Occupy the Civilians

I just got a fascinating email from a colleague at The Civilians (where our own Steve Ginsburg is also in residence this spring). Here’s the message, which I think will be of interest to you:

I work for The Civilians (The Center for Investigative Theater) in Brooklyn, New York (www.thecivilians.org) and we have a semi-theatrical, semi-activist opportunity that I thought might be a cool thing for many of you to do (or even just contemplate doing). The Civilians create, almost exclusively, work based upon interviews taken from real people who find themselves in a particular political or social circumstance of controversy or interest. Over the past several months we’ve been interviewing protestors and activists in the Occupy Wall Street movement. We’ve had two cabaret-type performances of monologues derived from those interviews at Joe’s Pub in New York but envision a broader, less “fee-for-service” type of theater to reflect the quality of energy of the Occupy movement itself. So we’ve devised this interactive theater program called Occupy Your Mind, wherein we’re inviting artists of all types (even artists still in the artistic closet!) to engage in the work that The Civilians do regularly, to interview Occupy activists near them, and ultimately to share their video-recorded, performative interpretations of that work with the world, online.

If this project piques your interest, I’m happy to speak to you more about it. And, perhaps as important as your own interest, if you know of other people – friends, colleagues, students – who you think might also share a genuine interest in this endeavor, please pass along this information to them, and hopefully they’ll be a part of future conversations. I’m really excited about this project and the prospect of it blurring the lines between the performed and the performer. Before I get absorbed completely by critical theory, I’ll leave you the website:


If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me or Steve Ginsberg, the Chair of the Occupy Your Mind Project, at occupy@thecivilians.org. I hope some NoPassporters might find good reason to participate with us in the Occupy Your Mind Project!

Sincerely, Jay Stull  // jstull (at) gmail (dot) com


‘Matilda’ the Musical


As a kid I was an avid reader and Roald Dahl was always one of my favorites.  His books had a way of keeping me thoroughly entertained by the whimsical plot lines, but I also felt sort of adult reading them.  I never felt like Roald Dahl was talking down to me.  As a reader I was one of the good guys, one of the Matildas.  So when I heard that the West End production of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda the Musical was actually a success, I was really excited.

With stuff like Shrek the Musical floating around, I can definitely get on board with Dennis Kelley’s adaptation of this Roald Dahl classic.  Tim Minchin, one of Australia’s top comedians wrote the music and the lyrics.  Amanda Conquy, the estate’s managing director was hesitant to give permission to adapt Matilda into a musical because “we know they have an incredible capacity to go wrong.”  Luckily, the production has been very successful in London.  Matt Wolf, a writer for the International Herald Tribune said, “With Time Minchin, that was totally out of left-feild — looking toward the world of comedy and Australian comedy, too — to write a show that in many ways is so quintessentially English.  I think his score is a major achievement.  It’s not imitative or suggestive of anyone else.  It has its own flavor, texture, wit, energy.”  It has won several awards to far including best musical production and best actor (Bertie Carvel) in the Theatre Awards UK, and in November 2011 it won the Ned Sherrin Award for Best Musical as part of The Evening Standard Awards. There’s even talk of taking Matilda to Broadway.  Basically my point is it sounds awesome and I’d really like the chance to see it.


It Gets Better: The power of hope and storytelling.

While browsing through the online San Francisco Chronicle ‘Entertainment’ section (yes I live in Boston now, but a girl can still read, right?…) I came across a review of the documentary ‘It Gets Better’ which is airing tonight (Tuesday the 21st) on MTV and Logo cable channels at 11:00 P.M.  Watch it if you can!  The film follows the stories of three LGBTQ young people: Aydian a transgender man about to get married, Vanessa, a young lesbian woman whose mother is having difficulty accepting her, and Greg, a gay student body president who has yet to come out to his family and friends. The film is part of the ‘It gets better project’ created by partners Dan Savage and Terry Mill in response to the high LGBT youth suicide rate.  According to the ‘It gets better’ documentary trailer (watch it below!), 1 in 3 LGBT young people attempt suicide at least once in their lives. The ‘It gets better’ campaign started with a single video in which Terry and Dan speak directly to LGBT youth telling them quite literally to hang on, life may be hard now, but it gets better.  Since then thousands of videos with the same message have been posted by many people, including several celebrities, both openly gay and straight, and even President Obama.  The videos have grown into a movement.

The it gets better campaign focuses on hope as it’s central message.  By telling LGBT youth who are going through a hard time that “it gets better,” one is effectively giving them hope.  This is very resonant to me as right now I am in a production of Execution of Justice by Emily Mann.  The play tells the story of the trial of Daniel James White, the city supervisor who killed both George R. Moscone and Harvey Milk in November of 1978.  It is a very intense play that has sparked many audience questions and debates, which is very exciting and really makes me believe in the power of theatre all over again!  The second act opens with a recording of Harvey Milk’s campaign speech, Harvey’s central campaign message was hope. He says:

“Two days after I was elected I got a phone call and the voice was quite young. It was from Altoona, Pennsylvania. And the person said “Thanks”. And you’ve got to elect gay people, so that the thousand upon thousands like that child know that there is hope for a better world; there is hope for a better tomorrow. Without hope, not only gays, but those blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us’s: without hope the us’s give up. I know that you can’t live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you, and you, and you, and you have got to give them hope.”

