Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween 2007

courtesy Alix Metcalfe.
Posted by Picasa

Monday, October 29, 2007

This North Coast Halloween

There are a couple of pretty interesting theatrical events this Halloween on the North Coast. Dell'Arte is presenting "The Horror Experiment," three one-act plays in the Grand Guignol manner, on Halloween (Wednesday) at 8pm, and also on Thursday and Friday, November 1st (All Saints Day) and 2nd (All Soul's Day, unless they changed those since the nuns drilled the dates into me.) Betti Trauth has a preview in the T-S, as does Wendy Butler in the E-R. (There's also a T-S feature by Sharon Letts on the Dell'Arte International School.)

Ferndale Rep is doing something very intriguing--an on-stage re-creation of a radio play--the Mercury Theatre's production of "Dracula." It was another of Orson Welles' Halloween productions, the most famous being "War of the Worlds" (though the fact that it was a Halloween show isn't so often remembered), which Ferndale did on the 50th anniversary of that particular Martian invasion. "Dracula" is performed at the Ferndale Rep theatre on Wednesday at 7:30, for the special price of just five bucks. But you can also listen to it on the actual radio--KHUM is broadcasting it live. Betti Trauth previews this one, too, for the T-S.

Of course, a little theatre will likely be coming to your front porch on Wednesday evening. I like the commercial that says the real horror of Halloween is having to give away your chocolate. I must get around to replacing the bulb in the least by Thursday.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

Urinetown: The Musical opens
at HSU.
Posted by Picasa

This North Coast Weekend

Opening tonight for two weekends is the HSU production of URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL, in the Van Duzer Theatre on the HSU campus in Arcata, Thursday through Saturday beginning at 7:30, with a matinee this Sunday at 2 pm. The local press was all over this, with photos and previews by Melinda Spencer in the Lumberjack, Ron Thunman in the T-S Northern Lights, an unsigned preview in the E-R, a preview in the Arcata Eye with an endorsement by Scene Editor Jennifer Savage, and a preview graph and photo in the Calendar section of the North Coast Journal. There's more photos and info at Urinetown HSU.

My Name is Rachel Corrie has moved to the Arcata Playhouse for this weekend, Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm. Jennifer Savage reviews it in the Eye, as does Willi Welton in the E-R.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Jessica Kanpp as Henry IV, Sazi Bhakti as Prince
Hall in the North Coast Prep production, Mortal Men,
Mortal Men.
Posted by Picasa

Henry W

If you care about homegrown theatre, Friday was a great day on the HSU campus. In addition to ongoing rehearsals in the Van Duzer for the HSU Theatre/Music production of Urinetown: The Musical, opening this coming Thursday, and production meetings elsewhere on campus for the next HSU show, Relative Captivity by Margaret Thomas Kelso, there were two shows in Gist Hall Theatre--a matinee and the evening performance of North Coast Prep's Mortal Men, Mortal Men, and in the Studio Theatre, an evening performance of My Name is Rachel Corrie, an independent production.

I saw Mortal Men, Mortal Men that evening--it was kind of another opening night for the production, as major roles were rotated for the first time. Suzi Bhakti was an energetic Prince Hal, with fire in her eyes, and Jessica Knapp a stately King Henry IV. (Jeffrey Venturino and Connor Alston plays those roles on alternate nights.) I believe the Hotspur I saw as Keenan Hilton (alternating with Reed Benoit)--he was fiery and mercurial, as that character should be.

The play is, as previously indicated, Jean Bazemore's adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV and V plays. The first act covered both parts of Henry IV, though with emphasis on the first part, and the shorter second act zipped through Henry V. Because these productions have an educational function first (this one performed by freshmen and sophomores), the adaptations favor getting as many roles as possible on stage. But the emphasis was also on the costs of wars and their often dubious justifications, rather than the putative glory. So key moments were Falstaff's speech on honor ( "What is honor? A word. What is that word honor? Air.") delivered with intelligent and effective subtlety by Alexander Johnson (unless it was Jesse Drucker), and in particular, a moment not normally emphasized but given a riveting reading by Dillon Arevalo: as Williams, one of the common soldiers the disguised Henry V talks with on the eve of battle. Williams tells Henry "But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day..."

Gerald Beck's set of slanting platforms, the excellent costumes, the live student band, and the staging by director Jean Bazemore and Assistant Director Gretha Omey (who directed Henry IV Part 1 at North Coast Rep) provided these students superior support. I am impressed each time with their vocal performances in particular--they all speak clearly, within the range that's best heard from the stage, and in this case they speak Shakespeare's lines intelligently and expressively. There are more performances Saturday and Sunday evening at 7:30.

Henry V is one of the more familiar of Shakespeare's history plays mostly because of two movie versions. Laurence Olivier's portrayed Henry V as a hero forging a nation from nobles and common people with their own local and personal concerns, and rallying them in battle. The film was made in large part to rally England to fight the Nazis in World War II. Parts of the play that cast Hal in less than an heroic light were excised or downplayed (with the editing help of Winston Churchill.)

