A Pensive Moment

You ever have one of those moments where you find yourself doing something and, unheeded, your brain slams you to some point in your distant past when you were doing something absolutely, completely different and all you can think is “well dang, I never thought I’d be doing this”?

It’s been happening a lot to me recently.  I think this is mostly due to teaching my acting class.

This semester is the first time that I’ve had a classroom all to myself; not team-taught, not taught with supervision, not teaching off of someone else’s syllabus.  I make the rules, I enforce them, I create the lessons, and I have complete control over what goes on in my classroom during class.

Since it’s a rudimentary acting class, it requires me to go back to the fundamentals of my

Never thought I'd be on a plan to an academic conference about Shakespeare while reading his plays through the lens of a girl desperately hoping to pass her orals and become a Doctoral Candidate

Never thought I’d be on a plan to an academic conference about Shakespeare while reading his plays through the lens of a girl desperately hoping to pass her orals and become a Doctoral Candidate

own training which, essentially, requires time travel.  I think back to the person I was when I was doing these exercises, when I was turning in these kinds of assignments, when I was the wide-eyed optimistic student.  And thinking back upon that, I simply can’t escape the fact that I never could have planned things this way.

I never thought I’d be an acting teacher and certainly not within a university setting.  I never seriously thought I’d be getting a PhD (though the notion had crossed my mind, it wasn’t as something tangible or relevant until very recently).  And I certainly never thought that the academic world which is now my embroiled lifestyle could be a valid and sustaining life choice (though I guess, with the job market being what it is, we could debate the usage of the term “sustaining”).

It’s funny because it all seems so obvious.  My specific background lends itself really well to this kind of vocation.  That being said, there were a series of choices which seem to have logically set my feet on the path I now travel (and, if you really want to think of it this way, couldn’t have landed me anywhere else).  The question I keep coming back to is “well, if you didn’t think you’d be doing this, what did you think you’d be doing?”

The real answer is that I had no idea.  I knew I wanted theatre to be a deep part of my lifestyle.  I knew that certain works touched and moved me in a way that others did not.  I knew that I had enough and diverse background knowledge that I wouldn’t be happy being limited to a single middle-powered role in a top-down industry (theatre is totally a top-down industry).  I knew that I wanted to be an educator of some kind, but what kind was completely beyond my ability to understand.

I keep wondering what my students must think of the exercises that we’re doing.  I remember doing most of them myself, but (of course) I pointedly ignored the urgings of my teachers to keep the kinds of journals that I’m forcing my students to (by way of a graded assignment; see how tricksy I am?).  These days, I really wish that I had the kinds of resources that I am asking my students to develop for themselves.  There are other

Summer 2007 at Shakespeare and Company; never thought that'd land me here.

Summer 2007 at Shakespeare and Company; never thought that’d land me here.

reasons to keep track of things this way, but I will admit to the romantic hope that someday one of them finds herself in the situation I’m in: completely unwittingly winding up in my shoes and fervently hoping that something from her past can reach across the years to give her some guidance.

I think back to my teachers and find that I don’t think I appreciated them the way I should have.  Then again, I’m not sure I could have appreciated them this way.  I don’t think I could have understood the sheer amount of effort that went into doing what they do until this moment, when I was called upon to do it in turn.  And at the risk of sounding overly romantic, it’s kind of comforting to take my place in this cycle.  Even if, for just a short time, I can contribute to the turning of the wheel, it’s nice to know that my teachers’ teachings didn’t die with me.  Passing on the information is a real joy and, even on my bad days, I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to do so.

…Yes, even when I’m facing down a mountain of grading.  Which, by the way, is another thing I never considered until I became a university educator.  Assignments are as much (if not more) work for the instructor as they are for the student.  In case you were wondering why the instructor can’t party until the fat transcript prints.

A Comedy of Errors

In celebration of my triumph, my beaux took me to see a show this weekend.  And not just any show.  A SHAKESPEARE show.  A show that we’ve both been dying to see for some time now and which displayed great promise in its advertised concept.

The new-to-Boston Anthem Theatre Company performed a four-man Comedy of Errors  at the BCA Plaza blackbox.  At ninety minutes with no intermission and some creative application of props/costumes, it was a high-octane performance with great entertainment value.

Unfortunately, the performance was (for me) overshadowed by an egregious lack of judgment on the part of the production company.

I’ve always thought that a program bio for a dead playwright was a bit odd.  Granted, sometimes it contains useful information for an audience (especially if the show is meant to be an “introduction to [playwright]” for a crowd who wouldn’t normally see this type of theatre).  It makes slightly more sense when there’s a dramaturge working on a production with expertise in the subject matter who can craft a bio with good/entertaining tidbits.

Anthem, however, made a cardinal mistake: they copy and pasted from the internet.

