Thursday, March 29, 2012

This North Coast Weekend

This is opening weekend at North Coast Rep for Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado About Nothing. Directed by Calder Johnson, it features Ethan Edmonds as Benedick and Kimberly Haile as Beatrice, with Evan Needham, Jennifer Trustem and James Read. Scenic design is by Jody Sekas; lighting design by David Kenworthy and costume design by Megan Johnson and Calder Johnson.  Performances this weekend are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Dell'Arte School Explained

How theatre is taught and learned at Dell'Arte International School is the subject of a scholarly article in the March 2012 issue of Theatre Topics, a publication of Johns Hopkins University Press in cooperation with the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.

The article is by Claire Canavan, a lecturer in the University of Texas Theatre and Dance department, and is based partly on her experience as a student in the four-week summer intensive at Dell'Arte in 2009.  The article examines the teaching and learning styles at the school, partly from an academic perspective, and partly from the perspective of other actor training. 

Canavan writes of the group creativity of actors working together to create and perform a piece, and notes her own surprise that teachers weren't trying to direct a piece in a particular way.  She notes a "productive tension between the idea that the actor is an artist with an original point of view, and yet that artistry and point of view are developed specifically through ensemble and community."

She sees Dell'Arte as challenging "hierarchies" that insist on "individualistic models of art-making."   She appreciated the emphasis on group critique and lack of commercial consideration, while noting that some less experienced students wanted more individual feedback.  "To me, Dell'Arte represents an alternative model of education in general, and acting pedagogy in particular," she concludes.  "There are not a lot of programs that would say they do not prioritize the progress of the individual, but instead what matters is the work."  She writes that the Dell'Arte program stands out in how it "envisions the role of the actor in theatre and also the role of the actor in society."

Coincidentally, this issue of Theatre Topics also contains an article by Theresa J. May, formerly a member of the Humboldt State theatre faculty, now at the University of Oregon.  Her article is about Seattle's Theater Squad.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Stage Elsewhere: Daisey Chain

Issues of veracity, of the difference in dramatizing versus reporting, stage vs. journalism, are suddenly up for discussion in the affair of Mike Daisey and his monologue, The Agony and Ecstacy of Steve Jobs. It was the centerpiece of a program on NPR's "This American Life," concerning the conditions at a Foxconn factory in China that assembled Apple products, including the iphone.  Very long hours, poor working conditions for very low pay, possible chemical poisoning, underage workers, and various abuses leading to an epidemic of suicides were what Daisey talked about, within the framework of his trip to China.

But producers of the NPR show got wind of discrepancies, then confronted Daisey.  In particular they wanted to talk to his translator, named in the show as Cathy.  He told them her name really was Anna, that he'd had a cell phone number for her, but it no longer operated and he had no way to find her.  When the actual translator--a Chinese woman who used the name Cathy for western clients--was easily found, she disputed his recollection of what he had seen and what people had said to them in China.  All of this led the NPR program to take the unusual step of going on air to retract the entire program.

Responses to all this were various and are still unfolding.  The consumer watchdog organization for example sent out an email pointing out that the matters of fact under dispute didn't alter the basic facts, that "conditions in the factories are horrible, and in some cases illegal."  And the New York Times story that came out around the same time as the NPR broadcast affirms this.  Others point out that these factories, including Foxconn, make electronic products for other U.S. companies as well.  Meanwhile, TPM reported (in a disapproving tone) that the Public Theater was not going to cancel the remaining scheduled evenings of Daisey and his monologue.

Recently Mike Daisey went on stage at Georgetown to improvise a monologue on all of this, and it's an interesting and instructive read.  He spoke about his general process that included this monologue, but also how it was different:

"None of my other monologues are like it. They're all different. This one? This one was driven. It wanted to change things. It wanted very badly to break out of the theater and change things. It wanted very badly to see change happen in the world. It was like that Brecht quote, "Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.That's what it felt like. And I always visualized the monologue, for good or for bad, I always thought of it as a weapon. I always saw it that way. Balanced. Well built. Intended to try to get into people, to change us. To fundamentally* connect us to our circumstances."

He talks about how life has demonstrably changed in just a few years because of smartphones, and how art can respond to that change, and change things itself. "And what I'm trying to bring together in the piece is the idea that our whole story is the story of metaphor shifts. And if we can see the world in a new way, if we actually see it differently, that is what makes change happen. There is nothing else that makes change happen. It does not come from money or guns or power. It comes from the change, and when people's minds change, that's what pushes forward. And I believe that's what art can do, is affect that kind of change, create bonds of empathy between us and people on the other side of the world..."