Then at the end of the 1980s, Kenneth Branagh portrayed Henry V as more introspective and doubting, but finally, also as a hero. With battle scenes that owe more to Orson Welles' The Chimes of Midnight (which centered on Falstaff in the action of the Henry IV and V plays) than to Olivier's version, the hellishness of war was better portrayed, but Henry's cause again justified.

Was his cause just? There's plenty in the plays to suggest otherwise. There's treachery--messages not conveyed, etc--and bad judgment (Hotspur, for example) and the supposed justification by the Archbishop of Canterbury (played as a pious warmonger in the NC Prep version), but there's also the clear motive from Henry IV to V that the best way to unify the nation and avoid civil war is to pick a foreign enemy, demonize it and rally the nation. Henry IV wanted to do that by means of the Crusades, while Henry V picked France. The result was more than 10,000 dead, Henry got little more than he was offered before the battle, and France and England were at war again within another generation.

Olivier and Branagh both directed and starred in their versions, so while they staged the movies visually, it seems they interpreted the character of Hal as actors, giving themselves strong parts to play. Others aren't so kind to Hal or the reasons for his war. Some critics see Shakespeare's Hal as an empty suit of armor, capable of charming anyone and playing any part, but without a moral center.

So it seems to me it would be fascinating to do Henry V as a kind of George W. Bush--a man with a complicated relationship to his father, the President, with a youthful record of carousing and avoiding responsibilities, whose main gift seems to be projecting an image of leadership. Who then uses rhetoric to unify a nation in a war that is more disastrous than dubious, and who even pretends to go down among the people, although his minions carefully make sure he doesn't hear anyone as forthright as Williams. The motives of the Iraq war can be seen as similiar, although the nation was unified for perhaps even less justifiable reasons. And in this war, the putative king has a very heavy reckoning.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

from the R. A. B. production at the
Arcata Playhouse, one night only,
this Sunday.
Posted by Picasa

This North Coast Weekend

In times like these that try the soul, public crises lead to private cries of conscience, and to the inquiries numbered among the obsessions of art. Theatre, arguably the most public and the most intimate of arts, inevitably responds. There are several examples this coming week on North Coast stages, each addressing a different (though not necessarily unrelated) public issue in a different way.

My Name is Rachel Corrie is a one-person play, adapted from the diaries, emails and stories of this young activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer when she stood in front of it to prevent the destruction of a Palestinian home. It was created by Katharine Viner, a journalist for the British newspaper The Guardian, and British stage and screen actor, Alan Rickman. It's been very controversial--when I was in Ashland last month, one of the weekly newspapers had an account of a production there (not at the OSF) that had been cancelled because some prominent Jews in the community protested it as anti-Semitic. The production was rescheduled, but with "the other side" of the story somehow added.

But it's getting a production here, Thursday through Saturday (Oct.18-20) in the Studio Theatre on the HSU campus, and it then moves to the Arcata Playhouse on October 25-27. Kelly Nixon plays Rachel Corrie; Tisha Sloan, now at Dell'Arte, directs. Betti Trauth writes about it at the T-S., Susie Stein in the Arcata Eye, there's an unsigned story in the ER and Heidi Walters previews it in the calendar section of the NCJ. If you're wondering why I didn't write about it in my NCJ column this week, the answer is that I didn't know about it. People may assume that when they send information about stage productions to the Journal that it is then forwarded on to me. I wish.

Newly minted Nobel Laureate Al Gore calls it a “planetary emergency.” Scientists and government leaders say it is a mortal threat to human civilization and life as we know it. But the climate crisis is just beginning as a subject for theatre. It’s a difficult one, because it is only now becoming real to us — it’s our first anticipated catastrophe, without cultural memory or direct personal experience to guide us. The subject is being approached obliquely so far and, as at the Arcata Playhouse this Sunday, through the lens of laughter.

The Tip of the Iceberg: a globally warmed comedy is written and directed by Ed Holmes of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and performed by Theater R.A.B., a mask and movement ensemble based in Germany. (The initials stand for Random Acts of Beauty.) One of its founders and performers is HSU grad Len Shirts. The company’s mission is to speak “to the themes of the times through movement, music and the spoken word.” The story involves two arguing environmentalists in 2040, trapped on the last glacier on Earth as it floats out to sea, and their experiences and visions.

The one-night stop for this show’s tour is hosted by our own Four on the Floor Theater (which will hold its latest outdoor spectacle, Elemental, in Blue Lake the night before). “The global warming content of the show is very appealing to us, “ said Jacqueline Dandeneau, Four’s co-director. “Part of our goal with the Playhouse is to present smaller companies that don’t show up on the large arts presenters’ radar and to be part of a regional touring network for smaller touring artists. Also, the opportunity to have an interchange between smaller actor-creator driven companies is really great - to chat with them about how they run their company, touring, the European theater scene, the hows, what and whofors..”

Dandenau notes that The Tip of the Iceberg is a new show. "It premiered in the Bay area, at Rhythmix cultural Works in Alameda, the Mime Troupe Studio in SF and Valhalla Boathouse Theater in Tahoe." R.A.B.participants are also doing a workshop on Monday, and writer/director Ed Holmes is doing one on Tuesday night. More information: 822-1575.

