At the Opera

I used to be afraid of Opera.

I know that sounds weird. I mean, it’s not like I had nightmares about a heavy-set woman wearing a helmet with Viking horns and yellow braids chasing me down while singing “Flight of the Valkyries” in a piercing soprano (…though now that I put it that way, it does sound kind of horrifying). When I entered my PhD, despite having been a theatre person my entire life, I had never seen an Opera.

It just seemed daunting. There was so much popular entertainment baggage associated with it. So much society told me I should be if I went to an Opera: well bred, musically inclined, interested in melodrama, in possession of a fur coat and those tiny steam-punk binoculars… What happened if I found it boring? Or worse, what happened if I laughed at the ridiculousness of some big tragic moment put to song in a way that seemed in keeping with the genre tropes that my admittedly narrow-framed world view understood to be a part of the Operatic aesthetic?

Cut to one day in my first-year research methodologies course, the Professor going on some tangent about various “alternative” theatrical forms. He wound up in an Opera rut and paused when he realized that he was looking at a roomful of blank-blinking faces. “Who here has been to the Opera?” He asked.

Not a single one of us raised our hands.

He freaked out a little bit (not in a scary way, but definitely in a way which made an impression). I mean, he was kind of right. A roomful of various theatre professionals now entering their second-ish career in training to become theatrical experts and not a one of us had attended live Opera. There was something shameful about that; he knew it, and I think in our hearts we knew it. I vowed in that moment that I would make it my business to see an Opera as soon as I could.

I didn’t have to wait long. A couple months later, I was presented with tickets to La Traviata as an afternoon outing with a friend. We went. I swallowed my anxiety about what to wear, how much to read the subtitles and how much to look at the actors, and if I would have a good time, and let the music wash over me.

It was a great evening. AND I got to feel morally superior to boot since it was the same day as the Superbowl that year (…I mean really, I took in a great cultural moment and supported the arts while the rest of America grunted at their television sets…). Two years later, I review Opera on a regular basis and I’m working hard to introduce the art form into the lives of those around me.

It can be tough to work up the nerve to have a new experience. But especially when that new experience involves supporting the arts, it’s important to buck up and give it a try. Here in Boston we have all kinds of opportunities to see Opera: Boston Lyric Opera, Boston Opera Collaborative, Boston Metro Opera, and Geurilla Opera (to name a few professional companies). There’s also more “home-grown” student organizations such as the MIT Gilbert and Sullivan Players, performances by New England Conservatory’s Opera Students, and performances by Opera students at the Boston Conservatory. Take a risk, take a chance; you might just (like me) discover something new and wonderful out there in the world.

The Parking Lot Rule

As you can imagine, I see a lot of theatre.

As a reviewer, PhD Candidate, fight director, and general denizen of the theatre community here in Boston, it’s important that I remain active and supportive on the theatre scene. It’s also important that I stay professional whenever I’m out at the theatre. For those who have read my reviews, you will know that I see theatre that’s good, theatre that’s not so good, and pretty much everything in between. While the casual observer perhaps isn’t concerned about being overheard at intermission yapping with their neighbor about this actor or that directing choice, I very much am. When I’m at the theatre, I represent several different brands that have backed me and my professional thespian skills: Tufts University, New England Theatre Geek, and my own brand as an FD (to name a few). The last thing I want to do is compromise any of these brands by letting a half-thought sentiment be overheard by the wrong person. Theatre is art. Art is personal. We theatre people take our theatre-babies very seriously.

....this is a photo of the time that I managed to improvise a song in rhyme while playing the ukelele for no reason other than I sure had things to say about the experience in the parking lot (good things.  All good things).

….this is a photo of the time that I managed to improvise a song in rhyme while playing the ukelele for no reason other than I sure had things to say about the experience in the parking lot (good things. All good things).

So I have developed a solution to the inevitable theatrical eavesdropping which might potentially get me in trouble. I call it “The Parking Lot Rule”.

