Saturday, December 15, 2012

Golden Boy (NYC)

Hey there!  Look, it’s a very long absent blog writer. … Sorry about that, I got busy, and then I got out of the habit…  You know how it is.  But I will endeavor to do better.  … We’ll see how long that endeavor works.

But today, I want to talk about Golden Boy, currently at the Belsco Theatre in conjunction with Lincoln Center.  And I want to preface this blog with some bio of me.  I will admit to being particularly attached to, and informed of Golden Boy.  It was the first show I ever had a lead in (I was Lorna), and it is the reason that I get to call Lanford Wilson a mentor of mine, bc he saw a scene (the park bench scenes) that I had directed from it and took it upon himself to recruit me into his program.

So, having said all that, I was incredibly excited that I not only got to see it, but that I had front row seats even!  And, believe it or not, I went in wanting to love it!

However, I did not.  And I did not almost from the first moment.  My biggest problem with the production is highlighted by the first few moments, and that’s why it sticks out so much.  One of the hearts of the story, the thing that makes the story progress is the love triangle that emerges between Lorna, Tom, and Joe.  Except I never felt like Lorna loved Tom, and that’s a problem.  Nor did I feel like Tom loved and needed Lorna.  Also a problem.  And pretty disguisable from the first few beats of the play, which are between – you guessed it – Tom and Lorna.  Lacking any kind of chemistry between those two, even in a need way (bc I am the first to admit that I do not believe that Lorna is “in love” with Tom, she does “love” him though – and he needs her – which is a safety she’s never had before) – anyway, without the chemistry between those two characters, a large part of the play becomes problematic.  Like the growing attraction between Lorna and Joe, which, I felt, was entirely one sided in this version.  Joe is clearly puppy dogging Lorna, and she just as clearly never truly loves Joe, again an interpretation that I think leaves much to be desired in the arch of the story.  Yes, Lorna needs to be needed more than she needs to be in love, which is why she doesn’t leave Tom. But, also, yes, she is in love with Joe.  It’s just that, for her, there is something more important that being in love – and she has the self honesty to recognize that – she even tells Joe, even though he doesn’t believe her.   

What attracts Lorna to me as a character are these layers.  Her ability to say: So what, I’m not in love with him, in love isn’t what’s important, in love just gets you kicked around, and then let herself feel love with Joe in small cracks and starts – that her connection with him is so strong she can’t deny it – even as she has to push him away bc there is more at stake than her heart.  What attracts me to Lorna is the relationships she forges with these men, and the way in which she interacts with them and they with her.   And that, I felt, was where this show was most lacking – in the development of the relationships between characters.  While Joe himself was good in a vacuum, (ok, that’s not entirely true, I thought there were some excellent moments with Joe and his dad, and Joe and Tokyo)  theatre isn’t in a vacuum. Shows aren’t about one actors work, but how the actors work together to tell a story through relationships. 

So, for once, I think I am commenting on the directing.  I feel like more time should have been spent working on how these people feel about each other, and how that drives the play forward.  No one in this show is immune.  And not just this show, in life in general. Furthermore, it's a problem I've seen of late in several productions. Individual actors are very good, but the relationship and interactions between the characters is lousy.  

As a whole, I believe theatre is the art of telling a story through relationships.  And I forget how important that is to me sometimes, and then I see a show where the relationship work is ignored (and some where the story telling part is too) and I remember what drew me to this craft in the first place.  Individual arcs are important, but if there were more important than the arcs of the relationships, then why do we bother to have rehearsals with full casts in the first place.  I don't want to get all uppity here, but I do think this is a big distinction between theatre and film.  I think theatre must focus on the relationship of the characters AND how the actors demonstrate it.  Film has the advantage of cutting and pasting those relationships together.  (Before anyone gets mad, I have the utmost respect for people who do film acting well too - I am merely pointing out, for the umpteenth time, that they are different skill sets - one of them being a relationship with a camera vs a relationship with actors that must be displayed live every show - ok, now you can throw tomatoes at will).  

My point being... what was my point?  Or right, character development in a vacuum. It shouldn't happen.  The whens and whys of character development, I think, the playwright (if they've done their job well - as Odets did) lays out clearly for you. And if the playwright has done his/her job well, then that development is done through interaction with other characters - otherwise why are they in the story? It's like Chekhov was fond of saying, people always say the shortest version of whatever they can to get their point across (that is Chekhov as interpreted by me). The point being the same, use what the play gives you - the playwright wrote it for a reason.  Learn what the relationships are and how the relationships change the course of the characters, and how the course of the characters changes the relationships.  I feel like, within that kernel of grey area is where the heart of a good play, and a good story, truly lives.

Also, on a personal note, I didn’t really like Fuslei, though, that, I admit, is totally personal.  I’ve seen him played multiple times, as both explosive and quiet.  And every time there is something infinitely more scary and “in charge” about a quiet gangster than an explosive one.  The man who knows he’s in charge and never has to raise his voice is infinitely more in charge the one who screams to be heard.  

The cast and crew:
Joe Bonaparte Seth Numrich
Mr. Bonaparte Tony Shalhoub
Tokio Danny Burstein
Lorna Moon Yvonne Strahovski
Anna Dagmara Dominczyk
Siggie Michael Aronov
Mr. Carp Jonathan Hadary
Tom Moody Danny Mastrogiorgio
Eddie Fusseli Anthony Crivello
Roxy Gottlieb Ned Eisenberg
Barker Daniel Jenkins

Creative Team

Written by Clifford Odets
Director Bartlett Sher
Set Designer Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer Catherine Zuber
Sound Designer Peter John Still and Marc Salzberg
Lighting Designer Donald Holder

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Dear Mr Akin, this is what it's like to be a woman

Ok, not theatre, but this is a piece I wrote in the last couple of days.  Hope you like.  Please share.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Catch Up (All over)