I have been thinking a lot lately about what would have happened if Harvey Milk had not been killed, and if Dan white had not merely received a seven years and eight month prison sentence because of the Twinkie defense.  There is part of me that feels incredibly cheated, that feels like if Harvey Milk had lived LGBT people would have full equal rights today.  Of course we can never know that for sure. But for me it is easy to become upset that gay marriage is not legal in the majority of U.S. states, that homophobia is so rampant, and that in many places job discrimination is still legal based on sexual orientation, as is the ability to deny hospital visitation rights. Perhaps because I was not alive during Harvey Milk’s time and before, it is easy for me to forget how far we really have come (And it is far!  If you are interested in knowing more of the history around Harvey Milk’s time and before, read The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shiltz). It gives me hope that the ‘it gets better’ campaign is in existence.  It feels like Harvey’s Milk message is still very much alive, even if we have work yet to do.  I do believe that It does get better and I know it will. I believe that sharing our stories as a society and individuals, through plays like Execution of Justice and projects like the ‘It gets better campaign’ we can and will create change.

\’It Gets Better\’ documentary trailer

Peace, Love, Vaginas

This semester, I was lucky enough to be cast in The Vagina Monologues, presented by The Center for Gender, Sexuality and Activism. Participating in this piece has been a theatrical experience unlike any I have had before, because it feels like so much more than a play. It has given me the opportunity to engage in an important dialogue with other women, and from that, to take the discussions into my daily life.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the Vagina Monologues is a series of monologues or group pieces based on Eve Ensler’s interviews with over 200 women from all walks of life and areas of the world. It is a play about the collective female experience through the lens of the vagina. The pieces range from serious to humorous, covering everything from rape to whether or not to shave down there. It is a beautiful and moving play—I have yet to get through a rehearsal without crying.

Doing this piece is a new experience for me as an actor because I feel a sense of urgency all the time. I honestly believe that these stories need to be told, and I am dying to get in front of an audience and tell them. There is no need to talk about raising the stakes—the stakes are already sky high, when you think about the fact that 1 in 4 women will face sexual abuse in her life time. The issues the play addresses are not talked about enough and it’s terrifying. Women need to see this show because it is about them, whether they know it going in or not. Men need to see it so that they can come closer to understanding how different, in some ways, our experience of the world is from theirs.

I find Ensler and her work to be incredibly inspiring. I want to create a piece like this more than anything. We need more pieces that inspire and empower people to take it with them out of the theatre and into the world. This art form that we practice is so powerful; there is nothing like the energy and connection that are created during live theatre. More works need to harness that power and use it to make a difference in the world.

Out with the Old

I found this article that reminded me of the discussion we had in class about the roles available to minorities in contemporary theatre. This article focuses on the lack of roles available for “older women” in British Theatres.

In the same way that our stages are not reflecting the world that we live in racially, they also do not represent the different ages and genders that make up our society.

People just don’t write plays with characters over the age of 40, especially women.

It seems that anyone past that age no longer leads a life worthy of the stage. Once a woman is no longer seen as “sexy” by the general population- she’s no longer valued as an actress.

But this does not only occur in the theatre industry. It is an issue almost more prevalent in the Film and TV industry.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since our discussion in class. What is the root of this issue? Are people over the age of 35 just not writing plays as much as young writers are? And if they are, why don’t they write characters for people their age? And why aren’t all playwrights, young and old, seeing this gap in contemporary characters and trying to fill it? Wouldn’t it be exciting to be the leader of a shift in focus in the theatre world by writing older characters that aren’t usually written?

Nowadays the majority of theatre audiences are older people- people with stable careers and an income that can support seeing shows and supporting art.

So wouldn’t playwrights and producers would want to produce plays that relate to their audience? Are older people not interested in plays about people their age?

The more I think about it, the more I am certain that the real issue is that sex sells. For the same reasons that Dead City is more marketable than The Vigil. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, if you’ve lost your sex appeal you might want to look for a career outside of the entertainment industry.

A New “Frankenstein”

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending Monster, Neal Bell’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic Gothic novel Frankenstein, presented by the Boston Center for American Performance. I absolutely love Frankenstein, so I went into the evening excited, but also a little bit skeptical. Shelley’s prose is lush and descriptive, and one of my favorite aspects of the novel. I was concerned about how that would translate to the stage. Additionally, I was haunted by visions of Kenneth Branagh’s horrific 1994 film entitled (unintentionally ironically) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Branagh claimed to have made a movie that was true to the novel and reclaimed the story from the twisted pop culture version it had become. When most people think of the character Frankenstein, for example, they assume it is the monster, not the creator. Instead of doing this, however, Branagh butchered the story, adding gratuitous scenes of violence, sex and Helena Bonham Carter’s reanimated corpse. So, needless to say, I was concerned.

Overall, though, the play pleasantly surprised me. Even though there were small things I took issue with (why does William seem to stay the same age the whole time as the other characters grow up, for example? And does Victor really need to be able to literally talk to animals?), I feel that the tone of the play is very much in keeping with Shelley’s novel. It is dark and unsettling, asking questions about life, death, parental responsibility and the boundaries of humanity to which is provides no easy answers. And why should we want a piece that attempts to provide simple answers when clearly none exist?

I did miss Shelley’s prose, as I knew I would, but the design of the production almost made up for it. The soundscape expressed aurally much of what Shelley describes, and helped transport us to vocations as diverse as an Arctic tundra and a stream in the woods. The lights, too, helped create different moods—Victor’s laboratory is so creepy, just as it is in the novel, whereas the early childhood moments feel free and not foreboding.

