are working at this standard across the board, in every aspect of a production.
But, mistakes and whatnot aside, 2017 was our biggest and best year yet, boasting four shows that I am fiercely proud of and the formation of a formidable team. Next year we’ll be working with new writers and new genres (musical), building on the foundation we have established to take this company to soaring new heights.
It’s been an awesome year. I don’t think I’m jinxing it to suspect that 2018 will be even better.
Writing words about writing words.