Just to show how very far behind I am, and maybe to shame myself into writing more…  I bring you the catch up blog.  These are some of the shows I have yet to blog about.  Some will become longer blogs in the future (hopefully).
Cock (NYC):  I loved the staging the most.  They have built a circular riser set out of plywood that the audience sits on and looks down at the show; it gives the whole audience the air of being at a cockfight – great choice.  Also great choices by the director in staging and theatrical realism.  Excellent acting to execute those ideas.  To be honest though, I self identified pretty strongly with some of the ideas of this play, so much so it made my heart hurt.  I will prob not be blogging about this show until/if I can work my way through that.
Lyons (NYC):  This is a solid show with solid acting a solid script and solid directing.  The show def made me laugh, but it didn’t blow my socks off.  It was…  yep, solid.
Venus in Furs (NYC):  All I can say is wow!  I am in love with Nina Arianda.  She does an amazing job in what can only be described as character gymnastics, easily passing between different characters, sometimes even in the middle of words, without ever losing who she is in relation to the show, and never letting the audience be confused as to who she is in the moment either. Quite an impressive feat.
Clybounre Park (NYC):  I liked this show on a very intellectual level.  The show is about racism and the cycle of racism, PC-ness, and gentrification.  I saw the show the week before Obama came out as pro-gay-marriage and it made me relate the whole show to the idea of prejudice in all it’s shapes, colors in beliefs in my mind – though, particularly to gay marriage being, hopefully, the next big civil rights movement.  Because of my intrinsic link to those ideas, not sure if this one will become a blog because of how very political I think it would be.
NYC Ballet, Contemporary Choreographers:  Man I missed the ballet.  This night was lovely!  (Also, holy crap the Lincoln Center Ballet Theatre Is awesome!  It has a super cool balcony, perfect for a date - anyway, you should go).  What I love about goo ballet is the storytelling through movement.   I love how each dancer is insanely committed to each movement, and the specificity of each movement through even the tiniest finger.  This night, I saw 3 contemporary choreographers works.  I loved them all, but my favorite was the first one called Two Hearts, which had its world premier the night I saw it, and was choreographed by Benjamin Millepied (otherwise known as Mr Natalie Portman).  I can’t even really tell you why I loved it the most, and I think that’s why I missed ballet so much.  Because, at least for me, there isn’t a definable why, just the way it makes you feel.  I love the things in life that don’t make sense but just are.  They remind me to listen to my heart above my head, always, because it knows best and will lead to the place to be truly happy.  (Although, with the way I spell choreographer so badly I confuse spell check… this may or may not become an actual blog :p )

Interrupted Man (Houston):  Interesting idea of a show.  The show is two inter-weaving monologues of two people on a train.  The man is a famous writer who sometimes thinks of the woman, but is mostly thinking about himself.  The woman is a fan of the writer who happens to be reading the writers latest book and is trying to figure out weather to bring the book out in the train car to read it.  Now, I tell you all this to mention, again, that it is two inter0weaving monologues.  As in the dialogue of the script is only, really, in the last 10 mins of a 90 mins play.  They spend most of the time telling the audience their thoughts.  Interesting idea in concept.  The show was set on a revolve so the actors moved around the circle slowly as the show progressed without ever leaving their train seat.  There is something I didn’t quite like about this production that I am still trying to put my finger on though.
Kreutzer Sonata (NYC):  Speaking of trains…  This is the most haunting piece I’ve seen in a long time.  Also set on a train, the narrator speaks to the audience as if we are a passenger in his car, and his story must be told.  I loved the necessary-ness of the show.  How vital it was for him to tell his story.  I loved that it felt intimate, like there were only a few people in the train car, in my case, me and my date, even though the house was full.  And I LOVED the use of the scrim as memory.  The faded background of his mind being lit in shadows for us to see.  Amazing!
Rainbow’s End (NYC):  Um, yea.  No but really, GO SEE THIS NOW.  Pretty much blew my socks off. 
Being Shakespeare (NYC):  Loved the use of narrative as history lesson.  Loved the talk back even more. 
Big Meal (NYC):  Again, solid.  But I didn’t love it.  Loved the use of 8 actors as like 10 generations of people.  So there were the kids, the teenagers, the middle aged, and the elderly and the same actors played all the roles of that age group.  Pretty cool idea that turned out well in practice.  Overall though, didn’t blow my socks off.
Tribes (NYC): I don’t know what I have to say about this really.  I neither loved it nor hated it.  There was some really strong work being done on stage, and everyone was connected to it.  It made me feel, I was attached to the characters and the story, and yet…
The Columnist (NYC): I wanted to like this WAY more than I did as I LOVE John Litgow.  However, I didn’t.  I thought, at least the night I saw it, it fell kind of flat and was only meh for me.  It was hard for me to get involved in a show about a man who the world is clearly moving on without because I never felt compelled to not move on without him.  I don’t know that that made sense. 
The Best Man (NYC):  Pre-warning, I saw the show VERY early on in the run, like maybe opening or second night.  I say this because I has sense talked to several people who saw it later in the run who said that the problem I saw has been fixed.  The problem, it has an incredible cast who, individually, have incredible performances, but as a unit didn’t play so much.  It was kind of like watching an MVP game.  The MVP team is never as good as the individual teams.  Again, appt later on in the run, as they are now, it has gotten it’s groove back.  I would be interested to see it again.
I’m sure there are more, but that’s it for today.  What would you like to see turned into a longer blog?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Title and Deed (NYC)