This is a rule that I impart to all of my theatrical companions as they enter the theatre with me. It’s actually very simple: no matter how bad a play is, we don’t talk about it until we hit the parking lot of the building. While inside the theatre, we can praise the show’s good parts, but criticism waits until we are outside.

This accomplishes several things:

1) It curtails the issues I discuss above.

2) It forces you to think about criticism before spouting it in the heat of the moment. Theatre is visceral; humanity has known that since the Greeks; often times it can provoke a visceral reaction which bypasses your critical thinky muscles. To put something down in a harsh way without first examining your criticism is not fair to the artwork, and the parking lot rule helps you take a moment to step back and figure out why it is that you feel a certain way about something before you hurt anyone’s feelings.

3) It lets the play settle in before you make a snap judgment. Sometimes, you really need to see a piece in its entirety before you can determine your feelings on it; the parking lot rule gives you a bit of breathing room in which to make up your mind before you begin to discuss your thoughts. It also allows the “small stuff” to fall away. Sometimes things will catch your eye in the moment which, in the long run, mean nothing; the parking lot rule allows those details to fall into perspective before you render judgment.

4) It allows the theatre to remain a “sacred” space. Acting comes with a lot of woo, and much of it I don’t (personally) subscribe to; but I do believe this: the theatre space is a temple. When a company is performing in a given place, that’s their home for the duration of their run (sometimes longer depending upon circumstances of the play). You wouldn’t criticize somebody’s cooking while sitting on their couch; you shouldn’t criticize somebody’s acting while sitting in their theatre. The parking lot rule allots a certain amount of respect to the art which I believe is necessary for healthy audience/performer interaction.

Whether you’re an experienced theatre-goer or just getting to know the theatre, I highly recommend that you give the parking lot rule a shot. In my opinion, it’s the first step towards learning to think critically about theatre. It has certainly served me well over the years, and I hope that it does the same for you!

Bent

Last night, I finally had a chance to drop by and see the critically acclaimed production that I worked on with Zeitgeist stage. Bent is a show about what happens to humanity when humanity is killed. On a literal level, it’s about gay men during the holocaust.

It was a tough show to work on. We did one very long fight call to get through the myriad of violence which the actors had to portray onstage (several beatings, several murders of various types, lots of body-dragging, you get the idea). After rehearsal, I came home a bit of a wreck and in need of some emotional after-care. I was pretty sure that I was going to hate the show (in a way that only excellent theatre about provocative issues can make you hate it).

I was mostly correct. While sitting in the audience last night, I got to witness human reactions to the visceral physical and psychological trauma being depicted onstage. Many folks left at intermission because they simply couldn’t bear to see anymore. I felt bad for them, but understood; it’s difficult to get through a show like this. It’s not pleasant to watch, it’s not pleasant to experience, but these are the kinds of atrocities that we, as a society, need to be reminded of in order to grow as human beings. There was, clearly, no end but one for the show’s protagonist and I could understand the need to leave the theatre before that end occurred.

Needless to say, the performances and direction are top-notch. Zeitgeist is a company that’s supremely aware of the old Shakespearean axiom that you need to make an audience love your characters before they die horribly. Moments of levity were interspersed with the horrors we witnessed in order to allow space for air. In terms of dramatic structure, this kind of relief makes the tortures that much more painful (and that much more real). Humor allows us to connect with characters as people and so is an extremely effective device in high tragedy (and I have no other words for what this play is really about).

The actors are all incredibly strong. The couple next to me was pretty seriously pondering the prospect of attacking the Nazi guards as they walked through the aisle on vigilant watch. In a show like this, it can often be more difficult to portray the antagonist than the protagonist. While the audience is already inclined to be sympathetic towards those who are being oppressed, embodying a personification of true evil in this modern world can be extremely taxing to the soul.

You don’t have a lot of time left to catch Bent (they’ll be at the Boston Center for the Arts through October 11th…. That’s next week, folks!). I highly recommend a trip over; and not just because I worked on the show.

