Anderson Project: Critical Response

A few weeks ago I saw the Anderson Project at Arts Emerson with Cloteal and Stephen. I am so glad the three of us went to see the show together because this was the kind of piece you want to talk about after.

The Anderson Project is a one man show written and directed by the Canadian theatre artist Robert Lepage. Lepage originally starred in the show, but began collaborating with others for the tour. It tells the story of three men who have intertwining lives with the stories of Hans Christian Anderson Yves Jacques stars as a Canadian song writer who has recently ended a long term relationship due to a desire to never have children. He  has been brought to Paris to write the Libretto for an opera about Hans Christian Anderson. Jacques also plays a parisian opera administrator trying to make the best deal for his company, while keeping his personal life secure. The silent, but prophetic immigrant who runs a porn cafe is also played by Jacques. Sporadically throughout the stories of the three lead men, Jacques embodies other characters from Hans Christian Anderson’s tales, including the Dryad, and at one point Anderson himself.

The opening scene is challenging to explain. It consists of a man jumping from the stage, onto what looks very much like a two dimensional white screen. He then spray paints a small mural on the white screen, that must have been produced by very accurately aimed projections. As the scene progresses the actor begins to look less human, and more like a drawing himself. This moment alone, was worth the ticket price.

Although the stage itself was of medium size, the set was monumental. The story took us to many different places, including an opera house, a forest, a french cafe, a french porn cafe, and an express train headed to Paris. The spaces were created through a number of projections, set pieces, and puppets.

My mind kept wandering to the backstage crew, and the stage managers. They scene changes were such that they had to clear the stage, or completely redress a set piece in a matter of minutes, sometimes seconds. While this piece inspired me as an artist, it also inspired me as a stage manager. It must have been as thrilling backstage, as it was in front of the audience.

One challenge of a one man shows is that multiple characters often lack the dynamic personalities found in casts with more actors. But this was not the case in The Anderson Project. Jacques was so convincing in playing different people, that Stephen, Cloteal and I argued our certainty of it actually being only one man onstage.

My favorite scene is the opera administrator telling his beloved young daughter a bed time story, “The Shadow” by H.C. Anderson. The character, like the others, has hit a rough patch in his life. His wife is sleeping with his best friend, his porn addiction has been reignited, and due to these things, he is in danger of losing custody of his daughter. He tells the story through spoken word and shadow puppetry created by his daughter’s bedside table lamp. This story, like many of Anderson’s tales for children, reveals a sadness about humanity that causes one to wonder why they were in fact written for children.

One of the great accomplishments of this show was the combination of spectacle and plot. This piece had a strong enough story that it could have been done in one of our black boxes on the third floor. Yet, the technical aspects were not just a superfluous addition. Lepage created an incredibly succinct piece of theatre.

Overall, seeing this show was an incredible experience. It was both a great piece of theatre, and an educational experience as a theatre student. Robert Lepage rarely comes to Boston, so I am so grateful I was able to see this production

There were so many exciting aspects to this production that are challenging to explain to those who were unable to experience it. And, in a way, I think that is what makes this such an exceptional work of theatre. Had this been a film it would not have had the same impact on the audience. This is the theatre of our future, and this is the theatre our generation needs to be making.

Season Planning

In light of the recent national conversation around diversity in the theatre prompted by the Guthrie’s season announcement, I would just like to draw some attention to the season of a theatre close to my heart: the National Playwright’s Conference at The Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center. This summer, as every year, the NPC will host eight playwrights who will each workshop a play for a week, culminating in two public readings. Out of the eight playwrights, this season there are six women and two people of color. The NPC is truly living up to their mission of producing “diverse voices and new works.”

The especially interesting thing about this season programming process is that submissions are read blind, without any sense of the gender, race, age, sexual orientation, etc of the playwright, all the way up to the finalist pool. This means that there is no potential for internalized, unrecognized racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc for most of the process. Seven out of the eight playwrights this season were chosen from around 900 anonymous submissions. And look how the season has wound up!

Of course, this model works mainly because the O’Neill is a development center, not a producing organization. A large regional theatre couldn’t read all the plays they are considering blindly, because they are usually interested in producing at least a few classic or well-known works. However, if a season that is largely programmed without concern to gender or race can end up with only one white male playwright, how does the Guthrie rationalize all of theirs?

The O’Neill is also in an interesting position in terms of audience. Most of its performance spaces are fairly small, and many seats are always taken up by conference participants. The O’Neill doesn’t advertise widely in an attempt to attract an audience; they have devoted fans, mostly Southeastern CT locals, who come see many or all shows in a season, and the rest of the audience is usually made up by people associated with those involved in the productions. Because they are not in the position of struggling to sell tickets, as regional, off-Broadway and Broadway theatres are, commercial appeal plays no part in season programming.

So I’m not comparing the same type of organization, I realize that. But if nothing else, the NPC season proves that there are exciting female playwrights out there. There are wonderful, worthy plays being written by women. There are lots! Maybe the regional theatres just need to seek them out a bit more. And that’s where the Guthrie’s season comes in to question–if they were actively seeking interesting new works, they would absolutely find some (or, I mean, at least one) by women. I am left to conclude, then, that they are not truly looking for such works, and therefore ignoring their explicit mission of producing, along with “classic literature,” “new work from diverse cultures.”

The central problem seem to be that many Artistic Directors and those on planning boards seem to think that plays by white male playwrights attract a larger audience. I have seen no proof of this, and since theatre audiences are predominantly female, this really doesn’t make sense. Perhaps it is just based on the fact that classic plays, those in the cannon, seem to draw a larger audience and, due to years of misogyny and racism, the cannon is heavily white male-dominated. But people can change; if theatre start programming more strong plays by women and minorities, theses plays will have a chance to enter into and change the cannon. Or, conversely, people will begin to realize that oftentimes new theatre has the potential to be just as engaging and exciting, if not more so, than the classics.

Cafe Variations: A New Take on an Old Theme

This past weekend, I saw Cafe Variations, a new show directed by Anne Bogart that combines text from various Charles Mee plays and Gershwin songs. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and leaving, I wasn’t entirely sure what I had experienced, but it was certainly a fresh, new way of shedding light on the age-old topic: love.

