An Observation

Here’s a problem I write about pretty frequently which seems newly pertinent today: when you’re a good academic, you never stop working.

I can’t tell you the last time I spent a whole weekend without answering a work-related e-mail, cracking a work-related book, doing a library run, doing work-related writing, discussing my research, sitting at my desk, contemplating a draft, going to rehearsal, doing research, or just flat-out tagging an extra two days onto my work week.

In any other field, this would be called “workaholism”. The constant drive to continue doing whatever it is that earns you a paycheck without a regular break is widely regarded as an unhealthy work habit.

And yet, somehow, in academia it is encouraged.

Oh sure they tell you “take time off” or “walk away from your desk at the end of the day”, but really, do we? In the age of smart phones, is it even possible to leave your work at work? And what does that mean since the ivory tower is such a theoretical construct? It would be impossible for me to function if having healthy work habits meant that I could only work when on campus.

I’ve had to find ways to delineate the boundaries between my work and my life (for example, unless it’s the middle of summer and a scorcher day and thereby I need to seek refuge in air conditioning somewhere, I only work at my desk and will not bring reading to my couch or my bed no matter how tempting). But even I, with a keen eye on this issue, find that work creeps into every aspect of my life.

While out having an amazing time this weekend, I couldn’t avoid the fact that I was receiving e-mails related to my class, or my exams, or my upcoming conferences. I couldn’t stop blathering about the research I was doing and the new things I’ve realized about American actor training. My head so far into this game, it’s not really possible (I think) to leave this by the wayside.

It may just be that I’m at a particularly taxing point of the PhD process (well… I definitely am), but I can’t help but feel that this is an under-attended issue.

That being said, I have nominal suggestions for how to fix it. Thought patterns being what

....spectacular adventures like this one.  I rode an elephant!

….spectacular adventures like this one. I rode an elephant!

they are, the best work is going to come from immersion. My plan this semester was to dive in head first and take a nice long break when I popped up on the other side (so… in December sometimes). Meanwhile, I’ve been content with having a few spectacular adventures during the in-between times.

And now… back to the grind.

The Love Boat Goes to Verona

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending opening night of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona on Boston common.

After last year’s middling Coriolanus, I didn’t have high hopes for this (…that may also be the comps brain talking since I’m not sure I could work up the energy to have high hopes about anything right now).  Especially after reading that the concept was “rat pack”.  I just wasn’t sure things would work out; Two Gents is a notoriously difficult play to make read to a modern audience, Shakespeare on the Common is notoriously not the sum of its parts for whatever reason, and Boston weather patterns make outdoor evening theatre a gamble at best.

But somehow, despite all this, the cosmos aligned and it was truly a production worth seeing!

Jenna Augen’s Julia was absolutely adorable (even in the face of a tragic act-one kerfluffle in which Mimi Bilinski, her Lucetta, failed to come onstage at her cue and left poor Augen to live out the actor’s nightmare: scrambling to cover for a co-star while under the pressure of rhymed iambic pentameter).  She had some sauce and spice and a decidedly different take on the Act V reversal (which I won’t ruin for you since I want to encourage you to go see the show).

our blanket: a still-life.

our blanket: a still-life.

Rimo Airaldi’s Speed and Larry Coen’s Launce were a comic duo that actually made sense.  They played the jokes to a T and, despite any misgivings I had about an older more august Speed, I was quickly charmed into their clutches.

Rick Park’s Duke of Milan is the best I’ve ever seen.  His portrayal of an incensed father in III.i (the scene during which Valentine is outcast) was real enough that I truly believed he would kill Valentine (Andrew Burnap) if given half the chance.  And this, my friends, caused dramaturgical magic.  Because the threat of death was so real, Burnap was able to launch into the most transcendent rendition of the “what light is light” speech that I have ever heard.  I, the notorious curmudgeon, was moved to tears and could only be revivified by the liberal application of the annual CSC signature Ben and Jerry’s sundae (this year’s creation: the Crabbe Bag…. Eat one.  You won’t regret it.).

In terms of the concept, it worked a lot better than I expected it to.  The outlaws in the woods became Wild West clowns/menaces and Act V devolved into a road-runner style farcical chase complete with door-swinging and dance-hiding.  Because of this, the general tone of disingenuousness led to a ready acceptance of the notoriously hard to stage Act V reversal.  Well done, CSC.  Well done.

I have only two complaints.  The first is that there was no fight director or violence coordinator billed in the program while I certainly saw some onstage violence.  If you need to understand the importance of this, let me guide you self-promotionally to the following youtube interview with some people who know what they are talking about in this regard.

The second is that in order to serve the concept, the director chose to include a liberal amount of extra-textual music numbers.  Julia burst out with “fever”, Launce sang “ain’t that a kick in the head?”, etc.  These music numbers, though well executed, slowed the pace of the first act to a crawl.  It would have served just as well to include half the number of musical interludes and I think it would have kept the audience more engaged not to be bursting into non-Shakespeare song every ten to fifteen minutes.

As I said, on the whole this was a very good rendition of a hard-to-perform piece.  If nothing else, it’s a free evening of entertainment, the common is beautiful this time of year, and you can enjoy your own picnic libations with some good company while waiting for curtain.

