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?

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”.

Breaching the Breech

Earlier this week, I was able to attend a reading of Much Ado About Nothing presented by the Hub theatre company at Boston’s own Trident booksellers.

I’ve come to be wary of staged readings of Shakespeare.  By and large, I think that this forum works better for the tragedies (the comedies often rely upon too much physical humor/movement to make land in a staged reading, and the histories are already confusing enough without mixing in the complications of double-casting and no costumes).  For that, this was an enjoyable and low-key evening of theatre.

One thing that really got me thinking was the casting of a lady Leonato.  I’ve seen this trend developing lately (Actor’s Shakespeare Project cast a lady Duke of Milan in their Two Gents earlier this year).  We’ve seen in recent years (and I will blame this majorly on Julie Taymor) many female Prosperos, but to see this trend of making Shakespeare’s august noble characters in positions of power who are volleying politics by marrying off their daughters turned into women begs some complications that have to be re-examined.

Let me start off by saying that this has nothing to do with the quality of the acting.  So far, every august Lady I’ve seen in these roles has been fantastic.  But there are a few innate gender issues that you simply can’t escape when you have a woman playing a man’s role in this way.

I will limit my discussion here to Leonato because expanding it would get us into too-long-to-blog territory.

Even when we modernize Much Ado, was have to deal with a few dramaturgical truths.  Any “modernized” production of Shakespeare still needs to face the text because, well, you can’t ignore it.  If you ignore the text, why are you doing Shakespeare?

Dramaturgical truth the first: We’re in a world that has defined gender relationships.  This is made true by Beatrice’s show-stopping speech in Act Four.  She laments that she is powerless in her situation due to her gender.  As such, even if we drag the show into

In case you're not sick of these shots yet; Rosalind and Touchstone from As You Like It... TALK about gender issues

In case you’re not sick of these shots yet; Rosalind and Touchstone from As You Like It… TALK about gender issues

“modern” or semi-modern times, we must still be in a universe with distinct gender boundaries.

Dramaturgical truth the second: We’re in a world where marrying someone is a play for political power.  We know this because of Leonato coaching Hero before the dance (“Daughter, remember what I told you: if the prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer”).  For that matter, we’re in a world with a very defined social hierarchy dealing with characters who have title and standing (A Prince, the Count Claudio, etc.).  Leonato is a part of this world; as a wealthy landowner he can host the Prince and his entourage and even seems to have some standing amongst them.  However, he is not blind to the opportunities which may present themselves while the Prince is a guest in his household.  Marrying his daughter to the Prince would do wonders for Leonato’s social standing and, while he’s not a cut-throat social climber like (for instance) Lord Capulet, he does have an awareness of society around him.

Dramaturgical truth the third: Gender relations and transgresses upon them make up a large portion of this play’s plot.  While we are dealing with wedding and wooing, the play’s major conflict also consists of Hero’s supposed trespass against her duties as a good daughter.  It is a very different scene when she and Beatrice are the only women onstage attacked and defended by the men around them than it is if Leonato becomes Leonata.  In the first case, we clearly see the gender divide that Beatrice laments in the scene to follow.  In the second, we wonder why it is that Beatrice can’t fight the gender roles just as Leonata did and assert her own authority.  In this way, giving Leonato a sex change very clearly negates Shakespeare’s text.  It gives us a world that no longer makes sense, a world that fights the text itself.  Unless a director can find some way to extratextually justify Beatrice’s speech, an audience is left wondering what the big deal is.  And, honestly, any play which needs to make extratextual additions or clarifications is edging into shooting Horatio territory.