The bio in their playbill is attributed to http://www.biographyonline.net/poets/william_shakespeare.html and has all the usual axioms about Shakespeare.  The piece which bothered me most was this paragraph:

“Shakespeare died in 1664; it is not clear how he died although his vicar suggested it was from heavy drinking.”

 At first I couldn’t tell if this was a joke.  The timbre of the show was irreverent; maybe this was some sort of wink to that.  A little investigation brought me to realize what was going on here: the error is reprinted verbatim from its source.  The issue wasn’t purposeful, it was simply a careless copy job.

First of all; Shakespeare died in 1616.  He was born in 1564.  The playbill misprint is likely

doesn't it look like we're private eyes in a noir movie?

doesn’t it look like we’re private eyes in a noir movie?

a transcription error on the part of biographyonline.net which was propagated by simply cutting and pasting the bio without fact-checking it.

It’s almost the first thing I tell my students when they walk into my class: never copy and paste off the internet.  And certainly don’t do so without a bit of investigation of your own.  One google search would have divested the truth about Shakespeare’s death date to whomever curated this playbill.

 

The bit about heavy drinking was a fairy tale I hadn’t heard before.  After some poking around, I see that (like so much else about Shakespeare’s life) it’s a reasonably common myth with an unclear origin; certainly not canonical fact, and not something that I would include in a reliable bio.

Why was I so enraged at this incident, you may ask?  Because first of all it undermines the authority of the work.  How am I supposed to trust that these people know anything about Shakespeare?  How am I supposed to respect the hard work of the actors/company if I can see that their playbill is thrown together by someone who simply doesn’t know any better and hasn’t bothered to find out?  What do they have to contribute to this conversation, or teach to an audience of Shakespeare-beginners, if they can’t get their basic facts straight?

The second reason that this made me angry was that it didn’t have to be a problem.  If the company wanted a dramaturge (or even just someone to write a smart playbill note), all they had to do was send one e-mail to any theatre department in the Boston area.  Said department, I can nearly guarantee, would have had a student willing to work on this project for free.  Suddenly, the company is engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship with a scholar; the dramaturge gets a resume byline, and the company gets an accurate piece of micro-scholarship.  Problem: more than solved.  And no fuss/no muss.

Really, this hits at the heart of an issue near and dear to my heart.  If scholarship can’t feed and serve practice, then what’s the point of scholarship?  And if practice refuses to acknowledge scholarship, then how can it serve its purpose?  Without a healthy dialogue between the two, we’re stuck in a combined death-spiral to mutual-but-separate oblivions.

It baffles me even more that companies who do classical work seem less likely to hire dramaturges than companies who do contemporary work.  Wouldn’t you think that a company who specialized in Shakespeare would want someone around who knows the ins/outs/back ends/front ends/historical tidbits/correct pronunciation intimately?  Or how about a company that generally does contemporary plays but is taking a dip into the Shakes-world; wouldn’t you think they would want someone to converse with about any questions they may have even more?

So long as we continue to put our hands over our ears and sing loudly to ourselves that our work is the only legitimate work, we will not grow as a community.  Without understanding and helping each other, we risk stagnation as artists and scholars.  So please, for the love of all things bardy, hire (or at least consult) a dramaturge.  If you find a good one, I promise that your work (and theirs!) will benefit from it.

Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me?

Among my myriad of other tasks, I am currently doing some assembly work on my syllabus for my intro to acting class.

This is a bizarre experience in a lot of ways because it makes me harken back to many disparate but not unrelated periods of my life: when I was a wide-eyed but arrogant college freshman taking my first semester of classes, when I was a wide-eyed but talented youth taking my first acting classes, when I was a wide-eyed but optimistic young actor pounding pavement and auditioning to land parts that would surely, one day, make me famous.

…Oh how far have I come.

I do have high hopes for the potential of this course (as well as a few realistic ones which are probably nearer the mark for the actual effect that I can have on students of varying degrees of seriousness over the course of one semester).  Mostly what this has made me do is spend time going back to basics, remembering what it’s like to be new at something (which, as a dear mentor once told me, is the key to success at any level; she called it “beginner’s mind”), and thinking very seriously about if I could only instill one thing upon an absolute beginner student of acting, what would that be?

I am reasonably sure that this is the oldest shot I have of me performing without digging through embarrassing summer-camp things... this is The Laramie Project, 2003

I am reasonably sure that this is the oldest shot I have of me performing without digging through embarrassing summer-camp albums… this is The Laramie Project, 2003

I’ve come up with some answers (which I will leave unsaid in this forum, at least until I test their efficacy in the classroom).  I’ve also come up with some things that I wish someone had told me when I was first starting out (which I am much more inclined to share since they may or may not make it into my classroom given the fact that most of my early experience was in conservatory-setting rather than the non-major-friendly theatre department which, as you may imagine, is a completely different beast).  As it turns out, those things are pretty applicable to things outside of acting and so are also pretty relevant to the general blogosphere…

Always have confidence.  Your confidence, more than most other things about you, will attract the auditioner’s eye.  Be very careful not to confuse confidence with arrogance, however; it’s a very fine line.  One is attractive; the other is repulsive.