I went to see Signature Theatre’s Title and Deed last week.  All I can say is WOAH!  The more I see there, the more I love that theatre…  I wonder if they are looking for artistic interns…
Anyway, this show.  I want to talk about a couple of things that really stood out to me.  One of which I rarely, if ever, talk about – plot/theme.  The other, acting.
I mostly don’t talk about plot or theme in this blog for the simple reasons that the blog is mostly for expanding my theatrical palette/tool box, to have a better definition of what I like and why I like it – ultimately, so I can reproduce what I like on stage myself, while setting aside the things I don’t like, making sure they do not reach my stage.  And with that in mind, mostly, plot and theme are incidental to that learning curve, because the things I will use may or may not be part of the same theme or plot.  In more general terms, this blog is like learning algebra.  I rarely talk about specific equations because the purpose is to learn how to manipulate the “x” when I need to, not how to manipulate this “x”.
Except in this show, one of the things that has drawn me to it so much is this show, these words, this idea, presented in this way.  Part of it is that it is, I think, a damn good script.  Part of it is because the show itself is about the universality of humanity, about how even when we’re different, we’re really the same.  And that appeals to me as both a human and a theatre practitioner – because that is, I think, one of the main purpose of theatre to remind us of that fact.  And we do it through the very universal method of story telling. 
Will Eno’s (a playwright I now want to read EVERYTHING by) show touched on ideas of “home” and “words” and the relation between the two.  It spoke of communication between people and about ideas that are larger than human speech allows for.  The writing of the show stayed with me, sparking my imagination like only good writing does – bouncing around the walls in my head painting slapdash colors of thoughts, new colors that I have never used before mixed with old colors that are familiar friends, and an occasional enemy.
One of the ideas that stayed with me the longest is: Every moment is a eulogy.  And I loved that idea.  Because it’s true, and we never think of things along those lines.  Because everything is ending before it even begins.  Every moment honors the moments that have died to create the present.  And that isn’t a pessimistic attitude.  In fact, for me, it is quiet optimistic and freeing.  Because it means that the mistakes I make are ending, as are the good things.  It means that everything changes and everything ends and everything begins again.  In yoga we use the phrase “This too shall pass”.  And it is used for everything.  I feel like this is the same idea.  Everything moves on.  And that too is human, that too is universal, that too is real and true. 
Tie great writing, and great thoughts in  with great acting, and you have a pretty great show.  Conor Lovett does not disappoint.  His gentle Irish accent reminding the audience that he is “un-homed” as it were.  Of course, the accent is faint enough that it is easy to forget that it is Irish, easy to make it an accent of somewhere that is not here – and yet, is not tied to anyone place at all. 
Moreover, and those who read this blog lots will know how I normally feel about one man shows…  I didn’t hate this one.  In fact, it was a great format for it.  His character had called a meeting, and, more importantly, Lovett was alive and aware of us on stage.  Lovett talked to me, not to the space above my head.  He made eye contact with me (and many others in the audience) responding in real time with what he saw on my face.  At no time did I feel like he forgot that any of us were there, taking his speech to both the orchestra and the balcony. 
Most importantly to me, the show, and Lovett’s performance of it, had an air of improvisation.  There were moments that I held my breath, wondering if he knew what he was going to say next or if he would lose his place in his train of thoughts.  I have never before witnessed an actor be that much in the moment.  So lost in the moment of aliveness that it seemed as if he was not speaking from a script, but instead was making it up as he went.  In short, it was what acting is supposed to be.  (Well, at least forms of realism). 
So, what did I learn?  Well, what I saw was something to strive for.  For a theatrical realism that seemed neither forced nor false.  For moments that were magic simply because they did not exist before and will not exist again.  I saw ideas presented un-pretentiously, honestly, real-ly.  I saw what I want in my own work.  A sense that I was staring at truth – not realism nor naturalism -  not even theatrical realism – but truth.  Pure and simple truth.  The human condition.  Each moment giving birth to the next as it itself passes on.  Just like a good eulogy. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Death of a Salesman (NYC)

Death of a Salesman.  Thanks to a generous donation by the Daddy foundation, I was finally able to see this show. 
Here’s the thing, I LOVE Miller – probably more than a single human should.  I love him for reasons I will talk about later in this blog even.
It should come as no big surprise then that I LOVED this version of it.  I mean, I’m not gonna say Miller is easy, because I don’t think he is.  However, when he is done well, it is effortless to watch the story unfold on stage.  Miller believed this story to be a layer cake of time (his analogy, not mine), and this version does that brilliantly – moving through walls in the past and obeying them in the present – subtle but effective.    Honestly, my big problem with the show was Phillip Seymor Hoffman.  I really wanted him to use his mouth more so I could understand him more.  I thought Andrew Garfield held his own with PSH and Linda Edmond though.  (Though, to be honest, my date had to tell me that Garfield was famous…  I’m bad at that game.)  I do think that this production did an interesting thing by making Biff’s character far more central to the story than I think I have ever seen or read it as.  To be honest, I loved it and re-read the script to see what I had missed in my prior readings to miss that.  I’m not saying that Biff isn’t always important, I think he is.  But in my head, and when I read it, this is Willy’s show, and the other characters support Willy.  In this version, however, Biff’s story was just as important by itself as Willy’s – willing to admit this might be a fault in the way I was reading it, but this is my third production of it, and my first to have the realization, so I feel confident that it isn’t just me.
And now we get to why I love Miller so much. 
In undergrad, I had a WONDERFUL prof, Doc Berger, and he taught me many things.  One that we totally disagreed on was Miller.  We fought about it on more than one occasion.  And the basic fight was this:  Doc believed that there were no playwrights as great as Shakes since that time, because, he said, no one was universal or as timeless as Shakes is.  I disagreed.  I say Miller has hit upon some very universal truths of his own.  As proof, I offered The Crucible and Death of a Salesman.  One of the longest debates the two of us ever had was over Death.  (Made all the more ironic because he directed Death the next year.) (Also, The Crucible?  Because what is less universal across the ages and globe than a small group of people holding a larger group of people hostage through fear?)
One of the amazing things about this show was that it reminded me of this old debate, and, I think, helped prove me right. 
All shows should speak to the audience that watches it.  That’s what it means to be universal.  Watching a show and seeing what the society that produced it might have thought, and what the society (or part of it) who is currently watching it is thinking, I think, is the pentacle of the universal timeless play.  To me, this production speaks of a world moving on without the older generation, of a world that cares more about fancy toys than human beings – in modern terms, Willy Lohman is the 99%. 
More than economics,, this show speaks to what it means to live your dreams, to understand what your dreams are.  Miller asks us to be honest with ourselves about our past and what it means.  I mean, everyone polishes up their past; everyone is the protagonist in their own story; everyone wants to believe the best in themselves and those around them, those they love.  But Miller reminds us that those of us who are strong enough to see who we really are, what we are really capable of, what we have really want, what we have really done, who we have really hurt, who we have really helped and what we really are the ones who walk away with the ground firmly under our feet and an actual chance at happiness.  Miller reminds us that it is by putting your brain and it’s false beliefs and remembrances aside and listening and accepting the truth of your soul and heart that you find where you are supposed to be.  Thank you for that universal truth Arthur Miller.  It means as much today as when you wrote it.  And I feel certain that it will mean just as much in 100 years.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Strange Interlude (Washington DC)

