Thursday, January 5, 2012

Let's Keep Reacting: Contextual Theatre

I am cross-posting a recent entry at Theatrical Buddha Man with intentions that this blog will continue or re-awaken in the new year!

In my recently posted “Best of 2011″ blog entry, which was quite enjoyable to compile and explore, I notice that nearly every play on the list benefited from my knowing some additional context or background information about the production. In those cases, it could have been (was) related to the reputation of the producing theatre, newness of the company, intent of the artistic director or some production team member, and in one bittersweet case, the impending closure of the theatre company.

I know that my impressions of all of those shows would have been modestly to strongly different if I had not known additional context about the material or company itself. This realization led me to wonder – how much does context play into impressions of the play for the average theatregoer? I’m sure that studies have been done on this issue in some form or another, but the process could be different or unique depending on the geography, location or association of the theatre itself.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

24 Hour Plays!

Last weekend, I worked with The New Theatre Project to create 24 plays in 24 hours. We met at 8pm on Friday (incidentally, my birthday) and were soon asked to play a game where each of us described the previous day in as much detail as possible, in 60 seconds. Afterward, we were told that those details had to be the base of our plays, along with the theme "Getting Lucky" and, possibly, the 11/11/11 date. We were also told to use each actor only once.

The writers began working immediately - spending the first hour or so after the meeting together was crucial, as we needed to remind one another on what was said and also get a feel for the project (I actually wrote Infinite Bread as a warmup before I headed back to Ann Arbor). Scripts were due at 7am on the 12th. We met two hours later to begin rehearsal, and, tired and loopy as we were, performed the whole shebang at 8pm.

I ended up writing four plays that night, and got maybe two hours of sleep. I also directed two, including my own You Can't Really Kill Ben For Experience Points, and acted in six. Against my better judgment, I'm posting the results here.

The project, as well as my recent work for 826michigan's Five Bowls of Oatmeal, reminded me how necessary it is sometimes to throw off fears and plans and just make stuff. As a bonus, I got to write roles for a few of my friends, which is something I haven't had the chance to do for quite some time.

These are unedited from the versions I turned in on Saturday morning (though, sadly, I couldn't keep all the Final Draft formatting). I added comments before each one 'cause I wanted to.

Plays after the jump!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Sibling Thrivalry

A particularly telling moment in Penny Seats play selection history last week.

Lauren and I tried to describe Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's The Velvet Sky (sadly, not up for consideration this year) to Jacqui, talking almost simultaneously. Jacqui pointed out that Lauren had become visibly distraught and freaked out...while I only got more excited. Oh well.

I mean, yeah, it's totally messed-up and disturbing. But SO GOOD.

You can probably guess, from that last post and this one, that the plays I've been looking at this year have been on the dark side (not to be confused with the Dark Side, or Tales From the Darkside). Might comment on this more when we've figured out our 2012 season.

(Photo: 826 Michigan's Five Bowls of Oatmeal fundraiser performance, November 2010. In this segment, Lauren is a unicorn and I am a psychotic woodpecker.)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Graft of the Glue Gun

JP recently referred to some correspondence we had, in his post about The Pit. I thought I'd discuss the context here, as it's an odd story.

The Penny Seats are currently hunting for plays for our 2012 season, and I've been doing a lot of searching and reading. Recently, I found a copy of The Gift of the Gorgon by Peter Shaffer, better known for Amadeus and Equus. Played in the Pit in the early 90s, with Judi Dench and Jeremy Northam; themes of vengeance, artistic inspiration, passion. I took it home.

Fascinating read - harrowing, yet still in its way seductive, with lots of possibilities for clever staging, alongside a few truly insane images. So far so good, though the part of Helen seemed a doozy.

I consulted my friend The Internet to read up on past productions. Sure enough, I could find one or two articles on the original - but nothing past that. A passing mention here or there. In about 20 years? I entertained the possibility that one Internet search might not tell the whole story, but something seemed off: I wondered if companies simply avoid this one.

As luck would have it, JP called that same day to catch up. At an opportune moment in the conversation, I asked if he'd ever heard of it. He hadn't. I told him my suspicion, and he said he'd look it up in Judi Dench's autobiography.

A day later, he sent me a passage through one of those sites that lets you look inside books (I may edit this later, but tonight I'm too lazy to do links).

Dench writes that she hated doing the show, and contends that if she'd given the script a closer look she'd have passed. Though the production drew sold-out houses, she wanted out, and even made a move toward closing the show with a contract issue.

What could have made her hate the part so much? As I said before, it's a doozy, but perhaps it's even, uh, doozier than I thought. To be sure, the part asks a lot, and takes an actor on a unique and scary journey - but was it the subject matter, the darkness the character falls toward, the fatigue, the writing itself? Dench's words are unclear on the specifics, and she soon refocuses her attention on how much she hated working at the Pit.

Hmm. I don't want to be scared off, but perhaps a closer read will be necessary. I don't think I'd usually discuss our play selection process here, but for the moment, I don't see the harm.

Thoughts? Come across any scripts or shows that simultaneously intrigue and repel you?

Like I'm Joking

I received a rather strange direction from Jacqui during rehearsals for Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet: "Do it like you think I'm joking."

It makes quite a lot of sense, actually.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A perfect musical, except for the book and music

(Prompted by semperaugustus, who reminded me that I should write about this stuff.)