Make eye contact, shake hands firmly, know where your business cards are, smile, and be polite no matter who you think you may be talking to or how rude that person may be to you.  These things will make them want to work with you and, if they want to work with you, a myriad of other sins can be overlooked.

Life is too short to work with people who make you miserable and the power of networking is strong.  If you yourself are someone who is well liked (and, if you follow the above rules, why wouldn’t you be?), you will always find somewhere to land.  It may not be where you thought you’d land, but I promise it will be better for your sanity.

Protect your physical well-being.  If a director asks you to perform something that you feel is unsafe, say something and stick to your guns.  Your health is not worth a job no matter how many lines you have (especially if they’re not paying you).

Burning bridges is always a bad idea.  You never know where you’ll end up and who will be there with you.  Save yourself the awkward situation down the road and learn to execute grace and class as expediently as possible.

Theatre is an extremely high-stress profession that involves late nights, emotional intensity, tough and frugal living, and the necessity to disconnect yourself from your own ego.  The sooner you understand how these things may effect you and how you deal with them the better off you will be in the long-run.  If you can’t do any one of these things, you may want to reconsider your life choices.

Just because you aren’t a full-time theatre professional doesn’t mean theatre can’t be a part of your life.

It’s okay to wind up somewhere you hadn’t planned on being.  It’s okay to decide that this isn’t the path for you.  It’s okay to start over for any number of reasons.  You aren’t letting anyone down (including yourself) and you haven’t lost anything by it.

The sooner you can be comfortable in your own skin with your own emotions, the better you will be onstage.  Acting isn’t a profession for the insecure.  You will be asked to be ugly, you will be told you are fat, you will be given unflattering things to wear.  If you aren’t completely comfortable doing this in front of large audiences of strangers multiple times a week, you won’t be able to do your job.

Good acting requires unending tenacity, insurmountable bravery, and unquellable curiosity.  Never give up, bounce back like rubber, always be willing to try things.

Not everything will work for you but that doesn’t mean that nothing will.

another early shot (you can tell because of how bloody high my parry is)... I want to say this is 2003/2004.

another early shot (you can tell because of how bloody high my parry is)… I want to say this is 2003/2004.

Strive for perfection, but realize that it is unattainable.  That doesn’t mean you should stop trying, just that you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself when you realize that you didn’t quite manage it.  A true artist is never satisfied.

There will always be someone better than you.  There will always be someone prettier than you.  The trick is to figure out what you bring to the table that no one else can (…and if that fails to remember that talent and beauty are subjective but ice cream is not).

And on that note, I think I’ll go back to figuring out how much reading to assign.

Yūgen

In Nōh drama (an ancient Japanese style heavily laden with chanting and slow rhythmic dance), the desired effect of a piece is termed yūgen.  Sometimes, yūgen is translated as “grace” or “a mysterious sense of beauty”, but honestly it’s just easier to try and wrap your head around the concept of yūgen than to find a good way to define or translate it.

Yūgen, when achieved, is supposedly a symptom of “refined elegance” that properly executed Nōh brings with it.  Attempting to understand it is today’s metaphor for attempting to prepare for the comprehensive exams.

the book fort is growing

the book fort is growing

You don’t really know what comps are, despite knowing what comps are (just like yūgen).  Even when you think you may understand it, explaining it to someone else is extremely difficult and you find yourself resorting to all kinds of crazy metaphors (…i.e. this post).  While it may perhaps relate to something completely outside of its realm (comps prep relates to athletics like yūgen relates to comps prep), you can never truly pin down entirely what it is.  When you think you have achieved it, you can only understand that by a true inner calm and a self-assurance that you have done well.  While others may, by gazing from the outside in, observe the process within you, only you can be completely assured that you have truly done it.

Actors study for decades to achieve yūgen.  I have studied for decades to reach the comprehensive exams.  Japanese acting teachers are notoriously abusive in their training techniques; as is the world of academia (especially since the old guard had to walk fifteen miles uphill both ways in the snow to retrieve their library books and, of course, speak fifteen languages so thereby don’t need translations of foreign-language passages in their texts).  Japanese theatre is a man’s tradition (women were banned from the stage until the later part of the twentieth century, and even now there are extremely few female performers of the traditional theatre types; Nōh and Bunraku especially; Kabuki has a bit more).  Academia is still very much an old boys’ club.  Dressing in drag is discouraged in either setting (once they let ladies onto the stage, it took care of a lot of anxieties about what onstage cross-dressing meant for Japanese gender identity… and as much as I LOVE Ru Paul, somehow I don’t think she’d make the appropriate kind of splash if she showed up in full regalia to lecture “Theatre History 101”).