Busy Busy Busy

Man oh man the semester is in full swing and it’s going to be a long and complicated one!

I’m able to now officially announce that I’ll be teaching stage combat at Apollinaire this fall with their actor training program.  We’ll start with a six week unarmed fundamentals class, then move into a six week class on swashbuckling.  If you’re looking to pick a fight with me, coming to my class is a great way to do it.  I’ll be excited to teach this as, let’s face it, fighting with others is my favorite means of paying my rent.

I also recently put together a bit of violence for Zeitgeist Stage Company’s production of Bent.  If you’re at all interested in hard-hitting theatre performed by extremely talented actors, you should check this one out.  The performance, from what little I saw at the edges of my fight call, is going to be intense.  These guys are the real deal and, as usual, Zeitgeist is producing theatre that speaks to the darkness of man.  Prepare for some emotional after-care after this one; whether that means beer or chocolate, you’re going to need it.

In addition to my two department-sponsored classes (one as an instructor, one as a TA), I’m also teaching another OSHER class this fall.  We’re reading Twelfth Night and Merchant of Venice.  I love teaching adult students and find it incredibly fulfilling to spend a couple hours a week discussing Shakespeare with the brilliant folks who come through OSHER.  And, really, what teacher wouldn’t want to be given a classroom full of people who took their class by choice, for self enrichment purposes only, and who are doing it for the pleasure of doing it?  Oh… and I don’t have to grade them.  That also helps to make this class one of the more enjoyable things I do with my precious time.

Have I mentioned recently that I love teaching?

Someone remind me of this around finals when I’m going nuts trying to make sure that everything gest graded in time.

Is the Raven Growing Hoarse?

Alright so listen. Sleep No More ain’t what it used to be.

I’ve been to the McKittrick Hotel three times now. The first was during its supposed short-term run WAAAYYY back in the spring of 2011. It was one of the most epic theatre experiences of my life; so creepy, so moving, so very creative. It was so awesome that I knew I had to take my best beloved to see it as soon as I could.

Turns out “as soon as I could” had to wait a few years; but we got there in the summer of

A shot from our 2012 trip; this was taken over drinks at Gallow Green

A shot from our 2012 trip; this was taken over drinks at Gallow Green

2012; just as Gallow Green (the rooftop bar addition) was opening up. He loved it; I loved it; we had a blast.

This trip, we knew that we had to go back in and see it again. There are just so many permutations of adventure to go through and so much to do inside the hotel. I hadn’t tasted nearly enough of the candy, and who knows? Maybe we could get a glimpse of the elusive sixth floor? He hadn’t had a one-on-one yet, and I knew I wanted to see more of the story. So the other evening we went.

I’m sorry to say that this once-epic experience has definitely gone downhill since it first opened; and not because the performers aren’t spectacular (they are) or the immersive environment isn’t receiving the care and attention it needs to stay immersive (it is); but rather because the crowds of people who attend the show are no longer respectful of the environment, the experience, or even fellow audience members.

For those who are unfamiliar, go check out my review of the first performance I saw to get cozy with the concepts that I’m about to discuss.

Never before have I seen so many half-masked/unmasked people wandering the halls of the McKittrick. While I hadn’t witnessed this phenomenon in previous visits, these days guests seem to think that the “wear your mask at all times” rule doesn’t apply to them. Additionally, I heard more cross-chatter from guests than I have in previous years. Try as you might to whisper, when there’s no talking allowed in the hotel, a human voice really carries.

Worst of all was the way that the guests behaved to each other. There was so much pushing, shoving, and other attempts to get to “the front” that I gave up even trying to follow performers about midway through the performance. The now famed “one on one” aspects of the performance seem to be a much sought after prize and McKittrick guests are willing to fight to be chosen. Several times, I experienced being shoved away from a performer so that someone could get in front of me in hopes of being selected for a one-on-one. Several other times I was standing in a mostly-empty room surveying a performer from a respectful distance when new arrivals would push past me to stand between me and the performer leaving the performer without enough playing space and me with a frustrated shoulder-chip.