I can see how Daddy Long Legs was a seductive idea. An adaptation of Jean Webster's novel, previously staged both under its own name and as the 1952 musical Love From Judy, and filmed in 1919 starring Mary Pickford, 1935 with Shirley Temple, and 1955 with Fred Astaire. (Fun fact: It even was the basis for two animes.) I'm sure I'm still leaving something out. But anyway.

A two-person cast. An inoffensive score. An eye-filling production. Personal bias? I can get behind the idea of an epistolary musical (next, please: Freedom and Necessity). These elements seem to align well. Now, if I thought the script and music were worthy of the treatment they receive here, the show would have immediately been nailed to my long-term list of Penny Seats selections.

Christy Altomare and Kevin Earley, as lovable orphan Jerusha Abbott and her befuddled benefactor Jervis Pendleton (who sort of has a Colin Firth thing going on) bring their A-game at the Gem Theatre, assisted by a sharp pit orchestra and a clean, even opulent production. However, everyone involved is working to overcome an insubstantial, flawed script and forgettable music. In attempting to brand a new classic, John Caird and Paul Gordon have managed to achieve a number of negative stereotypes about Broadway (and Broadway-minded) musicals, best exemplified by the unfortunate "Graduation Day" sequence.

 Let me pause for a moment and add the following disclaimers.
1) I don't review plays often. I actually hadn't meant this to be a review, but a discussion of where a great idea went wrong. Which, in other words, kind of means a review.
2) I have only in the last few years embraced musicals, after shunning them for quite some time due to, well, all the criticisms I'm leveling at this one. In other words, while I may not be the target audience, I do know what it's like to leave humming a great song. Disclosure ended.

Anyway. I find the show's missed opportunities somewhat intriguing. Altomare gamely takes on the task of bringing Jerusha's world to life around her, as she narrates letter after letter (with Earley's dyspeptic reactions providing a few laughs); however, when it comes time for the two to meet - which they do at several points - Jerusha blithely skips ahead and tells us what happened. This is a splendid device to ensure that we are not shocked and/or disgusted when Jerusha decides she loves ol' Daddy Long Legs, deception and all; it's also a splendid way to make sure the characters never actually have to, y'know, interact, or talk, or build much of a relationship. Essentially, at the end, I felt like Jervis had fallen in love with Jerusha from upstage afar, while Jerusha was...well, commanded by The Writer to love Jervis.

This could be an example of a concept - conceit? - outstripping sense, the creators hewing so close to the agreed-upon gimmick method that the notion of breaking it to let the characters directly interact was not considered. Would it have hurt the show to let them talk, during those outings to which Jervis apologetically invites himself? Would it have slowed the show down? Broken the flow? I'm willing to acknowledge that this was seen as true during development. However, if so, the sacrifice was too great - I left without understanding why they were more than good (pen)pals. Frankly, the show stays so superficial - paradoxically, as Jerusha spends most of it pouring her adorable heart out to Daddy Long Legs and the audience - that it's hard to imagine what meaningful scenes between these two characters would look like. If I were in a bad mood, I'd call it lazy writing, but I honestly don't believe that's true. It's part of a design. The show is built to document their relationship, not to explore it.

As I write this, I realize that I could look beyond that. For all my blathering, I might actually still dig the script, as it has the potential to be a cute showcase for two outstanding actors. I might, if I liked the music at all. From beginning to end, the score is Disney-polished, rambling but clean, comfortably pandering. I certainly applaud new musicals, but when was the last time you realized that you were dreading a reprise (again, "Graduation Day")? (Reading that last part again, it occurs to me that it's probably a fairly regular event for frequent musical-goers.)

Well, that's all for this entry, except: I did a bit more research before posting, and found that Daddy Long Legs won the 2010 LA Ovation Award for Best Book of a Musical. Make of that what you will.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Pit was not The Pits

I don’t always take stock of the many theatrical performance venues which I’ve visited over the years, which can sometimes lead to a theatrical memory immediately coming to the forefront of my mind. This was the case when discussing a play with fellow blogger Russ the other day; this play had been featured at The Pit in The Barbican Centre within the City of London.

I visited the Barbican at least five times; twice in 2004, once in 2005 and twice in 2007. Two of those visits were to the aforementioned Pit, way in the basement of the Brutalist complex. When I refer to the “ground floor”, as it is better known in European terminology, I don’t mean simply walking down one flight of stairs. This theatre is nestled in one specific part of that level, only accessible via one or two stairway and “lift” options. In another part of the complex, there is another ground level, and this one has a similarly convoluted entrance “scheme” - again using a British phrase synonymous with the American English “plan” for getting from one place to another.

Back to the Pit. This theatre space offers flexible seating and arrangements that can change for each show, much like a standard black box space. The second show which I attended there, Europe by David Greig, stands out strongly in my theatrical memory. It’s interesting to see that the revival made the news of VARIETY, while the Barbican still has it featured on the archives page of their own website. But I’m not writing this entry to talk only about the play, Europe. Something about that whole evening experience in the Pit - the enigmatic lighting, evocative sound design, powerful script, leaving the Barbican and heading into a rough mid-winter evening in the city of London... made it stay fresh in my mind over four years later. The Pit was just the start, or maybe it was the peak, of the experience.

I often wonder if other theatre-goers may treat their plays as a whole experience where it is not just about the one play. I hope that others consider the many parts that play into their theatre viewing, not just as a highbrow experience as it is often pigeonholed in USA culture, but as a natural part of life.