In presenting Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with the Peace Prize last week, the Nobel committee recognized that climate crisis could easily lead to war over resources, if it hasn’t already. This week’s production by students of the North Coast Preparatory Academy approaches the recurrent issue of war and questions of leadership, purpose and honor through classic dramatic texts: Shakespeare’s Henry plays. This is the second appearance from the cycle on local stages this year: North Coast Rep staged Henry IV Part 1 last spring, and now North Coast Prep will present a work based on the two Henry IV plays and the famous Henry V. It’s an adaptation by director Jean Bazemore called Mortal Men, Mortal Men.

At the heart of the Henry plays is the question of leadership, its legitimacy and its exercise. But this version also appears to sharpen the contrasting views of war held by the young Henry V, who inspires his men to heroics, and his erstwhile companion, Falstaff, who sees little honor in war, and views the sacrifice of common men as “food for [gun] powder” to promote the ends and vanities of kings.

This show is acted and produced by members of the freshmen and sophomore classes. Gerald Beck, the self-described “hardcore minimalist,” again designs the abstract sets, which may tend to focus attention on the words and their applications to today. It begins on Thursday, Oct. 18, at 7:30 at Gist Hall on the HSU campus, and continues through the weekend, with an additional matinee on Saturday at 2 p.m. More information: 845-4772.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Twenty-Four Ten in Eureka

Cate Blanchett, who will direct The Year of Magical
and star in The War of the Roses at the
Sydney Theatre Company. What does this have to
do with the 24 Hour Ten Minute Play event in Eureka?
Nothing. I just don't have any photos in a usable
format from this event and this is quite long so
I'm going to insert photos with theatre news,
or something slightly relevant, to break up the text.
If it bothers you, see the manager for your money back.
This is a great photo by the way--click on it.

24/10: A Gathering of the Insane

You lay it all out there, for everyone to see. That’s what every theatre artist does, every time: every performer, director, designer, writer—including everyone up in the booth and backstage. It’s not something that can be acknowledged in every review or article, but it’s never far from my thoughts when I write one.

Though there’s exposure in writing about theatre, I shared a different risk earlier this month by putting myself in a different place in the theatre process: as a playwright for the 24 Hour Ten Minute Play event conducted by Sanctuary Stage at their new headquarters, the august Eureka Theater.

On the first Friday of October, Sanctuary’s artistic directors, Tinamarie Ivey and Dan Stone gathered seven playwrights, seven directors and enough actors to give each play at least three characters in the upstairs lobby of the Eureka Theater. The mood was buoyant, partly because it was exciting, and partly I suspect because we knew we all had to be crazy to be doing this.

Of course, the whole thing was insane. Even the smallest production takes weeks or even months for directors to refine and express their visions, for the actors to find their roles, for the designers and the tech people to put the physical elements of the show together. And that’s after the playwright worked over the script for months or years. And then chances are they don't get it right even then. Sometimes the play isn't discovered for months of performances.

But when we gathered at 7:30 on that Friday evening, we had no scripts, no roles, not even props. Those of us writing had about twelve hours to come up with ten pages on a particular theme, which we didn’t yet know. And it wouldn’t be until after 9 the next morning that the directors would have any idea what they were directing, or the actors what they were acting in. Nobody got to choose who they would work with, and it seemed a lot of the people involved hadn't worked together before. But the bedrock fact was that the shows would be in front of the public at 7:30 Saturday evening. Welcome to the madness called the 24 Hour Ten Minute Plays.

First an important caveat: I participated in this process as a playwright, not a journalist. I took no notes or even photos, and I did no interviews. People who talked to me didn’t expect to read about it in the newspaper, so I’m going to be general about conversations, except for the kind of things I’d tell friends and acquaintances.

Mikhail Baryshnikov will appear in a staging
of Beckett shorts directed by JoAnne Akalaitis
at the New York Theatre Workshop.
Posted by Picasa

24/10: The Opportunity

As far as why I thought I was a playwright—maybe the willingness to write all night was enough of a qualification. But I had written for the “stage” since the second grade. I had my own rep company in the fourth grade—my Cub Scouts den. We put on a play for every monthly “pack” meeting contest, and usually beat the crap out of the other dens who showed us all the knots they’d tied.

Several of my plays were done at college, and the one I wrote and directed (called—and this was pre-J.S. Superstar—“What’s Happening, Baby Jesus?”) was apparently the stuff of legend for a few years afterwards. I got back into the game in the 90s in Pittsburgh, where I wrote for more traditional ten minute play festivals, had some full length play readings, won a local award for a one act script, and had the wonderful experience of seeing one of my short plays performed by two terrific actors from the famous Carnegie Mellon Drama program (one of whom was seen shortly afterwards on the silver screen), and directed by a new acquaintance named Margaret Thomas Kelso, who eventually I followed to the North Coast when she became director of the dramatic writing program at HSU. I’ve written some scripts here but this was going to be the first time my playwriting—that is, what I was yet to write-- would be brought alive on a North Coast stage.