I find this to be really sad. Sleep No More was a true pinnacle of theatrical experience for me, and to have it so ruined by others was a shame not just for me but also for the thespians who work so hard to keep this show running.

I think part of the problem is a real “hands off” attitude from the proprietors of the McKittrick. In an effort to keep the experience mysterious, Punchdrunk’s employees are notoriously tight-lipped about how to behave while inside the hotel. I understand that appreciating the experience is up to the individual, but a set of “official/unofficial” rules and regulations about how to treat other guests (and, by the way, the performers) would go a long way, I think, towards curbing the problems which led to my extremely negative experience of the piece.

I hate to say it, but if this kind of behavior continues from the guests, Sleep No More is going to very quickly lose interest for turned-off patrons who don’t want to literally fight to see the show.

In an effort to rehabilitate the Sleep No More audience, I offer unto the internet a few pointers about how to comport yourself while inside the McKittrick. I’ve crafted these with one thing in mind: that if we can help each other have the best possible experience, we can all enjoy the show for years to come.

1)   Spatial Awareness: while the SNM mask definitely cuts off your peripheral vision and creates a feeling of being alone in the scene, try to be aware of who is around you and how long they’ve been standing there. If you walk into a room with others already in it, try not to block their view (they were there first, after all!). Also, keep some sense of where your neighbors are when watching a scene. The actors can move pretty quickly sometimes, and you may have to duck out of the way to avoid legs, arms, or flying objects. You want to make certain that you have some space to do so, and that you’re leaving such space for those around you.

2)   Respectful Following Distance: even though part of the “shtick” is to be a part of the scene, you still want to give the actors enough space to do their thing. They need to be able to move around, get to the props they need, and even meet up with scene partners sometimes. Try to leave them enough room to perform when you pause to observe them. If you happen upon other McKittrick guests with a performer, don’t just assume that the space between the guest and performer is a “free spot” to stand; you might have just walked into the space that the guest specifically made for the performer to perform. Stand behind other patrons as much as you can, and try not to breathe down anyone’s neck.

3)   Right of Way: following performers around the hotel is definitely part of the fun; but if you see that there are guests already following an actor, try to trail along at the back of the pack rather than push to the front. The people who follow most closely have probably been following the character for some time and have a vested interest in the story that is unfolding; there’s room for everyone, but you wouldn’t want to scoop another patron on seeing the story that they’ve put so much time and investment into. This is doubly true if you’re a slow walker, or if you’re in a group. The actors move quickly and it can be easy to lose them without a vested effort; don’t block someone else from following through on what they’re trying to do. Fall into the herd and start following as well! As others peel away, you can have your turn at the front of the pack.

4)   Don’t “Game the System”: especially with the blog-o-sphere so active with how to get this one-on-one, or how to achieve that goal inside the hotel, it’s easy to go in with a desire to “win” the “game”. This attitude will only make you disappointed if you, for some reason, fail to accomplish what you set your mind to (which could easily happen depending upon so many different factors outside of your control). This experience is meant to be savored; not graded. Remember why you fell in love with the show in the first place and try to let the experience wash over you. Competitive drive will not only ruin your experience, but also that of those around you since it will make you more likely to exhibit the kinds of behaviors that deprive other guests of a good time. The point is not to “win”. The point is to enjoy.

5)   Trust: Trust that Punchdrunk has something in mind when they request that you not talk or take your mask off during the performance. If these rules seems “stupid” or “bad”, try to dig beneath that instinct and ask yourself why you find them to be so. If you grow nervous or scared, either embrace it as part of the experience or take a break in the bar for a while (the ushers, I’m told, are very good at helping you find it if you need it for this reason). Taking your mask off or speaking breaks the environment for others who, by the way, paid the same ticket price you did. Don’t allow your negative experience to ripple out. Also, trust that the actors see and take note of you, even if they don’t acknowledge your presence (they’re not supposed to, after all). Yes, there will be one person chosen from a crowd for a one-on-one; you do not need to make yourself the most “obvious” choice.

