Sunday, October 30, 2011

Lanford Wilson LA Memorial (LA)

Here’s some more history that you may or may not know about me: Lanford Wilson was my mentor. I met him back in 2004, at the University of Houston, where he was filling in for Edward Albee. Over the next 3 years, I was lucky enough to be allowed to direct under his guidance in a new play workshop. The friendship that we developed over the course of our work together continued until the day he died, March 24, 2011. Yesterday, October 29, 2011, I spoke, for the second memorial service, in his honor. Please forgive this blog for being a little less focused and organized than my normal blogs are, I am still trying to sort through things on this end.

I was lucky enough to stand on a stage with some of the most talented and successful artists that I know of, and share the life of the same man, drawn together by the love of and for a man who was a luminary in his own right. And more than a luminary, he was my friend, and the friend of many other artists; he helped and guided so many people along the way. I have been twice blessed to be part of an ensemble of individuals using their talents to honor this man – the actors acted, the writers wrote, the stage mangers managed, the sound designer sounded… – everyone's job just as important as the rest – and I can’t help feeling that that is the way Lanford would have wanted to be remembered, by the outpouring of each individual artist's gift.

One of the things I was most struck by yesterday that others said about him: Marshall Mason called him the American Chekhov – calling upon the fact that he wrote in what was to be dubbed the lyrical realism.

Lanford had an amazing ability to present what most people would consider the lost people of society with realness and a tenderness that we, as a society, often misplace for them. He was the playwright of the lost. And he did this through an awareness of people, because he loved them. He listened, looked and truly observed the world around him – using all he observed to create a new movement of theatre, to create theatre with new rules.

Yesterday, a great many people referred to theatre as a church, as an alter in which he worshiped, as many have before and after him. To me, the amazing thing about Lanford was his willingness to share it, and his belief in the people he held close. Someone said yesterday that 'it is up to us to become the artists that he thought we could become.' That is what I hope for as well – that I can somehow become the director he saw in me so many years ago, when I was young and didn’t know any better – that whatever seed of talent he saw in me then will grow into a sustaining career path.

Lanford truly believed that art was a necessary function in life, as I and all the artists I know do. He collected outsider art: art that is made by untrained individuals – work that is honest because it is created by the basic human need to express and to create. And that honesty, and that need helped guide him to be the amazing man he became – his belief that we need artists to show us how to be more than we are. In many ways, someone else’s words yesterday sum up this feeling: 'He was very clear about the artistic path he was taking, and he wished that for all of us. He was the only true genius I know.' – And for me, that is part of what this blog is about – honoring my friend and his wants and needs by finding my own path – figuring out what I want and what path I want to be on.

Lanford saw so clearly the changing of the times – from the railroads to the theatre community as a whole – he wrote so beautifully about them, gave them all a voice and place to be… well... real and forever - on stage. He gave them a life, in that moment, the moment of change. He created life, and space and the ability for others to do the same – to bring these amazing words to life so that they might never be forgotten. He loved them - he loved them into existence - as, in some ways, he did for so many people, both real and imagined.

I wish I had the words to explain in this blog how wonderful he was, how amazing and generous with his time and knowledge and belief. How I wish everyone could have known him, and known what it was like to have him on your side, or even just be able to pick up a phone and talk to him about anything. The best part of talking to him, as someone pointed out yesterday was “There was never any discrepancy between his heart and his words.”

For my own part, I said the following words:

Memories flood my brain, and I can only say I wish I had more. My memories of him start where, I’m sure, others start. With a cigarette – ours on the smoking benches at the University of Houston. I remember the first time I met him. I think the first he said to me was “It’s so fucking hot. How can you stand it?” It wasn’t until several days later that I learned I had met “Lanford Wilson, Pulitzer prize winning play write” I met the friendly, if slightly grumpy, older man on the bench, smoking a cigarette – and hey, he had a lighter, which, anyone who knew me then can attest, I never managed to have. And thus, an unlikely friendship was born.

My memories of us on those benches are some of the clearest of my life, memories of ideas, and thoughts – of being late to class to have one more cigarette, one more conversation with Lanford – somehow already unconsciously aware of how much he had, would have, and will continue to have a hand in my making.

Some of the most important things he taught me on those benches, and in theatres, and coffee shops, and rehearsal rooms:

Focus on the story. Focus on the character. Tell the story. Create the characters. Create a space that your actors can work. Create space.

People don’t think before they talk, the think while they talk. Take the air out of the lines.

Everything is either stupid or genius. If it’s stupid, keep working till it’s genius. If it’s genius, then well done there.

What do I owe, and to whom?

Get yourself to NYC while you’re young and stupid enough to do it, but when you’re old enough to know what to do.

