Once upon a time, I was the artistic director of a small touring theater company. For five years, I wrote, scored, acted, directed and built. The building part of the job involved hundreds of hours spent screwing and glueing together set pieces, some of them two stories tall, all of them designed to pass in pieces through a standard residential door frame and store inside a box truck of dubious mechanical pedigree.
In the early days, we toured with heavy platforms, lighting equipment, furniture and so on. Load-ins and load-outs were exhausting. But as it dawned on us that our clients cared far less about most of the technical aspects of our productions than we did, the tours lost weight. Platforms were the first to go … and good riddance. The scripts lost weight, too. We abandoned our two-act business model and began crafting one-hour musical entertainments that moved the spotlight as much as possible away from us and toward members of the communities where we played. Entertainment, as it so happens, isn’t about the entertainer. It’s about the entertained.
The man who signed my paychecks back then was Buren Martin and his company, The Baillie Players, exists to this day. Since my fade from his daily view in the mid-90’s, Buren and his wife, Dottie, have continued to ply their trade as actor/managers in the great tradition of traveling minstrel shows and Vaudeville and they’ve continued to refine their product. They no longer hire actors, for example, because the headaches involved in finding and retaining actors outweighed the benefits those actors provided. The company now consists of Buren, Dottie and their two children. Period. They write shows tailored to their clients’ sensibilities and they produce those shows with enviable efficiency.
When Buren contacted me recently to ask if I’d be interested in building a support system for a muslin backdrop he’d ordered, I suggested that we take a less polished, less ambitious approach than usual. We decided upon a series of eight-foot stands (pictured here) supporting four eight-by-eight muslin sections suspended from wooden rods. As the vision became reality, we were surprised by how perfectly this aesthetic compliments the company’s personality. Why, I wonder, didn’t we think of it sooner? All that elaborate eyewash I built and Buren paid for (and both of us, with hired help, lugged thousands of miles) back in the 90’s, all our attempts to make ourselves seem kinda sorta like something we weren’t … when we’d have been so much better off emphasizing exactly who and what we were.