The show is the result of a collaboration between SITI Company, ArtsEmerson and Emerson Stage, and the influences of each was evident. SITI Company, under the Artistic Direction of Anne Bogart, is built on ensemble collaboration. They also use a physical approach to acting designed by founding member Tadashi Suzuki. ArtsEmerson is committed to bringing new and legendary works to Boston, and Emerson Stage is the producing department of Emerson’s Performing Arts department. This collaboration meant that the creators of the work were professionals from the SITI Company, and most of the ensemble of actors were Emerson students. The entire cast was extremely talented, and though it was clear who was a student and who was a professional, this was mostly due to age. The collaboration between these three companies was not only special for the city of Boston, but a great opportunity for the students who were able to participate in a world premiere. It blurs the line between educational and professional theatre (much like the BCAP does), which I feel is very important, so as to not have students graduating who have only ever worked within their schools.

Cafe Variations resists easy categorization–there’s too much music and dancing for it to be a play, and yet it’s not quite a musical. But the fact that it breaks categorical boundaries is one of the things that makes this piece refreshing. The central plot structure is pretty basic; one of the actors at the talkback said that Anne Bogart was interested in exploring the traditional “boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” narrative in a new way. And that is what she does. The play opens with a woman sobbing over a waiter at a cafe, and ends with the same woman in tears over the same man. The opening moment is somewhat of a prelude; shortly after we see the couple’s first interaction, and follow their relationship through the play. We see them only in short scenes, though, as we are also introduced to five other couples. It is hard to get too emotionally invested in any of the characters or relationships since everything moves so quickly, but I did find myself close to tears at the end of the show, when the waiter breaks up with the woman and sings “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” Other than that, though, the only other relationship I had any emotional attachment to was an older couple. In one of the most amusing and touching segments of the show, they play strip poker, nervous about making themselves vulnerable to each other, but both obviously craving companionship and intimacy in every sense.

Bogart made great use of space in the moment when the older couple has a fight, and the woman climbs off the stage and runs through the audience, ending up back in front of the stage, and ultimately exiting through a side door in the theatre on to the street. It broke the fourth wall in a way that was different than it had been done before. The characters had at various times been singing and speaking to the audience before, but this was the first time they actually left their space and entered ours. The show hadn’t been living in a world of realism before this moment, but this took it solidly out. Having the actress not only leave the space of the stage but physically leave the space of the theatre was a surprising choice, though. I saw a matinee, so when she opened the door, sunlight flooded into the dark auditorium in a way that was disconcerting, though not unpleasant. I imagine passers-by must have been startled and amused to see a woman in a 1950s-style dress with a full skirt burst out of the theatre in a frenzy. It’s great, though, because it in a small way involves them in a performance, and blurs the line between performer, spectator and uninvolved bystander. The transition was probably most jarring for the actress herself, as she is forced to leave the private world of the theatre, in which everyone has chosen to be there for one central purpose, and once again enter the ‘real world.’ I wonder if she was able to stay in character the whole time, or if it was a struggle for her not to allow the change to take her out of the moment completely.

One of the central ideas that this piece plays with is the concept of “fractals.” There are ten characters, but each of them is played by three actors: A, B and C. Each actor represents a different part of the person: a fractal. This stems from the concept that as people, we are more than one thing; we exist outside of our selves. One actor explained fractals as the options when playing Russian Roulette: whether you pull the trigger and it’s empty or there’s a bullet, the other option is possible and exists in another universe. So maybe in one world, one version of ourselves does stay in a particular relationship with someone, while another version makes a different choice. It’s a fascinating idea, and one that is absolutely worth exploring, but I’m not sure that this production really utilizes it to its fullest extent. Perhaps the influence between the three actors playing the same character was subtle and I just didn’t pick up on it, but honestly if they hadn’t been dressed in the same colors, I’m not sure I would have noticed it at all. Maybe part of the problem was just that there were too many people on stage. It felt cluttered at times, and difficult to focus on any one thing. At the same time, though, the point of the show isn’t to get a realistic portrait of a relationship between two singular people. It’s more of a montage or collage of relationships that leave us with a greater understanding of how love can enter our lives, grow, change, succeed or fail. During the talkback, one older woman asked the actors why it was that the show didn’t have a happy ending, adding, “It would have been nice if [the woman in love with the waiter] got what she wanted in the end.” The actors smiled at this, and then one responded that “whether a relationship has a happy or sad ending depends on when you decide the ending is.” This comment was really thought-provoking for me, and I think it helps to illuminate the show.

Cafe Variations was gorgeously designed, with the women in full-skirted 1950s-style dresses and the men in tailored suits. The set was stunning as well: a glittery, beaded curtain hid the on-stage orchestra from view, and a sparkling chandelier hung above center stage. The decadent décor perfectly complimented the lush Gershwin tunes, which the actors sung beautifully. The real intellectual value of the show, though, comes from the dark underside to these lovely sounds and images. Chuck Mee’s text, though sometimes as unabashedly romantic as the Gershwin lyrics, is often biting, and addresses the potential scary side of relationships. Anyone is dangerous, because anyone you get attached to has the power to hurt you. This is no reason not to enter into a relationship, but it is something we often forget in the flush of new love.

The choreography for this piece was a mix of traditional musical theatre-style dance, with individual tap sequences as well as full choral numbers, an Apache-style dance fight, and stylized movement throughout. I learned in the talkback that every single movement was precisely blocked, so as to free the actors from having to think about their bodies and instead be able to be free in their emotional lives. It was obvious that nothing was spontaneous; even the waiter’s pratfall in the beginning felt more like he was commenting on a pratfall than actually trying to execute one for laughs. One of the most effective aspects of this movement choreography was the segment between a man and a woman that was repeated at different times throughout the production by different couples. It involved them sitting, reaching out to touch each other lovingly, then getting in some sort of dispute, standing up, one reaching out to the other who would throw off their hands, sending their arms in a wide circle and then landing back on the other’s shoulders. This sequence expresses a range of emotions in a short span of time, and by removing specific dialogue from it, it becomes immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever been in a relationship. We can place our own context or assumptions upon the blank palate of the movements, making us actively involved in the performance. Having different couples perform the sequence also emphasized one of the show’s central ideas, which is that relationships are universal; even though each one is unique, they have more in common with each other than they have differences.