I also appreciated Bell’s fleshing out of the character of Elizabeth. I struggled with her in the novel—she has almost no depth or characterization outside of her love for Victor. She is the classic Gothic heroine, the damsel in distress. The creature kills her on her wedding night, so she dies a virgin. In the novel, she represents all that is good and pure; essentially all that Victor is rejecting in his pursuit of godliness. Though this is great symbolically, as a character, Shelley’s Elizabeth is given nothing to do besides wait for a man. Bell’s Elizabeth, however, is much more complex. She is allowed to feel sexual desire, though she is still killed before she can fulfill it. She has complicated feelings about Victor—she loves him, but she refuses to be something that he owns and studies. This Elizabeth knows that marriage is a partnership and that she herself is more than an object. I found this to be an incredibly refreshing make-over for the character.

When looking at Monster next to Dead City, one sees two very different models for adapting novels to the stage. Both are successful, though, because they honor the tone and themes of their inspiration. Details can be changed, but if the adaptor remains true to the spirit of the source, both pieces can be enhanced through their relationship.

The Curious Case of Jeremy Lin.

We’ve all heard the saying “white men can’t jump,” which we know is actually not true. Yet somehow we stand in awe of Jeremy Lin, a Chinese-American guard for the New York Nicks, because who knew that a Chinese man COULD jump? Or actually be 6’3″? Both Jeremy Lin’s incredible height and skill on the court have torn down two major cultural stereotypes. However people in power still can’t see past the veneer of color into more diversity on stage.

On the conversation of diversity on stage, I was shocked by the statics used in the recent RepresentAsian conference entitled Asian-Americans: Why Can’t We Get Casted in New York? The static revealed that 80.3% of casting goes to Caucasian performers, 13.2% goes to African-American performers, 3.5% goes to Hispanic performers, 2.3% goes to Asian Americans, and 0.7% goes to “OTHER” performers.We are approaching a majority-minority, yet our stages and education environments do not reflect that in any way shape or form.  The forum’s purpose was not to point fingers, because truthfully that never helps the situation, instead their were interested in asking “How do we engage in dialogues with the New York theater community without placing blame?”

One of the most important comments made by actress Anitha Gandhi. She pointed out that, “when contemporary plays are produced, we’re not looked upon for roles of the girlfriend, best friend, mom or father. I feel the color angle really does us a disservice. There is this patting-the-back mentality among producers and casting persons who will say, ‘There is a black actor in my production.’ … They don’t look at us as being part of the fabric of the American story.” Although this forum was specifically geared towards opening a dialogue about Asian-Americans performers, it is am issue that plagues all minority performers. There is simply a lack of writing that depicts us as fully fleshed out human beings.

Even though we’ve made large strides, we are still haunted by faulty perceptions. We still think Asians are really good at math, Black women are always angry, White men can’t jump, Native-Americans are drunkards, and Hispanics are hyper-sexual. These stereotypes are used to box people in, blind us from seeing the Jeremy Lin’s that exist.

A Movie THEN a Play?!

I  saw “The King’s Speech” in theaters and absolutely loved it.  Not only was it awesome to see vocal techniques we learn in Voice and Speech being done by Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth on the big screen, the story of a man deeply examining his inner life was also resonant with the experience of going to school in the arts.  I thought it was awesome that this kind of story was receiving such widespread attention and that his journey to find himself while becoming a strong leader was very important.

This background, The King’s Speech On Stage on the screenwriter and the story now being put in play form makes me like it all the more.  Turns out the writer, David Seidler, is 74, has never had a project close to this magnitude, and grew up with a stutter.  When writing the movie he felt overwhelmed, and based off a suggestion from his wife he wrote the play to help himself focus on the essential relationships and their anchoring of the piece.  This is very important to note when considering the significance of the film’s success, it has superb sound design, editing, cinematography, and art direction (indeed it was nominated for an Oscar in all of these categories) but what carries it is the story and human connections (won oscars for best picture, screenplay, direction, and actor).  Focus on technology is driving story and character from film, and I hope lessons can be taken from the success of a film like this.  Audiences have been seduced by the scale on which film can tell story but the industry is so consumed with expanding that scope it’s forgetting the story.  The physical limitations of theatre focus the attention on story, relationships, and characters in the same way that anchors the most successful films.

Seidler remarks, “In my mind, the films’ function was to give me enough money to help me get the play done.”  There’s great honesty here, it remind me of the what Michael Maso said that Kate referenced in her last post as well, that a theatre with money can focus on theatre, a theatre without money focuses on money.”   I said in my last post that sometimes I feel there is an aversion within the arts to being accessible, and I think the same is clearly true of making money as well.  But as this example shows, that for the most part for art to be expansive and influential it has to consider the playing field.

The Unwelcoming Wagon

I was reading this interesting blog by Nina Simon, who specializes in museum experiences. In her post “Come On In and Make Yourself Feel Uncomfortable,” she writes about her experience attending a local gym for the first time. She admits that, “There was nothing threatening about the people at the boxing gym. And yet I felt threatened, uncertain of whether I was up to the challenge, ready to be the newbie, willing to be a novice woman among men.” The experience she describes is the same one that newbies feel when they attend art museums. This becomes an issue when cultural institutions are looking to expand the demographic of their audiences.

I didn’t grow up going to museums, so I’ll admit that I there are times when I enter into museums and feel completely overwhelmed.  The art is beautiful, but it feels like there’s a veil between the work and myself.  It feels unapproachable, and I can’t find my way into the art. Also There are certain ways to best navigate through museums in a fruitful way and if museums are foreign to you, or you don’t have the knowledge base, chances are you will walk away. Important questions need to be answered about how to bridge the learning gap. While I think that this has more to do with reinstating arts education program, and less about how art is curated– it is something that has to be constantly examined.