I was there partly for what I suspect was a common reason, though the specifics were different for each person: we were there to take the opportunity. Actors (I came to learn over the years) take almost any opportunity to act, and in my experience, the better the actors the more willing they are to take these chances, especially on new scripts. An additional motivation was expressed by one of the actors who said that he simply can’t spare the time to attend weeks of rehearsals to do a play, and something like this was his only opportunity. I suspect some of the directors felt the same way. Or, like the actors, they simply want the opportunity to direct, and the challenge of making something of a script very quickly.

There were several young writers (as well as a self-contained high school unit, with their own writer, director and actors who worked together—otherwise I believe they followed the rules the rest of us did.) The experience, the production and the feedback were valuable to them. One of the more experienced writers who gets his plays produced—Ken Gray Scolari, who came up from southern California, and who I knew from his year at HSU—was there partly to help out, and as a gesture of support. I got the sense from another non-younger writer that he hadn’t written for awhile, and wanted to try something different in his writing.

So for awhile Friday evening we talked and munched and drank a little, marveling at the turnout, lamenting that new work wasn’t done much here anymore. Then the games began.

Patrick Stewart is getting the kind of praise for
his Mac Beth in London that used to be given to
Oliver, Richardson and Gielgud, or O'Toole, Burton
and McKellen.
Posted by Picasa

24/10: All the Kitchen's A Stage

The first order of business was to draw out of a hat the theme we were all to write about—one of four possibilities. What we got was “Destiny.” (The other possibilities, we learned after it was all over, were Addiction, Revenge and ? I’ve forgotten the fourth.)

Then each of the playwrights drew a card out of the hat that randomly distributed the characters by gender. I drew a cast of two males, one female.

That’s what I had to go on: a play about Destiny, for two males and one female. I didn’t know who would play the parts, not even their ages. I didn’t know who would direct. My head was already spinning (and not from the champagne, which I prudently only sampled) and I now had less than 12 hours to write the play. And that's only if I didn't sleep.

Before I left I did one more thing that turned out to give me something else: I went down to the theatre and took a good look at the stage. It was very wide, and looked deep (it turns out I was wrong about that.) Then I turned and faced the auditorium itself: it is immense. While I was there, an actor got up on the stage and tested the resonant acoustics. This was a place for full voice—which would make certain plays more fun (like Shakespeare), and others more difficult.

For the next few hours my head swirled with possibilities that resolved basically to two. The first was a kind of comedy sketch, an elaboration on a particular situation (I’m not going to say what, I may still use it!) I knew that it had a good chance of working on stage, given the constraints and circumstances. I also knew I could write it, because I’ve written pieces like it before.

But there was another idea forming, more elaborate, more risky, more of a challenge to me and to the director and actors. The first thing I thought of when I heard the theme was that I’d once written a song lyric with that title: “Destiny” for my first (and longest-lasting) musical group, which began at the end of high school and continued for a few years after that. Though I wrote lyrics and music both, the three of us collaborated in various combinations. One of these friends (they are still my closest if now physically distant friends), who turned out to be my most fruitful writing partner, composed the music to this lyric. It was one of our last collaborations and oddly, I never learned to play it.

But I remembered what it was about, and I used something in that lyric to get me started. Of course the two men, one woman cast suggested a triangle.

Musing on the topic of destiny, I thought first that it was something that occurs over time, and so that should be part of the story. But could you do a two-act play in ten minutes? Plus I had recently been thinking about fate and destiny—pretty natural for my age, as the third act of life begins. I’d been re-reading James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code, and listening to the audio version, in his voice. I was becoming a fan of his “acorn” theory, which posits that the essence of who we become is in us from the beginning: the tree grows from the acorn. There’s more to it than that, but that simplification became the guiding notion of destiny I used in my play, which I titled “Acorns.”

All of this was still fairly abstract, but I had another idea to anchor it in a place, based on that first impression of the auditorium of the Eureka Theater itself. What if the actors facing that huge echoing space were playing characters facing another huge echoing space—like a gorge? I immediately thought of an actual one, near the campus in central Pennsylvania where Margaret taught before coming here. (A couple of people later noted that there were gorges near other campuses—Cornell, for example.) And what if this was a special place to these characters, and one thing they did there was to shout out phrases—lines from plays or commercials, and so on—that sounded good echoing there?

The idea of characters sending out their feelings echoing into the gorge was the starting point for the actual writing, which began well after 11 pm. After I had a few lines, I found myself doing what I’d forgotten I’d done the last few times I’d written for the stage—I walked through the play I was going to write (this time, in the half-dark kitchen), hearing approximately what the characters would say according to where they stood, especially in relation to each other.

I knew already that the structure of the play would be one scene when the three characters revisited the gorge years after their youth, followed by a scene of their last visit to the gorge when young. As the play evolved, it became their college graduation day, preceded by a reunion visit, thirty (though probably it should have been forty) years later. In other words, in revere chronological order, so you see the trees before the acorns.

I started with the two sets of shouted quotations, one for each time period. But soon the characters were talking, and I experienced that amazing phenomenon of listening to these characters speak, and taking down what they were saying. And they were characters—not based on real people (how could they be? They had to be completely defined in ten minutes!)