Dramaturgical truth the fourth: By making Leonato a woman, we are left with a few historical heritage questions.  Though it’s true that a woman who had become a widower would have been allowed to keep her husband’s estate and have some power over running it, pretty much any man who came along could have found some way to run rampant over her power there and disenfranchise her.  In Much Ado, we have several examples of power hungry men who have everything to gain from Leonata’s estate (the most ready example is Don John the Bastard who could just as easily have ruined everyone’s plans by semi-force-wedding Leonata as he did with his elaborate bed-trick scheme… also: the wedding would have been more permanent).  By making Leonato a woman, it leaves unnecessary loose ends.  Does Leonata end up with Don Pedro at the end (it’s the easiest solution to Benedick’s closing suggestion of “get thee a wife”)?  This director made that particular choice, but that particular choice has its own complications.  What does that mean to the government of Messina?  What does that mean to Leonato’s estate?  Has Claudio then, thereby, inadvertently become much more than he deserves by wedding Hero?  Does this mean that Don John is going to now target Leonato’s line in the obviously ensuing war since Leonato, Hero, and Claudio now stand between himself and his brother’s kingdom?

I think, at this juncture, I’ve sufficiently proven my point.  Cross-gendered casting is not something to be taken lightly (even if you have an awesome cast!).  In the event that you would like to proceed with something like this, make sure you also have an awesome dramaturge to help you think through these issues before you give some poor theatre scholar a headache.  If you don’t have an awesome dramaturge, I happen to know one (hint: it’s me).

This is only the first in a series of readings that Hub is putting on this summer at Trident.  They’re calling the series Beer+bard and despite my over-thinky nit-picks, I do highly recommend that you check them out.  The next is going to be Henry IV i on June 17th at 7PM; come hungry for food and Shakespeare!

Training Montage

I am still not dead; my life has just been consumed by prep for comps.

And it’s not even June yet.

I wanted to sit down and write some solid reviews of all the theatre I saw last week (Punk Rock by Zeitgeist, an unsettling portrayal of school violence and bullying; From Denmark with Love by Vaquero Playground, a romp through Hamlet mashed with Bond films which doesn’t close until Monday so you should totally go see it, the next installment of the RPG-inspired New Hampshire based improv show; and Richard III by Seven Stages Shakespeare read in the parking lot of Throwback brewery… yes, they are brilliant and

my live-updated character map of Richard III that I kept to help my roomate follow the story.  A great exercise and I was impressed with my own memory!

my live-updated character map of Richard III that I kept to help my roomate follow the story. A great exercise and I was impressed with my own memory!

this reading was a truly wonderful way to spend Memorial day).  Last week was pretty amazing.

Really, what I’ve got knocking around in my head right now is a bunch of information about Greek theatre, a bunch of speculation about Greek theatre, and the threads of plots from several random plays because I’ve been catching up on all the things I was supposed to read as a good theatre person and have never gotten around to for one reason or another.  The other day, I fell asleep while reading Aristophanes’ Clouds which led to some interesting dreams (… if you’ve never read it, I think the humor translates reasonably well and if nothing else, you could read it with an eye towards what these dreams might possibly have been).  Last night, I dreamt about dancing and Argentine Tango while discussing the Spanish Golden Age (which is doubly interesting because, at least for the moment, my knowledge of Spanish Golden Age is limited at best).  I’m awaiting a dream similar to one described to me by a senior colleague that he experienced while he was in his own comps process.  It was essentially a Mortal Kombat style mash-up battle dream in which he was fighting some famous Japanese performers in a historiographically accurate Greek theatre.  He valiantly defeated his nemesis by loudly declaring that some details of this theatre were not, actually, backed by firm evidence.

When you’re studying for this exam, it consumes your life.  Everything I do or say now is somehow related to comps (and, if it’s not, I feel like I’m wasting my time).  My social interactions are only valuable to me if they include some discussion of theatre.  As demonstrated by the previous paragraph, even my naps/dreams have become an arena in which to study and process information.

I am, essentially, becoming a theatre history machine.

If this were a training montage, Marvin Carlson would be yelling obscenities at me while I ran up and down flights of stairs reciting dates, facts, and figures from memory.  Cut to me paging through tomes with a highlighter, viciously attacking certain sections as I daringly attempt to stuff that information into my mind.  Smash cut to me sitting in a theatre watching a play while information scrolls past the side of the screen Sherlock-style and I attempt to situate this both within its historical context and within the context of contemporary American theatre.  Then cross-reference that to how it may have been approached during an era entirely unrelated to either of those things.