Courtesy of Dogs in Sleep No More Masks; http://dogsinsleepnomoremasks.tumblr.com

Courtesy of Dogs in Sleep No More Masks; http://dogsinsleepnomoremasks.tumblr.com

The actors are quite good at realizing who has been there for a while, and who has developed a sort of “rapport” with them. Attempting to push the issue is obnoxious.

When Punchdrunk uses the phrase “fortune favors the bold”, they mean that you should be brave, explore, and see what you can find in the hotel. They also mean that if, should an actor offer you a one-on-one or some individual attention, you should take them up on it. They do not mean “push your way to the front of every pack”; they do not mean “do your best to be everywhere all at once”.

Relax, have fun, and enjoy the show. That’s the best way to keep your behavior from preventing others from doing the same.

The Tempest

Since taking a post as a theatre reviewer with New England Theatre Geek, it’s not very often that I get to see a show without a pen and reviewer notebook in hand. It’s also not very often that I get to see a show with no obligation to come home and write a poignant yet witty review about it. So I find it a wee bit hilarious that the first time I’ve been out to see a show I wasn’t reviewing in some time, I immediately came home with the urge to write about it.

I’ve been waiting for the A.R.T.’s production of The Tempest since they announced their season last year. You heard me correctly; it’s been over a year that I’ve been champing at the bit for a chance to see this show. Last night, the man and I finally made it out to experience the magic and it was well worth the wait.

As a child, I spent a lot of time hanging out with magicians. As a kid, one Saturday a month was devoted to a road trip to the not-so-local local chapter of the Society of Young Magicians. There, myself and a couple of other like-minded individuals (including my brother who was the one who got us all into this mess in the first place) would sit at the knees of local magicians and learn magic tricks. It seemed commonplace to me to come home with playing cards tucked in various surreptitious pockets of my clothing (because it was a favorite game to reverse pick-pocket cards onto other people without them noticing… and actually, a great exercise in prestidigitation for the developing table magician), to look for jackets with giant pockets or loose lining in which more pockets could be sewn, to figure out whether it would be doves or rabbits that were the chosen animal of the house and, thereby, the focus of the next big trick. Eventually, we grew old enough to join the real society and because of this childhood influence, I have a soft spot for magicians and a fascination with magic in general. Despite the fact that I can’t do a card trick to save my life (trust me, I’ve tried), I am a long-standing card-carrying member of the Society of American Magicians.

Magic… plus Shakespeare. It’s a theme that I’ve been turning over in my head for some time. Would one distract from the other? Would people come to see this show just because of its famous producer (Teller of Las Vegas fame)? Would it rub up against all of my traditionalist sensibilities?

Apparently, add some Tom Waits into the mix and you get veritable alchemy.

The show I saw onstage last night was definitive for me in a way that no show has been since I had the opportunity to see the McKellon Lear at the RSC in 2007. The Tempest is a show with problems: music, which is always a challenge since there are no melody notations left from Shakespeare’s songs; long and rambling courtly scenes that if done improperly will just drag on and on and dull your audience into the same slumber that Ariel visits upon the hapless mariners; an ingénue that’s nearly impossible to play; and spirits of all types which appear and disappear seemingly at the whim of the playwright.

Prospero (Tom Nelis)  and Ariel (Nate Dendy) conjuring the storm.  Photo courtesy of the Smith Center/Geri Kody

Prospero (Tom Nelis) and Ariel (Nate Dendy) conjuring the storm. Photo courtesy of the Smith Center/Geri Kody

I’ve seen good productions of The Tempest before, but they all pale in comparison to what’s onstage at the A.R.T. right now. “Inhuman” gains new meaning, as does “American” representations of England’s playwright laureate.

