Sunday, December 29, 2013

R.I.P. 2013

Among the losses to international stages are these, the famous and the lesser known, who represent others not named here:

Like many British actors--particularly of his generation and before--Peter O'Toole was a star on the stage before he made his first film.  His Hamlet, using the full text (which is rare), was much praised.

Richard Griffiths was primarily known as Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter films, but he was mostly a stage actor, costarring recently with Harry himself, Daniel Radcliffe.

American actor Julie Harris was renowned as much for her stage work as for her movies, though her performance in East of Eden opposite James Dean is indelible.  Other American actors known primarily for film and television are Eileen Brennan, Jean Stapleton, Eleanor Parker, Deanna Durbin and Esther Williams.  Lesser known American actors whose loss will be felt on stages are Ruth Maleczech, Martha Greenhouse, Kevin Gray, Patricia Blair, Jane Connell.  American stages also lost director and actor Arthur Storch, and director and author Herbert Blau.

British actors lost this year also include Lewis Collins, Jean Kent, Paul Rogers, Nigel Davenport, Pat Keen, Barbara Hicks, Bill Wallis, David Lyon and Keith March.  Canadian, South American, European and Asian stages lost important figures as well.

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heany was a playwright as well as poet, and Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing wrote plays and libreti for opera as well as fiction and essays.  She was also a keen theatre-goer.

  Poland lost one of its foremost international playwrights, Slawomir Mrozek.  Franca Rane was a prominent Italian playwright and actor.   Ostad Mohammad was a playwright and director.  Walter Muparutsa was an important playwright and actor in Zimbabwe.

Cuban-born Dolores Prida was known primarily as a columnist for the New York Daily News but also found success as an Off-Broadway playwright. Pittsburgh lost an important playwright in its vibrant theatre scene with the death of Mary Virginia Whipple.  Donald Bevan began as a Broadway playwright and later became a Broadway caricaturist. Playwright John Davidson also founded the Children's Theatre.  A former reporter, Thomas Tafero was a young playwright and actor in New York.

Many of these playwrights were also actors, directors, producers and teachers.  But their focus remained foremost on theatre and film.  There are others however who include the stage in an even larger scope of endeavors.  Philip Slater had that kind of life.  Known primarily as the author of nonfiction books such as The Pursuit of Loneliness, or the fiction/nonfiction hybrid Earthwalk, his livelihood was provided mostly by university teaching.  Yet he also had a life as an actor and playwright.  While his death at age 86 is to be mourned, his books remain alive, and his plays exist to be brought to life by future generations.  It seems like an honorable and fulfilling life.

Update 1/4/2014: Here's what playwright and actor Alan Bennett wrote about the death of Richard Griffiths in journal excerpts from 2013 just published (and posted) in the London Review of Books. Bennett wrote the play and screenplay The History Boys, one of Griffiths' better known performances.  He won many awards for his performance in it on stage, including a Tony.

29 March. Richard Griffiths dies. We’ve been away for a couple of days so are spared the unctuous telephone calls that always come from the tabloids on such occasions, ‘We’re sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings’ or ‘We hope we’re not intruding on your grief.’ Outside his family the person who would have known him best as an actor at the National and who would have been most acquainted with the logistic difficulties caused by his bulk was his dresser. No one will think to ask him, and I’ve never known him gossip about the actors he’s dressed (myself included), but he would have an angle on Richard and how he coped with his life that is unshared by any of the obituary writers.

Richard had an unending repertoire of anecdotes and an enviable spontaneous wit besides. I was working with him at the time when Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose was being laboriously raised from the depths of the Solent. This was being done by means of a cradle when suddenly a cable snapped and the wreck slipped back into the water.

‘Ah,’ said Richard. ‘A slight hiccup on the atypical journey from grave to cradle.’

Here's a story on Griffith's funeral, which brought out the Brit acting elite, including Daniel Radcliffe.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Year Not in Reviews: Plenty of Fields, Backstage Drama

Michael Fields.  Photo by Kellie Brown
This is a slightly different version of my year end Stage Matters column in NCJ published during Christmas week.  So in the likely event you missed it, it's my annual opportunity to write about something--or some things--that didn't get into my reviews and columns over the year, which in this case is (or was) 2013.