Appreciative audiences often sleep through Nōh productions (the desired

a better/alternate shot of the book fort

a better/alternate shot of the book fort

viewing state is the place between wakefulness and dream, so this activity, unlike in the Western theatre, is not at all discouraged).  Sometimes I take naps on books (especially if they’re not particularly engaging, or alternatively too mentally taxing).

Achieving yūgen is essentially achieving a divine state.  I can imagine that completing comps will feel the same way.  I only wish that there would be an ensuing audience to give me a GIANT round of applause while I take a triumphant bow when I turn in the final portion of the exam.

I am officially one month away from my test.  I think I’ve finally defeated the six-day stress headache that made me slow way down last week to accommodate the ailment (…though I won’t say that too loudly in case the headache-from-hell hears).

…let’s try to achieve some nirvana, shall we?

Not-so Mortal Kombat

Alright, folks.

I don’t usually get fight directorly in this forum, but a recent resurgence of interest in this portion of my life/training has caused certain issues to be high on my mind.  This, in conjunction with seeing a few cringe-worthy safety issues onstage recently, has made me feel like a few things need to be said.

First and foremost: hire a fight director.  If you don’t think you need a fight director, I can almost guarantee that you do.  Does anyone do any of the following things in your production: slap someone, fall to the ground, faint or otherwise slide out of a chair, drop to his knees, carry someone, come into direct physical contact in any way with another actor, point a gun at someone, use a gun period, pick up a weapon with the intent to use it on another actor, actually use the weapon on another actor, tie someone to a chair, do something to an actor tied to a chair?  If any of these things happen, YOU NEED A FIGHT DIRECTOR.

Just this week, I saw a show in which there were several faints, slaps, and physical bits.  The program didn’t list an FD working on the project which led me to believe that perhaps the director had some fight training (which is often the case).  The slaps and faints looked okay in my book, so besides being slightly grumpy that an FD was out of work I didn’t much mind.

It only made my hackles rise when, in the second act, there was a long drawn out torture scene involving contact gut punches, poorly executed slaps, and (most disturbingly) the use of a heavy-duty wire cutter applied to an actor’s fingers.  The victim was tied to a chair and the aggressor held his hand down while hovering with the weapon.  The victim’s fingers were BETWEEN THE BLADES of the REAL wire cutters.  Despite this being in a frozen tableau, it seriously made me squirm in a “I, as a professional FD, am worried for the safety of these actors” way rather than a “good audience member suspends disbelief” way.

I really can’t stress this enough: weapons are weapons.  It doesn’t matter if the weapon is a found weapon, a nonconventional weapon, or a weapon you may think is “safe” (dulled-down razor, etc.).  If you pick up an object and intend it to do harm to another living thing, that object becomes a weapon.  This is why self-defense classes recommend keeping a heavy duty Maglite by your bed in case of home invasion.  Just because you’re not using a sword, gun, or knife does NOT MEAN you are not involved in a weapon combat sequence.

Directors, stage managers, actors: there are ways to keep yourself (and your company)

my own recent object lesson in safety with weapons: bull whip practice is better with eye protection, folks.

my own recent object lesson in safety with weapons: bull whip practice is better with eye protection, folks.

from getting sued by the union.  There are ways to keep yourself (and your actors) safe from any mishap, no matter how unlikely seeming.  There are theatre professionals who can help make your violence good, believable, and a lot more brutal than it would look if you were “just doing it”.  When people “just do it”, they necessarily pull punches.  Most individuals simply aren’t comfortable hitting another person full-force in the face.  Thus, your attacks will look stilted, awkward, and frankly sloppy and counter to your artistic intentions.

At the risk of giving up industry secrets, budget concerns are not a factor here.  Thing one: it is a LOT cheaper to hire an FD for a few hours than to deal with the legal and insurance fees innate in actually harming an actor working on your project.  Thing two: there are many FDs who have students who, while perhaps lacking in experience, do not lack in training.  These students will likely be happy to work on your project for no more payment than a resume byline and some good networking.  While you won’t get the name-brand association that comes with a fully-fledged FD and you won’t get the complex violence experience/background someone like that can bring to the table, you will definitely get a safe show for your actors, and something much better coordinated than anything that came out of an untrained head.

