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-Guzm├ín, 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.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Lady from Dubuque (NYC)

I am so far behind guys, sorry, look for lots of blog posts in the next few days. But let me start with this one.

So first some thoughts. I have a love hate relationship with Albee’s work. By that I mean some of it is REALLY good and I love it (like The Goat), while some of it I am not so fond of (like Finding the Sun). I knew nothing about Lady from Dubuque, and so I was hoping it would be in group 1. And it was!

The show itself is about a woman with a terminal and painful disease at what is probably the end of her days. Albee is in top form at one of the things he does best, biting wit in party scenes. His script is bitingly funny. What I love about Albee is his ability to write mean characters with good hearts – real people. I do not know a single real person who does not have the ability to be utterly selfish and horribly mean – sometimes on purpose, sometimes lashing out, sometimes just because. And when Albee is done well, as Signature has done in this production, you never lose sight of the fact that these characters care, and love, and make mistakes. Sometimes you hate them. Sometimes you feel sorry for them. Sometimes you want to give them a hug. Sometimes you want to do all of that at once.

The cast does an amazing job on the pacing as well. Technically, this show is like a space rocket – starting at 100 miles and hour and not slowing down. And these actors did a great job at keeping up, no, not just keeping up, but setting the break necked pace. Why is this important? Because without this internal sense of pacing, these characters would not be the ones written.

I spent a lot of time in my last blog talking about playing the character that is written. That is one of the key factors that made this production of Lady of Dubuque so good. They played them as they were written, in all the extremes of each character, the good and the bad. The actors made no judgment calls and pulled no punches; they just were. And, as we all, know is a huge pet peeve of mine, they did it in a theatrical real way, not in a naturalistic way. There were plenty of moments of direct audience contact and acknowledgement – they never once forgot they were on stage in front of us, and therefore we never once tried to pretend that it wasn’t a play.

This was brilliant, especially considering the following lines spoken by the character Elizabeth: In the outskirts of Dubuque, on the farm, when I was growing up – back there, back then – I learned, with all the pigs and chickens and the endless sameness everywhere you looked, or thought, back there I learned – though I doubt I knew I was learning it – that all the values were relative save one… ‘Who am I?’ All the rest semantics – liberty, dignity possession. There is only one that matters: ‘Who am I?”

I am not much for blogging about “theme”, partially because I believe that is too scholarly and not necessarily the point of theatre – theatre being experiential not necessarily heady. However, I think it important to mention the amount of time “Who am I?” or “Who are you?” is asked in this show. (The answer is a lot, I don’t have a number.) The brilliance of the theatrical realism of this show lies in that question – because suddenly the question isn’t just directed to the living room on stage, but to the audience.

I wrote about Hurt Village “I guess I want to start with this – good plays stick with you for a long time. Excellent plays change the way you think, or remind you why it is you think something you already think. Hurt Village is an excellent play.”

Lady from Dubuque is too, in a different way from Hurt Village, but a great play all the same. This play makes you think about yourself, and what you think about yourself and others. “Who am I?” Am I the person I want to be?

Art, good art, puts you in touch with a part of yourself you would rather not look at on a day to day basis. Theatre has a special place in that because the art of theatre is already people. What is paint and clay in the visual arts is blood and bone in theatre. We are already one step closer to the questions because our medium is humanity. Not only is it humanity, but also it is humanity RIGHT NOW. The medium lives in the same room you are in, breathes the same air you are breathing. There is a danger in live performance, the danger of not really knowing what will happen moment to moment. And that danger brings us back to the humanity of it. Because there is the same danger in living. I think that theatre is at its best when it reminds us of these things. And I think Lady from Dubuque did an excellent job at that reminder.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Painting Churches (NYC)

Sorry it’s taken me so long to write this, it’s been a crazy week. So, last Sat I saw Keen’s production of Painting Churches. First off, let me just say, I have seen several things that Keen has done, I have enjoyed most of them.

I’m not going to say I hated Painting Churches, but I will say that they have definitely produced better work.

So I started to wonder why – and realized that, at least in this case, the answer was quit simple.

