Monday, April 28, 2008

Age Matters

The March/April issue of the Dramatist (publication of the Dramatists Guild) begins with letters that refer back to a column that argues that older playwrights, and not just young ones, might write worthwhile plays. That column said: "Look, no one likes to age, especially the artistic child within you. But with that glorious aging comes more wisdom, more experience with craft, more experience with relationships" etc. Letters responding to it came from people in their forties and even seventies who don't have established playwriting careers but who are writing plays and trying to get them produced anyway.

The editors called the response "overwhelming," which generally means it is responding to a point of view unheard of before. The idea has apparently become gospel that at least among the non-famous (but possibly extending to the formerly famous as well), only the young can write plays. Anyone not young is illegitimate, foolish and should be ashamed of themselves, which probably they are. So a bunch of people wrote in to say, not so fast.

I come at this issue from an older perspective, but also from my own youth in an apparently different time. While I had terrible panics and despair over the possibility that I wouldn't "make it" as a writer until, could it be possible, my 30s, and I believed that my youth gave me a particular perspective on my times, I would still have easily accepted the idea that older writers were legitimate, and could have greater perspective based on experience as people and as writers. It stands to reason.

But apparently it is now a minority argument, because doors are largely closed to older playwrights--meaning 40 and up. There are contests, fellowships, opportunties for young writers. Even if it isn't made explicit by rule, new means under 30 or maybe 35. It's not just in the theatre--I remember a San Francisco Chronicle book critic who shocked the literary world by countering the many annual"best writers under 35" lists with his "best new writers over 50." But he only did it once.

There are reasons why the new stage is dominated by young playwrights. University students are virtually the only subsidized playwrights in America, although they are often subsidizing themselves by means of student loans. They are instructed, coached, mentored and produced. In a community like this one, they are pretty much the only new original plays anyone sees. This happens because the university has turned the arts (and related fields, like journalism) into profit centers, and the university has become the chief employer of writers, including those playwrights who aren't writing movies or TV shows.

Once out of their undergrad and graduate programs, young playwrights have a certain amount of time to devote to the theatre, during which years they either get produced and noticed and become part of the theatre-Hollywood-university system, or they don't, and get on with not being poor anymore.

These days, with many in the huge baby boomer generation retiring on possibly the last dependable pensions there will be for awhile, there are likely to be more writers and playwrights in their 50s, 60s, etc. who can subsidize themselves. Presumably institutions will respond to that, although so far they aren't. The only allowable topic for older writers is being old. As long as they make fun of it.

There is the additional question of audience for theatre, which is generally older, and whether a predominantly young perspective serves them all that well.

But what is really shocking about this debate is that there is a question involved as to the legitimacy of the non-young playwright's perspective. All you have to do is go to student plays and however charming and even insightful they are, it's clear the writers don't have very much to write about, or much perspective on it. The argument for craft is more complicated, but it seems obvious that while young writers can excel by instinct, talent, originality and enthusiasm--as well as the "first thought, best thought" phenomenon--there is something to be said for craft gained by experience crafting.

Of course the theatre needs youth to replenish itself (and to move the sets.) Still, there's institutional prejudice against the not-young in the theatre as well as most everywhere else. But you know, the theatre--and most everything else--is missing something, something important, something it needs.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

HSU Ten Minute Play Festival begins this weekend.Posted by Picasa

This North Coast Weekend

The Dell'Arte scholars go from the tragic to the ridiculous with first-year students in Flops Popping, the popular spring clown show. Twenty-four students in various combinations cavort on the Carlo stage, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.

Another popular annual spring event is the HSU Ten Minute Play Festival, which this year celebrates its 10th birthday. Coordinator Margaret Thomas Kelso (who began the festival in 1998) says there are an unusual number of plays this year with social and political themes, including terrorism and interrogation, war and genocide. (Plus the usual comedies and fantasies, of course.) The Festival begins this weekend, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 in Gist Hall Theatre, and continues next weekend, May 1-3. A lineup of the plays and other info at HSU Stage.

Auditions announcement by Ferndale Rep:

Hey Seniors - ages 55 plus! The Ferndale Repertory Theatre is holding auditions for our second annual all senior show. This season we are auditioning Dave Silverbrand’s original script, Make Mine Metamucil on MONDAY, April 28th and TUESDAY, April 29 from 7pm -9pm at the Carson Block Building, the third floor, 517 Third Street, Old Town, Eureka. Director Denise Ryles is seeking eight ensemble players – four men and four women, age 55 plus.

The theatre is also looking for seniors interested in the technical and backstage positions. Please call the theatre (707) 786-5483 with your contact information and we will get back to you.