There’s a sense of danger on Prospero’s island, and magic lurks in every corner. Ariel is ever-present/absent, seen and unseen, all-powerful and completely subjugated. The music is part of the island (literally and figuratively) and comes from a band that looks like it could have bubbled forth from the sea itself. The director was not afraid to cut the text; a necessity to keep the long scenes short and the short scenes pithy. Instead of losing content, this gave the show more room to explore what it clearly set out to do: re-add the “magic” back to this late Romance in a way that I don’t think the stage will see again.

Since my dissertation deals so heavily with American Shakespeare and since that project has taken so much out of me lately, I was exhilarated to be so thrilled by a landmark production right in my backyard. Enchanted by Teller’s tale, I can say with some certainty that this energy was just what I needed to get me through the current busy-times slump.

I wish I could tell you to go see it, but every show is sold out. Standing room tickets are available on the day-of performance at the A.R.T. Box office. The Tempest closes on June 15th, so if any of what I’ve said intrigues you, don’t wait for the storm to pass.

Weekend Adventures

Some weekends, I come back to my desk and feel like I’ve been in a completely different world for a few days. Some weekends, I feel like I’ve never left (…some weekends I don’t actually leave). This weekend was chock full of activities through which I wore a variety of different hats (literally and figuratively), and enjoyed some really awesome theatre!

Friday night, the man and I caught the opening performance of “Trapped in a Room with a Zombie”. This is a site-specific interactive piece in which an audience of twelve is invited into a room and the door is locked behind you. In the room with you is a zombie. All around the room are clues designed to help you open the door (there are five “steps” to the final process, each of which has several clues which must come together for the group

Our group shortly after being zombified

Our group shortly after being zombified

to figure it out). Oh and every five minutes, the zombie’s chain gets a little looser. You have one hour before the zombie rampages and kills you all.

The “show” (for lack of a better term) is a piece which began in Chicago and now has ten locations nationwide. The Boston location just opened and it’s in a warehouse at the industrial end of Chelsea. Just walking into the building is like stepping into a zombie flick!

We had a blast solving the puzzles. I have been sworn to secrecy by the staff of the attraction, so I won’t go into any detail here; but suffice to say that it’s quite challenging. I would highly recommend the experience to anyone with even the slightest interest in zombies, teamwork, problem solving, or fun.

Saturday, I led a swing and foxtrot tutorial for a group of dancers in New Hampshire in preparation for an awesome forties-themed photo shoot that a good friend is coordinating next weekend (don’t worry; there will be plenty of amazing pictures!). The highlight of this event, for me, was having the opportunity to be dancing again.

I worked my way through my Master’s as a ballroom dance instructor (no joke; I’m a woman of wide and sundry talents). Before that, I danced on and off for most of my life. Dance is a thing that I don’t do enough of here in Boston and it was absolutely amazing to spend an afternoon kicking up my heels. I love to teach ballroom to an appreciative audience; and this group was as eager to learn as I could have ever hoped for. Because they were already dancers, they picked up the steps quickly and asked good, productive questions. Also, it made me really think about my basic steps again (a task which I used to do a great deal of but haven’t much anymore since when was the last time I had to break down a foxtrot basic for a group of inquiring minds? Heck, when was the last time I even danced a foxtrot?) What a treat!

On Sunday, we caught Seven Stages Shakespeare Company in the encore production of their ShakesBEERience series. The ShakesBEERience performances are truly a joy: semi-rehearsed staged readings of plays which take place in taverns, breweries, and restaurants all around Portsmouth New Hampshire. These performances are free and audiences are invited to come for as much (or as little) as they like. This weekend, Seven

Artsy rendition of my drink plus playbill

Artsy rendition of my drink plus playbill

Stages performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Gas Light in Portsmouth. What was really great about this show was that it was the direct result of a collaborative effort between several different Portsmouth-based artistic groups. The Dorks in Dungeons (a role playing game inspired improvisation troupe) performed as the Rude Mechanicals. The Neoteric Dance Collective was on hand to play the fairies. There was magic, there was music, and there was so much beer.