If you are an actor working on a project and think that your safety may be compromised, SAY SOMETHING.  Too many actors are willing to do anything to make the show go on.  This is your HEALTH, your physical WELL-BEING that you are gambling with.  If that doesn’t matter to you, consider the age-old axiom of “your body is your instrument”.  You will not be able to do the same kind of work in the short-term (or even the long-term maybe) if your eardrum is blown out by a full-force contact slap, or you receive a giant powder burn on your face from an improperly used stage revolver (true stories, unfortunately, and ones that happens more often than you would think).  You would never stay at a desk job where your coworkers physically abuse you and you come home with injuries every day, why would you stay in an acting job that does the same because your employer (for whatever reason) doesn’t want to hire a safety expert?

Suffering for the sake of art is one thing, putting your life and limb at risk for a show which you probably aren’t even being paid to do is another.  Theatre is a collaborative process and the more talented individuals who execute it, the better that the theatre in general becomes.  Why wouldn’t we want to keep each other safe and healthy when doing projects together?

The Summer of Love

Thanks to Joss Wheedon, it’s been a Much Ado summer.  Without any intention of collecting an exclusive list of Much Ados in the New England area, I’ve personally seen four productions so far (two full productions, the film, and one staged reading).  Since I don’t have any more on the docket (unless something unexpected pops up, which it might), I thought I might take a moment to make some general observations about the play from my privileged Much Ado-steeped dramaturgical brain while the shows were fresh in my mind.  I suppose this could also serve as a basic primer for theatre makers looking to create a production of Much Ado and not looking to hire a dramaturge (big mistake, but the benefits of having someone around to serve that role are fodder for another post).

1)   The most hard and fast rule about producing Much Ado About Nothing is that your Beatrice and Benedick ABSOLUTELY have to work.  They essentially carry the production and without them, you’re sunk.  I’ve seen some tolerably good performances this summer, but none that were well matched (one show had a strong Beatrice and a weak Benedick, another show vice versa, etc.).  These actors need to be charming and deep.  The audience needs to love them despite their quirks.  They need to be experts with the language.  They need to have chemistry with each other.  Lining up these factors is nearly as difficult as convincing the stars to align (especially in the world of amateur theatre where your talent pool is your talent pool and there’s not much you can do about it), but vital to the health of your production.  Trust me, this will make or break your show.

2)   The part of Hero is perhaps the most difficult part in the show to play (Claudio and Dogberry make close seconds).  Honestly, one of the strongest performances of Hero I’ve ever seen was performed by a dressmaker’s dummy passed around to various cast members when Hero herself needed to be.  There’s a danger of making Hero too ingénue.  She absolutely has to be sweet and pretty and obedient, but she has some fire in her that, if allowed to come out, will add dimension to your production.  Think about the gulling of Beatrice; Hero is both smart and saucy (she demonstrates this as well in the ball scene when she sasses the masked Prince).  A further point of caution: if her part is cut too severely, she comes off as nothing but an airy fairy sugar-spun object.  Careful with this one.

3)   Dogberry is extremely difficult to make read to a modern audience.  If he’s played too smart, he doesn’t make sense.  If he’s played with too much status, he doesn’t make sense.  If he’s played by someone who does not have an absolutely command of the language, he doesn’t make sense.  Dogberry and the watch need to come off as well-meaning, sweet, regular guys whose logic sometimes doesn’t match our earth logic.  The most important thing to remember is that Dogberry is striving, with every fiber of his being, to have status he just doesn’t know how to make it work.  He’s trying, by virtue of “being is becoming”, to make himself into a real leader and a true soldier… he just can’t quite get there.

4)   The third-act wedding scene needs to be a punch in the gut bordering

some really cool shots of books I took this summer because I don't have anything else to put here

some really cool shots of books I took this summer because I don’t have anything else to put here

on melodrama.  This scene changes the entire tide of the production.  Suddenly we go from a rollicking comedy to something which (if ended prematurely) could more resemble a classic tragedy.  You really need to set this change of pace up for an audience and draw them into the mood.  Claudio really needs to manhandle Hero.  Hero really needs to have a reason to faint and look dead.  Beatrice really needs to have a reason to be weeping into the next scene.  These are strong, dynamic characters capable of extreme emotional manipulation and extreme emotional reaction; if this is not expressed, your production suddenly no longer has purpose.  The entire second half doesn’t have a reason to exist, and (most importantly), my favorite scene in the canon falls flat.  If there’s no real given reason for Beatrice’s famous utterance, the audience just won’t buy it.

5)   Speaking of duels, if you choose to modernize your production make sure the gender and status dynamics still make sense.  See my previous post on this point.

6)   Another note about status: the Prince needs to have an easy sort of control over every situation he’s placed in.  Though a guest in Leonato’s house (and in act four certainly emotionally indebted to Leonato), he is still the Prince.  Despite anything which may be happening (including, as he believes, the death of Leonato’s daughter which is at least in part his fault), he must maintain that status.  This is particularly important because modern American audiences do not understand status.  If you work hard through the course of your production to create status, any chink will make the entire illusion crumble.  Don’t give the audience a reason not to buy into your world.