I had the opportunity to see Strange Interlude at Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washing DC. 
Strange Interlude, for those playing the home game, is O’Neill’s attempt at creating a stage version of an inner life.  The script, therefore, has lots of idiosyncrasies in which the characters break from the scene to talk have these sort of soliloquies while everyone else on stage ignores them.  Interesting in concept.  Super intriguing for when it was written and first performed.  I would even say it is something I would love to play around with now. 
A couple of things though, first, if it is a character’s internal world, why not let the audience in on it.  Instead of it being a monologue to some made up point in the sky, why not take it to us.  Draw us in as the inside of the characters mind.  Good literature already does this.  Well, at least well written first person literature.  Think of how you felt when you read, say The Lovely Bones, or The Great Gatsby, or almost anything by Kurt Vonnegut.  Heck, even Katniss in The Hunger Games trilogy does it.  When done well, attaching the audience to a specific characters point of view brings the audience into the story, invests them with the power of “I” instead of “they”.   I would love to see contemporary theatre tackle this idea (and if you know anyone who is doing work like this, please let me know – I would LOVE to see it!)
Also, today I want to talk about pace.  Ok, those who know me, or read this blog lots, know that I have a huge issue with what I call “butt in seats time”.  For the most part, I think almost all shows longer than 2 hours can and should be shortened.  (Some of the time, without even cutting text.)  I mean, not always, St Joan was def over 2 hours, and Iwould not have changed a single thing about that show. 
But back to Strange Interludes… it was 2 hours and 45 mins.  Yep, that’s right.  I mean, on the plus side, it did have two intermissions, which helped.  However, that is just too long really.  I mean, the story itself doesn’t need to be a 3 hour story.  It really doesn’t.  But most upsetting about the show was not just the time, but also the pace. 
I’ve had several conversations recently in which I have talked about, what I felt like, was a need to pick up the pace.  And each time I realized that what I meant, and what was being heard were not the same thing.  So let me explain myself before I go any further.   When I say something needs to be faster, or the pace needs to be picked up, rarely do I mean that the actors need to speak faster.  Mostly, because that is rarely the problem.  In fact, that is probably the biggest misconception about pacing – that pacing means talking faster or slower. 
My mentor, Lanford Wilson, once said in a rehearsal “Dear God this show is too slow.  Pick up the cues.  Stop thinking and then talking.  People don’t do that.  You don’t think before you talk, you think as you talk.”  This is what I normally mean when I say pick up the pace.  There are rarely reasons to have Mac Truck pauses on stage.  And when there are, they need to be earned.  Pauses become meaningful when they are rare.  Think about the last time you had a conversation.  Or raise the stakes, think of the last time you had an argument – when you were really mad.  How many pauses were in that moment?  For most people, the answer will be very few.  The argument occurs at the rapid pace of thought.  When the silence comes, it generally represents a point won for someone.  Either one participate has been so hurt that they can’t process, or one participate has just realized that he/she is wrong, or one participate has come across a topic so painful that they cannot skip blithely into it without re-centering themselves.  That is life. 
However, in theatre, we are often subjected to moments of thought before the line (which, to be fair, is totally ok in rehearsal as actors and directors are trying to find the reasons that this line must be said at this moment).  In performance, however, it is killer.  In performance, it can take what could have easily been a very good 2 hour and 20 min play, and turn it into a very slow 2 hour and 45 min play. 
When the pacing is off at this level, I find it hard to concentrate on what is happening on stage for long periods of time, because I don’t care.  If everything is given the weight of a pause, then nothing actually matters.  When I was in undergrad, I once had to do a directors book for a scene I had directed, and in it I had to make a temporal graph of each moment of the scene.  In the end, it kinda looked like a crazy bar graph or a line from a lie-detector.  And while I don’t physically do that anymore, it was an invaluable lesson for me in what pacing really means.   Life doesn’t happen in the same pace, so neither should theatre.   Theatre, I think, should happen at the pace of life – the life of the character, the life of the story, the life of the show, and the life of the performance.  And yes, there will be a little variation across the board on that.  (Though, I tend to agree with Peter Brook when he said something like – good work runs the same time while bad work’s time varies extremely.) 
Anyway, that is my two cents for today.  Thanks for listening!   Feel free to let me know what you think too!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Wit (NYC)

Wow.  I am so very far behind on blogging.  Let’s see what I can do to catch up.  Tonight, I have a lot of things on my mind that only nominally relate to any show I’ve seen lately.  So, I’m starting with a quick show, and then quickly and tangentially talking about something else instead.  (Also, sit back and put your seat belt on, this is gonna be a long one – enjoy the ride)

Wit, as performed by the wonderful Cynthia Nixon, was almost a phenomenal show.  And here’s what I mean by that.  Cynthia did an amazing job.  The script is quite touching and moving.  The rest of the cast handled their multiple rolls very well.  The set was very well done.  I bawled like a baby (through most of the play AND on the walk home…)  All in all, it was a great performance.  
Except for this: 

Ok, I’m just going to say it.  I don’t pay full price to see shows, I can’t afford it.  Therefore, I buy student tickets, or discounted tickets, or rush tickets, or…  And, I do in fact get that I am sitting in the “cheap” seats.  

For those who are not aware of this script, there is lots of actual audience contact written in the script itself.  Dr Vivian Bearing (that would be the lead, and the roll that Cynthia Nixon played) spends, I would say, at least half of her time directly talking to the audience, guiding them from scene to scene, explaining what was happening, what will happen, what had happened.  And, in the case of this production, she did it standing on the edge of the set while things happened behind her. 
Having said that, I sat in the front row of the balcony for Wit, leaning on forward – elbows on my knees, head in my hands (as I watch most shows I enjoy).  So, when I say this next thing, I can be pretty sure about it.  Not once in the entire play did Cynthia Nixon look up at the balcony seating. 
Ok.  I am willing to admit, I know I get the cheap seats, and that there is a price to pay for that, and I know that it might have just been an off night - but really, not once? 