Don’t give up, the world needs us.

The thing that amazed me the most about him is that he did it all with a sense of wonder, he could never quite seem to believe that whatever happened had happened. And his unfailing honesty – he never held anything back. When Lanford had an opinion, you knew it. He wasn’t shy about telling you the truth - the good, the bad, or the ugly.

How do I put into words how much the man meant to me? How do I codify what I’m feeling or how conversations we had will stay with me, and keep me moving towards my dreams, step by step, just like he told me I should.

Lanford had an amazing ability to give and create space – to live, to breathe, to create, to be – and for the lucky few, we were able to see this both in and out of the theatre. In part, this knack was a demonstration of his willingness to help those around him.

My first day back at school after my best friend’s death was rough for me. Lanford found me that day, at the benches, probably looking for a lighter. He sat down next to me, patted my knee, and said. “I heard what happened. I don’t want to talk about it, it’s just too sad. Let’s talk about something else. Like that tree there –it’s growing its leaves back. I bet that means my garden is starting to open.” And just like that, in those few words, created space for me to take the first breath I had taken all day.

I wish I could give words like that to you. Something wise and beautiful and simple to hold onto during this time. But I am not as skilled as he was. He was, after all, a man of words.

A man of words reduced to these few from those he left behind, of words in thoughts and memories, in our minds hearts and on our lips. It is in times like these that I look to the words of those before me, to comfort and guide, to let me know that I am not alone, that we are not alone. I think that his words say it the best this time:

I don’t want to talk about it, it’s just too sad. Let’s talk about something else. Like that tree there–it’s growing its leaves back. I bet that means my garden is starting to open.

So to close this blog, I will say: Good bye. Thank you for being my teacher, my mentor, and above all else, my friend. You have not only changed the course of theatrical history, you have changed my own personal history as well – and I will never be able to thank you enough for that.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Why I started this blog - Sleep No More (NYC)

Ok, several months ago I saw Sleep No More in NYC. For those who don't know what that is - stop reading this for a few moments and google it. When you google it, you are likely to see how much everyone has loved it - how amazing it is - and how much everyone should go see it.

Here's the thing - I HATED it. I strongly disliked it the night I saw it and the further away from seeing I get, the stronger the dislike becomes. And I think I have some pretty solid reasons for saying that too. I think visually, it was amazing - they put a crap ton of work into creating their environment. However, the pieces I saw (we'll deal with that sentence in just a moment) were amazingly beautiful dance pieces. Now, trust me when I say that I am not apposed to dance pieces - I've been a dancer my whole life - however, well, in this case, it just did not tickle my theatrical funny bone. Furthermore, the whole show is environmental, so you see what you see based on where you happen to be at the time. And that's the part I most hated. There was no sense of story - I even know the story of MacBeth, and I still didn't get that out of the show. The show itself was too all over the place, literally, taking place with the same cast of characters on 5 floors of a hotel. The chances of seeing all the scenes - 0%. Especially because there was no schedule or way to tell where you needed to be when to see a scene. Furthermore, there was no indication of who was playing what role, so even seeing the scenes didn't necessarily help understand what was going on. The actors themselves were not helpful there either, sprinting away from audience members eager to see work, actively trying to lose their audience tail. Overall, I was left feeling like my experience of the show was not important, and my understanding of the story they were trying to tell was non-existent.

There are, however, plenty of people who will argue with me about this. Like I said before, just about everyone I know loved the show. And it did have its good points. Not only did it have amazing visuals, but also it has brought a new group of non-theatre goers to a theatrical event. And as everyone in the arts knows - we always need fresh audience, we are always striving to bring in new blood to the public that watches us.

But how does any of that relate to why you started a blog?

Here's the answer. Two days after I saw Sleep No More, I was on facebook and noticed a status from a friend who is apparently working the show. Someone had commented it, asking if they should come see it, and she said yes! It's incredible. So I commented that I had seen it recently and I hadn't liked it at all. I then proceeded to tell her all the above reasons why (lack of story, unclear who the characters were, didn't know where I was supposed to be to see the story...) To which her response was: Well, that's because the story isn't what they were going for.

And there we have it - the theatrical cop out - It wasn't what we were going for...

I hate this as an excuse for problems in a play. I have always hated it. Ok, tell me you concentrated on something else. But that doesn't make up for the fact that part of your show was weak. I think the ability to see and accept that even a great show can have some failings without having to all back on that excuse is the key to theatrical growth - no excuses, just be honest. I can accept: I disagree with you, I think it was there because of x, y, and z. Or You're right, it wasn't there. But trying to somehow make it the audience's problem that they "missed" something... I think that's a bit unfair and, well, pretentious at best.