There were however a few snippets of dialogue in the first section that came very close to words from a real conversation I'd had, and it was then that I realized that I was using the experience and perspective of my age. Another opportunity! Because there aren’t many counterparts to the contests for “Playwrights Under Thirty.”

Fortunately, by the time I got to the end, I had something like a play. If I hadn't--and of course I realized this risk from the start--there wasn't time to start all over again with another one.

I had my script at around five in the morning. I was due back at the theatre at 9, although I was supposed to arrive with copies for the director, actors, adjudicators and the administrators, which meant an extra drive (Sanctuary had a deal with Staples so we didn’t have to pay to get them copied there.) So even if I had been able to sleep, which I couldn’t, it wouldn’t have been for long. I may have managed to doze for part of an hour before I was on the road again, sleepless in Eureka.

Walter Koenig, no relation to Joshua.
Posted by Picasa

24/10: Sleepless in Eureka

I thought I’d forgo the extra drivetime and pay for the copies at the Kinko’s nearby in Arcata, but it was Saturday and it didn’t open until 9. I suspected the same would be true of Staples, but if I had to wait, I may as well get the copies free. So I drove out there and parked, as it turned out, next to Ken Gray Scolari. We caught up on news of our lives, but I still felt pretty weird, groggily standing and waiting for the Staples’ doors to slide open.

Back at the theatre, some playwrights were still out getting their copies, so I drank coffee, devoured Danish and got into a couple of conversations, one of which suggested another theme: feedback. People who put on shows get reactions from audiences, but often they don’t get much in the way of articulated response. They were looking forward to working with different people and getting different feedback, as well as the responses of others in the “talk back” session after the performance that night. I also got the feeling that the responses I articulate in my columns have some value for them. (And I also heard some give clear-eyed assessments of productions that would bring down an avalanche of letters on me if I’d written in those terms—but I knew that already, that theatre people have to realistically assess the work they’re part of and the work they see, in order to get better.)

When everyone was there in the main lobby, the next round of random drawings determining our destiny began. Each of the playwrights drew for a director. I held back—there was a director I felt really didn’t want to work with me, and I wanted to wait until that name was called. Finally, it was. (Later we had a brief but hopeful conversation, so maybe I was wrong. In any case, I wouldn’t feel that trepidation now. ) I picked next.

I drew someone I didn’t know, a young man named Joshua Koenig. I think he earlier had asked me if the cap I was wearing bore the Star Trek emblem. (It did.) So now I asked him if he was related to Chekhov (not the playwright—the Star Trek character played by Walter Koenig.) He said he wasn’t. This actually could have been a much funnier coincidence if I had gone with that first comedy sketch idea.

Josh had a few minutes to glance at the script before he and the other directors drew for the names of actors. Josh got in there early, and drew three actors who were more the ages of my characters in the first scene. He was delighted.

He and I went upstairs to that lobby as he read the play through. I noted where he laughed. He had one question, easily answered. He talked about the script in a way that told me he grasped its essentials immediately. It was pretty astounding.

Then our three actors joined us for a couple of read-throughs. After that, Josh and I talked about the script some more and about the actors. Again, I was gratefully surprised at how quickly he caught on to the dynamics of the script—of who was really talking to who, what they were really saying, and so on. And he knew where the jokes were.

I was also gratefully relieved. It looked to me that all he had to do was work with the actors until they shared his vision, discovering and contributing more (including stuff I didn’t know was in there) as they went along. They would have from then—roughly noon—until about 6pm to rehearse and get it together.

They also had to figure out how to accomplish the main structural challenge—how they would indicate that in the blink of an eye, the characters would drop 30 years and return to their college graduation day for the second half of the story. (My imagined solution had involved the actors moving far upstage before turning to come back--which turned out to be impossible, because the stage just wasn't that deep.)

Josh had an additional challenge. There had been one more hat drawing before we went upstairs—every director would be required to use one of three props. They all had to use the same one, but they could use it—even alter it—in any way they chose. The prop was selected by a drawing, and the prop we all got was a big slab of cardboard. (It could have been an inflatable raft.)

I left them to get to their work, and thought I should go home and get some sleep. I did drive home to Arcata, but I did not sleep, which didn’t surprise me. I’d probably be president of the world by now if I had only learned to nap.

Novelist Steven King, no relation to playwright
Steven King
Posted by Picasa

24/10: Showtime

I returned to the theatre a bit after five. My first impression was that everyone I saw looked bleary with fatigue, and also high on the process. Josh and I talked about how rehearsals had gone, and he showed me how the cardboard would figure in their solution for the thirty-year switch: part of it would be a sign (“thirty years earlier”) and part of it was cut up into mortarboards, which the characters would throw into the gorge to signal their graduation—a very theatrical moment, as they floated above us.

Everyone assembled in the theatre auditorium at 6 pm for the last drawing, to establishing the order of the seven plays being presented. Mine was going to be the opening act. We had about 40 minutes before it all started, and I walked down to Old Town to get a big CafĂ© Americano, and was amazed at all the people out for Arts Alive. I hadn’t been over to the Eureka version for awhile—it had become quite a trendy activity.