Shot from the reading; not the best but you get the idea

Shot from the reading; not the best but you get the idea

This process is something that I am actually enjoying despite the life-consuming nature of it.  I am learning a vast amount and most of what I’m learning are things that I’ve been assumed to have known all along.  In a lot of ways, the comps process is a certain amount of “destiny fulfilling”.  If we want to take it to the ultimate geeky extreme (and, really, who doesn’t?) it’s the process of becoming the chosen one.  We’re on Dagobah being trained by the great Yodas of our time to bring balance to the academy.  We’re growing into those shiny shiny robes that they let us wear to our hooding ceremonies.  We’re crafting of ourselves something that won’t embarrass our home institutions when we walk around with their names in our byline.

…and if I look at it that way, I can’t be too upset when I fall on my face a few times.  Luke did too, after all, and he grew up to defeat the Empire.

Malaise

At the moment, my life is pretty much the picture of what I would generally describe as being “my ideal life”.

I’m involved in two productions: Twelfth Night (my group’s pilot experiment in communal theatre) is in rehearsal and I’m getting to do some awesome, wacky, fun things with some really neat, smart, talented individuals while simultaneously dreaming about a bright future on the Boston theatre scene; and Measure for Measure (my debut as a dramaturge which, for those who are keeping track, I’ve been working on actively since last June) is in its last week of rehearsal before it opens next Thursday.  I’m TAing one class

Rehearsal the other day; we have a show! From a script that I made! From Shakespeare!

Rehearsal the other day; we have a show! From a script that I made! From Shakespeare!

(Modern and Postmodern theatre) with a professor from whom I’m endlessly learning things and with whom it’s a pleasure to work.  I’m in a class that’s got me constantly thinking, constantly on my toes, and constantly studying for comps.  I’m keeping up on my awesome side-projects (Offensive Shadows has just started recording our episodes on Love’s Labour’s Lost which is a joy to discuss as it’s one of my favorite plays).  I’m living, eating, breathing, bleeding, and sweating theatre.

I guess call me a classic case of “grass is always greener” syndrome, but I’m so tired right now that I’m having trouble enjoying any of it.  I haven’t had a decent break in who knows how long and every time I do manage to eke out a few hours away from my desk that time seems to fill with unexpected trips to the theatre (which, don’t get me wrong, I love but aren’t much of a break for me).  What’s really got me shaken is the fact that’s is very early in the semester to be feeling this way; all of my big projects are on the distant horizon (with the exception of one lecture that I’m working on prepping; the first of two for my TAship this semester).  If I’m working like this before my projects hit the hot zone, where am I going to find time for my projects when I actually need to work on them?

I’m not the only one feeling like this either.  From speaking with some of my cohort, it seems that a general malaise has overcome Dance and Drama at Tufts.  I guess I could blame it on February; the long (but surprisingly so-far easy) Boston winter; or maybe the Genocide course that most of my colleagues are taking (nothing will make you feel awful about life quite like being bombarded with consistent reading about genocide).

out my window.  Nemo does not look awful.  Yet.

out my window. Nemo does not look awful. Yet.

To hammer home the point that all I do is work and there is life outside my apartment, I am currently hunkered down in my office while outside begins the great blizzard Nemo which some stations are predicting will be one of the worst in Boston’s history.  Most normal people I know have been given today off or have a half-day and this extends into tomorrow thus effectively creating a three-day-weekend for the gainfully employed.  I, however, took this opportunity to stock up on library books and non-technology research (in case we lose power) and plan to spend the next few days holed up on my sofa working.  With any luck, I may be able to plow through a bunch of my to-dos while the rest of the Northeast goes sledding.

…The one concession I will make to snow is the potential creation of a snow-tomaton in my near future.  Because making a snowman out of the accumulation from my driveway is way easier and more enjoyable than shoveling it out.