And this got me thinking to the parts of theatre that I think are necessary, and that led to this blog.

What I want this blog to be is about me discovering what I think and feel about theatre. I mean, theatre is all I have ever wanted to do my whole life, so I should think and feel something about it - right? So, here we go world - my blog. I will try to blog after every show I see, talk about the show, and talk about what it means to me in my theatrical growth. I will also try to blog anytime I have a shift in my theatrical thinking, even if it isn't from watching a show... :)

So, what did I learn about myself about Sleep No More.

That was is easy. I think the key to theatre is telling a story. I think that is its primary purpose. Tell the story. How you tell the story is up to you. I personally believe that relationships tell the stories, but I know plenty of people who would disagree with me on that. For me though, the key is this, if you did not tell a story, or the audience did not understand the story you are trying to tell, then you have done something horribly wrong.

And I guess that's it for this blog. Feel free to read and comment. I would love to have an open dialogue about whatever you think of what I'm writing, agree or disagree. :) I would love to hear from you!

Learning to trust myself - Lemon Sky at Keen (NYC)

Ok, there will be a blog very soon (probably tomorrow) in which I talk about Sleep No More and why I wanted to start this blog - but I wanted to get out what I had thought and felt tonight... Short form of the above unwritten blog - I want to find my theatrical voice and beliefs. So, I will blog after every show I see (and sometimes in between) to talk about what I saw, and what I learned.

Tonight I went to see Lanford Wilson's "Lemon Sky" produced by Keen Company here in NYC at Theatre Row.

Some things you should know, if you don't already: Lanford was my mentor. Lemon Sky is my second favorite Lanford play (my first is Burn This).

Having said that, I will say that, for the most part, I enjoyed this production. I went to see it with two of my older, much wiser theatre friends. Afterwards, as you do, we went for drinks across the street from the theatre. One of us had seen the show in previews and then again tonight, she was most curious as to what we thought. We'll come back to the bar in just a second - but first:

Here's the thing - what I think about the script is that it is amazing. It is, I think, Lanford's most theatrical piece - the one that makes most use of being in a theatre. Furthermore, the characters in the play are living on the edge, pushing for what they want sure (or unsure in the case of Penny) of who they are and what they think they want - even if they aren't sure how to get there. Lanford was always unbelievable at creating three dimensional characters, but these were more, more real, more raw, more emotional, more, well, everything really - as if these characters had four or five dimensions instead of just the three of a "normal" writer. And the language! No where in Lanford's cannon is his own personal voice as clear as it is in Alan. Just reading the words can bring tears to my eyes because of how much the music of the words speaks in his voice.

So, now you're thinking, "Ok Reesa, so that's what you think of the script, but what about the production?"

Honestly? I think Keith Nobbs pretty close to nailed Lanford in his roll as Alan. I think Kevin Kilner did an amazing job at the arc that is Doug (and trust me, it's not an easy arc, so good job there). I think the melding of the theatrical world of the play and the "real world" of the story were amazingly done. (Again, no easy feat. Miller once described his work Death of a Salesman as being a time cake - that time was sliced like layers laying on top of each other. Lemon Sky does this to a greater extreme than Miller, because Lanford also makes use of direct audience contact and time shifts - if Death of Salesman is a layer cake, then Lemon Sky is surely a rainbow layer cake with a surprise middle).

However, part way through this production, I started thinking "Huh, I don't remember Ronnie (the step mom) as being such a push over". "Also, is Penny mentally slow in this version? I don't remember that in the script either" "Also also, the Carol in my head was WAY prettier than that. Like stop traffic gorgeous pretty - not everyday pretty."

And back to the bar with my friends. The above paragraph, not what I said. What I said was "Well, Alan did an amazing job. and the theatricality of the show was well down. Overall, I liked it." My friend said - yes, all those things are true. And I liked them too. However, I have to tell you, I didn't like the women" She then proceeded to talk about some of the above things I said.

I was both relieved and upset with myself. Relieved that I hadn't been making things up, that someone else has seen it too. Upset because once, many years ago, I was the girl who looked straight into eyes of the "scariest" professor in my university theatre department and told her I hated her show. And then proceeded to tell her why. Some of the reasons she agreed with, some she didn't. But I gained her respect that day, the day I refused to tell her what I thought she wanted to hear, and told her what I really thought.

So, what happened to that girl? The girl who knew what she thought of what she was watching - who trusted her own opinion of what she had seen to mean something to someone else too.

And I feel like tonight was a reinforcement of that lesson, that it's ok to have opinion about theatre that aren't "nice". As long as you can back them up. And that if you speak your mind, you might be surprised to find out that others agree with you.