One of the most interesting things this show explores is gender. For most of the time, all the couples are male and female. The interactions between them culminate in a huge full-cast dance battle, in which moves and words (“A man in just a vibrator with a wallet” was one of my favorites) are hurled back and forth. After this, the traditional relationship structure begins to break down a little bit. Two men fall in love, and one couple swaps clothes, so that the woman is wearing a tux and then man is in a dress. It was lovely for me to see two men having a romantic conversation on stage; the fact that it was presented in a very nonchalant way–no different from any of the straight couples–felt refreshing and important. The clothes-switch was a little more difficult to derive meaning from because I wasn’t really clear on what that particular couple had been doing before they swapped outfits. This goes back to my feeling that maybe there were too many people on stage. Still, I think the details of their relationship are not important, and that the production was trying to emphasize the possible overturning of gender norms. In a production that otherwise looked traditional in every sense of the word, this was a nice moment of transcending expectations.

I think Cafe Variations has a lot to say not only about relationships and love, but about the structure of theatre and the rewards that come from breaking form. This piece is neither a musical nor a play, and that is fine and exciting. Breaking both these forms and combining pieces from each ends up creating a visually stunning, emotionally engaging piece of theatre.

The Guthrie in the News

A round up from MPR on the scandale of the Guthrie Theatre’s coming season:

Guthrie Announces 2012-13 Season

Guthrie Theatre’s Debt to Women & Diversity

Joe Dowling Responds to Criticism of Guthrie’s Season

And here’s a few from other sources:

Polly Carl in HowlRound: A Boy in a Man’s Theatre

Tad Simons on The Guthrie’s Woman/Race/Facebook Problem

Guthrie600

Rogue Artists Ensemble

Rogue Artists Ensemble is this really cool company in LA.  They were mentioned in the LA Weekly Article about how ensemble based theatre is changing the LA theatre scene.  Their mission statement is as follows:

Rogue Artists Ensemble is a collective of multi-disciplinary artists who create Hyper-theater, an innovative hybrid of theater traditions, puppetry, mask work, dance, music, and modern technology. Through a collaborative development process, with an emphasis on design and storytelling, the Rogues create original, thought-provoking performances. We cultivate unique audience experiences that appeal to multiple generations of theatergoers in order to expand the boundaries of contemporary American theater.

Last year, Michael Allen (BU SoT ’10) was in their new play D is for Dog, which won an Ovation Award for puppet design and was nominated for an LA Weekly Award for best Comedy Ensemble.  It will be remounted this summer for the Hollywood Fringe Festival.

I stumbled upon this company through my own research and then realized it was the same company that Mike had done a show with.  Over Spring break in LA through Mike I was able to have lunch with their Artistic Director Sean T. Cawelti.  We had a great conversation and the prospect of working with this company, in any capacity, is one of the things that most excites me about moving to Los Angeles.  They are innovative with the form their work takes, but primarily focused on the telling of a story.  Most recently they did Songs of Bilitis, the story of how in the late 19th century Pierre Louys produced a collection of erotic poetry that he attributed to an ancient Greek courtesan.  The command of the language, the beauty of the sensuous images sustained the popularity of the piece even after it was revealed that Louys had written it all himself.  Rogue Artists Ensemble was commissioned by the J. Paul Getty Museum to mount this piece.  It received a workshop production at the museum this Spring and will be remounted Spring of 2013.  When I meet with the Rogues they were working on this piece and I got to go backstage and into their shop.  The process by which they develop their pieces is awesome, they care immensely about the work but are willing to scratch ideas and start over.  They are wonderfully multidisciplinary and always trying to move their art forward.  It was incredibly exciting to meet a group, working professionally, who have no affiliation to BU SoT and find they have a vocabulary that resonates with me and I find compelling.  Here is a video of Artistic Director Sean T. Cawelti giving a brief overview of the Rogues use of objects and puppets: Object Work

Café Variations at Arts Emerson


I saw Café Variations on Sunday at Arts Emerson.  Directed by Anne Bogart, with Music and Lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin and words from Charles Mee, this musical is both full of heart and completely heartbreaking.  The set is beautiful- a shimmering silver curtain hides the orchestra and the paneled ceiling changes colors with the mood of the play.  It took me a while to get my bearings in this musical- the first several moments are silent- just movements, with characters moving in and out of a café that keeps morphing itself; tables and chairs are constantly being rearranged by a cast of characters that seems to never end.  Just when I think I’ve seen all the characters there could possibly be, a new face emerges, but they’re all dressed so similarly it’s hard to tell who’s who…  Eventually the rhythm of the musical got into my body and I understood the churning nature of this play, where relationships can come and go in the blink of an eye, or last a lifetime.  Although many of the characters look and dress alike, and many relationships flit past, two couples stand out.  First, the girl in the blue dress who is waiting in the café for the love of her life- only, she doesn’t know who he is yet.  Luckily, the love of her life is right in front of her- the grey haired waiter who falls (literally) head over heels for her.  The other relationship that stayed with me was between a big, burly man with a gruff disposition and a little, quirky old woman.  They cultivate their relationship over a game of strip poker and there’s something that’s deliciously offbeat about their love, as well as heartbreakingly honest.

The evolution of the mood of Café Variations is also quite interesting.  When the play begins, every couple is male-female, every interaction is politely flirtatious and “love” is in the air.  But something seems sort of off. There’s a feeling of something slightly menacing behind the polite gestures and frozen smiles.  As the musical progresses, relationships become less black and white and clear lines dissolve.  Men kiss men and men and women swap clothing, while interactions become less and less pristine.  The message I got from all of that?  That we have this idea of what love is, a picture perfect idea of the handsome man and beautiful woman falling in love and living happily, happily ever after.   But Café Variations reminds us that love doesn’t really work that way.  It can be amazing and overpowering and consuming but it can also be fleeting and amorphous and frustrating and stupid.  The two relationships that I will remember were two of the most flawed- the large man and old woman fought viciously at times over their game of cards and said horrible, hurtful things to one another and the waiter ended up leaving the woman in the blue dress because he thought he was too old for her and that he would be decrepit by the time she was fifty.  And while it sounds like a bitter message, somehow I left with a feeling of hope, and full of love.  Because even though those relationships were flawed, the love that they experienced, though brief, was so real and honest.