By game time, I sensed that the event had changed a bit. There was no more mention of any competition, and the judges (teacher/director Jyl Hewston and actor/director/teacher James Floss) were now going to lead a play-by-play talk-back. Both Tinamarie and Dan spoke, and I believe it was Tinamarie who stressed that this event was about the process—it was essentially for us.

Maybe they had also begun to wonder if we would get an audience. By the time it started I wasn’t in much shape to observe the audience, but we did seem to have one. The problem would be that theoretically, seven ten minute plays would equal a 70 to 90 minute show. But ten pages doesn’t always translate into ten minutes, and it sure didn’t that night. We started at 7:30 and were still going strong at 10. So by the end, there was mostly just us.

As if we cared! I have no idea what my show was like (the wisdom of the process at the O’Neill Center came back to me—all of their new plays have two performances, because the playwrights commonly blank out for the first one.) But going first meant I could enjoy the other shows, and I did. At times they were surprisingly polished, and there was always something funny or poignant or otherwise delightful in all of them. Seeing them and hearing them discussed by those concerned during the talkback (which began in the auditorium but eventually adjourned to the lobby upstairs, where the wine, beer and food was) revealed the intelligence, care and creativity brought to bear by everyone involved; the individuality of the talent, and yet, the warm collaborative atmosphere.

My play and hence my talkback went first, and I learned more about it from comments by Jyl and James, and by Josh and the one of the actors who participated. I can only recall snippets from the rest of the evening. Like… Alton San Giovanni--the “teen playwright”-- describing how he concentrated on the rhythm of the dialogue in his dramatization of an Internet conversation between teenagers and an online predator.

And JM Wilkerson (a recent addition to the North Coast and its theatre community—he’s the spouse of HSU theatre’s Rae Robison and acted in last year’s HSU production, The School for Scandal) revealed that his piece was more autobiographically based than anything he’d previously written for the stage. He acknowledged that he’d drawn the perfect cast and director to bring it to life in so short a time. (I was really excited about his piece, and started babbling at him about it when we ran into each other after the show—just as he was babbling at me about elements he liked in my piece. I suspect this sort of thing was happening a lot that night.)

I recall Ken remarking on the consistently nurturing atmosphere. Gretha Omey talked about how she came up with a simple staging device (directors had only a few pieces and platforms to work with) that served the script she directed remarkably well, brought out its comedy and pathos while giving the actors the physical grounding they needed to elaborate their parts.

I think it was Joshua Stanfield Switzer who talked about the crucial decision all the directors had to make: should they do the play with the actors carrying their scripts and referring to them, or should they take the time for the actors to try to memorize their parts? He decided to try memorization for one hour, to see if it would work. I recall one actor talking about the freedom to improvise, especially in rehearsal, without carrying the script. But eventually many if not most of the actors in most of the plays wound up carrying scripts, or needed to.

I personally am a big fan of script-in-hand, as it’s called. I’ve seen it used in new play productions where there is much more time for rehearsal. Even at the O’Neill. Except in certain circumstances, where physical theatre is called for, I think it should be standard for situations like this. I’ve found that audiences quickly adapt to seeing scripts, and actors adept at using them make you absolutely forget that they are carrying them. Script-in-hand as the standard saves a lot of time that can be used to work on the other aspects of the production, especially characterization and movement. Plus more of the playwright’s actual lines get delivered.

On the overall process: the 24 hour part of it is clearly a gimmick, and this all was mostly a game—fun and productive, but limited and, as I may have pointed out, insane. It may be that Tina and Dan expected the short writing time would result in skeleton scripts that mandated more improvizational acting, but that's not what seems to have happened. It just made it really crazed. I also can see the potential for a new niche in contemporary theatre: the 24 Hour Playwright, adept at just the right combination of elements in a simple, “actor-proof” script to dazzle judges and audiences. No harm in that, I suppose. But I’m glad that most of us appeared to take the opportunity we had to push ourselves creatively.

This kind of event, so compressed and concentrated on process, often creates bonds that outlast the event itself. It would be an important but additional payoff of this experience if it happens. We’ll see. Maybe it will also lead to more new work being done here. As for now, I'll remember it as a lot of fun.

Once again, the organizers and administrators of this insanity, who worked themselves silly, were Tinamarie Ivey and Dan Stone (he also directed JM Wilkerson’s piece.) I don’t have a list of the actors, but here are the other participating playwrights: Morgan Beck, Steven King, Craig Klapman, Alton San Giovanni, Ken Gray Scolari and JM Wilkerson. Besides Joshua Koenig, the other directors were Gretha Omey, Rhy Corral-Ribordy, Zachary Rouse, Dan Stone, Joshua Stanfield Switzer and Laurene Thorpe. My thanks to everyone involved, including Margaret, who showed up to watch.

If any of the other participants (including audience) would like to comment on their experience, it'd be great if you did so hereabouts.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Posted by Picasa


As I hoped would happen, the entire cycle of August Wilson's ten plays is going to be performed in order in the spring, fittingly at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC: from Gem of the Ocean, set in the first decade of the 20th century (March 4-8) to Radio Golf set in the last (March 28-29.)