7)   For god’s sake can someone please come up with a creative solution to Don John?  I have yet to see anyone in the role who doesn’t make me think of Keanu (though granted, Sean Maher’s performance came close to banishing this image – he was pretty sexy).  Textually, he’s a problem.  He’s obviously brooding and quiet, angry with his brother and ready to revel in any misfortune that he can cause because of this.  But is there any way to make this into a villain that we love to hate?  I’m so sick of stoic-faced Princes who turn into whining, petulant grumps in the presence of their henchmen only to plot a revenge which they obviously take no joy in.  Someone, please, fix this and invite me to your show so I can stop wondering if anyone will get the Prince a surfboard.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of things I see, just bits which tackle some of the play’s bigger issues.  If you’re planning a production and are looking for a dramaturge, I highly encourage you to contact me.  I always love to participate in crafting good Shakespeare and this play has a special place in my heart.

And now, back to the comps grind.

Epic Theatre

My oh my the amount of theatre I saw this weekend!  So much theatre that I might not get to write reviews of everything; but here’s another to add to the collection.

Saturday, I got out to see Apollinaire’s Caucasian Chalk Circle.  For those who have never seen Apollinaire before, they’re a really great company (their Uncle Vanya this year past was truly wonderful and made me, a formerly dubious audience of Soviet theatre, a true Chekhov believer).  As far as I can tell, they prefer to produce “strolling” productions (that is, shows which take place in literally different locations so that the audience has to move with the action in order to observe it).  For Caucasian Chalk Circle, this particular aesthetic fed in exceedingly well with Brecht’s piece.

Bertold Brecht was a German playwright who changed the face of theatre as we know it.  After writing some extremely influential pieces (including Mother Courage and her Children and Threepenny Opera), he fled Germany and the imminent Nazi occupation.  After a veritable tour of Northern Europe, he came to land in the United States for a time.  During this time, Brecht was unsure about his future, unsure whether he would ever seen Germany again, and unsure whether his plays would ever be performed once more in his native language.  Still, he wrote plays in German.  Caucasian Chalk Circle is one of those plays.

Brecht is perhaps most famous for his grand contribution to the development of

View of the Tobin from Mary O'Malley Park.... it's a little industrial

View of the Tobin from Mary O’Malley Park…. it’s a little industrial

the theatrical form known as “epic theatre”.  Epic theatre is a modern style developed in reaction to naturalism and its most salient goal is for an audience to have constant awareness that it is witnessing a play in production rather than any slice of reality.  To achieve this, epic theatre utilizes imbedded elements such as narrators, storytellers, and song; technical attributes such as screens, projections, and fully lit houses; and performance traditions such as actors playing multiple characters, and actors moving sets and changing costumes in full view of the audience.  The effect of estranging an audience from the play’s action is something which Brecht calls “Verfremdungseffekt” and is often translated as “alienation”.

In light of this, Apollinaire’s show is precisely in keeping with the Brechtian tradition.  Caucasian Chalk Circle is a free, open-air production which springs up in Mary O’Malley park as quickly and ephemerally as its pre-show music (…mostly this pre-show music seemed to be generated by the assembled flock of musicians being bored together and so we were treated to impromptu renditions of Johnny Cash standards on an accordion).  As such, the audience can see every single string.  The actors move the sets between locations and unabashedly set them up/take them down as necessary.  The stagehands flit about in full view of the assembly as they assist with costumes and props.  The storyteller asks audience members to follow her from location to location between acts.  A chalkboard acts as a makeshift screen and announces the title of each act.  I think it is safe to say that Apollinaire succinctly and gracefully captured the spirit of epic theatre.

The set for act two... and the river.  The sunset I didn't quite manage to capture but trust me, it's also worth the trip.

The set for act two… and the river. The sunset I didn’t quite manage to capture but trust me, it’s also worth the trip.

The assembly was rock solid.  There wasn’t a weak performance amongst the lot.  Despite Brecht’s insistence that an audience not overly empathize with his characters, it was hard to maintain the appropriate Brechtian distance due to the power of Courtland Jones’ Grushna and the charmingness of Mauro Canepa’s Simon.  I can only hope that their Spanish-cast counterparts (the show is performed in English/Spanish on alternating nights) bring as much punch to the story.

Apollinaire performs Chalk Circle sans its prologue.  While this is a common practice, it is one which scholars have debated for years since the prologue frames the tale within an external story.  The prologue sets the scene in post-WWII Soviet Union and depicts two communes arguing over a piece of land.  In order to further enlighten the dispute, one commune decides to perform an old folk tale for the other.  Arkadi Cheidze, the story-teller/singer, brings his band of minstrels to do so and the play commences.