The movement in Café Variations is heavily influenced by Anne Bogart’s work with viewpoints.  A lot of the time an actor might be saying one thing, while the story that’s being told with their body is something completely different.  While most of the movement is very stylized, it isn’t always what I expected from the 1950’s era evoked by the costumes and set, and added an offbeat tone to the piece.  Sometimes the play did seem a little disjointed; a little bit jerky as far as pacing goes, and some of the musical numbers don’t quite seem to fit or be necessary, but I find myself eager to forgive and forget these few moments in a play so full of heart.

Jose Antonio Abreu: El Sistema

Caragas, Venezula is currently the largest departure point for cocaine in the world, and has been ranked the most dangerous capital. Yet in the midst of this city’s turmoil there is a beacon of light– Jose Antonio Abreu.

Jose Antonio Abreu is an: economist, musician, reformer, and founder of El Sistema. In 1975 he created El Sistema (“the system”), as a way to help Venezuelan kids take part in classical music. Now, El Sistema is a nationwide organization of 102 youth orchestras, 55 children’s orchestras, and 270 music centers — and close to 250,000 young musicians.

This training system creates a medium for children to train and realize their potential. El Sistema is heavily supported by the Venezuelan government, so during the earlier stages of their development students are given an instrument, and undergo serious training.

By using the arts as a vehicle to provide opportunities to vulnerable children and youth, El Sistema increased the likelihood that its beneficiaries would live a long and healthier life; have access to knowledge and a decent standard of living; and fully participate in their communities. These students are not trained only as musicians, but as citizens.

It is impressive to see the arts being used to inspire change for these youth in such a large way. El Sistema understands that the children are the future, and if you can shape and change their lives then the entire country can feel the affects. El Sistema does exist in the US, but for each region the system operates differently. Here in the program does not come by funding so easily– which is saddening. It’s idealistic, but I wish the US could see the influence of the arts, and loosen their pursestrings accordingly.

Check out Maestro Abreu’s TED Talk: Jose Abreu on Kids Transformed by Music

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Critical Response

The Huntington Theatre Company’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson, directed by Liesl Tommy, is a funny, engaging, violent, tragic, endearing, and, at time,s overwhelming story about the blues, and much more.


The characters in this play are all rich and fully developed, and it takes three hours to even begin to unpack their personalities. August Wilson writes ten dynamic characters, and the Huntington cast captures that dynamism for their audience.


The characters are constantly fighting for something. There is a constant tension in the play, alleviated once or twice, only to be re-ignited stronger than before, moments later. Ma Rainey (Yvette Freeman) and Levee (Jason Bowen) are the leading proponents of this tension, and often are most affected by this tension. They are certainly the strongest characters in the play, and were also the strongest actors on stage.


Freeman portrayed Ma Rainey as a shrill, unstoppable diva, who underneath it all, is just a black woman trying to make it the only way she knows how. Brown was perhaps less stable in his portrayal of Levee than his more seasoned cast mate. But he still clearly gave the role everything he had in him. The largest flaw in Brown’s choices was the lack of build for the character. Levee seemed too playful, and, at times, childlike to be able to make the choices he made at the end of the play. I understand Levee’s choices from a textual analysis only, but I feel the way the character was portrayed in this particular production, made the choice so ridiculous it almost negates the impact of the murder.


Racism is a clear and constant theme in many of Wilson’s works. One of the most subtle and interesting conflicts in this production was trying to decide who the bad guy was, who was the real oppressor, and where to place the blame.

Will Lebow plays Irvin, one of the producers at the recording studio. To the black characters in the play he is just another oppressive white man, but in many ways he is a very sympathetic character. He puts up with a lot from Ma just so she will stay and record the album, and often Ma is trying to be as difficult as possible. He feels pressure from Ma to meet her demands. He feels pressure from his business partner to make the record happen as cheaply as possible. And, he feels his own personal financial pressure to keep his business running. He is, in many ways, a very desperate man.  His character provided the human side to the stereotype of the “oppressive white man” that we see in the other few white male characters.


While I do believe this play is a bit too long, Tommy’s directing style certainly brought some magic to some slower moments. The introduction that Tommy created, gave the audience a feel for the kind of show they were about to watch, right off the bat. It began with young people walking into an old recording studio, while the older white characters filtered in, as the ghosts of the past. This brought the audiences attention to the history of blacks in this country that this play is rooted in. It was a beautiful scene, describing the cycle of how humanity will always look to their past for answers and for problems that still plague them.


The music used in the show is lovely, but Liesl Tommy made it theatrical. The actors miming playing their instruments allowed for a manipulation of the volume that was nothing but pure theatre magic. Instead of having the actors stop playing their instruments, the sound cue was faded out, making it feel like the scene itself was fading out, or like we were walking down a hall and the music was fading out behind us. This allowed for a manipulation of sound that was different than in any other play I have seen. The use of instruments in this manner also brought the play out of realism a bit, and into an almost playful and magical atmosphere.


Overall, I think this production was incredibly successful. August Wilson is a great playwright, but I think in the wrong hands his work can lose some of its magic. The Huntington’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a great production, and that greatness was brought about by seasoned professionals communicating, and playing with their craft.

Sarah Kane’s Skin

Talking about Blasted today reminded me that a really great and disturbing short film of her play Skin is available on YouTube.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z35muSllISg

[Bonus: here's a link to the NYT interview with Marin Ireland and Sarah Benson about the challenges of playing in Blasted.]

Hookman and the Facebook Generation in Writing

This past Saturday evening, I had the pleasure of seeing Company One’s Workshop Production of Lauren Yee’s Hookman at the BCA.  I say pleasure because as I digest my experience with the play a few days later, I recognize all that I learned from watching this wonderful new play in development.

This semester, I am enrolled in Lydia’s Adaptation course and am in the process of writing my own play.  I, like Lauren Yee, am a young theatre artist creating work in a culture obsessed with Facebook.  With that said, what struck me most about Hookman was the use of language.  Watching the piece and listening to the short-hand dialogue, I saw and heard representations of myself and my friends.

While writing my own play, I have noticed I pressure myself to use heightened language.  In my daily life, I never use heightened language, even though I consider myself a fairly articulate individual.  Why then must the characters in my play live up to such high expectations?  Why can’t I allow them to try speaking in the style I use in my daily life?