PRODUCTION DATES are July 13, 14 & 15 at the Rep and three shows in other venues still to be arranged. – for a total of six shows. Rehearsals will start in May. Actors - Be prepared to read cold from the script; wear comfortable clothes and shoes. Monologues are not required but appreciated. Scripts are available for perusal at the theatre. Note that scripts from the theatre may not be taken home. For more information, please call the Ferndale Rep at (707) 786-5483 and ask for Marilyn.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

Pure Abstractions HSU spring dance concert
Thurs-Saturday at 7:30 at the Van Duzer.
For the Dell'Arte School performances and
Jeff DeMark at the Arcata Playhouse Saturday,
see the column below.Posted by Picasa

We Live On a Political Stage

This is my Stage Matters column I sent in for the North Coast Journal published today. Apparently the email went awry...we're still sorting this out. Apologies are due to the folks at Dell'Arte I interviewed, and to Jeff DeMark, because their shows I write about here are this weekend.

So I'm posting the column in full here today.

The theatre of politics is pretty obvious in this presidential campaign year, but politics in theatre—that is, political and social issues of current concern as subject matter--is also especially evident on North Coast stages in 2008.

Several plays written in another time encouraged reflection on pertinent issues of today—and were likely chosen with that in mind. The year began with “Marat/Sade” at NCRT, which dealt with political violence, totalitarian repression and the gap between rich and poor. “Twelve Angry Men” at Ferndale Rep reminded us of fragile principles in our justice system, and the folly of discarding them. Dell’Arte revived “The Golden State,” which also touches upon economic disparities as well as perennial cultural issues, and North Coast Prep presented “The Crucible,” reminding us of the contagion of fear, especially when it is manipulated for political and economic gain.

Now Ferndale Rep is doing a musical that has the distinction of leading to several Supreme Court decisions concerning censorship and political speech. Today’s younger audiences for “Hair” may be a little baffled by some of the issues of central importance in the story, such as the major plot point of burning a draft card, and all the fuss about…hair. Both had immense symbolic importance in the 1960s, and caused of outrage and violence in the public sphere, and within families. Still, this play’s relevance to current issues of war, protest and repression are obvious, unfortunately.

Other current social and political issues seem clearly on the minds of second year students of the Dell’Arte International School’s MFA Ensemble in the piece they’re creating and presenting for the first time this coming weekend.

Between Two Winters on the Carlo Theatre stage Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2, is the result of an eight week process that began with students studying the nature of tragedy (Aristotle’s “Poetics” applied to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”) But when it came time to create a theatre piece, students were directed to find a subject in the newspaper.

According to Brian Moore, the student directing the piece, the story they selected was about a woman who was approached by the man who had raped her 20 years before. He asked her forgiveness, and she refused. Instead she initiated a prosecution, which caused controversy and criticism.

But in the process of writing the script, “it’s taken on a much different life of its own,” Moore said. “From that starting point, we’ve ended up in a much different place.”

Now the story takes place in Kuwait in the early 1990s, where the mayor of a city in Montana goes to honor the hero who saved lives during the oil field fires set by the retreating Iraqi forces in Gulf War I. The mayor is the woman who was raped 20 years before, the hero was her rapist, who has been in hiding ever since.

There are more moral and plot complications. The mayor is “a pretty notorious figure,” said Ronlin Foreman, the school’s director of pedagogical studies, who supervises the project. “She is a hyper politician with aspirations to the Senate, and has a real quality of vengeance in her life.” She also has a daughter for whom she also has political ambitions—who is the child resulting from that rape.

Where all this leads was still taking shape when I spoke with Moore and Foreman this past weekend. But for Foreman, the rationale for applying the tragic form to contemporary events is clear. “We have a surfeit of tragic occurrences,” he said “but tragedy in our day and age is a hard thing to come by. We think that we’re coming into a time when an admission of tragedy, of tragic flaw, is important.”

“Tragedy is a form that at its root pits the rational and ordered world against the world of terror and chaos,” according to a text these students use. “It deals with the human drive to step out of the chorus, to stand for and proceed into the hero’s journey…”

For this project, the chorus—which in Greek tragedy is the voice of the community that narrates and comments on the story—is represented by the media. “We’re planning to have a television camera onstage, broadcasting to monitors,” Moore said, “because we’re exploring how the media can make one of the characters the protagonist one moment, but suddenly shift to side with a different character.”

But the shifting chorus as well as the moral complexities of the situation challenges the classical definition of tragedy. “It’s hard a lot of the time to see the actions of these characters as sins, in the way that the Greeks did,” Moore explained. “We have a much different understanding of morality. We don’t bend to the will of the gods the same way the ancient Greeks did.”