He had been obsessed with Apple products and Steve Jobs (the primary subject of the monologue) but started reading about the factory conditions in China.  He decided to go there, and arrived just as reports of suicides were hitting the media.  But then they stopped, thanks to a crackdown by the Chinese government, and implied laxity and short attention spans of western media.  He felt compelled to talk about what no one else was talking about, and he did so for a couple of years before anyone paid much attention.

He talks about the dramatizing aspects of a work for the stage, but said that he never thought of the monologue as fictional in the sense of being made up. "Because if I wanted to make shit up, I wouldn't go to China. I would stay in my apartment in Brooklyn and make shit up. It's easier."

He kept getting interviewed, and stopped correcting the false assumptions and statements of interviewers.  He admitted that he allowed one such falsity to enter the monologue--that he had met a victim of the chemical poisoning.  He knew he had not, although the poisoning itself was otherwise documented.  But on other points that were contradicted by his translator, he says simply that his memory differs--he does remember that person, he did hear this person say that--and hints that her disapproval of his questions, her siding with China PR, may be distorting her version.

Noone--not "This American Life" nor the New York Times--says that the substance of what he was talking about was false.  The chemical poisoning may have occurred at a different plant in China, but it is documented.

In the Georgetown monologue, Daisey does say that a few of the encounters happened less dramatically than in his show, but they did happen.  (One of the more dramatic images--the guards with guns--that the translator disputes, he still says he really saw.)  All of this does speak to the expectations that the dramatic monologue creates, at least the kind that is represented as the monologist's experiences.  There is some kind of weird reverse fourth wall phenomenon.  The person on the stage who keeps saying "I"--I saw, I heard, I felt, I suddenly realized--is reaching through the fourth wall to say, this is really me and this really happened.  While we in the audience realize that to some extent, since this is being said from a stage, it is using theatrical contrivances.  It's a planned out, perhaps written out, and often performed piece with structure--with narrative but also dramatic effects (building action, misdirection, climaxes, etc.) But while breaking the fourth wall usually signals the artificiality of what's on stage--that it's a play, not reality--in this case, the acknowledgement of the audience by speaking directly to it seems to negate the artificiality of the stage, and adds to the sense that this is a real person talking about real memories and events.

I recall a very powerful autobiographical piece, mostly about childhood, performed some years ago at HSU by a visiting theatre artist from southern California.  And I recall my disappointment when he later admitted that its most dramatic scene was pretty much made up.  I don't think this invalidates it.  But I remain disappointed.  It seems like cheating artistically, though few would probably agree with me on that.  In any case I'd rather see someone make something artful out of real events.  I don't know exactly why adding to a scene seems more like cheating that leaving things out, skipping things and all the other usual elements of constructing a narrative, but it does.

There is of course the additional component of the social change intended by this theatre piece: how does that change the theatre artist's responsibilities, if at all?  I think it still comes down to what the artist signals to the audience it should believe.

In any case, most of what Daisey is criticized for is his failure to truthfully and fully answer questions for the journalists making the radio program. For his stage monologue, Daisey is essentially claiming that, for the most part, he stuck to the truth as he remembers it, and that he pretty carefully checked the facts (though he admits his numbers got inflated in performance.) It will be interesting to see how all this develops.  

Friday, March 23, 2012

This North Coast Weekend

This is the final night for [title of show] at Ferndale Rep.  Also the final weekend for The Miser at CR.

It's also a high school drama weekend, with the screwball comedy Twentieth Century at McKinleyville High and the comedy Little Shop of Horrors at Arcata High.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

This North Coast Weekend

Ferndale Repertory Theatre presents a limited run, North Coast premiere of the musical [title of show.] Yes, that’s the title of the show: it’s about two struggling young artists assembling a show for a musical theatre competition. Written by Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book), it had a 100-performance Broadway run in 2008. The Ferndale production features Philip De Roulet, Craig Waldvogel, Elena Tessler, Jo Kuzelka and Laura Welch. It runs just two nights, but on successive weekends: this Friday (March 16), and next Friday (March 23) at 8 p.m. Rated PG-13.

This weekend Dell’Arte International’s first years present the results of their immersion in melodrama (in class at least) called Saved At Last From the Awful Flood of Life. Seven pieces seek to exemplify the struggle pitting loyalty, honor and justice against deceit, greed and intolerance—and the good guys win!  There’s an opening night benefit for International Student Aid on Thursday at 8 p.m., with tickets at $25. Friday and Saturday shows are pay-what-you-can. 