Watching Hookman, I was inspired to use the voice I know best in my writing.  Although I don’t know the rest of Yee’s work, I would like to recognize the dialogue in Hookman as authentic.  It’s what I hear in the world around me and I loved that about the piece.  And although the vocabulary is limited to quick responses and “abbrev.’s,” the language still has the potential to poetically flow  and serve a punch to audiences’ guts.  I was moved by this piece of theatre and inspired to be true to my voice.

Since then, I have finally started trusting my voice in my writing.  Although it may seem obvious to others, I’ve realized that my first play, and my first draft for that matter, does not have to be perfect (and it won’t be).  Plays in development are a gift because we can interact with them.  We can ask questions, change scenes, clarify words, etc.  And this is the positive perspective that surrounded Company One’s production of Hookman that I hope to experience with my own writing some day soon.

Over There, Over Here

Over There is a play by Mark Ravenhill which premiered in March 2009 at London’s Royal Court Theatre, and which I was able to watch on digitaltheatre.com. It tells the story of twin brothers who were raised on different sides of the Berlin wall, but come together after its fall. The boys, Karl from the East and Franz from the West, are not only identical, but they experience things from each other’s lives and can speak in perfect unison. The extended metaphor of the play, in which the two brothers represent their respective sides of Germany, is a simple but at times an incredibly effective one. Though it does feel a bit heavy-handed by the end, overall Ravenhill explores large societal issues in a moving, elegant way.

One of the strongest aspects of this production is the actors, twins Harry (Franz) and Luke (Karl) Treadaway. Their slim bodies and angular faces are not only attractive to the point of approaching feminine prettiness, but become blank slates onto which ideas of cultural identity gender are projected. They also literally becomes slates for an array of costumes and even food products. Their appearances are vital to their characters. In the beginning of the play, they are incredibly different–Franz wears a checkered button-down shirt, and his hair is neatly slicked back into place, while Karl wears a simple t-shirt, and his hair is disheveled and falls over his forehead. Near the middle of the play, as their identities begin to meld, they wear identical suits, and Karl attempts to mimic Franz’s put-together hair style.

The actors stand out vividly in a simple set. It is a box, with sterile white-blue ceiling, floor and walls that make the voices slightly echo. It is harshly, evenly lit, which makes it feel like a TV set. This gives the play a hyper-realistic quality that takes it to the point of surreal. I couldn’t completely get this from watching the film, but having been in the Royal Court Theatre I can imagine that this set must have been extremely jarring when countered with the theatre’s dark, traditional interior. The lighting also allowed the details of the actors’ bodies to be perfectly visible, making the times when Karl is covered in food even more visceral and jarring than they would have been if his body was in shadow, or even softly lit. It is not a play that shies away getting dirty; nothing is hidden, neither in the language nor the blocking, and the lighting emphasizes this. It is clearly illustrated at one point near the beginning, when the brothers masturbate together while watching a porn video. The director chose to put the imagined TV screen in the audience, so that the actors stand at the edge of the stage and touch themselves literally right in front of the audience’s faces. The way it’s staged makes it graphically impossible to ignore.

Another important aspect of the set is that it has no doors; it is literally just a box that is missing the fourth side. At the beginning of the show, the actors walk down the aisles in the theatre and climb on stage into the set which neither of them leaves until the end. The closed set is representative of their relationship: they are literally trapped with each other, and can’t escape each other because they are so closely linked. Anyone with a sibling, especially a twin, could surely relate to the sometimes claustrophobic feeling of being stuck with another person forever. These two characters, especially, don’t have any other family, except Franz’s son, since both their parents die early on in the show. They are isolated in their world with only each other. More broadly, since the brothers’ relationship mirrors that of East and West Germany, the set can be seen to represent the unified country, in which two separate cultures which used to be one but have grown apart and developed different ideologies, are forced to coexist. This is the overarching metaphor of the play, and it is clearly visualized by the set.

The space the brothers occupy is sparsely furnished, with a debris of boxes, cans and containers stacked up along the back wall–mostly alcohol and food. When the Berlin wall actually falls, near the beginning of the play, it is shown by Karl picking up the tallest stack of boxes and tumbling them into a pit in front of the stage. Visually representing the fall of the wall this way makes it immediate and personal; something Karl actually made happen, even though his character had nothing to do with it. Having the wall made out of cardboard boxes also represents the materialistic divide between the East and West.

Objects are used representationally in other ways as well. First, we see a bag of white Tesco flour as the ashes of the twins’ father. He dies shortly after the fall of the wall, and it is implied that he simply couldn’t live in the new world, since he was passionately Communist and lived all his life in East Germany. Another symbol is Franz’s son, who is born near the beginning of the play and grows a few years throughout it, represented by a yellow sponge. The child is the only other character in this piece besides the two brothers, and becomes a huge point of contention between them by the end. Part of this is his potential to learn different ideas–a child can take in and be taught almost anything. He can absorb ideas, which makes the sponge an apt stage metaphor. The child as an abstract idea also represents the future, and the question of what language and political ideology he should be taught becomes an argument between the brothers. Karl wants to instill Communist ideals in him, which Franz strongly opposes. Near the end of the play, Karl rips part of the paper bag containing the flour that represented the father’s ashes and places the paper on the sponge, like a hat or scarf. Physically combining these stage metaphors is a clear representation of Karl trying to force his, and his father’s, Communist ideals upon the next generation.

The language the child speaks is also a topic of debate. Language plays an important role in this piece, and underscores the cultural tension the play explores. The play is in English, and the actors have been speaking it the whole time with their natural British accents. When Franz addresses his son at one point, he speaks in German. We quickly learn that this is representative of him speaking English–since the characters of German, they have been speaking German the whole time. When he tells Karl why he speaks to his son in English, Franz says, “We’re going to need English; we all need English.” Though he later disavows everything American, at first Karl agrees, and says that he would like to learn English as well. We see the brothers role-play in order to give Karl a chance to practice: Franz puts on an apron and speaks English with an American accent tinged with a German one. He pretends to be a Californian waitress, and flirts with his brother, who attempts to converse in more stilted, awkward English.