So when I asked “Who is the tragic hero? What is the tragic flaw?” they both laughed a little uncomfortably. “Well, that’s what we’re working on right now,” Moore said.

Applying the tragic sense to these contemporary events remains an essential part of this exploration. “It’s a time when we say that it is important for someone to step out of the chorus—out of the people,” Foreman said, “as leaders—as people who expect to do something to change things.”

Foreman’s goal is to get the script right, so this weekend’s performances may turn out to be more like staged readings, he said. But the exploration will continue to a scheduled mid-May run of “Between Two Winters” at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco.

There are even some contemporary issues explored in the annual HSU dance concert this weekend (“Pure Abstractions,” Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 in the Van Duzer.) Then beginning next weekend, the 10th annual HSU Ten Minute Play Festival will include an unusual number of plays on social and political themes, including terrorism and interrogation, war and genocide. (Plus the usual comedies and fantasies, of course.) The festival runs April 24-26 and May 1-3.

This Saturday at 8 PM in the Arcata Playhouse, Jeff DeMark reprises his newest show, “They Ate Everything But Their Boots,” about the trials and tribulations of finding and renovating a Humboldt home. This will be only the third time DeMark has done this show since its premiere at the Bayside Grange in late 2006, and he promises some new material as well as an expanded musical presence by the Tiny Tims. Thanks to the mortgage crisis, there’s a new topicality as well to this typically funny, smart and generous DeMark show.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

La Bete is on

La Bete at CR this weekend.
Posted by Picasa

This North Coast Weekend

The musical Hair continues this weekend at Ferndale Rep, and La Bete in the Forum Theatre at the College of the Redwoods. My preview of them in the Journal is here. Betti Trauth reviews Hair and La Bete in the T-S.

Concluding its two week run at the Arcata Playhouse is the experimental CRAWDADDY: A Freak Tragedy. My Journal review is here, and Barry Blake reviews it in the T-S. I guess what I'd add to my review is that some of it is strange to the point of being surreal. The bit I liked best was the story of the puppet's father who, as a cartoon character, tested the ringers in ringer washing machines by being rung through them until he was flat as a pancake. Anyway, I assume that bit is still in the show! I wonder if they kept the castrati wolf man--I'll bet there were questions about that in the talkbacks. It concludes this run Thursday through Saturday at 8 PM.

And since I'm linking to my own stuff, here's one to my Journal review of the Canadian TV series "Slings and Arrows," which I've also written about here. Oddly, Michael Fields of Dell'Arte mentioned he was watching it (he's on season 2) and asked me if I knew of it-- before he'd seen my review in the Journal published that very day.

In that column about Hair and La Bete (with a tiny mention of Helen) I also repeated my rationale for objecting to the "trailer trash" term that first appeared here. (Specifically, here.) I've had very good response to it, notably from parents (including theatre artists) and a teacher.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Helen Farewell

I did get to the final performance of Helen on Saturday, and it was a full house. The audience was paying close attention, and not reacting much. Which I was told was very different from Friday night, when some local theatre folk inspired a raucous audience that laughed a lot.

Comedy can be so strange that way--sometimes, especially for plays with unusual themes or classical authors, there have to a few "laughers" in the audience to give others permission to laugh. But some nights even that's not enough. People on Saturday were talking about the content of the play at intermission and afterwards--they were really listening. But they also weren't laughing, and that can be dispiriting to the actors, and throw off their timing. This was a particular burden on Darcy Daughtry as Helen, because she carries and connects the play--the other characters (except for the servant) have one scene each, and two of them have clearly comic turns. Though it didn't seem to bother her.

And that's the other half of the dilemma for this play, because while Erik Rhea as Menelaus has some funny business, his is more of a tragic turn. So the raucous laughter of Friday turned a bit inappropriate as a response to his story of the young soldier being strangled inside the Trojan horse... Still, it probably would have been more fun to be there Friday.

One oddity about this play and where it was performed, that I doubt anyone else noticed: Down the hall from Gist Theatre, on the way to the water fountain that barely works (left over from when this building was a grade school, and so it is very low as well), the vending machines and a couple of the restrooms, there are offices. Specifically the offices of the Audio-Visual department, where the veteran Philip Hooker has been joined by Jim Goddess. And there are their quite unusual names, side by side, posted on the door: Hooker, Goddess.