It’s also something that we as theatre artists need to reexamine. If I seriously want a different demographic to enter into our institutions, how can we develop an atmosphere where they feel welcomed? It seems like a rather obvious question to ask. After all we learn in the theatre that how the world of a play feels, smells, and looks is important—so why would a cultural institution be any different?

Live Streaming Theater: a Contradiction?

The most recent Cottmail I received included several articles about theater companies providing live broadcasts of shows- some in cinemas and some online.  My immediate reaction is skeptical… Isn’t part of the definition of theater that it is live?  That there is no removal of a screen?  What about the communal experience? The human experience of theater? Why not just make a movie?

One point producers made that I could understand was that these broadcasts would increase revenue and expand audiences.  As Michael Maso says, a theater with money can focus on theatre. A theater without money can only focus on money.  I understand the practical need for money.  But I cringe at the idea that we need to put theater on a screen to make people see it.  Indeed, the review of the production Hamet Live was not positive- the reviewer much preferred the in-person version.  I’d agree that filmed theater is just not the same.  Plays are not meant to be filmed. They are not written like film scripts, and for a good reason.  One does not receive a play the same way one receives a movie… they are two different beasts.

Now here comes a harder question for me to answer… if a potential audience member had the choice to either purchase a reduced-priced cinema “theater” ticket or not see a play at all… would I object to them seeing the filmed version?  I honestly don’t know.  And I’m sure I’d even appreciate the chance to see some shows that I’d never see otherwise because of cost or location… but what scares me is that people would see the filmed version instead of the live version.  If you don’t even have to leave the house to online stream a show… wouldn’t it seem that an “average american” might prefer his or her own couch?

Time for Change

Recently, for obvious reasons,  I have been drawn to articles about the future of theatre.  I think that if I were to give my blogs so far a title, they would be called -The future as an artist, what the hell are we going to do? I found this article about the current, and future art scene very exciting.

As a senior looking for jobs for next year, the real world appears very daunting. This article discusses the “revolution” that could be in the works for the next generation of theatre makers, and how we can be participants in that revolution- and I think we already are. This article made me examine the program we have at BU, and examine my own awareness of the world and my art.

Jaan Whitehead presents the idea that the creative dreaming that has produced and expanded our art has been stifled and diminished, and it is time for a “revolution.”

Whitehead says one step towards that revolution is to re-imagine the role of the audience in the theatre. We need to make the audience participants in the art. We need to create theatre with them, not just perform it for them.

This is exciting to me because I feel like many shows that we can see around Boston, and are creating ourselves at BU are offering this kind of experience for the audience.

Whitehead also says that artists need more freedom. In our training at BU we are given time to work, the freedom to collaborate, and often given work that challenges us as artists. Unfortunately, once we leave school these things will not be available to us.

We are lucky enough to be in a program that almost requires time and collaboration to create work. Nowadays, artists work for companies, companies do not work for artists. To me this is just another example of how we are going to have to create our own jobs when we leave here. Hopefully, the training in collaboration and time management we have received at BU will help us do this.

There is also a need for new work that is vital right now. I feel like so many of our generation, myself included, are more apathetic than passionate about current events. I try to pay attention to world events. I try to follow the political debates, and be in the know about how America’s economy is doing, but sometimes it is so bleak, and I have homework to do and rehearsal to go to. But I’m realizing that I need to be attacking information about current events like it’s my job- because it kind of is. How can I even begin to work on a contemporary show without being fully up to date on the contemporary world? How will I know if theatre I want to make is relevant if I am not aware of what is relevant to others?!

Whitehead has other ideas for our revolution as well, these were just the ones that stuck out to me. Everyone should really read her article. I’m definitely nervous about graduation, but also really excited to see what happens to the theatre world in our lifetime.