The drag performance in this moment, though not a particularly serious or convincing one, revisits but reverses the situation in which the play began. At the opening, Karl is dressed as the American waitress, but more fully than Franz: he actually wears a dress, heals, padding and a wig. Franz is eating breakfast at the diner, while Karl seductively mops the floor and flirts with him. This prologue morphs into a conversation between the two brothers, and the linear plot of the play begins. The end of the play, though, revisits the diner scene. Franz ultimately kills Karl by smothering him with a mop, symbolizing West Germany dominating East. Karl continues talking once he is dead, though, and Karl realizes that the only way to silence him is to eat him, so he does. He squirts barbeque sauce all over his body, and then puts his face in his torso and pretends to take a bite, getting sauce all around his mouth. “We are one,” he declares, when the deed is done. It is the ultimate act of domination; the West has literally and figuratively consumed the East. After this, Franz places the blonde wig back on Karl’s head, and Karl once again becomes Karly, the flirtatious waitress he was in the opening. He strips naked but stands with his penis hidden between his legs so that he looks like a woman. He spoons Franz, and the play ends with Franz’s line “I love you, Karly” and the men kissing as the lights black out. It’s a complicated ending, and one that was problematic for me. I don’t know if the prologue and epilogue scenes take place in the same time in the future–Franz mentions that his son is grown up and in college–and that the rest of the play is in the past, or if they are simply abstract scenes that don’t literally fit into the timeline. It makes sense for them to take place years after the present action of the play, but then who is the female Karly? She might be just a woman in whom Franz sees something of his lost brother, and is attracted to in that sense. Or she might me an incarnation of Karl. If we look at the scenes in a more abstract sense, they could be a commentary on the gender roles into which we often force the concepts of East and West. Karl, as East Germany and more broadly the Eastern nations of the world, becomes the submissive female, while Franz is in the position of power as the West since he is being waited on. I think either interpretation is valid.

In its discussion about gender as related to Eastern and Western cultures, Over There reminds me of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. In Hwang’s play, the stereotype of a Western man’s fantasy about the perfect submissive Eastern woman is explored, and then turned on its head. Gallimard, a French diplomat, falls in love and is in a 20-year relationship with Song, a Chinese opera singer who he believes is the perfect woman but is, in fact, a man and a governmental spy. Song’s lines from Act 3, Scene 1 perfectly illustrate this idea: “The West thinks of itself as masculine–big guns, big industry, big money–so the East is feminine–weak, delicate, poor…Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes that the East, deep down, wants to be dominated–because a woman can’t think for herself.” Song is able to convince Gallimard by playing into every stereotype he believe in and being completely submissive. Likewise, Karl is ultimately dominated and destroyed by Franz, and literally becomes a female. Both these plays show us what is wrong with these stereotypes, though. M. Butterfly ends with Gallimard realizing that he is the one who has truly taken the traditionally “feminine” role in the relationship, since Song held the power all along. It also shows us that questions of gender and sexuality (and, by extension, East and West) are much more complicated than our binaries would suggest, and that in the end, they don’t matter at all. At the end of Over There, even though Karl is a woman, he is in the position of holding and comforting Franz, and it is Franz who declares his love, to which Karl does not verbally respond. Though one character appears as male and the other as female, they are not sticking to conventional roles and therefore throwing our assumptions about who is truly dominating who into question.

Over There is a complicated, visceral exploration of the relationship between brothers, genders, and nations. I am so grateful that it is available online, because though I think it is a play that should be seen widely, it is unlikely that I would ever have had a chance to experience it live. It’s a shame, because we need more pieces like this which truly challenge our cultural assumptions.

Please Don’t Start a Theatre Company

I found this article, by theatre director and arts consultant, Rebecca Novick, that is a plea to young theatre makers not to start theatre companies. The title immediately stood out to me because I have read and heard so much lately that we have to be willing to start our own companies because there won’t be venues for our work otherwise. After reading, I realized Novick’s plea is actually very specific. Basically she is saying -please don’t start a traditionally structured theatre company.


Novick says that the next generation of theatre makers need to get creative. We can’t continue to make theatre in the structure of the regional theatre model because that structure no longer works.


Novick references 13P, the group of 13 playwrights that have banded together to produce each other’s work. “We don’t develop plays, we do them,” stated loud and proud on their website. What they really mean, is that they feel in doing plays they are developing them. Their plays get workshops and readings, but they feel the best way for a playwright to analyze her work is through seeing it performed onstage. According to their website, they also believe that sometimes the over development of plays we find in regional theatres can make a play stagnant and/or diminish it artistically. 13P will implode after all 13 playwright’s have had their work produced. There are few people involved besides the 13 playwrights in the day to day tasks of running the group. Their goal is to be a producing model for the future.


I think Novick’s main point can be summed up in this line from her article “The field must refocus resources on the challenge of sustaining artists rather than sustaining particular institutions.” Novick writes that it is unfair/ridiculous that people working on the administrative side of regional theatre have secure jobs and benefits, while the artists are struggling. And this may be true, but I feel like regional theatres often do a lot of good for artists. And often, many of the people working on the administrative side of things, are also actors and directors.


I can’t imagine a world where there were only 13P’s and no Steppenwolfs or Huntingtons, and I’m not sure that would be a good world. But maybe what we need is a little more equality. And maybe that is somewhere in our not so far off future.

Los Cartoneros (Cardboard Collectors)

waste-land

In Buenos Aires there is a class of people called cartoneros—cardboard collectors. The economy is so devastating, that inorder to survive citizens are forced to resort to sorting through the day’s trash in search of recyclable material, to be exchanged for money. Cartoneros pick out paper, cardboard, metal, and glass to help support their family.

In 2006 there was a documentary created about Los Cartoneros. Cartoneros tracks the paper recycling process in Buenos Aires from the trash pickers who collect paper informally through middlemen in warehouses, to executives in large corporate mills. The process exploded into a multimillion dollar industry after Argentina’s latest economic collapse. The film is both a record of an economic and social crisis and an invitation to audiences to rethink the value of trash.

Not only do these recyclable materials serve as monetary value, but the materials have also been used to create art. The picture above is an example of this art that has been created by the materials. I have yet to see the film, but I know it can be found on netflix.It’s inspiring to see how citizens can create something beautiful, even during hard times using found objects.

Check out the website for more information: http://www.cartonerosdoc.com/

Book of Mormon

While on Spring Break, I was able to buy standing-room tickets to see Book of Mormon. I entered into the production not having read up on it, despite its acclaim. From the the title I could assume it was clearly about Mormons, and because my mother is Mormon I know a little bit about the religion. With my little knowledge I was curious about how a musical would speak about these complex issues.