And of course that's one of the major themes of Helen: Goddess--or hooker? Hooker--or goddess? Both, it seems...behind the same door.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Lost "Helen" Review

I saw Helen on opening night, which I of course cannot write about in my print column because I get paid a magnificent hourly wage to write press releases in advance of HSU theatre productions (including Helen). Plus my partner, Margaret Thomas Kelso, is the director. Plus I did some additional dramaturgical research for this production (uncredited, I notice).

But here I am free, free! To judge my own integrity.

It's all a matter of degree, really, especially around here, and especially when inevitably you get to know people who are running these theatres, directing, acting etc. So when I go to see a play, everything else has to drop quietly in the background, deferring to the experience itself.

Anyway, this was the first time I saw the play since that early run-through, so naturally I first noticed the improvements to the set, and the lighting and sound effects I either hadn't seen or heard, or only partially in part of a tech rehearsal.

Then there was the odd feeling about laughing--was I laughing at what I laughed at before, was I missing stuff I'd found funny the first time because--well, because this was the second time? But I knew I was finding new laughs, either in lines I'd missed or because the actors had added new business and emphasis.

But once I got into the flow of the play itself, it was like any other opening night experience. And even with some first night jitters and stiffness here and there, I thought the performances were remarkably good. I'd gotten the feeling that Margaret was thriving in her experience as a director, and I could see why. The combination of the actors' talents and her care in helping them find ways to express the lines, and make them clear--it was all there.

And though I'd read the play a couple of times and seen that run-through, it was only at this performance that I realized what a good play it was. It has its limited focus, which not everyone will agree with. But the writing is splendid. The director and cast really brought out its virtues. Judging from the reviews of the original production and one or two others I read about, I wouldn't be surprised if this is the best production of this play there's been so far anywhere.

I won't say the acting itself was better--I didn't see those other productions. But the effect of those productions was, according to what was written about them, nothing like this one. Even though this is a university production, and brilliant professional actors might find additional nuances in these characters, this production works as a whole in ways that (according to those reviews) it doesn't seem the others did.

This was Missy Hopper's last performance as an HSU student, and it's a great little part for her to go out on--a carefully crafted, expressive, funny character part (if you can call playing a former shepherdess who is now a recovering cow a character part). (And that's another weird thing--I've seen Missy and other HSU students in several parts, but have never written about them, because they were all HSU shows that I can't write about.)

Johanna Hembry also has a particular take on the character of Athena--it works because she has to convey a lot of attitude and the character as a whole in her short time on stage. Especially important when you're the only representative of the gods who have been manipulating people for decades--raping them, sending them off to wars, hiding and duplicating them, blowing them off course on their way home.

Erik Rhea plays Helen's husband, the one she is waiting for. His scene and his character depends on his interaction with Helen, and that worked very well that first night--it was moody, funny, troubling, and moving in turns. Leslie Ostrom as the servant is on stage longer than anyone but Helen, and she has several long speeches, which now don't seem like long speeches. Her character is a storyteller, and naturally acts out her stories as she continues her duties. Very effective. As I noted before, they all have stage presence, but their performances are also disciplined and authentic.

As Helen, Darcy Daughtry is onstage for the entire play--all but a few brief seconds. It all depends on her. And she's just wonderful. Theatregoers hereabouts have seen her in small roles, but this is her breakout performance: a star is born.

We follow the moods of her character, and we may judge Helen in different ways--is she superficial, imperious, ironic, childlike, knowing, self-deceiving? Yes. And by the final scenes, she is really, really moving. Darcy carries the early scenes and takes you into the play with her charm. But by the end, she is in every moment, and you are with her.

I'm not a big fan of the Gist theatre--the compressed amphitheatre seating is weird and disorienting, and the room is usually too warm. The stage area can be quite big, and some productions have used that potential to good effect, others not so much. But this production uses the stage's ability to be small, and intimate. That absolutely works for this production. Being able to look into Darcy's eyes in that final scene made it very moving.

Darcy was the outsider, a non-HSU person, but she not only overcame that, she set the tone for everyone else by being prepared, working hard and working well with everyone. It's great that she got this opportunity to carry a play, and we're fortunate that she wanted to try.

Now my big worry is whether there's going to be room for me to see it again in its final weekend. HSU shows normally draw bigger houses the second weekend (most run Thursday-Saturday for two successive weekends), and a couple of other events on campus last weekend definitely suppressed the usual attendance. So I expect it's going to be a big, crowded weekend, and I can't see depriving someone who hasn't seen it at all. But I heard that one of the crew said the Saturday performance was especially good, and I want to see what they've made of it. I've seen several HSU shows opening and then closing night--it's always interesting, theatrically and emotionally.

Look at that, I've called actors by their first names. So I guess this does turn out to be a non-professional review, which in some ways is a big relief.