Does it change the meaning of this piece to have that framework surrounding it?  It would certainly have answered my big question as I walked away (“what are we to take from this play?”).  I leave that for you to ponder and encourage you, with all the force of my internet-power, to go see this show.  It’s a great night out, and it’s free, so you really have no excuse.

As a coda to this verse, let me take a moment to expound upon how much I love open-air theatre and most especially initiatives like this one.  Free quality theatre in the park is truly a service to society.  Looking around the audience, I was struck by how many people there looked like “normal people”; we were just an assembly of neighbors come to watch a play.  Pretensions were out the window as we sat on picnic blankets and towels, huddled close around the storytellers.  For me, theatre doesn’t get much more wholesome than this.  Call me a romantic, but I’m a firm believer in this sort of initiative because of its equalizing power and would like to assert that it is pieces like this which will ensure future audiences for the general theatrical community.

Caucasian Chalk Circle plays through this week and closes on July 27th.  There is one more Spanish performance on Friday the 26th.  For more information, visit Apollinaire’s website.

Bacchanalia

This weekend is a weekend full of theatre and I can’t feel better about it!

We kicked things off last night with The Bacchae at club Oberon.

There are a few fundamental issues in presenting Greek theatre to a contemporary audience.  I have been known to argue that Greek tragedy is actually unperformable in the United States today (for further thoughts on this or to participate in this argument, buy me a drink sometime).  This production was one of those rare gems of exception – if you absolutely have to perform Greek tragedy, you should perform it like this.

The environment at Oberon (and the immersive dance-club stage space) sets the tone for interaction.  There’s not anywhere to hide from Dionysus’ maenads and you are caught up in the ritual just as much as the one sacrificial audience plant whom Dionysus makes his own in the play’s beginning.  Audience members are crowned with ivy and given drums to play as they enter the space and are subsequently invited to participate fully in the ritual they are about to witness.

Because of this, the long chorus speeches become exhilarating.  The maenads bop and weave through the audience, menacing and caressing, inviting you to be a part of their world for a time.  There is no passive listening (which is the death of long speeches).  These interludes, alienating on a tradition stage, thus become a point of access for the audience.

Another thing that this production has working in its favor is the traditional Oberon performance length (ninety minutes).  By trimming the wordy Greekness of this down to a palatable length, The Bacchae doesn’t have the opportunity to lose its audience.  You’re either caught up in the flow of the action, or you’re drinking at the bar (sometimes both but there is no in between).

The one thing I would have liked to see tweaked slightly is the token use of

Poster for Arlington Shakespeare in the park; yes, apparently there is still a theatre company that uses posters

Poster for Arlington Shakespeare in the park; yes, apparently there is still a theatre company that uses posters

masks.  In this production.  As each character is introduced, he enters wearing a “Greek-style”* mask.  The mask is removed before each character speaks, done away with, and never seen again.  The trouble I have with this convention is its uselessness.  If it was meant as a nod at Greek theatrical practice (we do know that in the Greek theatre all characters wore masks), that’s wonderful, but if you’re just going to wear it to do away with it you may as well not wear it and save your costumer the time and expense of acquiring it.  I would have liked to see the masks return at the end and create a sort of “framing device” for the piece.  Just as Dionysus is introduced wearing his full pan horns which are then dispatched with only to be seen at the play’s very end, the beautiful masks should have made a re-appearance.

As to the non-traditional staging elements demanded by the performance space at Oberon, historically they’re not actually all that non-traditional.  We can’t say overmuch for certain about Greek theatre, but we do know that the Greek theatrical space consisted of a stage area (scholars debate about whether this was a raised platform or not) and an orchestra where the chorus performed (again, HUGE debates about the shape and size of the orchestra).  The floor plan of Club Oberon is essentially this.  There is a stage (which, at Oberon, is a raised platform) and a dance floor in front of it (for the purposes of our Greek analogy, this can serve as an orchestra).  Of course, in Greece we have no record of the audience mingling with the chorus (as happens at Oberon), but since I can now check “be kissed by Dionysus” off my bucket list, I can definitely overlook this breach in historical protocol.

The Bacchae is, unfortunately, done.  They closed last night (I know, I know, I need to get to things earlier in their run).

HOWEVER!

Here’s a list of things I’m going to be seeing in the near future that HAVEN’T closed.  I can’t vouch for their quality yet, of course, but if you want to get some theatre in this summer you have plenty of options:

Caucasian Chalk Circle by Apollinaire Theatre Company – free, in the park.  Hitting this tonight.

Richard II and Love’s Labour’s Lost at Shakespeare and Company – making my yearly pilgrimage to Lennox tomorrow which, incidentally, is the last performance of Richard though Love’s Labour’s runs a bit longer.