The Cage of Normalcy: God of Carnage

The Huntington Theatre Company recently presented Yasmina Reza’s Tony and Olivier award winning play God of Carnage. This hilarious and often painful piece had a successful run at the Huntington, and I personally enjoyed it immensely. It is grounded enough in reality to allow the often outrageous, almost slapstick elements to feel true. Reza’s text gives us a nuanced look into what begins as an average evening with two sets of urban, upper-middle class parents that spirals horribly out of control. The Huntington’s production took this base and crafted an alternate universe, where everything is recognizable but no one is acting as they should.
God of Carnage is a classically-structured play. The three unities are observed: the play takes place in real time—about an hour and a half on the same evening, in one set—a Brooklyn living room, and with one plot—two couples meet to discuss and a fight between their two 11-year-old sons. Of course, things do not go as smoothly as hoped. Tension escalates slowly throughout the first part of the piece, coming to a head when the visiting mother, Annete Raleigh, gets sick and vomits all over the couch and coffee table. Once this bizarre event has transpired, the façade of social niceties has been broken. The characters start drinking–heavily, in some cases–and the conversation begins to focus more on the individual issues in the two marriages than on their children’s fight.
Before the evening progresses to borderline ridiculousness, it begins a calm, realistic way. This is one of the play’s greatest strengths. The characters feel like real people, not stereotypes or caricatures, and the situation and setting are immediately recognizable. This early grounding allows the audience to get swept along in the ridiculousness that ultimately ensues. A person who came in mid-way through would probably view the play as a farce, with over-the-top elements like a man crying over his cell phone and a woman lying drunkenly on someone else’s living room floor. When viewed in its entirety, though, as it is of course meant to be, the level of absurdity builds so slowly that it never actually feels absurd. The fact that Alan Raleigh is so obsessed and attached to his phone, for example, is established strongly enough in the beginning where we accept that seeing it ruined would reduce him to tears. Likewise, his wife does not get wasted in a few minutes time—we see her drink slowly at first, gaining speed as her anger grows until she is pounding shot after shot. The gradual build of absurdity is well handled both in the text and by the actors.
In addition to the truthful opening moments, the set and lighting helped keep the play grounded in reality. I have criticized the Huntington before for their overly-elaborate sets, but in this case, I feel it worked perfectly. The different levels and transparent walls around the staircases allowed the audience to see all the actors almost all the time, except when they went either up to the bathroom or down to the kitchen. This helped us stay in the world of the play. The levels also offered interesting blocking opportunities, of which director Daniel Goldstein took full advantage. The lights remained constant throughout the play until they dimmed at the end, when the actors remained in a tableau of desperation. Though lighting effects and changes can undoubtedly be used effectively to communicate shifts in tone, in this piece it was a good choice not to use them in this way. Keeping them constant maintained the piece’s realism; lights don’t dim or brighten to reflect mood in a real life living room. There is nothing meta-theatrical about the design of this production—it never reminds the audience that it is a play.
The only hint of meta-theatricality came in the opening moments of the play. I was not impressed by any of the actors at all early on—they all seemed stiff and rehearsed. It felt very clear that they were acting. As the action progressed, however, and the characters lost some of their inhibitions, the acting steadily improved as well. Looking back, I think it was an astute director’s choice to have the characters begin the play by consciously drawing attention to the fact that they were acting. Because, as we learn as the play progresses, they are all in fact acting different roles: perfect wife, perfect mother, etc. These roles were stripped away little by little, until the characters were bare and vulnerable on stage. By this point, the acting was naturalistic enough to not draw any attention to itself.
All the characters have major flaws, which is part of what makes them believable. I was able to sympathize with three of them in spite of their shortcomings. I felt that Michael Novak, however, is just an incredibly offensive and insensitive character. The way he would completely dismiss his wife’s thoughts and feelings made me despise him. This is unfortunately an all too familiar male character, and I think Reza wrote him in a disturbingly true way. Unfortunately people like this exist. He was just incredibly hard for me to watch. The other husband, who is constantly on his cell phone and clearly not an involved, supportive husband or father, still had some redeeming qualities for me. Both these men had elements frustrating believability.
I didn’t realize until I had a chance to read the program note after the performance that Reza is a French writer, and that God of Carnage was translated from French. Christopher Hampton, a playwright himself, should be applauded for capturing the bite of Reza’s text while still making the play sound decidedly American. In the program note, Rachel Carpman notes that though English-speaking audiences find Reza’s works to be farcical, apparently French audiences only “drily chuckle.” How one could meet onstage vomit with merely a dry chuckle is beyond me, but so be it. The audience at the Huntington found the play hilarious, even the parts not involving bodily fluids. After all the broad comedy throughout, however, the play ends on a serious, even tragic note. The Novak’s daughter calls, and Veronica has to pull herself together and deal calmly with the girl. She lies about a hamster which her husband had let loose outside the night before. It is a poignant note, and brings the drama back into focus: despite the fact that these characters have regressed to a state where they are behaving like children, ultimately they are adults who have a responsibility to care for actual children. The tragedy, then, is in the suggestion that life may have conditioned adults to act mature and put-together, but underneath we are all just as confused and lost as children.
Discussion of the hamster was a reoccurring motif. Michael got rid of the hamster the night before because its noise was bothering their some. Veronica and Annete both vilify him for what they view as essentially murdering the rodent. He defends himself by saying that not only was he allowing his son to rest by removing the irritating pet, he was setting it free. He claims he had thought it would happily run into the woods. Instead, however, the animal simply sat in the road and refused to move once it was dumped out of its cage. The hamster is a great stage metaphor, because it represents the situation of all the characters. Once they have been released from their cage of social normality, they no longer know how to function. We think of the rules of social behavior as something that we all mutually agree to, but Reza is arguing that maybe they are more a restraint than a positive choice. Underneath, perhaps we are all no more confident or put-together than a lost animal or angry child.

Jason Grote ‘SMASH’ing Cliches


I have been fascinated by the recent trend of playwrights turned screen/TV writers. For the longest time I thought of the world of theatre and television as distinctly different, which they are, but to the overlap in intriguing. I first took interest in this trend when I stumbled across an article about playwright Tanya Saracho’s big move to LA.  I could go on about my obsession with Tanya Saracho’s writing, but I think it’s most important for you know a little about who she is.

Tanya Saracho was a graduate of our very own Boston University. Through the connections she made here enable her premiere three of scripts here. Tanya is best known for her stage adaptation of the book The House on Mango, which was produced in Chicago at Steppenwolf. As a Latina playwright her work on the book is incredibly rhythmic and flavorful. If you haven’t read the script or youtubed interviews about her work, you should. You need to know her work. While living in Chicago Tanya created a name for herself, by starting her own theatre company Teatro Luna, and working in various arenas as a theatre artist.  Now she has moved to LA to produce the West Coast Premiere of El Nogalar, an interpretation of the Cherry Orchard that is focused on a Mexican families way of life being threatened by encroaching drug cartels. In the mix of this premier she has landed a manager and TV writing agent, and is making her way in Hollywood.