And here is where, what can only be described as the first of two rants begins:

This is not the first time that I have felt like a theatre hasn’t cared about me because I am not able to buy the expensive seats.  For instance, a few years ago when I went to see a show at BAM, I was upstairs, in the cheap seats, where we were given a Xeroxed copy of a play bill, versus the downstairs version which was the nice colored “normal” version of the playbill. 

Here’s the thing, I realize that the people who can afford the expensive seats are important, I do.  However, I think if direct audience contact is part of the show, that all the audience should be contacted.  I mean, the idea behind cheap seats (at least I thought this was the idea) was to bring in people (like students) to form a future audience – one that may not be able to pay much now, but will in the future.  (And also, to sell the tickets that people who have the money for the orchestra won’t buy because they are too far away from the stage)

So, if at least one point of them is to expand the theatre going audience, shouldn’t we, as theatre practitioners want to give them an experience worth repeating?  I’m not saying that all lines should be taken to the cheap seats, but shouldn’t some of them?  Shouldn’t the people in the cheap seats feel as much as part of the show as the people in the expensive seats? 

This has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time, one I have actually voiced before.  All members of the audience are (ideally) paying, and on that level all deserve the same show as anyone else.  I understand that across nights this can be difficult, that off nights happen, as do accidents and injuries.  However, as theatre practitioner, isn’t this why we have rehearsals – so we can minimize the risks and maximize the story telling? 

John Madden (the director, not the football player) once said about rehearsals “The only reason that one rehearse to that degree when one rehearses a play is that actors don’t need to discover it once – for a play they need to discover it repeatedly, night after night.  Which means they have to understand the process, they have to understand their own instincts, as it were.  They have to deconstruct their own instinct, so they can then assemble them and repeat what they were doing instinctively.” 
Why should they have to repeat it?  Oh, that’s right, so that multiple audiences get the same story – or as close as you can have to the same story in a live performance.  (Which, again, I realize varies nightly – I do, however, think that the belief is a reasonable one). 

Here’s the thing – I don’t actually think that every version has to be the same – for instance, I don’t believe every version of Romeo and Juliet should be in Elizabethan garment’s.  I think doing R&J as a rock opera is a perfectly reasonable way to tell a different story.  I just feel that the story you tell per production should be the same.  That’s not to much to ask, is it?
And while I’m talking about different productions telling different stories, I want to start rant #2. 

Twice in the last week I have gotten into a conversation about “ur” material (for lack of better word).  Ur stories or works, in folklore terms (yes, I have a minor in folklore – specifically fairy tales) is the original source material for a story.  Except, and here’s the important part, folklorist stopped looking for the "ur" story awhile ago, if I remember correctly, sometime around the 1920’s and 30’s.  They stopped looking for it because they realized it doesn’t exist.   It doesn’t exist because there is no such thing as an original story.  Every story started some where else, and every story has elements from other stories.  Just look at Shakes (oh, it’s his birth and death day today too!)  Arguably one of the greatest English writers in history – and all of his plots were pretty directly lifted from other places.  But that’s not what made him so great. 

As an artist and a storyteller, I don't believe in "source material". I'm sorry, there are only so many stories to tell in the first place that trying to trace things down to their sort of "ur" state is ridiculous, time consuming, and pointless. Instead of doing so, perhaps we as audience should ask ourselves if the new story was well told.

Here's the thing, if what I said isn't true THAN MY WHOLE POINT IN LIVING IS WORTHLESS (by that I mean theatre).  Since, by it’s very essence, that is *exactly* what theatre is/does.

No one looks at Romeo and Juliet and says, "Oh, you can't do that.  Shakes wouldn't have done that," because theatre isn't about that, shouldn’t be about that.  It's about telling a good story. Telling your story.  Telling your story well – regardless of where the plot points may or may not have come from. 

I feel like all of this is very close to the author’s intent riff AND even the riff about race inside theatre.  I feel like all of these discussions are related to each other.  I feel like I have more to pull out about all of these things, to connect them more firmly.  Perhaps I will work on organizing those thoughts for a later post. 

But until then, what do you think?  

Monday, April 2, 2012

Good Person of Szechwan (NYC)

So, I am still in the process of trying to catch up on the back log of shows I’ve seen in the last few weeks, I am skipping ahead.

First, some history on why I am so behind – if you have read the other posts in this blog, you will notice two blogs that are not about theatre. Yea, true story, I accidentally started a grassroots political movement a few weeks ago, and it has taken over my life. I have never really thought of myself as political, but I did this thing, and it’s been amazing. I love it! And I can’t believe I have gotten so many people to respond and stand with me!

This, however, is also why I want to skip forward in my blog. I saw Good Person of Szechwan by Berthold Brecht. For those of you who know me, I have a Brecht thing. I love him. Really because I was forced to write a paper on Artaud in college, and I discovered I HATED him, and Brecht is about as opposite of Artaud are you can get… Therefore, I developed a fondness for him.

This was, in point of fact, the first live Brecht show I have ever been able to see. And that in and of itself was very exciting for me. Also, this show was especially timely to me at the moment, due to my movement happening right now as I type.

Here’s the thing about Brecht, my favorite one sentence description of him is : Brecht wanted to change your vote. Brecht’s work is about creating a better society. Brecht’s work is about being the change you want to see in the world. And Good Person is no exception. Brecth’s work challenges the audience not to passively enjoy theatre, but to actively do something about the society in which you live – to change what you’re doing and, in more modern words, to be the change you wish to see. The whole point of his works is to point out how flawed society is, and that only we can change it. (Thus, I was very much drawn to the show for today’s blog).