The musical was incredibly smart, and I enjoyed it a great deal. Since the performance I have gone back and read up on what it took to get Book of Mormon to broadway. I stumbled upon this wonderful interview with Nikki M. James, where she speaks about her first reactions to the script. At first read, she was taken by the subject matters, and nervous about how the musical would be received. The piece was developed confidentially, and the all the actors had to sign contracts so that they wouldn’t leak any material.

As someone who watches South Park, I loved the humor. I was surprised that I found myself laughing at subjects that I otherwise would’ve been appalled by–particularly during the song Hasa Diga Eebowa, which means “fuck you God.”

The show has been running for quite some time, and has been incredibly successful. Overall I was impressed by the production, and the writing.

Invisible Man

I was recently called in for an audition at The Huntington, for a production of INVISIBLE MAN, which is based off of the Ralph Ellison novel. The novel concerns itself with an idealistic young African-American man searches for identity and his place in the world in this epic journey through 1930s America. Ellison’s novel focuses on race, power, freedom, and liberty.

In preparation for the audition, I requested that the script be sent to me. I had the opportunity to read the play. When I finished, every fiber of my being was ignited with passion. This is a story that needs to be told. I had read Ellison’s novel a few years back and felt the same way then. The adaptation takes all of its text from the novel, but the way it is woven together, and the way the director has envisioned it bring new life to it.

Chris McElroen, whose work you might know from the production of Waiting For Godot in New Orleans, is the director for the production. In his direction for the play he was inspired by Pina Baush electroshock therapy. There are a number of instances where the Invisible Man is either being beat up by life or physically being beat up. Chris uses the idea that the Invisible Man is being held by a harness and tether that he struggles against when he is receiving the electric shocks.

Also the concept of light vs. darkness is important to the piece. The set’s ceiling is comprised of various hanging lights, and the ceiling can move up and down. This allows the set to trap the Invisible Man, which is extremely interesting. This is a production that whether-or-not I am casted in, will certainly be on my radar.

The trend beyond the trend

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the practicality of some of the mantras I’ve developed in the last 4 years.  When I watched the Humana Festival Panel one of the topics I found the most compelling, as I mentioned in class, was the assumption that by incorporating new forms of media into the theatrical experience will somehow move theatre forward and develop new audiences.  As the panel noted, the vast majority of the current theatre audience in this country, at least on a regional level, is not connected to these forms of media.  Incorporating electronic music, twitter feeds, video etc into theatre is cool but it doesn’t bring in the audience with whom 21st century media resonates.

I’ve been realizing I had the same stars in my eyes sensibility with regards to starting a theatre company after graduation.  It’s not an immediate goal of mine, but it is something that interests me down the line.  My interest in it is based in the philosophies that have become the most important to me in my time here, self-producing, creating work for oneself, being an artistic enterepenuer.  Taking Theatre Management this semester has been really encouraging in terms of understanding the logistics of this kind of endeavor.  However, when I step back to think about this goal, all I can think is “why?”  As this BRILLIANT article by Rebecca Novick from Grant Makers in the Arts points out, as theatre struggles to redefine itself and retain its audiences in this climate, starting structurally inflexible institutions according to a traditional model makes very little sense.  The article offers very compelling alternatives on how to make a flexible employment structure and pick and choose elements from different models that work for yours.  The sections I found particularly compelling were “Funders Speak Out,” where it analyzes how traditional funding models proliferate the structure not the work, and Part Three, where it further dissects the core problem and addresses how we can support the people not the structure.  This article churned up all sort of thoughts in my head.  The idea of being an artistic entrepenuer has been very exciting to me since I declared as a Theatre Arts Major, since that seems to be the trend in the professional world these days.  Lately I have been thinking a lot about what that entails and am realizing that in this climate it is not enough to be thinking a step ahead, you have to be a step ahead of the step ahead.

Humble Pie in Design

Currently I’m taking an independent study with Jon Savage, that’s focused on creating a world for the play to live in. As an actress I am use to understanding characters within the world of play, but I am not so savvy at having a deep understanding of the practicalities of how to create the world.  I have been working on strengthen this muscle, and truth be told it’s a frustrating process. There is an extreme specificity in design that is hard for me to access.  I’d walk away every week feeling challenged.

One of the biggest lesson I learned was that, it is important to determine whether the reality of the event, or the reality of the fiction is more important.  This means deciding whether-or-not a piece needs to be historically accurate, or if you can take liberties and create a more abstract space. In my particular design project for August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, after weeks of floundering, I realized that reality of the event was most important. I had the epiphany that since the characters were going on a spiritual journey, that the set needed rooted in a singular location. Instead supporting the story, I became more interested in how to make the space exciting.  This is a pitfall for many young scenic designers, which became clear after having a conversation with Jim Noone.

While I was over at the Huntington Jim Noone showed me this incredible model that he created for Luck of The Irish, and it was this simple wooden set of a house. Everything from floor, to the windows was made of wood. In the case of Luck of the Irish he realized that because the story moves throughout times so actively, it becomes increasingly important for the location to stay the same.

After he explained how the set functions he said, “It is a designer’s job to create a world where the story can be told, and the actors can be heard. Too many designers forget this. They begin to fuss with the set, when it isn’t really about them—it’s about the actors being able to tell the story. Design requires humility.”

I know that this may seem like a simple concept, but I have never heard a scenic designer talk about how their craft demands humility. I then related the concept of humility back to my work as an actor, as an actor my job is simply tell the story. I have to give that story all the ingredients it needs to be heard, and that requires setting my pride aside.