When I consider the oeuvre of Tanya’s work it’s not entirely far fetched that she would be encouraged to make the transition to TV writing. Although she has a distinct Latina voice, there’s nothing too avant-garde about her work, that can’t be filtered through to commercial television. I am actually insanely excited to see what sort of splashes she makes in the TV world, because they will undoubtedly be colorful—in all senses of the word!

On the contrary, I was a little shocked when I heard about playwright Jason Grote making his move to TV writing with his involvement in the new TV series ‘SMASH,’ which is essentially a more mature version of GLEE—so you know I’ll be tuned in! (It is really actually incredible.) I first encountered Jason Grote’s play Hamilton Township, during an independent study with Ilana Brownstein. I remember being entranced by the fictional community he created, and found myself digging up these evocative images of the world of the play. He is known on the East Coast as an experimental writer in the Theatre, so how did he get to be on staff for a new hit television show, created by Steven Spielberg?

In the Los Angeles Times he writes this interesting article that talks about his arrival. What I loved about the article is its honesty. Jason candidly reveals the struggles of being a playwright, and openly shares about the technicalities of his transition.  For those that are staunchly against commercialism, they might view Grote as a sell out. But I say more power to him– hopefully Smash will give him a chance to sustain his family and room to continue to write the next great piece for the American Theatre. His involvement in Smash will not deduct from his work in the theatre. Grote is a phenomenal playwright, so I can’t wait to see where this opportunity takes him.

With a few of the leading forces in the American Theatre dabbling in television right now, I think there is the possibility for change in Hollywood. Better scripts. Better actors. Better entertainment.

Plays and Parties

Recently in Theatre Management we were asked to design our own theatre companies. The easiest way to do this is obviously to combine a whole slew of things you’re passionate about, so I tried to compile that list:
-Physical Theatre
-Participation with the artist community
I didn’t aim to choose a list of things starting with the letter P, but it happened. I wanted to create something that looked like this. A lot of fun exploration that was allowed the time to fully explore an idea, and got to share it in fun exciting ways with the community that it was benefiting. I thought about models that were similar, Oberon maybe? No. Not really what I meant. Punchdrunk? Possibly… that did fit with the ‘P’ theme! But then it hit me! There was an element I had forgotten: Place. And that place was London, and the company was Shunt.
When I spent my semester abroad in London last spring, my favorite place to go on a weekend was the night club/ lounge Shunt (shunt.co.uk). I was always able to see some exciting performance art, it was in an interesting place (A Bermondsey Street money processing warehouse that had a large structure built in the center with three plexi glass floors you could see through, all set up for performances, and all forming a large machine). I hadn’t realized it was the home of a theatre company. Shunt was founded in 1998 by a group of artists who met at the Central School of Speech and Drama. They chose the name, because like the spaces they worked in, it did not immediately suggest a theatrical experience. They started in Bethnal Green Arches where they created Twist, The Tennis Show, and Dance Bear Dance. After gaining recognition from the National Theatre, they moved to a new London Bridge location where they performed Tropicana. The experience for Tropicana began the moment the audience got off the tube. Despite being what would be called ‘site specific’ they did not associate with that because the spaces they worked in  we imagined into what they became.
The group’s goal is to challenge the idea of a singular author by working with a large idea the group decides to explore. While the group is working on devising, they host bi- monthly cabaret nights, & weekly lounge nights (which is what I attended think it was just a ‘fun arty club’ experience). Both are tools used for sharing their process, and gaining inspiration. I missed being able to see their most recent piece, Money (based around ideas in Emile Zola’s L’argent) by a few weeks. The whole performance was about the mindless machine that is today’s economy and where we find ourselves in it.
This makes me feel better about my own crazy dreams of having my 5P’s (partying must be included no matter how old I get, even if it has to change in forms). I can have a company that does all of this, because one already exists that works great.

Theatre of the Oppressed

A few weeks ago Katy Rubin, a BU CFA alumnus, came and did a ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ workshop with us.  It was both enjoyable and thought provoking.  We discussed such things as the famous ‘This is not an Apple’ painting by Rene Magritte, and how our bodies respond to words without our minds even being aware. I was inspired to learn a bit more about Theatre of the Opressed.

Theatre of The Oppressed was created in the 1960’s by Augusto Boal, a Brazillian Doctor from Rio Dejanero who graduated from Columbia University.  Theatre of the Opressed,

“offers everyone the aesthetic means to analyze their past, in the context of their present, and subsequently to invent their future, without waiting for it. The Theatre of the Oppressed helps human beings to recover a language they already possess — we learn how to live in society by playing theatre. We learn how to feel by feeling; how to think by thinking; how to act by acting. Theatre of the Oppressed is rehearsal for reality…. The oppressed are those individuals or groups who are socially, culturally, politically, economically, racially, sexually, or in any other way deprived of their right to Dialogue or in any way impaired to exercise this right.” From the Theatre of the Opressed Organisation’s website

“The Theatre of the Oppressed is theatre in this most archaic application of the word. In this usage, all human beings are Actors (they act!) and Spectators (they observe!).”Augusto Boal, Games for Actors and Non-Actors

Or as Katy Rubin says on her Website:

“Theatre of the Opressed is an interactive, physical and playful tool used to investigate situations in which we are denied our basic rights, personally and collectively.  We use theatrical debate, through games and scenes, to uncover the many possible alternatives to these real life challenges.   By imagining and rehearsing solutions together onstage, we prepare ourselves to take action offstage.  Theatre of the Oppressed training and performance is designed to empower the participants to become catalysts for change in their own lives and communities.”