Here’s hoping accomplishment can bust through my malaise.  If not, I at least hope you have a good weekend.  Stay warm and dry!

Community Theatre

This weekend, I saw some friends in a community theatre production (both friends’ names and the name of said production will be withheld to protect the innocent).

The show was okay, the venue was darling, my friends are pretty darn talented. As we watched community theatre in action, myself and my compatriots had a few observations about what makes good theatre into great theatre and what can be riveting about something happening onstage. Perhaps more importantly, we had some D.O.A. don’t do’s that I think the world at large could really benefit from understanding and taking into consideration.

The first thing to keep in mind (and this is particularly important when doing community or

Not all theatre can be this...

Not all theatre can be this…

non-professional theatre) is that every individual should know his strengths and his weaknesses. If a show calls for something (say, a fight scene), that something should be executed to the best of the group’s ability. If there is someone in the group with an expertise (particularly an unexpected expertise), that individual owes it to the group to step up and say something. In return, the group owes it to the individual to respect his expertise. In other words: your fight will look awful if you don’t know how to fight. Or if you think you know how to fight. You have nothing to lose by discussing other ideas or approaches with those around you. No one will disrespect you if someone happens to come along and know a little thing that you don’t. What will make your show weaker is stubbornly clinging to the insistence that you know something. That will, definitively, poison what you have onstage. For this example, fighting safe is the top priority; but if you can fight well then for the non-denominational deity’s sake, fight well. I refuse to sit through another half-hearted, bumbling stage fight… especially when I know that someone in your cast has enough experience to actually make it look decent. Grow up, man up, and admit you don’t know everything.

Second: elegance is refusal. Your show will be cleaner, more professional, and more tolerable if your scene changes are less than ten seconds each. If you have a change that involves anything more involved, for the love of all things holy cut the scene change. Find some creative way to work around it. Chances are it’s costing you more money than it’s worth. Having your already antsy audience sit in darkness for an awkwardly long time is simply not worth the headache it will cause to your stage hands and the polite folks who are sitting through your production.

….Personally, I’m done being polite, but many people don’t have the same cavalier attitude about theatre as I do. I have paid good money to see your show, I expect to be entertained and/or moved, not sit and stew while you bumble around with something far too big and involved to be worth the time to move it. Cut. It.

...but it can be this.

…but it can be this.

Thing three: don’t expect me to be nice. I’m done being nice. I have to be nice all day all the time with my students, cohorts, and professors. I have to be nice via e-mail to my networking connections. I have to be nice to the random people I encounter at the library and/or coffee shop. As far as I can see it, I spend faaarrrrrr too much of my time being nice. Seeing theatre is something that I count as part of my job, but it’s also something that I do on my own personal time. As such, generally, I don’t feel the urge to censor myself when I’m giving feedback about a show that I was asked to go see. If you want me to see your show (and I understand if you don’t), I’m not going to smile and tell you how great you were if you didn’t earn it. I’m not going to laugh if it’s not funny. I’m not going to clap if it wasn’t worth the applause. I will give you an honest opinion; I will try to cushion the blow if I have something scathing to say and at least make it constructive criticism; I will (generally) refrain from bashing your show on the internet (…unless it really really deserved it… Harvard Revels, I’m looking at you). I will not go out of my way to be an evil jerk, but you get what you earn from me. Just because this is your hobby doesn’t mean I have to hang your macaroni pictures on my refrigerator and praise how them every time I want a beer.

Don’t worry, I expect the same of you when you come to see my show. If it’s not working, TELL ME. I don’t want to be out there doing something that I think is brilliant if it isn’t landing with an audience. I can’t see myself from the stage. You, the audience, are an important part of my experience as a theatre-maker. If you see something in performance that you think could make the performance stronger, of course I want to know about it.