As far as this show itself, I have to say, there were some problems with it as a whole. Believe it or not, I am actually not anti-three hour productions of older plays that were written to be three hours. I am, however, extremely against things that make already long shows longer. For instance, set changes. This production changed the set for every scene (there were 11 of them) as well as flashing the name of the scene on the screen. The problem is that each scene change was at least a minute long, sometimes two, which means that at least 15 minutes, if not closer to 20 was added to the show. Interestingly, I think especially in a piece like Brecht, scene changes are entirely not necessary. For instance, the first scene in which the water seller was going to people houses, those “houses” were signs made of cardboard – pretty classic Brechtain technique – also, effective and short and sweet – and entire world was made in the time it took to raise a sign. One of the more interesting things to me about this choice is the director’s notes in the program that state “once one falls through the rabbit hole of questioning all assumptions, one realizes what it is to read, perform, and watch brecht” Except that isn’t fully what happened, only some theatrical assumptions were challenged. I feel like it could have been a stronger (and much shorter) production if more assumptions were challenged.

I also had some problems with the music in this performance. Music is an integral part of Brecht’s alienation effect. The problem with the music in this production is that it was incomprehensible – as in the octaves that they were singing in were so high that the audience could not understand what they were saying. To fix this, they provided the lyrics in the program. (I have serious problems with the inability to tell a story without program notes. Look, I already wrote about it.) I feel like the musical arrangement was not conducive to Brecht’s point of having the songs in the first place. The inability to understand the lyrics in the context of the show lost both the actual stand that Brecht was trying to make in the lyrics and added length to an already long show. There is never a call to have an audience sit for 3+ minutes listening to something that they cannot understand – especially if the point of the lyrics in the first place is to reinforce the playwright’s ideas of what his play is saying.

Having said all this, it would sound as if I didn’t like the show – in point of fact, I did, very much, like the show. I think it did most things very well. I think it made most of Brecht’s points very well. I think it was clear and understandable. I think it handled most of the alienation techniques very well. To me, the points above stuck out so strongly because the rest of the show was so well done.

Brecht’s epilogue at the end is clearly a call for us to change what is happening in society, to create a society in which it is possible to be both good and live well – and that it is up to us – the audience to effect that change. (To be fair, it is important to remember anytime you are speaking of Brecht that he was a HARDCORE Marxist, and his shows revolve around changing your way of thinking to his. The man wasn’t soft, he wanted a Marxist revolution and believed theatre was a way to propagate the ideas – heck, even his longtime composer and collaborator, Kurt Weill, eventually left him in the end saying something along the lines of: there are only so many times I can put the Communist Manifesto to music. Make no mistake, Brecht's work is not open ended, he very clearly wanted, in all his work, to change your vote - to get you to agree with him.)

What I love about Brecht, even if I am not sure about his actual politics, is that he always questions us about what we are doing. He creates a space in which theatre is part of a larger discussion – it isn’t just 2-3 hours of your life one night, it is your life – and you have to decide how to live it.

I think that is so very important for all of us to remember. And to remember that theatre can be a place for education and change. I would love to see our generation’s Brecht, the person who truly questions what theatre is today, and how to best use it to affect societal change. I wonder who that person will be and what that theatre will look like. It's exciting work to think about!

Social Movement, Now what?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Much Ado About Nothing (NYC)

I saw Much Ado About Nothing at the Classic Stages Company as produced by their Young Company. It was a 90 min romp through the land of Beatrice and Benedict et al, full of great physical acting and strong character choices. Set in the roaring 20’s, this highly entertaining show was, I’m sure, a hit with the high school kids that were the target audience for it.

I mean, as I type this, it sounds like I didn’t like the show very much, I did actually, very much enjoy it. However, it isn’t what I actually want to talk about today. Mostly because it brought up some questions that I have been circling around in my “real” life for a few weeks now. And I want to talk about those instead.

So, off to the races.

The nights watchmen were played by two wonderful actress, Danielle Faitelson and Natalia Miranda-Guzmán, while the priest was played by the lovely Sarah Eismann. Now, bare in mind, these women did WONDERFUL work in their respective rolls, that isn’t the point of this blog. The point is that all three women were cast in traditionally male rolls.

I know that Shakes gets a little iffy talking about “traditional” rolls, because, really, all Shakes’s rolls are traditionally male (actresses being both illegal and so scandalous for he time in which the plays were written that it just wouldn’t have been done ever!), there are some parts that are more “male” than others. To be honest, the cross gender casting in this show isn’t especially crazy. There was not cross casting in a part that was “sexed”. But even that raises the question – is cross gender casting ok?

First, some thoughts on how cross gender casting as it stands right now. (Just to be clear, for the moment, I am talking about Shakes and the other early moderns. I am not talking about plays that were written after the acceptance actresses) I feel like cross-gender casting means that women can be cast as anything and men can be cast as "funny parts" (like Nurse in R&J). The only time men are cast as "serious" rolls are when the show is either single sex, or the opposite part is also cross gendered - ie a male Juliet with a female Romeo.

Now, I posed this question on the most academic of places, facebook, to find out what others think. And I got some answers I hadn’t really thought about, among others: I” think part of the issue is that most of his plays feature few female characters. So, every time you cast a male Juliet, etc. a woman is out of a prime role in a play where there were few prime roles for them to begin with. I remember someone at a conference (I can't remember her name) saying that men dressing as women is automatically funny in our culture, but women dressing as men is not. She chalked this up to the fact that we very often see women wearing men's tailored clothing in public, but not the other way around. For instance, you see women wearing blue jeans everyday. You almost never see men wearing dresses, unless they are trying to be amusing or otherwise provocative.”

To me, this brings up several valid points about cross gender casting, and demonstrates how complicated an issue it actually is… to cast females as males denies wonderful actresses the opportunity to do great work in some great parts (for instance Caitlin Simkovich’s Pisano was some of the best work I’ve seen in that roll). But on top of that, to cast male in significant female parts (like Juliet or Lady McB), would be to break the social taboo that currently exists in our society. The short, harsh form - it is ok to be a boy, it is not ok to be a girl. I mean, I don’t think it’s on purpose, but I do think that our current culture is so strongly gender-ized as far as males are concerned that it makes true cross gender casting difficult.

Recently, I have gotten into two debates about author’s intent vs story debate on Twitter of all places. And then today I got into the gender casting in Shakes. Both of the conversation, I think, are actually the same conversation – how much does author’s intent matter in the telling of a story?