Though if you, like me, get the sudden urge to fox trot when any of the rat pack tunes are played by a live jazz band, be prepared to bring some dancing shoes.

For my part, it was all Greek to me

Last night, in a ceremony which officiates my true induction into the Tufts theatre community, I got to see my first production at Tufts.  Currently playing in my department is a show which they have dubbed Oedipus/Antigone.  It’s a creative cutting of the first and last shows of the Oedipus cycle in which act one is Oedipus and act two is Antigone.  Our show plays with an ensemble cast; the actors who perform leads in the first half duck into the chorus during the second, and vice versa.  Only Creon remains as, well, only Creon remains.

Let’s talk about the physical space available at Tufts for a moment.  Our productions occur in the Balch Arena Theatre, a challenge in itself.  An arena

Great shot of our theatre

theatre is what it sounds like – picture a miniature sports arena.  The stage is round and at the center of the pit with the house raked around it either in the round or three quarters.  Ours can be converted from the round to three quarters depending on the needs of the production (which is a godsend as performing in the round is debatably one of the most difficult things to do in theatre).

For Oedipus/Antigone, the set was simple and beautiful.  It was performed in three-quarters with a multi-tiered platform built into the stage.  The platform and accoutrements had the appearance of being made from stone.  At the platform’s center was a fire circle, a sunken pit filled with charred bits of rock.  It served as a focal point for the production and a sort of touchstone for the actors.  Also, it kept them from doing what comes extremely naturally in a space like this: planting oneself center and staying there.

At the back wall was a giant triangle spanning almost floor to ceiling in this double-high auditorium which appeared to be made from pottery shards.  At the center of the triangle was a giant set of double doors arrayed in Greek brass and which served as the Theban palace.

Since so little information is available to us about Greek Theatre, many surmises are (perhaps erroneously) made from pottery.

Simplistic, but wonderful.  The levels allowed for interesting stage pictures (and the chorus created them – often times making complicated scenes out of their bodies to accompany the lengthy chorus speeches).  Without being finicky or overdone, the set was transporting and brought us to a place long ago and far away.

Now let’s talk about the nitty-gritties of reviewing a college production.  How does one go about it?  The innate problem is that, while the students working on said production are surrounded and supported by professionals, they themselves are just students.  The lighting, sets, direction, and costumes can be professional quality, but the actors are still early in their career, without a great deal of experience, and for the most part just starting to learn about themselves much less their craft.  I think it unfair to hold a college production to professional standards.  I am always ready to be pleasantly surprised, but I never walk in holding my breath for something transcendent to happen.  Inevitably, that leads to disappointment.

There were, without a doubt, some incredible performances last night.  There were mediocre ones as well, but not to the point of ruining my evening.  For the most part, the ladies stole the show.  Jocasta was a powerhouse.  Antigone was utterly breathtaking.  The Messenger in Act II managed to insert no small amount of humor into the pressing clouds of despair.

Greek theatre is hard.  Make no bones about it.  It involves lofty concepts, larger-than-life people, and intensely high-stakes situations.  More than that, its language (due to eons and eons of translation passed down generation to generation) can be clunky and unwieldy.  Rather than present a great deal of onstage action, instead we are left with long speeches describing the most exciting bits of the story which have occurred offstage.

We live in a visual culture.  Television, movies, youtube, the instant access to vast amounts of information available day or night at our fingertips… all this and more have created a society of people impatient and infinitely fixated upon the idea of seeing.  The Greek theatre is a theatre of hearing even to a greater degree than the theatre of Shakespeare.  To understand, one must open up and listen.

Last night was dollar night.  The second Thursday of every run of every show at Tufts is open and available to any who wish to come see it for a dollar a seat.  What this mostly means is a theatre full of giggling undergrads seeing their friends or fulfilling course credit of some kind.  I was more than interested to see how they dealt with the text.

Of course, cutting two full-length plays down to one act each ensures that most of the lengthy talky bits wind up in the circular file.  This strategy was one perhaps necessary given the audience… could the undergrads have sat through two full length Greek tragedies without losing interest or tweeting?

The only disturbing thing which I did notice from the audience was a certain hesitancy to engage and fear of the text.  Theatre shouldn’t be scary.  When something is funny, you laugh.  When something is moving, you cry.  When something is surprising, you gasp.  There were certainly instances of all of the above in last night’s performance, but it seemed like myself and my companions were some of the few to understand the concept of active engagement.  Has the theatre become so lofty that we are afraid to laugh?  I mean, yes, it’s Greek, but can’t we give ourselves permission to enjoy anyway?  The attitude of oppression from this young audience disturbed me.

But how do you teach an audience to interact with a piece?  Is this the sort of thing they must learn by example and since theatre is becoming less and less of a commonplace past-time we are doomed to future auditoriums full of fearful audiences?

On the flip side of the coin, to my great relief, as I looked around I noted only one individual asleep in his seat  and I didn’t see a single cell phone out the entire performance (though there were three instances of ringing phones during the production, but I suppose one must choose one’s battles).  So perhaps, while intimidated, this audience was at least respectful.  Maybe there is hope after all.