I'm excited, though it doesn't seem practical for me to go. But I'm thinking about it!

Theatre Communications Group Books has just published a boxed set of the plays called The August Wilson Century Cycle (I think I liked it better as the Pittsburgh Cycle) with new prefaces by John Lahr, Phylicia Rashad, Frank Rich, Toni Morrison, Tony Kushner, Samuel G. Freedman, Laurence Fishburne, Ishmael Reed, Marion McClinton and Suzan-Lori Parks.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

HOMO EXPO completes its run at HSU this weekend.
Posted by Picasa

This North Coast Weekend

Camera Shrapnel, an LA based group with roots in North Coast theatre (Dell'Arte and HSU) performs ISM one night only--tonight, Thursday Oct. 11--at Ferndale Repertory Theatre. Barry Blake does an extensive preview at the T-S, and there's a brief preview with photo in the ER.

HOMO EXPO is in its last weekend at HSU's Gist Hall Theatre. It was reviewed by Wendy Butler in the E-R and by Melinda Spencer in the Lumberjack. Excerpts from the reviews and previews as well as other information and photos are at HSU Stage.

"The Madwoman of Chaillot" continues at North Coast Rep.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

Gender and sexuality explored in 5 short pieces
for HOMO EXPO at HSU this weekend.
Posted by Picasa

This North Coast Weekend

The big opening this weekend is HOMO EXPO: A Queer Theatre Extravanza at HSU. It came close to running the table in the local press (as publicity person for HSU Theatre it does my heart good), with a cover story preview in Northern Lights of the Times-Standard, and previews in the Arcata Eye, NC Journal, and a big photo in the ER.

My legions of readers may have noticed that somebody else did the Journal preview (and a good job Emily Hobelmann--who I don't know--did), which is fitting and proper, considering my involvement with the show as department publicist. But it appeared under the banner of my column, Stage Matters. Apparently this is now the theatre section title for the Journal, and no longer the title I conceived for my column. It has to be that way, I'm told, because placing a different banner on pieces written by other people is "too labor-intensive." As a former editor from the Dark Ages, I had no idea what's involved in this computerized age: it seems that to create each banner, several editors (who aren't getting any younger) and staff must locate, mine and carry back huge chunks of a certain kind of stone, then hew the letters out with chisels. Though the stone required is very large, the chisels are unbelievably tiny, and the smallest slip means the stone is ruined and has to be thrown away, so the whole process begins again. And this is just the first step. After the stone is carved, it is pressed into molten metal to create type. The metal must be heated with a very pure flame, created with a mixture of fuels that can become explosive if off by a tiny percentage. And then the ink--well, I couldn't even follow the description of that process, but suffice it to say that it requires the capture in the wild of a very rare species of Soy.

Also this weekend: Dell’Arte hosts the Brazilian ensemble Lume Teatro for a production called Sopro, in the Carlo Theatre, Oct. 4-7 at 8 p.m. Sanctuary Stage presents their 24-hour 10 Minute Play Fest at the Eureka Theatre on Saturday at 7:30 p.m."The Madwoman of Chaillot" continues at NCRT.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

One of many kids who gets to play at the field in
Dyersville, Iowa where Field of Dreams was filmed.
Posted by Picasa

Dream Fields

So we toddled down to Ferndale Saturday to see Jeff DeMark's, "Hard as a Diamond, Soft as the Dirt," the only one of his shows I haven't seen before. Thanks in part to the presence of his backing band (Tim Randles on keyboards, Ross Rowley on bass, and his twin brother Paul--who even got a few speaking lines--on drums) and some visual aids, he made good use of that big Ferndale Rep stage.

There's sadness and strife in the show but on the whole it seems sunnier than the others, probably because it's got a lot of baseball in it. Baseball is a secular religion in this country, and as Jeff notes, especially for his generation (and mine) it is a prime source of memory. Memories associated with playing baseball, and with watching baseball, particularly big league baseball. (Also listening to it on the radio.)

He mentions that ours was the last (or one of the last) generations in the old USA for whom baseball was so central. We played it spring to fall, every day. We collected baseball cards, played games with them, kept stats of big leaguers and scored games with the particular code of that activity, watched baseball on TV and listened to games on the radio--those voices now unforgettable. I was so into it that in the winter I watched broadcasts of Cuban baseball (so this was pre-Castro, if anyone still able to see the screen can fathom that)--one camera high above home plate. I still remember names of the teams, though I can't spell them.

There's a special kick for me in Jeff's childhood memories growing up in Racine Wisconsin, following the Milwaukee Braves. Though he doesn't mention it in the show, one of the chief rivals for the Braves in the late 1950s were the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team that played some 30 miles away from where I grew up. At least Pirate fans knew that to get the National League pennant, a team had to be able to beat the Braves and their fearsome pitching duo, Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette, and their great hitters and fielders, Hall of Famers now, like Eddie Matthews and of course, Hank Aaron.