Shakes has an interesting thing here – not only is there cross gender casting, but also there is single sex casting (of both sexes). If you are cross gender casting with a single sex to - how does this effect the show? Maybe there are more historical questions that get brought up with an all male cast, but the heart of the question is the same – how does a single sex cast tell the story? What story does it tell? How important is it to tell the exact story that the author told, or is our job to tell the basis of the same story?

The Twitter part of this argument was actually about the Broadway version of Streetcar Named Desire that is currently in rehearsals. The show that Tennessee Williams wrote contains an all white cast. Blair Underwood leads the current cast on Broadway.

Personally, I can’t wait. I want to know how twisting the race of the cast of characters affects the Williams’ story. I want to know in what ways it is the same story I have seen before and in what ways it is different.

I do not believe in the supremacy of the playwright. I do not believe that stories cannot and should not change overtime. In fact, I believe that is one of the reasons Shakes has remained so successful – because his work is constantly changing – because it is just as easy to set Much Ado in Early Modern England as it is to set it in 1920’s America.

I do believe in supremacy of the story. The thing is, I’m not sure that the playwrights always tell the only story that can be told through their play. For instance, Shakes did not. If all Shakes was still done the way Shakes wrote them, they would be boring so quickly that the probably would not be read or performed quite quickly. In fact, I believe this is one of the reason that plays like Waiting for Godot do very well in a classroom to read, but not as well on a stage to perform. (The Beckett Society is known for being kind of anal about the way his shows are performed… just ask any producer who has ever had to deal with them… we all have stories. I think I actually think the Beckett Society is slowly strangling the life out of some great work.)

Look this is not to say that setting isn’t important. For instance, setting Streetcar Named Desire, or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in, say, Boston, would no longer tell any story close to what Williams wrote. However, cross race casting a show that is set in a city that historically has a large African American population could tell, maybe not Williams’ original story, but a close enough facsimile that it, hopefully, will bring new light into the depth of a wonderful story. In the same way that a female Hamlet or a female Pisano can bring depth to those very human rolls.

I mean, there are some facts that matter, that need to be played the way the author wrote them. I talked about some of them while talking about Blood Knot. Others involve the setting of Tennessee Williams, the race of August Wilson, the sex of Boston Marriage or the time of Fifth of July. These things cannot be changed without losing the story entirely.

But where is that line? Where is the line that you cross in which you are no longer telling the same story? I guess it’s like porn, I’ll know it when I see it? Maybe we should all just live by the rule that anytime we do something that wasn't intended to a script, I think the ultimate question becomes - how does this help me tell the story better?

In fact, maybe anytime we do anything we should ask ourselves – how does this help me tell the story better?

Friday, March 23, 2012

St Joan (NYC)

Sorry for the delay, I know I promised more soon. Then I accidentally started a grassroots movement (which I’m actually pretty proud of) but that has taken all of my spare time. However, I desperately wanted to get this blog written because this show has a limited run and I truly think EVERYONE SHOULD GO SEE IT RIGHT NOW!!! So I am putting the activist typewriter down for a few minutes, and picking back up my theatre one. :)

Today I want to talk about what was the most spectacular piece of theatre that I have seen in a long time. (And, if you are reading this blog, you should realize, I see a lot of theatre.)

St Joan as presented by Theatre Bedlam is well worth the price of the ticket, though, I will warn you, wear comfortable clothes – there is a portion of the show in which you sit upon the floor.

The show was written by George Bernard Shaw and has a cast of about 23 characters. This production has a cast of four actors. Andrus Nicholas plays Joan (of Arc, in case there was any confusion) in a way that can only be described as breathtaking. The arc from young and idealistic Joan, to older and idealistic Joan, to the Joan in the court scene (spoiler alert, if you weren’t aware, things don’t end well for Joan of Arc), to the Joan in the last scene is a feat I cannot imagine seeing anyone else do with the grace, wisdom, and alive-ness that Andrus performs the role – and she manages to not collapse at the end. And if that were the only thing this show had going for it, it would still be a show that is a must see.

However, it is not the only thing going for it, not by a long shot. Remember when I said the show had 23 characters and 4 actors. Ok, Andrus plays Joan, so that’s one - the other 22 characters are played by 3 actors: Tom O’Keefe, Ted Lewis, and Eric Tucker. Now, I have seen double casting before, I have even done double casting, but I have never seen it the way this show not only did it, but also successfully did it. The coolest thing about their doubles is that it wasn’t a normal this person plays this roll and this roll and that person plays that roll and that roll. On the contrary, in this production, most rolls were played by all three actors, both within the same scenes and in different scenes. What I mean by that is this: Tom may start the scene off as Greybeard (I am almost positive that is the name of an actual character… if it’s not, please forgive me), but by the end of the scene Ted had also played him. And the next scene we see Greybeard in, Eric starts playing him, but Tom finishes the scene as him. This kind of character gymnastics would have been a fiasco in the hands of lesser actors, but these three do it with ease – passing on the physicality’s and the voices of each character to another actor the way most people put on a significant other's coat – warm, comfortable, and the perfect loving fit. I have truly never seen anything like it before. I am more than amazed at their ability to so clearly pull this off. There was never a moment I was confused about what character was talking. What makes this feat even more amazing is that none of the character’s story arcs were lost in the translation. So these men were not only picking up a character from the other actors, but also they picked the character up from the exact emotional point in which it was put down. Seriously, I was blown away by their ability to do this.

We all know by know how I feel about realism versus theatrical realism, but it is worth mentioning again. Especially in light of how well this show does theatrical reality. I am no a huge fan of naturalism on stage because I think that the audience is a key component of theatre, and I think naturalism tends to forget that. But here’s what I forgot, the space itself – the theatre – is also a key component in making the reality. St Joan did not forget this. Not only did they not forget this, but also they used it to their advantage at every turn.

What do I mean by that? Well, the first act is in France, and the audience is sitting in the theatre, watching it happen. Then there is an intermission. At the top of the next act, we are transported to an English camp – except, what I mean by transported to an English camp is that we are literally moved. The top of the second act is in the lobby, flowing seamlessly into intermission so the audience isn’t even aware it’s about to happen until it has (except I just ruined the surprise for you – sorry). The amazing thing about this is how different it feels. The show, as a whole, has very few costumes and props. But it doesn’t need it because they found other ways to solve the problems. Instead of building a set in “England”, they merely took “England” out of the space they had already established was France. The staging choice of the trial scene has a similar effect of taking out what has been done before and forcing the audience to become part of those who would try Joan.