What is most intriguing to me about Theatre of the Opressed is forum theatre.  Forum Theatre is the “rehearsal for reality” described above.  The facilitator, called a ‘joker,’ asks the community if anyone wants to bring up a real life problem that they’ve been having.  Someone then explains a problem and acts it out with other people as needed.  The participant then does the scene again, trying out a different reaction to the oppression happening.  If they are not satisfied with this other response and they want input, other people who have different ideas of how to respond in that situation can get up and try it out.  The idea is to, without judgment of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ find possible solutions to problems that the participants are having.  Theatre becomes a tool to try out real life actions.  In this way wars could be avoided! Imagine if Bush had done some forum theatre about ways to handle 9/11!  But really, I think that this is a very interesting use of theatre.  We know that  theatre is important artistically, as a release, in community building, in telling stories that would not otherwise be heard, etc.  But this is interactive theatre at its most utilitarian.  This is a practical real-life application of theatre!  A testing ground for possible realities. Bravo. Another thing that I admire about Theatre of the Oppressed is the lack of judgement of any kind when analyzing the scenarios.  As Katy said, if someone pulls out a gun as a solution to being caught stealing bread, it is not for the participants to say that that is wrong.  We don’t know how much that person needs that bread.  The participants only point out that the police could come and jail or the death of a person could be the consequence. If the person does not like these possible outcomes, then the collective can help the person come up with a different solution, thereby creating group empathy and solidarity. Often we don’t want to act violently, we just have a strong need and no other solution.  Forum theatre gives us help with that.

Watch a Theatre of the Oppressed performance preview by the Jan Hus Homeless center actors and Katy to get an idea of what Forum theatre looks like in Perfomance.

The title of ‘Oppressed’ in itself makes me think.  Who do we define as oppressed?  Certainly there are dis-empowered communities who greatly benefit from this kind of theatre, but haven’t we also all been oppressed at some point?  Aren’t we all both Opressor and Opressed?  Couldn’t we all benefit from taking time to come together in solidarity and do some group problem identification and solving?

“Turning Our Eyes Forward”

I remember as George W. Bush was leaving office and Obama was moving in what a wonderful sense of hope developed.  Of course it was one of the slogans he ran on, but shared, I would posit, by the majority of the country was an undercurrent of change, as the mess of a status quo had the chance to at least stop growing.  Clearly, in the past few years this has dwindled, as the scope of the mess has become more apparent.  Lately however, there has again been something in the zeitgeist, as we head into an election year framed by the Occupy Movement, leaving Iraq, etc.

Now, the “look at social media, look at how fast things change these days” point is very familiar at this juncture, but I don’t think it’s significance can be overstated.  I think when you look at what is happening in social, political, and economic arenas in the US and around the world it is not misguided to say that we are square in the middle of a crossroads, from which the path forward will be decided incrementally.  I think there is great potential for the arts to gain influence and awareness as the world re-adjusts itself.  Sometimes I feel like there is almost a desire within the arts to be a closed system, maybe because as people we tend to have such a difficult time coexisting with folks who aren’t artistically inclined.  The ways in which the world around us is changing though, is offering new opportunities for culture to find a more prominent place.

This article from HowlRound, Turning Our Eyes Forward, is a great example of artists experimenting to see what kind of new place culture can occupy in the communities of the 21st century.  What I love is that there project is born from assessing what it is that theatre has that it can offer a 21st century way of life, and how it can change to make that significance clearer to an audience outside of the typical fare for theatre in this country.  I love this quotation, “To survive, theater must rise to this challenge and think of itself not as a venue but as an incredibly rich resource with unique skill in cultivating collaboration, facilitating exchange, and creating dynamic new places in a constantly changing world” (Cullinan).  Theatre has so much to offer that it is not made apparent.  I think their notion that it is not that the general public does not value culture but that the way we interact with it needs to be updated is dead on.  This strikes a fairly similar theme as my last post on The Prospero Project, but as I inevitably look to the future day in and day out I think I am hoping that the changes the world is hinting at are realized and we move into a new enlightenment.  Within the arts especially we need to dream ambitiously that it can be true.

Dennis Cooper

When I was working with Ishmael Houston-Jones, he sent me a copy of one of his full length pieces called THEM.  The piece, which was created in 1986, explores the fears of the gay community in response to the beginnings of the AIDS Crisis through improvisational movement.  While I was watching, I suddenly saw a man standing off to the side reciting provocative, hypersexual poetry that was absolutely eery and moving.  It was Dennis Cooper.

Who is this man, I thought to myself.  I began to research Dennis Cooper, who I thought was solely a poet.  I soon realized that he was artistically all over the map, literally and metaphorically.  He is an American artist who currently resides in Paris, but works all over the world, which I can understand based on the radical nature of his queer work.  He began his career as a writer, creating poetry and fiction that can be sometimes difficult to read due to its blunt content.  Since that time, has created art for theatre and has created a blog of his own (which seeems to make him extremely excited).

What I love about his blog is that it’s very much like ours.  It’s a dramaturgical blog in that he shares what is inspiring him and provides as much information as possible to support his subject of research.  I think that this is a great resource because, somewhat like Suzan-Lori Parks’ 365 Plays, his audiences have a chance to see what may be making him tick.  Also, his posts are really interesting and present information about artists who may otherwise be ignored.

I am only in the beginning of reading a slew of his works, but right now what I’m discovering is attracting me most is his authenticity and his risks.

Here is a link to his blog!

And a link to his website.

What happened to the Melting Pot?