Pittsburgh had great teams in those years, also loaded with Hall of Famers and guys that should be: regular 20 game winning pitchers like Bob Friend and Vern Law, one of the best relief pitchers ever--the fork ball specialist Roy Face; the great left-hander Harvey Haddix, who pitched 12 perfect innings in one game and still lost; clutch scratch hitters like Dick Groat, home run hitter Dick Stuart, hit anything hitters like Smoky Burgess; left fielder Bob Skinner,a hitter with one of the sweetest swings ever who had only one breakout year (he hit .321), one of the best fielding second basemen ever in Bill Mazeroski, the fiery Don Hoak at third, the fleet Bill Virdon in center, and in right field, the Great One: Roberto Clemente.

When the Pirates started to make their move in 1958, they finished just behind the Braves. They slipped back in 1959 but 1960 was their year. Still, it wasn't until a series with the Braves near the end of the season that they had the pennant won. (And then in the 90s, the Atlanta Braves were their nemesis, and...I don't want to talk about it.) So next to the Pirates, I probably knew more about the Braves than any other National League team.

So there were probably some Braves-Pirates games in the late 50s that Jeff and I were both intensely involved in as kids, with opposite emotional responses to what happened in them.

Jeff's encounters with actual big league icons seem to be more numerous and meaningful than mine. Later on, as a reporter, I met many of the players of the 1979 World Champion Pirates team, including Willie Stargell and Dave Parker, who threatened me with bodily harm. But that's another story. As a kid, I did shake hands with Roberto Clemente, on one of those afternoons at that great ballpark, Forbes Field, where kids were allowed down on the field to meet the players. Clemente didn't even glance at me, so I was very surprised when Bill Virdon looked me right in the eye as he shook my hand and called me, "son."

And Jeff is right to emphasize father and sons, because baseball was often a nexus for that relationship, perhaps in its complexities. I don't have a lot of fond memories of my father connected with playing baseball. He did take me to some games at Forbes Field, including a night game I still remember--it went to the tenth inning, somebody got on base and Roberto Clemente went up to the plate. Everybody there knew that Clemente never hits the first pitch--either he takes it, or he swings wildly at it, often so hard that he falls down, and his two hats--his batting helmet on top of his cap--fly off. So I don't think I was alone in leaning back, taking a breath and gathering myself during that first pitch.

The next thing I knew there was a loud crack and smoke in right field. Clemente had hit that first pitch so hard that it hit the fence in right field so fast that I didn't see it, and it hit the chalk line on the right field fence--the border of fair and foul-- so hard that it sent chalk dust up into the air illuminated by the lights--it was like a cannon had been fired in the outfield. And just like that, the ball game was over. Everybody was standing up to leave.

Then around that time I more or less took my father to a World Series game--I sent for the tickets, and won the lottery to buy them. Unfortunately, it was for the 6th game of the 1960 series, which the Yankees won by 14-0 or worse. When Mazeroski hit the shot heard round the world the next day, I was back in school. (I also missed seeing the big spontaneous demonstrations in Pittsburgh, especially in the Oakland section where Forbes Field was, but August Wilson told me about it.)

But related to playing baseball, it was another story for my father and me. The state of that might be revealed by one thing I remember, when I made the Pony League team, even though my father didn't come by the field. He didn't take much of an interest, but fatherly influence had a lot to do with who made that team, and fatherly attention was about the only actual coaching we got--in my case, it was attention and tips from other guys' fathers, including one who would later become the grandfather of one of my niece's (her father was my shortstop.)

But my father did come to the first game I pitched. Being left-handed there were only a few positions I could play, and kids weren't used to seeing left-handed pitchers. I probably came into that game in relief, as I often did (still had a 3-0 record though, a stat that nobody but me kept and certainly nobody else remembers). As I finished my warm-up pitches, I saw my father go stand behind the backstop, directly behind the catcher and umpire, and in my line of sight. I threw my first pitch as hard as I could and unintentionally, over everybody's head, and as it rattled off the backstop my father jumped back. I settled down after that and had a good game, and a pretty good season.

This past summer I rented the video of Field of Dreams, the anniversary edition with all the extras. I remember seeing it when it came out and being a little mystified by it. It was only when I saw it alone at home on video in Pittsburgh that the scene of the father and son playing catch really got to me. In the DVD extras, I learned that this scene is universally remembered as the most powerful in the movie. It's a tear-jerker for guys. Probably for lots of reasons--from either the memory of experiencing it or not experiencing it, or not valuing it at the time--one of those Our Town moments. Now apparently the field in Iowa where the movie was shot has become not only a tourist attraction, but a therapeutic nexus: people go there to heal their families, to heal themselves.

There's a character in Field of Dreams who played in one big league game but never got to bat, but he does on that Iowa field. It seems that a lot of guys measure how close they came, including the guy who coached the actors in batting for that movie (he played only a few games before a career-ending injury) and Jeff's father in the beginning of "Hard as a Diamond." So that's another dream, another yearning, another phantom fulfillment, that baseball measures, and conjures.

Anyway, it's a mostly funny show, with real feeling, and well worth seeing. Now I'm looking forward to seeing it and Jeff's other shows again--I know there's stuff I missed, or will experience in a different way.