The brilliance of the staging choices is that it left room for Shaw’s words to be heard. At the talk-back, one of the actors, Eric I believe, mentioned that Shaw’s work was a debate. What was most amazing about this production was that the debate never over took the story. And for Shaw, that can be hard work, and almost impossible task.

The thing this show reminded me the most was that when theatrical problems are solved well, they are no longer problems but assets. Part of the creation of a great show is in recognizing that “traditional” theatre might not serve the story you are telling best, and to be ok with taking the risk. I truly believe that most audiences will go with you, if you tell them the rules of the game. And I think sometimes we forget that that is true. This St Joan is defiantly unlike any version of St Joan that Shaw would have ever dreamed of, and yet, this St Joan tells the story he wrote, dare I say it, perhaps better than he wrote it for (or rather, I think this version tells it better than a more “traditional” version would) As theatre practitioner, I think it is important that we challenge ourselves to tell the story in whatever way we can. I believe that playwrights know a lot about telling their story, but I do not believe they know the only way. I think that this St Joan is a perfect example of that. Heck, Paula Vogel said something similar about her work with Anne Bogart – that the wisest thing she learned from Anne was that sometimes the director knows better. Director’s and companies that know this, and have the creativity, ingenuity, and gumption to use this to their advantage have the ability to create works of art, like this on, that will live on as a shining example of what theatre can be.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Non theatre, but something I started that I feel very strongly about

We did it! We broke a 1000. Over 1000 people have committed to standing with us. Will you? #wearwhite4women

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Electric Bathing (NYC)

By all rights, I should be blogging about St Joan from Theatre Bedlam right now, since it is next in line of what I saw, however, I am saving that one for when I have more time. (I will say this about that show though, RUN don’t walk to see it before it closes – look, I even linked it!)

Today, I want to talk about the Mabou Mine’s workshop production of “Electric Bathing”. The premise of this show is simple (stolen from the web site): Coney Island circa 1910. Two garment factory workers escape from respectability into a world of fantasy where shirtwaists become kites, fans transform into seagulls, hatboxes are rides, spools of thread are anchors, and ropes are the ocean tide.

But here’s the thing, this show was done by two women, no real words (though some vocalizations), and lots of imagination. This show reminded me why we call them plays.

Sarah Provost and Lake Simons who created and performed in the show, also created all of the elaborate props needed. The props themselves were wonderful as well.

My two favorite theatres in the world are the Red Moon Theatre and House Theatre, both in Chicago Illinois. (Ok, that’s based on one show each, so maybe I am being a bit strong, but really, they were AMAZING shows… so anyway…)

Electric Bathing did what Red Moon and House did. It was theatre of play, of toys and imagination, of magic.

One of the things I love the most about theatre, that I always seem to forget until I see it done well, is the sense of play. See, in theatre we create worlds out of nothing; out of lights, sound, sets, props, our own imagination – and then we show it to the world and try to bring them into our world too. This is the essence of all theatre. How do we create a world with nothing to tell a story that only exists in words, how do we bring those words to life in a way that invites our audience into our world – sometimes offering them a cup of coffee, sometimes offering them a slap in the face – always asking them to listen and look?

I’m not saying there aren’t a million “right” ways to do it, because there are. I think Hurt Village did it, as did Lady from Dubuque and Broken Heart, and St Joan DEF did it. But these shows did it differently – not wrong, but differently. Most shows try to hide this illusion – we call this theatrical realism, or sometimes naturalism - and when shows are good at it, we go along for the ride, accepting without thinking about what is happening – to be fair, mostly because most worlds are so close to our own, or at least in the type of world we, as adults, like to pretend we live in. And, again, don’t get me wrong, this is a brilliant form of storytelling (ok, it can be, it def does not have to be.)

And then, every once in awhile, a show comes along and says – hey, here’s the trick, the bunny was up my sleeve the whole time. And it reveals to us what theatre is. This show did that. The girls created the double world in front of us. The outside world of the shirt factory, but, more importantly, the inside world of two girls going to the beach. The characters looked at their world of the shirt factory and said - how can I change this? And they did. They made a roller-coaster out of post cards, and swam through the water that the created out of thread. The used the world around them to create the world they wanted to be in.

Shows like this remind us that people who create the theatrical arts don’t always see the world the way others do – because in the landscape of the theatrical world it not only isn’t weird to see the world differently, but also it helps the artist's survival within the art form. I believe that some of the best theatrical practitioners I work with challenge my view of the world itself. They look at the world and see not just reality, but also what it could be – the look at the spool of thread and see the thread, and also the ocean. And that is amazing to me. This ability to create with the mind, and communicate what you see to someone else – that I think is the key to all theatrical talent. The rest (and there is a lot of “the rest” – vocal work, body movement, text analysis etc) means nothing if that basic foundation isn’t there.

It is, I think, why we call them plays. Children do this naturally, in play, all the time. My nephew tells me when we play – here, you be this one, it’s the bad car. I’ll be this one, it’s the good car. Boom! World created and communicated. If you have ever seen children at play, you know exactly what I mean. What’s amazing to me though, both with children and artists, is that we often lose sight of the fact that the creation if on going, and that the creation is the point. The beauty in life is in the ability to create. I think that is what draws humans to art, because it is something we need (if not, outsider art would have no reason to exist).

And theatre is that shared experience of creation. We, the theatrical practitioners, start the creation, and it is finished each night when it goes in front of an audience who also must share in the creation act. Each night we must begin again, and at the end of the night, the creation is dead and gone.

What does this mean for me? This means I want to try to hold this thought in my head for awhile. I want to try to remember what theatre is at its basic level. I want to infuse my actors with the act of creation. And maybe, in doing all that, remind the audience that the world is always so much more than the eyes see – the world should be seen with the mind and most importantly, with the heart.