What I really love about the ShakesBEERience effort is that it keeps Shakespeare extremely accessible. Free performances happening in low-pressure environments with a come-as-you-are attitude encourage new audiences to consider Shakespeare an experience within their reach, and even an experience that could be enjoyable. If you want to talk about new audience curation, these guys have that in the bag. Their work is community-oriented and reaches out to bring the outside in. I would highly recommend catching one of their shows (they’ve got two coming up this summer; Taming of the Shrew and Comedy of Errors).

So now I’m back at my desk, preparing to dive in to the next steps of my current project (read: dissertation). Maybe not as tried and true as foxtrots or Midsummers in bars, but definitely at least as exciting.

So… how was your weekend?

Judgment Day

Over the weekend, I had the good fortune to act as a judge for the Massachusetts Educational Theatre Guild’s Massachusetts High School Drama Festival.

Let me start with a disclaimer: I will not be discussing any details of the judging process, or provide any justification for the decisions that were made.  I will not, actually, even discuss the decisions that were made.  What I will talk about is the overall experience.

Every year, high schools all over the state prepare 40-minute one-act pieces to showcase at Festival.  These pieces can be anything from adaptations of old stand-bys, to original pieces, to cut versions of classics.  The students are then invited to perform their pieces at preliminary festival rounds.  Each preliminary round includes eight performances over the course of one grueling day.  Three of these performances will move up to semi-finals.

So essentially, if you choose to stay for the entire day, you get the opportunity to see eight shows performed by exuberant, energetic, youthful performers who are just so excited for the opportunity to perform in front of their peers.

I can’t even begin to say how refreshing and rejuvenating the experience of watching this was.  Professional theatre can make you jaded and it can make you jaded quickly.  While there are certainly wonderful, magical things about the theatre (which, of course, is why we all choose to stay in it), the underbelly is its own ugly, irredeemable beast.  At its worst, theatre can be a conglomeration of horrible things: the politics, the narcissism, the nepotism; it can get to be a lot sometimes.  Additionally, the constant struggle for work is just that… a constant struggle.  As with many things, if you find yourself in a jungle of the bads without experiencing the fresh breath of the goods, you can begin to see a very grotesque and ugly mask.

You can often forget why it was that you got into this in the first place.

If you’re ever feeling that way, I highly recommend that you figure out how to get yourself to see one of these kinds of festivals.    The energy that tingles through the air is absolutely titillating.  The obvious effort that goes into each and every project is simply touching.

But if you really want to see something, stick around for the awards ceremony.  In addition to awarding three shows placement in the semi-finals, awards are also given out for “all-star” performances.  These awards can be for anything that a student put forth to add to the production: costuming, lighting, set design, acting, directing, etc.  The students who are recognized in this way are so excited and grateful to be presented with an honor before their peers.  The ceremony entails tears, cheers, and (most notably) no jeers.  While exuberance for a winner definitely comes most noticeably from the winner’s own school, the rest of the auditorium joins in congratulatory applause rather than any kind of derision.  Sportsmanship was an incredible portion of the day.  While I’m still on the fence about the benefit of “friendly competition” to the arts, I can most certainly say that this event encourages good social habits for an artist to have: a sense of accomplishment with one’s own work, and a sense of awe and inspiration from the work of one’s peers.

I can also say that I believe, with some surety, that lives were changed this weekend.  It may seem silly to say that, but assurances from co-judges, teachers, directors, and the ambient adults in the room that this event meant “so very much” to the kids were absolutely confirmed by the number of teary-eyes award recipients whose hands I shook.

While it was a long day (fifteen hours on-site, not including the time it took me to drive to/from the host school), it was absolutely a worthwhile one.  I am so very happy to have been a part of it, and I well and truly can’t wait to see what happens next year.

 

Robin’ Hearts

Yesterday was my birthday.

To celebrate I did many things.  One of them was to see theatre.  We went to go see the A.R.T.’s production of The Heart of Robin Hood.

I wanted to see it because it sounded like fun.  I mean, it’s a play.  About Robin Hood.  How could this not be interesting?