Much Ado About Nothing presented by Arts Art Hours in Lynne Woods — I have some friends in the cast and I love this show, so I really can’t see it being bad.  It’s a strolling production.  Outside.  That at least should be interesting.

Romeo and Juliet by Arlington Center for the Arts — free, outside Shakespeare; can’t get more pleasant than that.  Only one performance though so if you are interested, you should check it out.

Psycho Beach Party by Counter-productions theatre —  it’s a contemporary piece but has a really interesting name… and I have a friend who keeps saying I should go.  So I’m going.

Cinderella by Boston Opera Collaborative — they say that this piece is being performed “authentically” i.e. true to period style.  We’ll see about that… either way, great for comps!

Why Torture is Wrong and the People who Love them by Titanic Theatre Project — sometimes you just need some Christopher Durang to bring levity to a situation.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all theatre happening in Boston right now, just some things that are on my calendar.  Stay cool!!

 *I put this in quotation marks because there’s no real way for us to ascertain authentic Greek-style masks; none are extant and the flaws of relying on pottery paintings as historiographical evidence have often been expounded upon by scholars.  As such, the masks were certainly what you as a modern playgoer with some idea of Greek theatrical practice, would expect to see… but I can’t really call them “authentic”.

My Life with a Fight Director

In an effort to bring you non-comps related material, here are some anecdotes about  how my crazy, beautiful life has some wonderful adventures in it.  Enjoy!

Over the course of the past few months, I’ve been slowly re-integrating pieces of my life that I had taken a long break from. Primarily due to the efforts of a certain individual who, as is my wont, shall remain nameless in order to protect the innocent, I’ve been rediscovering the wonderful world of fight choreography.

Staged violence is a strange and interesting thing. Part dance, part illusion, it’s something that caught my attention at a young age and has held it since. Because knowing how to execute even the most rudimentary stage combat is not something that everyone knows how to do, the individual who has even a modicum of training is often the person in the room most qualified in the art. I’ve been that person many times (though, while I wouldn’t call my experience “exhaustive”, I definitely fall into the category of “someone who knows things” rather than “someone with a modicum of training”).

Hanging out with fight directors is a special pastime in its own right. We come from diverse

very recent picture of me fighting (as part of my now award-winning film!)

very recent picture of me fighting (as part of my now award-winning film!)

backgrounds as movement artists: martial artists, fencers, the few and far between dancer (this is my particular gateway). What we share in common is an interest in safety, an interest in illusion, and an interest in making cool stage pictures. What this means effectively is that talking shop happens often and can be just the thing for making the poor diners at the next table have the most unforgettable date of their lives.

When I was still working out of New York, I remember one particular lunch during which I was meeting with an FD to talk about a project. The topic of “found weapons” came up and he took a moment, picked up his fork, then proceeded to rattle off a list of about twenty-five ways he could injure, kill, or otherwise subdue various patrons with said implement of food-shoveling.

Recently, such gems as “it was my first lynching” and “this was my first school shooting” have been texted or otherwise uttered to me.

In the past month, I’ve been (literally) swept off my feet mid conversation several times because my partner wanted to take a moment and demonstrate a technique we had just been discussing (…being a responsible partner, he makes sure to check if there’s a soft landing place if he intends to take me to the ground, but the most common stage combat throw actually works better with somewhere firm to land so that particular instance was on concrete).

This series of encounters led to me having to think about (and voice) one evening: “Oh, just FYI, please don’t throw me tonight – I have an injury I’m healing.” Because, you know, everyone should check in with themselves when they know who they are dining with on a given evening and ensure that they are physically up to the task.

We’ve discussed eye gouges over hummus and coffee.

Very old picture of me fighting (circa 2005)

Very old picture of me fighting (circa 2005)

We’ve also had lengthy talks about blood and how neither of us particularly care for working with it. I’m reasonably certain that the other café patrons thought we had a Dexter-mobile outside.

Perhaps the most amusing of these instances was a late-night encounter with Tufts Campus security. We were reviewing grappling techniques and take-downs on the big, soft lawn at midnight (because, well, that’s what you do when you’re not otherwise gainfully employed). We realized through this process that there were, in fact, several security-mobiles circling. We managed to behave ourselves like normal people while being hit with the headlights, and ironically enough it wasn’t until we were sitting and yapping at each other about historical fencing manuals that an officer actually approached us. Luckily we’re nicely dressed, intelligent people so it wasn’t much of an issue at that juncture.

My point today is this: if you, in your travels, are searching for a little adventure and variety in your social life, I highly suggest befriending a stage combatant (or, if you’re really looking for some spunk, an FD). We’re cuddly people with good stories to tell and you never know when you may need to not kick someone’s ass.