I found this article comparing the poster art for different productions of “Red,” by John Logan. While the comparison of the poster art is interesting, the article sparked other ideas.

Almost 30 theatres across the country, from Arizona, to New Jersey, to Florida produced “Red” by John Logan in their the same show in the same season. This kind of exposure is similar to what a touring show would receive.

I am torn between thinking this is exciting, and thinking this is scary.

All of these regional theatres recognize the high quality of “Red”, and it is exciting to know that audiences across America have access to good plays.

But what does it mean for America’s culture if every region shares the same taste? I guess I thought there would be more diversity between north and south, east and west. I mean, I suppose it is great that we can have a uniting taste for theatre, in an otherwise very separate nation. But would a more diverse theatre scene coast to coast help to cultivate new artists from different regions and thus new work? I also found that a number of theatre included “God of Carnage”, and “Next to Normal” in their 2011-2012 seasons.

Aren’t we supposed to have different values, styles, and tastes from coast to coast? Not that unity is a bad thing, but shouldn’t these different regions cultivate very different kinds of art?

I worry that so many theatre companies across the country have similar seasons means that American theatre is becoming less diverse, and less interested in creating, and discovering new work.

This only makes me more certain that I am going to have to create my own theatre and my own jobs after graduation. There is not a strong demand for diversity, or new work, so as the next generation of theatre makers- we must demand that of ourselves.

“Calm Down, Dearie”

I had half a draft of a blog post about Red written, but I don’t want to write it anymore. In light of today’s discussion of Oleanna, and an exchange I just had, I need to write about something else.

I’m sitting in the GSU right now, and I just got up to get some water. The main water machine is broken, so I filled a cup with ice and then hot water. As I was doing so, a male employee came up to me and said “What do you need, dearie?” “Just water,” I said, clearly doing just fine getting it on my own. “Okay, dearie,” he replied.

Okay. So. First of all, why the need to approach me at all? Maybe just a desire to be helpful, true, maybe I looked lost…but I don’t think I did. Secondly, and more infuriatingly, why the term of endearment? He doesn’t know me–there was absolutely no basis for any sort of relationship, or even interaction, between us. So why the need to address me that way?

Now, I don’t think that was sexual harassment. I’m not gonna pull a Carol and try to get him fired. BUT I don’t think it’s ridiculous of me to question and take issue with this interaction. Referring to me, a young woman, by a term of endearment implies a level of intimacy that I in no way invited or desired. Furthermore, “dearie” specifically is a diminutive term. This is just an example of the way in which our society infantilizes women. Carol takes issue with John calling his wife “baby.” It is none of her business, and possibly an overreaction, but her point remains valid. When men refer to women as babies, either directly or through other terms that imply a childlike dependency (“sweetie,” “honey”–words that could be used interchangeably for a lover or a child) it is negating our womanhood and putting the man in a position of power over us.

This is also not to say that women don’t refer to their male partners using this same language. In intimate relationships, this absolutely occurs. However, I have a hard time imagining a situation in which an adult woman would refer to a younger male stranger, or an older male stranger for that matter, as “sweetie,” or “dearie.” Whereas for some reason, it is still borderline acceptable for men to refer to women in this way. Carol calls John out for calling a student “Dear,” calling it flirting. And it is. It’s forcing an intimacy that the woman is not welcoming. Once we start allowing men to dictate the level of intimacy in a relationship, whether it is one that is already fraught with power dynamics like a professor-student relationship, or a fleeting one like an exchange by the water fountain, it is a dangerous slope. If men can dictate the level of intimacy in some ways, why not in other, more serious ones?

Some people might read this and think I’m overreacting. Some would probably tell me to calm down. But this issue goes so far beyond a few words exchanged between two people. At its heart, it’s an issue about the fact that our culture continuously places women in passive, childlike roles while men are put in positions of power. And if we don’t draw attention to the tiny day-to-day incidents where this happens, nothing will ever change.

Theater for One

theatreforoneLast week Ilana mentioned (or was it the week before?) a play being performed in Taxis for an audience of one or two people, which I thought was super cool, but  I didn’t realize until I heard this story that Intimate Theater was like a “thing”!  I stumbled upon this article and adjoining audio story on npr.org that mentioned the “taxi theatre” in Melbourne, but also described dramas in offices, elevators, hotel rooms and theaters built just for two in Sydney, Edinburgh, New York  and London.  I think this is SO interesting.  Audiences seemed to react positively to this type of theatre, saying the experience felt intimate and intense.  One guy said he forgot he was watching an actor perform a monologue, and had the impulse to ask him questions about his story.

I have many reactions to this new type of theatre.  Firstly, I think that intimacy and connection could be incredible.  Something I enjoy about film is the intimacy that can be achieved with the proximity of the camera and this type of theatre wouldn’t have the removal of the 3rd wall OR a TV screen.  I also imagine that having the audience a few feet from the actor would keep the actor on their toes, not let them “check out” mentally.  I guess the same probably goes for the audience; no napping or discreetly playing words with friends.

One fear I had was that Intimate Theatre might lose the community of the audience, the shared experience.  There can be something magical about going for a journey with an entire house of people.  I imagine, though, that connection might happen on a smaller scale, and in this case between actor and audience member.  One woman, Sarah Jane Norman, is doing a one-on-one piece where she leads an audience member into a dark space lit with fairy lights, lies down with them and spoons them silently.  I guess you can’t get much closer than that.  Some critics said her work was too touchy-feely to be theatre; it was too much like a therapy session.  I think that if theatre reminds an audience to feel, it’s doing its job.