North Coast stages depend on a relatively small number of producers, directors, designers and actors who often work on several shows in a given year, before moving on or staying for decades. But even within this context, Michael Fields had a remarkable 2013.

 Fields directed four major productions and was responsible for the final script of at least two. This was in addition to his normal duties as Producing Artistic Director of the Dell’Arte Company and as chair of the entire California State Summer School for the Arts Theatre Program. But more than quantity it’s the newsworthy and innovative nature of these productions for the North Coast that requires more notice.

 In February Fields directed a contemporary translation of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, called Hater. But this wasn’t at Dell’Arte—it was at HSU, with a cast of mostly HSU students. It was a fast-paced yet heartfelt production, visually bold and with lively and subtle performances, notably by Johani Guerrero.

 It was also the first production of this translation outside of New York—which doesn’t happen here very often. Fields had met translator Samuel Buggeln (who is also a New York-based director) and brought him to the North Coast for a week—also an unusual event.

Even while he was adhering to a script in staging Hater, Fields was teaching one of the two classes that helped create Humboldt Unbound from scratch. HSU students and faculty collaborated on shaping ideas for a theatre piece on Alexander von Humboldt for HSU’s centennial year. Fields guided this unprecedented process at HSU (which required political as well as creative skills), wrote the final script, directed the show and tapped Dell’Arte colleagues to help create the sights and sounds of this singular production, which appeared on the Van Duzer stage in November.

And even while Humboldt Unbound was aborning, Fields was working with Dell’Arte International School students on their collaborative adaptation of Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland, which returns the Dell’Arte holiday show to a family-friendly narrative as a comprehensible and emotionally satisfying framework for the dazzle within it.

 In between he directed (and in part adapted) The Comedy of Errors for the Mad River Festival, the first play by Shakespeare that Dell’Arte produced in 38 years (and he was in that one.) I wrote at the time that it was one of his best directorial efforts.

 I have reservations about Dell’Arte-style “devised theatre” and aspects of the school’s pedagogy, but two mainstays of the Dell’Arte philosophy are practically personified in Fields’ work: his attention to process and his commitment to community. This was not his easiest year offstage, but the care in his work never wavered.

 Fields included two quotes in this year’s Dell’Arte holiday greeting: "Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." (Teddy Roosevelt) “Wherever you stand, be the soul of that place.” (Rumi) These are words he lives by.

 So what else about North Coast stages didn’t make it into the reviews and previews this year? Well, just like every year, a lot of the drama, most of which has nothing to do with the play that’s presented. It’s supplied within the production itself.

 For instance: The leading man who leaves a happy musical a few weeks before opening because his girlfriend doesn’t like how he looks at the leading lady. The actors who can’t make eye contact onstage because of what’s happened offstage. The actors who hate their director, the director who can’t stand the actors.

 The musical director and the stage director of a musical comedy who are barely speaking. The set that remains the designer’s fantasy until there’s no longer time to do much more than throw some flats together. Rehearsals suddenly turn into group therapy; illnesses or bad behavior turn them to chaos. Passionate liaisons begin and end within the run of a show, so that two strangers at first rehearsals are estranged lovers by the final performance. (Not all of this happened this particular year... at least not necessarily.)

 Participants tell these stories, sometimes even to me (though some actors just look at me with a frozen expression that suggests they’re fighting the impulse to back away while holding up a cross.) Besides backstage gossip, I occasionally hear their critiques of their own shows that can be more bluntly devastating than anything I’ve written. Well, anything I’ve published.

 While creating a production doesn’t only (or always) involve backstage drama, this should remind us that it’s done by people. And while participants want to produce a good show for audiences, the process itself is often the reason they show up. Applause is nice and necessary, but the process is the point.

It's the journey they take together: they talk about the play, put it on its feet, create its world, solve problems, think about characters, work with each other and see what they can do. Doing it is the chief reward, especially in community and education-based theatre, which is most of what the North Coast offers. Even more than elsewhere, our theatre is subsidized by the work of the people presenting it.