On Friday (March 16) the Arcata Playhouse starts its sixth annual Family Fun series with Japanese storyteller Kuniko Yamamoto in Magic Mask, Mime and Music of Japan at 7 p.m., with Saturday shows at 2 p.m. and 7. Future family-friendly shows in the series bring Faustwork Mask Theater in April and San Francisco’s Sweet Can Circus in May. Tickets can be purchased at Bubbles, Wildberries Marketplace and Redwood Yogurt in Arcata, or online through

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

This North Coast Weekend

The College of the Redwoods celebrates the tenth anniversary of its spring plays with a reprise of the play that started it all, Moliere's classic comedy, The Miser.  Directed by Kjeld Lyth, it's on stage at CR's Forum Theater beginning Thursday (March 8).  It continues Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. until March 26.

Also opening Thursday at 8: A performance by Rudi Galindo (Artistic Director of Teatro Pachuco and Los Payasos favorite) and dancer-choreographer Lisa Da Boit called All Fall Down, described as a site specific event with no text, a love story about the Twin Towers interwoven with a legend of the man who takes care of the moon.  It's at Dell'Arte's Carlo Theatre, continuing through Saturday evening.  Tickets through Dell'Arte.

Beyond the weekend, there's a free reading by Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller of Independent Eye from their newly published memoir on Monday at 7 p.m. at the Arcata Playhouse.
Redwood Curtain's production of The Language Archive begins its final weekend.  I've got a couple of other thoughts to share, after my Journal review.

First, on the playwright's strategy of having the characters tell the story retrospectively, while acting it out.  It's an interesting narrative strategy, with levels of ambiguity--are we seeing what actually happened, or what the characters remember as happening, or even what they wished had happened?  But it is also a dramatically tricky strategy.  What really is the dramatic action?  Strictly speaking, it can't be the action we're seeing, because that action is being remembered and narrated.  The dramatic action is people remembering the past.  That's what is happening in the present, what's being enacted on the stage.

This also leads into la-la lands of representation and so on--the dramatic action of a play purporting to be the action we see is really actors performing, and so on.  But what's more to the point in the experiencing of it is how well does this approach work?  Contrast this play with Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor, recently at NCRT.  In a formal sense, it also is a story being told by one of the characters, who occasionally steps out of character to narrate, usually to fill in action we don't see.  In that production, due to the writing or the direction or both, it was awkward and distracting. (The play was funny, in spite of this and other deficiencies.)  It was not as well integrated as The Language Archive, where it gave that play the sense of a fable, of a kind of contemporary fairy story told by a community of people.  (And like real fairy tales, it included unfortunate events.)  For me, the occasional narration did not disturb the presentness of the action, but in Laughter, it did.

The other thing I kept thinking about is the way director James Floss and actor Craig Benson chose to play the character of George, the language archivist.  I read that in the New York production, George was played as cold and emotionless, especially towards his wife.  At Redwood Curtain, Benson plays George as confused and conflicted, but not cold.

First of all, this is a difference that recurs frequently.  Characters that New Yorkers accept--obnoxious, aggressive, cold and calculating--are usually given a different interpretation on the North Coast.  They're usually more "human" you might say, or you might just say they're "nicer," more recognizably  North Coast. 

Frankly, I think that works better most of the time, and specifically, it really works better in this play.  First of all, George being caring but confused and exasperated in his reactions to his wife Mary's strange expressions of unhappiness is funnier than it would be if he were cold and remote.  His internal struggle is part of the couple's struggle, for she is also conflicted (leading to those cryptic notes which she denies writing.)

But besides mirroring Mary in a distorted way, this also parallels the cluelessness of Emma, his lab assistant who doesn't recognize that she's in love with George for a long time after it is apparent to the audience.  All of this brings both a warmth and a shape to this play, which otherwise defies definition.

Now don't get me started on the bread....     

Thursday, March 1, 2012

This North Coast Weekend

HSU Theatre has opened Noel Coward's comedy Blithe Spirit at the Van Duzer Theatre, playing Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (March 1-3) and Sunday (March 4) at 2 p.m.   This comedy, involving a medium, a mystery writer, ghosts in an English country house and "astral bigamy" was the comedy that got London through the Blitz, the V-1s and V-2s.  From 1941 to after World War II was over, it played nearly 3,000 performances with not one performance cancelled.

This history seemed of little interest to the opening night student audience on Wednesday, but judging from the Talkback afterwards they saw a lot in the play that was relevant to their lives.   Directed by Jyl Hewston, it features Kyle Handziak and Colleen Lacy as Charles and Ruth Condomine. Lillian Damron is the ghostly Elvira, while Phoebe Sager is the eccentric medium, Madame Arcati. Lincoln Mitchell and Saundra Dacre are the other couple at the seance, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, and Adrienne Ralsten is the curiously essential maid, Edith.   Tickets from HSU Box Office (826-3928) or at the door.  Much more information: HSU Stage and Screen.