Now And Forever Till The End Of Time

FASS

Fassheader960

To quote the FASS webpage:

What is FASS?
FASS (short for Faculty, Alumni, Staff, and Students) is an amateur theatre company at the University of Waterloo. Originally started as a variety show in 1962, FASS predates many of the modern organizations on campus, including the Federation of Students. In its current form, every year FASS produces an original script for its annual show in February. At the height of its existence in the 1980s, FASS was a major aspect of campus life, and tickets were hard to come by.
The FASS show is written every year from May through December, and then production kicks off in January with auditions held in the first week of classes. Throughout January and into February, the actors rehearse, the techies tech, and the production crew pulls their hair until, finally, everything is ready five weeks later. The shows are put on, many parties are held, and then everyone goes and collapses from exhaustion. It’s good fun.



A detail strongly implied by the above (but not necessarily explicit) is that many of the participants are extremely amateur. Participating in FASS may be the first time that a particular person has ever tried their hand at building flats, painting backdrops, memorizing lines, creating a poster, writing a scene, or any of the other tasks need to make a show happen. While I don’t know offhand of anyone whose first role in the show was serving on committee (now called the board), it has probably happened. One of the core rules, one that has persisted over the years, is that anyone who shows up gets to participate, regardless of how much or how little aptitude they may show at auditions.

The amateur element adds an interesting challenge for committee members like the Chief Scriptwriter and technical director. All the CSW knows, for example, is that they will have some number of people interesting in writing, but not if that number will be five or twenty, or if the five or twenty will have any background in writing. The final script has to reflect a theme selected by the company shortly before writing began and it has to offer roles suitable for actors from those who can remember hundreds of lines flawlessly1 to those unable to remember (or deliver) two lines they themselves wrote. For added fun, because auditions happen after the script is written, the writers won’t have any idea which specific actors need to have suitable roles written for them. All they know is that in previous years, aspirants averaged ?% good actors, ?% mediocre actors, and ?% poor actors. Approximately. Nor do the writers know how many aspiring thespians will turn up for auditions. One year they planned for 90 and got 120.

Similarly, the technical director has to oversee the construction of all the sets, props and what have you, supervising people who may never have used a hammer or bandsaw before. The TD must, if at all possible, ensure that all the tech crew have more or the less the same number of fingers at the end of the show as they had at the beginning. The TD is expected to do this on a modest budget and on time.

The same goes for all of the committee-level roles: each person has a set of often complex tasks that must have been nailed down by the time the show hits the stage in the first week of February. In many cases, the people responsible will only have the short time between auditions and the show to accomplish their tasks, working with people whose skillsets vary from accomplished to something a bit less than accomplished.

If the FASS participant isn’t tasked with managing people, then they are one of the people being managed. It is up to them to work out how to participate productively and cooperate with people whom they may have met for the first time in January. People skills!

It’s a lot like that scene in Apollo 13:

You may be thinking that all this sounds like a recipe for disaster. There are so many failure modes, from scripts that are not funny (or don’t exist), impromptu amputations in the shop, actors forgetting their lines in mid-performance, missed cues, non-existent props, personality conflicts (or worse, personalities so harmonious both actors keep missing their entrances), directors with ideas too brilliant for this sad, flawed world, Stage Managers not booking rehearsal space, TDs forgetting to order materials, treasurers misplacing funds, and always, the potential for the occasional self-decapitation. The director could reveal a few days before auditions that they took a job in a distant city. When you add up all the things that have to go right or at least not too wrong, and take into account many of the people responsible are developing the necessary skills on the fly, the whole affair seems doomed.

Fifty plus shows argue otherwise. It turns out that most people, given a chance, are able to master a wide enough range of skills to put on an amateur musical show. When they cannot, other people compensate. Things always go wrong but enough goes right that the show goes on. Theatrical stone soup may sound like an odd idea, but it seems to work.

What’s more remarkable is there is a marked beneficial effect to having participated in FASS. To quote:

“Being music director of FASS gave me the credentials I needed to do what I do now. Without that first set of credits (2011 and 2012), I would not have had the experience necessary to continue on to music teaching and I would not be teaching music professionally.”
“Before FASS I was certain I’d never act on stage. After FASS I went on to do 19 Gilbert and Sullivan performances, and more than half were patter baritone lead parts. I also played Mozart’s Impresario and Angel Street’s Inspector, and ended up in Aristophanes’ Frogs and Assemblywomen. So yeah, thanks FASS.”
“For 23 years I was the founder and Musical Dictator of Argonotes, the Toronto Argonauts Band of the Canadian Football League. Being FASS music director gave me the courage to pitch this idea to the team, to build a group from scratch and to make it a pretty intense avocation for more than two decades. Couldn’t have done it without the confidence developed in FASS.”
“I believe that there are many intangible benefits that we all obtained. Being able to pull off almost impromptu parties for 200 with free beer from a local upstart brewery being amongst those talents.”

[People have also met their life partners in FASS and while that may not be important in the general scheme of things, it was very important for their kids.]

FASS has produced professional actors, professional theatre technicians, and a lot of writers. I couldn’t begin to list the awards the various professionals have won, but I can say FASS alums have earned at least four Hugo nominations. It may be that all of these people would have found some outlet for their talents anyway … but perhaps it is also FASS’s willingness to let people experiment in a permissive context (one in which failure is just a learning experience rather than the end of a career) that explains the FASS effect.

In late 2016, it was announced that the 2017 show had been cancelled. Presumably, this was the best solution the people responsible could manage. A year in which the opportunities turned out to be insurmountable might have been inevitable, given enough rolls of the die, but still it was a sad end for a half century plus tradition.

Except it wasn’t. The show as originally envisioned was not staged, but fresh eyes were able to imagine a way to put something on stage with the available resources. They were able to do less than a day after the cancellation was announced.

People really do rise to the occasion and if a few falter, others, it turns out, will step in.

In 2016, it might have seemed reasonable to believe that there would never be another FASS show. This was not the case. Reforms were undertaken to address the issues that had led to led to the catastrophe of late 2016. FASS 2017 may have needed an asterisk, but 2018 will be carrying on where the previous shows left off.

You could be part of that, if your circumstances permit. Don’t necessarily rule it out if you live elsewhere; passing travellers have paused for five weeks to take part. If you don’t feel like investing five weeks of your life, you can still participate: audience members are a very important part of any show,

FASS’s website is here . Auditions will be held from Monday, January 8 to Wednesday, January 10th, 2018. The show itself runs from Thursday, February 1 to Saturday, February 3rd in the University of Waterloo’s Humanities Theatre.

1: FASS 1984: The FASSist Manifesto had so much faith in one actor’s ability to remember lines that not only was his part by far the largest, the second largest role in the show was the puppet on his right hand. Whose lines he also had to deliver.


Comments

  • Penn

    I remember my father doing editing on a FASS script sometime in the early 80s I believe. Alice in Wonderloo, or Through the Looking FASS. :)

  • JVjr

    OK, I'll bite: who were the Hugo nominees?

  • James Davis Nicoll

    Me (twice) and James Alan Gardner (twice).

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