But first, story time: as many directors, I started in theatre as an actress. It’s true. No one really remembers it now, but I was an actress for most of my life before I started directing 10 years ago. I started college as an actress. And I learned many of the most valuable theatre lessons I could possible learn as an actress. One of the clearest that I learned in college is this (and yes, this is pretty close to a direct quote from my teacher) “You will be smarter than most of your character’s – and that’s ok. In fact, that is the hardest lesson for most young actors to learn. Characters are not smart. The earlier you can learn that, the easier it is to play them. So, stop being smart.”

And now we are to the heart of my problem with Painting Churches. Not only are most characters not as smart as you, but also, most characters are not as nice as you. (Or at least not as smart/nice as you think you are. I am not getting into an ego debate right now). It’s also totally ok that your character isn’t very nice, or isn’t accepting, or is super judgmental, or… Because here is a truth, it isn’t you. Also, the show itself, the script, should help you figure out if you are a “nice” person. And not just by what you say, but what is said around you and about you as well. Also, not all relationships are good ones. In fact, I would be willing to go as far as to say that a majority of interesting theatrical relationships are not good ones – but rather two people who care about each other not able to communicate effectively with the other.

The biggest problem with this show in general was that I felt like the two female characters were played as much nicer than the words they said and the words that are said about them would give them indication of.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone must play a character a certain way, or that there is no room for a personal take on characters – mostly because I think that is patently un true, however, the playwright has written some common traits that should be obeyed. Among other things, they make the details of the show make sense.

For instance, Painting Churches is a show about the adult daughter of a wealthy Boston society family that comes home to help her parents pack up to take permanent residence in their vacation home. And in the first scene, there is lots of excitement of the daughter coming home. And everyone is happy to see each other. But as the show progresses, the words would seem to indicate that, perhaps, the mother and daughter don’t get along so well. And, perhaps, the mother and daughter are slightly judgmental. In fact, I would go so far as saying that the two characters have the typical mother/daughter love/hate relationship. The problem is that without it, something didn’t make sense. For instance, the mother and father drank a lot, in just about every scene. And in every scene the daughter said no to the drinks. I kept waiting for a “reveal” of why she wasn’t drinking – she was preggers, was recovering from addiction, etc. But then it didn’t , I mean, there was no reveal. Because she did have a drink. She had a drink with her mother in a scene in which, in order to get her mother’s approval, she has gone off on the same kind of judgmental rant that her mother has gone off on several times. In essence, if all the other times she had said no was a “screw you” to her mother, than the time she did say yes becomes a “bonding” moment with her. However, it didn’t read as either of those, because the characters were so nice to each other, so nice in general.

To be honest, I felt like the actual climax lost impact too. The climax when you realize that Mom is actually a good person, and is human, and has been dealing with more that the daughter can even begin to understand. But when everyone is so nice… I didn’t care. It wasn’t a reveal that Mom was human, because she had been human the whole time. It didn’t force me to look at my own judgmental nature or connect to people who I have felt that for. No, instead it was just a moment, like most others in the play – nothing that really drew me in.

And that, I think, is what I felt the most. In not servicing the characters of the story, I kept waiting for the moment that would tell me why I should be watching the show. But it never came. The moments were the same as any other.

So I’ve said what I think already, I think. Don’t be afraid to make character in your story what they are. Not everyone is smart, not everyone is nice, not everyone is any other positive quality we associate with ourselves as people. Play to the character as written. For several reasons. Fighting against that character fights against the story itself. Sometimes, that is useful, but mostly, it just leaves details muddled in ways that don’t make sense (and not in a good way not make sense – like you should learn something from it, like really, just don’t make sense). And then you haven’t told the story. Tell the playwright’s story. That, I think, is the job of the theatre. The story doesn’t have to be exactly the one written (remember my Othello as a photo negative cast – that wasn’t the show that Shakes wrote, but it was the story he told), but the story must be told. If you haven’t done that…

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Blood Knot (NYC)

I went to see Blood Knot by Athol Fugard at Signature Theatre last night. So… Ok, my normal blogs focus much more on the shows themselves and then jump into what I think about art as a whole because of it. This one has less of the show part.

What did I think of the show? I think it was well written. I think that the actors both did a good job at creating characters. I think the set was amazing. I think both actors did well, except, I think one of them was horribly miscast.