Hookman

Last night I saw Company One’s production of Hookman by Lauren Yee, put on by xx playlab, Directed by Greg Maraio, and Dramaturged by Ilana Brownstein.  It was a very interesting experience.  I was completely engaged the entire time, partially because I was not always sure what was going on, but also because it was incredibly exciting, entertaining, and thought provoking. Because I had to be so actively involved in figuring out the story line, it was intellectually stimulating as well.  It was clear that this is a work in progress, but I found it to be a very bold, exciting show, that explores important issues such as rape, fear, violence, friendship, loss, and the significance of daily mundane moments.  I was very impressed by most of the acting in the show as well. The set was exciting: it featured a car on a rotating floor, a dorm room, and a bloody apron.  In fact, there’s just lots of blood everywhere, pretty much the whole play.  This bloodiness mixed with humor, mixed with very contemporary, daily college life, created an entertaining, slightly disturbing world for the funny, scary, disturbing events of the play to unfold in.  Reality seemed to fold in on itself as the main character experiences many different versions of reality.  We quickly see that we are seeing the world through her eyes, and that she is an unreliable narrator.  I was very confused as to what the play was actually about until the very end.  I understood that we were exploring fear, urban myths, loss, romance, and rape.  But I didn’t quite understand the point or specific story that the play was telling about these themes until the main character’s (Lexi’s) closing speech. Her friend tells her that confronting hookman, who has been haunting her throughout the show, does not have to be scary.  Lexi then tells the hookman that she knows she’s going to die.  She fights the hookman, with less fear and more eagerness than we have seen before, and ultimately it seems that he kills her.  However, after being stabbed, she sits back up and says that that wasn’t as bad as she thought it would be.  From this I took away that her fear of death, had been haunting her so intensely that she had been unable to really listen and focus and be in the moment living her life.  She’d seen death everywhere and that had blinded her, even harmed her.  Because of this fear she had crashed the car that killed her friend.  I am a little unclear how the rape plays into all of this other than the man who raped her is the shape in which her fear manifested itself.  I do think however, that the play is an interesting exploration of how we create our own realities.  We can be our own villains and heroes. The dialogue was very quick, fun, and entertaining, which was an accessible fun way to explore such potentially heavy topics.  I left the theatre feeling inspired, uplifted, thoughtful, slightly confused, but excited to see where this play will go.

Hookman and Rape Culture

Rape culture has been on my mind disturbingly often this semester. It started by doing The Vagina Monologues, a show which opened my mind in so many ways, not least to how culture and society undermine women every day. Since the show, I have been involved (literally and through writing, rallying, etc) in the conversation around rape culture on campus as instigated by various high-profile allegations of sexual assault. The plays we’ve read in this class, as well as readings for a women’s studies literature class I’m taking, have also often touched on this subject. So it’s something from which I haven’t been able to get away.

And then last night I saw Hookman, and I was caught off guard by how much of the play is about rape. I knew it dealt with themes of “female sexuality,” but it went way beyond that. When Lexi, in the first scene, says, “I think I was [coughs something that sounds like ‘raped’] last week,” I was immediately on edge. This is a play about rape, this is a play about rape…I’m going to hate this. But I didn’t.

In the end it’s not a play about rape; it’s a play about how horrific events haunt us and make us unable to function for a time, and ultimately about dealing with what happened and being strong enough to move on.

I thought the play handled rape well, considering it could have gone horribly wrong. The idea that every man Lexi encounters turns out to be her attacker (Hookman) shows how survivors of sexual assault have a hard time trusting people afterwards, and how their experience colors everything else in their world. The play was also clearly coming from a point of social satire, which made the humor acceptable. One of the main tenants of rape culture is trivializing sexual assault by joking about it, but that is not what was happening here. Still, even recognizing and accepting this, I didn’t laugh often during this performance. It’s just not something I am personally ready to laugh about, and I wonder if I ever will. People in the audience around me thought the scene where Yoonji is drunk in the snow with Hookman was hilarious, for example. And it was funny, because you have Mariah Carey playing while this girl almost throws up on a guy and then he slashes her face off. It’s so absurd that it’s funny. I get that. Except the situation of a severely intoxicated girl alone at night with a guy is not absurd, it happens, and it’s not absurd for the girl to get hurt. And that’s not something at which I can laugh.

Ultimately, the scariest thing about Hookman wasn’t the blood or the violence or the urban legend, it was the fact that real rapists don’t have a distinguishing feature like a hook for a hand. They could be anybody. It’s not the hook that’s scary, it’s the man. But Lexi, very much an “every-woman” character, having the strength to fight, overcome and let go of her attacker shows that she is a survivor, not a victim, which is an important, empowering message.

Ben Brantley on Criticism

After watching the wonderful Humana Festival panel with Ilana, I too began thinking more critically about criticism and its place in contemporary culture.  I find that when I am looking for arts and entertainment news through a critical lens, my first impulse is to checkout the NYTimes’ artsbeat blog.  I think the articles are generally written thoroughly and thoughtfully about the happenings in the art and entertainment world, and it helps me stay culturally connected in an articulate way.  I found it inspiring that I found this article, titled “Theater Talkback: Second Helpings,” by Ben Brantley after having heard the Humana festival panelists speak.

“Sometimes outraged readers, disagreeing with a review I’ve written, will send me e-mails that begin with a rhetorical question: ‘Did we see the same production?’ My answer is always, ‘No, we didn’t.’”

In the article, Brantley describes revisiting several large-scale productions on Broadway this season, and being pleasantly surprised by his second experience with each show.  He specifically mentions seeing Once, Follies, Other Desert Cities and End of The Rainbow twice, enjoying the many changes made when these productions moved from Regional theaters to the Big White Way.

“Since I have written about all these shows in these pages before, you might think that I am feeling jaded or weary or at least worried that I might not be able to come up with something new to say. Fragments of all those feelings (especially the part about not repeating myself) glimmer in my mind. But mostly, I’m grateful for the chance to become reacquainted with these shows – to see how they’ve changed or I’ve changed, and to assess how a familiar entity responds to a new environment.”

His interactions with these shows is inspiring.  He addresses several elements (actors, script changes, theatre space, costuming) in reviewing these pieces again as objectively as a subjective person can be.

What I find most thrilling about this article is how Brantley examines the reality of what it means to review a show.  Inevitably, we enter the theatre with a backstory and a point of view.  There are millions of factors that affect our viewing of a show.  As Brantley puts it:

“We probably attended different performances and sat in different seats and brought entirely different personal histories to bear on what unfolded before us.”

The more we acknowledge this truth as fact, we can separate the critic’s voice and aesthetic from the work itself.  The end of this article is the best part:

“That’s why no one should read any kind of criticism – and especially theater criticism – as gospel. It’s not the last word. It’s the beginning of a conversation. Seeing shows more than once allows me the critic to continue my part in that conversation, if only in my own head.”

And the conversation is what the theatre is all about.  I’m glad we’re in agreement, Mr. Brantley.