In a creative process, giving and taking feedback is important. In a creative process that’s essentially art for art’s sake, it’s even more important. If the product is going to be a lump of raw talent held together by the spittle of one over-worked and over-egoed director, it simply won’t stick. It takes integrity to make a show into something worth seeing, and integrity comes from the strength of the whole. If you want to make art in your spare time (and it is a noble pursuit… and fulfilling when it works out), learn to be an active member of the community. If you can’t handle that, take up painting or sculpture. Theatre is a communal activity and only a strong community can make a strong show.

A Christmas Rant

With the holidays coming up, I feel the need to put my two cents into the universe about where your hard-earned money should be spent should you decide that purchasing theatre tickets for your loved ones is a worthwhile endeavor.  It totally is, by the by, and if you’re not considering this course of action, maybe you will now.

For those long-term readers, you may recall my rage-inducing trip to the

I know it's that time of year because I got to help put up a Christmas Tree!

I know it’s that time of year because I got to help put up a Christmas Tree!

Harvard Revels last year.  Now that we’ve come full circle (as I write this, I’m sitting in the Houghton Library reading room at Harvard and can see that they’ve once again decorated the square with vibrant twinkling lights), I find myself revisiting this rage every moment I so much as think of the experience, the institution, or the fact that hundreds of people will (once again) flood to this theatrical venue.

So let’s get one thing straight: the Harvard Revels, while it may have started out as a benign force of the community, is currently the most deplorable form of theatrical spectacle.  The travesty that I had the misfortune to witness (and pay WAY too much for) last year should never have been allowed to be birthed into the realm of theatre.  The acting was atrocious, the costuming was spotty at best (there were people wearing PAINTER’S PANTS and SNEAKERS onstage in a PERIOD PIECE), and the institution builds into its traditions a forced standing ovation for every show.  I have never in my life witnessed something more manipulative, more upsetting, and more betraying to its hard-working loyal audience.

And here’s the worst part: because this is a Christmas Tradition for some people, this institution will (once again) have an audience.  Despite putting on a product that I would describe as “an aborted attempt at holiday cheer”, they will once more play to a PACKED HOUSE.  Audiences are so intoxicated by the rosey-hued glasses of Christmas tradition that it will not matter if the Revels had an off year, people will pay anyway.

Because of this, the Revels has no impetus to change.  They will be a commercial success no matter what show they put on.  And that, my friends, is where theatre goes to die.

Okay, I take it back, maybe this is the worst part: this show is the only show that I would venture most of those hundreds of audience members will see in a given year.  That means that their theatre budget is allocated specifically for a show that does not care about them.  This show will be flat, stale, uninspired, and continually produced Christmas schlock until someone does something about it.

Theatre is only interesting and vibrant when it is fighting for its life.  The

...and, for the first time ever, a Christmas Village!  Much more exciting if you consider that this is about ten feet off the ground in a window ledge and required ladder-work to assemble...

…and, for the first time ever, a Christmas Village! Much more exciting if you consider that this is about ten feet off the ground in a window ledge and required ladder-work to assemble…

Revels have not, as far as I can tell, had to do this for decades.  Give them a year scrounging on Community Theatre budget and they will get creative or die.  And from that will be birthed something real, genuine, and amazing to see.

So I beg you.  I implore you.  Do not support this abuse of the name of “theatre”.  If you would like to take your loved ones to see a show, consider one of the many other productions going on in Boston at this time.  Here are just a few…

The ART is producing Pippin (which, I’ve heard, is spectacular and I will be going to see).

A certain Shakespeare company is producing Two Gentleman of Verona and, while I have no particular love for this company, I do love this show.  Support struggling Boston Shakespeare!

The Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater is producing Arabian Nights which I’ve heard great things about.

The Improv Asylum is doing a Holiday Show if you want something a little more traditional.  They always have great programming (and classes!).

Theatre is a struggling art form.  Your ticket-buying is the life-blood of the struggling company.  Please consider that, while the Revels loom large and ugly, the money spent on their over-priced Holiday travesty could save a small company and create a better theatre community here in Boston.