This blog is really about two very specific things that I realized last night. The first one: Ok, I am all for color blind casting, as a general rule, I am. Except that if the show is about race… then I think, perhaps, that race should be part of the casting process. For instance, it is necessary for Othello (Othello) to be an outsider because of his skin in order for the plot to progress. It is necessary for Aaron (Titus Andronicus) to be an outsider because of his skin for the plot to progress. It is necessary for Hally to be white and Sam and Willy to be black in Master Harold and the Boys. The Help would not have been the best movie for colorblind casting. I can keep going, but I think you get the picture. On the other hand, I have seen brilliant productions of Cymbeline, Romeo and Juliet, Alls Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing, Balm in Gilead, and The Importance of Being Earnst, in which only the talent of the actor and not the color of the skin determined casting. (I have also seen an Othello not be as good as the actors in it were capable of because Cassio and Othello were both the same race… that’s a huge problem if you know anything about the structure of the show or understand why Iago is able to provoke Othello’s jealousy of Cassio – without being an outsider, Othello reasons for such strong jealous reactions are not as strong. ) (And yes, I realize I keep saying outsider, that’s on purpose. I would have loved to have seen Patrick Stewart’s Othello at the Shakespeare Theatre in 1997. It has been hailed as being the “photo negative” casting, but I think the truth is, as long as Othello is visually the outsider, the play works.) Anyway, my point being this – I love color blind casting, unless you are talking about a show about race.

Blood Knot is about race. Specifically about two brothers who grew up in, and currently reside in, Port Elizabeth South Africa circa 1960.

And here is where the two parts of my thoughts begin to collide. I actually do my best to walk into shows with no knowledge of what is about to happen. I do not read the programs until I am on the train ride home. I do not read dramaturgical boards until after the show. I try to not even read reviews until after I have seen the show. Why, you may ask? Because I want to know how good a job this production has done telling the story in their way. My feelings are this, if you have to know something about the show before you see it in order to understand it, then I think that the story-tellers are not doing their job at telling their story. Don’t get me wrong, I am not Brecht. I do not believe there is only one story and as a director I have done something wrong if every person in my audience didn’t get the same story; I am merely saying that the general story needs to be told. And if I need “director’s notes” or a “dramaturgical board” in order to understand some key component of the play, then there is a missing element of the basic story telling of the play. That is not to say I don’t find them useful, I do. (That is why I read them after the show) But there is a difference in enrichment and necessity.

Can anyone see where this is going yet?

Blood Knot is the story of two South African brothers: one light enough “to pass” and one who is to dark “to pass”. And this is where it gets tricky. Scott Shepherd was cast as the lighter skinned brother. Shepherd, who is a wonderful actor in his own right, is, by all appearance, a stereo-typical Irish man. He has pale skin, pale red hair, and light eyes. And while the script keeps referring to the two men as brothers, I was wildly unclear on that point before I read the dramaturgical board at intermission. Partially because not only does the script refer to them as brothers, but also it has them arguing about who their mother was and what she was like – leading me, the person who walked into the show knowing nothing, who walked into the show to see a story unfold, to question their actual relationship. Furthermore, the accents were so far different that it didn’t even sound like the two grew up in the same house.

So, at intermission, I broke one of my long held rules, and read the dramaturgical board, that explained to me that, indeed, the two men were brothers, the light skinned brother was self educated and traveled (thus the different accent) and the dark skinned brother had stayed in Port Elizabeth, couldn’t read, and was very blunt. Suddenly everything I had seen in the first act made sense. As, in fact, everything I saw in the second act made much more sense than it would have otherwise too.

Here’s the thing. I was irritated that I had to read the board to understand in the first place. I feel like the story wasn’t told. And maybe that was a problem with the script, or maybe it was a problem with the acting, or maybe it was a problem with the direction, or maybe it was a problem with the casting – to tell the truth, I’m not sure. What I am sure about though, is that I missed out on a pretty key part of the story, like the part that was essential to understanding why what was happening on stage was important.

So I guess what this show firmed up in my mind is that I believe theatre is about story telling. And I believe the heart of good story telling is the ability to do it in a way that the audience will understand. And theatre is the medium. The actors, their bodies in space, the playwright’s words, the set, props, lights, sound, costumes, and the direction is palette. And if extra words are necessary in order to understand your story, then you haven’t told a very good story in the first place.