It turned out to be much more than I expected.  Yes, yes, there was talent onstage (both in the acting and execution of the show), the writing was good, and the sundry list of things you expect from professional theatre was all fulfilled with gusto.  Let’s talk about how this show went above and beyond expectations:

First of all, the set design.  I’ve never before seen a set that was more enveloping, more

Rehearsal shot of Jordan Dean (Robin), Christiana Bennett Lind (Marion), and Christopher Sieber (Peter) by Evgenia Eliseeva

Rehearsal shot of Jordan Dean (Robin), Christiana Bennett Lind (Marion), and Christopher Sieber (Peter) by Evgenia Eliseeva

appropriate, or more useful to the production.  From the moment I walked in to the theatre, I had absolutely no doubt that I was in Sherwood Forest.  Above this, every single little piece of the set was used for something (generally many somethings) in an unexpected and creative way throughout the course of the production.  The set was so wedded to the show that I had a hard time conceiving of how this could have possibly been rehearsed without it.  If you go for not other reason, go to see how set design can influence and effect a production.  Sets: not just pretty ways to decorate a room.

But it wasn’t just the set that made the set.  The lighting design for this production was so spot-on and wonderful that it was noteworthy.  Lighting design is an often-unacknowledged portion of the show as, generally, great lighting design is invisible and awful lighting design is nauseating.  In Robin Hood, the lighting was simply magical and almost cinematic in its magnitude.  It integrated seamlessly into the beautiful production, while simultaneously adding unending value to the story.  I often found myself wishing that my life could be lit the way Björn Helgason lit Sherwood.  Please?

Now let’s talk about the dramaturgy.  It’s not like Robin Hood is a new concept by any stretch of the term.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that, in most cases, Robin Hood is a trite cliché that should probably not be relied upon to add value to anything.  The A.R.T. production proved that you can teach an old outlaw new tricks.  At every turn, the production subverted your Robin Hood expectations while simultaneously remaining true to the story we all know and love.  Additionally, the program notes were well-written and lain out so as to give a glimpse into the playwright and designers’ dramaturgical processes.  Here was pertinent, interesting information about the show that you were about to see made accessible for a theatre (or Robin Hood) novice.  Dramaturgy at its finest.  Bravo.

And, for our superficial moment of the review, let’s talk about the bodies onstage.  This was an extremely physical show that constantly put the human form on display.  Following in the footsteps of the A.R.T.’s now-Broadway smash sensation Pippin, Robin Hood integrated physical performance and acrobatic athletics to create stunning visual tableau with bodies to match the already-lovely presence of the space.  What this means without jargon: well-muscled men in tight leather pants and open-front vests performing feats of strength for your amusement.  By way of a birthday surprise, this didn’t go amiss (it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting to see, but who wouldn’t take six-pack abs and leather to gaze adoringly at from the comfort of Sherwood?).  Lest you fear that this show is all-fluff and no-stuff, let me assure you that the acting prowess of these gentlemen matches their physical abilities and you will not be left to work hard in suspending your disbelief.  These guys are triple threats: acting, dancing, and (get ready for it) singing.  Yup.  They can come serenade me by my window any day of the week.

Oh yea, there’s a whole female empowerment story arc (Marion dresses as a boy and goes to pal around in the woods for a while), and a few of the scenes are essentially modern-text renditions of As you Like it.  For once, this homage didn’t make me angry; the playwright acknowledged it in his production notes, the actors did it justice, and I was happy to have snuck in some surprise Bard on my birthday.  Fun fact: Prince John’s last line is almost verbatim Malvolio’s last line from Twelfth Night.  Because who doesn’t like declaring revenge to the court before making a dramatic exit?

So really; if you have even a half interest in any of the things mentioned in this review (or circuses, ducks, bluegrass music, or stage combat), grab a ticket and go see.  Even better: take your kids.  They’ll love it and it’ll make you feel better about squealing like an over-excited toddler when the good guys start to throw down.

 

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?