Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Exit Stage

Our revels and revelations now are ended. On this last day of 2014, I’m completing my retrospective. I've already filled in the many missing pieces within this site and made it more easily searchable. (Although I should have anticipated all the plays starting with “The.” Anyway, that’s where they’re indexed—under the T’s.)

 Now I’m done with observing North Coast theatre, and it seems that North Coast theatre is done with me. Of all the people and theatrical organizations I wrote about in these retrospective posts, none have responded publicly or privately.  I knew that was likely when I started this fairly arduous process of the past several months. But I console myself with one last theatrical gesture, quoting the last lines of Cyrano which I re-read in my review of the Northcoast Prep production: “But who fights ever hoping for success? I fought for lost cause, and for fruitless quest!…I know you now, old enemies of mine! Falsehood!..and Compromise! Prejudice! Treachery!…Folly—you? I know that you will lay me low at last!…Yet I fall fighting, fighting still!” 

 Yes, clearly in the end this was folly. But robbed of any sense of completion in the external world, I needed to complete it for myself.

 This post brings down the curtain on this site’s concentration on North Coast theatre. I expect to be transitioning to other projects early in 2015, including online, and so I may continue to post here on other topics for awhile.

 And when I move on I’ll be sure to leave some bread crumbs here. That’s mostly because, oddly, this site has gotten a number of new readers in the past couple of months, due to being linked in the “Elsewhere” column at Lost Coast Outpost for the first time. So onward, and maybe the links will follow.

 This site will remain accessible, of course, as a resource for past writing on plays and productions. That’s how some visitors have been using it all along. There were days that more hits came from Europe than the North Coast.

 I do have a piece of unfinished business, a postscript to my last post, on Shakespeare productions.  Back several years, one of my Journal reviews was given a subhead I found objectionable. I hadn’t written it and hadn’t seen it before publication (so I subsequently added writing my subheads to my chores. And then selecting photos and writing their captions.)

 The reference in question was to “trailer trash.” I objected to the term, in a letter to the editor (since that’s all that was open to me immediately) and here on this site. A letter to the editor complaining about something in my own column may have been a journalism first, but I was told that the letter was subsequently posted on at least one classroom bulletin board.

I expanded on my letter by quoting an anecdote about August Wilson: his gentle objection to a young playwright referring to her own background as "white trash." It is a very powerful point when made by the premier black playwright in American history, who had heard his share of demeaning names.  Had he identified with them, his magnificent ten play cycle never would have even begun.

I know very well about those voices that get into your head.  Coming from the white working class culture, the often-asked question--out loud as well as inside--of  "who do you think you are?" echoes even if seemingly unheard.

 Some may have found that criticizing a particular Shakespeare production for being set in a trailer park, and objecting to this term, were somehow contradictory. To believe that would be to misunderstand my review and point of view, reflexively ascribing it to some brand of snobbery.  I mention this incident now because, first of all, the point of it remains important to me, and secondly, it may clarify a little more my particular brand of seriousness in doing this job.

 My last retro reproduction is the column I wrote in early 2006, after my first predominately negative review of a show (see last post below.)   It states my intentions and some background, and I don’t have many revisions to make on either.

 My editors at the time requested this column because the paper published a passionate letter to the editor response to my negative review, written by one of the principals in the production (although not identified as such.)  I don’t know for certain, but I sense that some people in the theatre community never forgave me for that review. I suppose it’s human nature to remember the bad reviews and not the positive ones, or the positive comments in a mixed review. Certainly the responses in letters to the editor etc. were almost always complaints.  But I do believe that I at least reached a rapprochement with the person who wrote the letter, which even at the time I thought was witty.

A Life in the Theatre  2006

In my sixth column (with hardly a negative word in the previous five) and after glowing notices of four shows, last week I wrote what I frankly dreaded: a negative review.

I wasn't bothered by the prospect of letters to the editor (though I recall none for the "positive" pieces). I had my say here, and others have theirs in the letters section. The dialogue is part of the point.

But I know how hard people work to create theatre. I've been involved in it since my third grade class put on the first play I wrote. In fourth grade I had my first and only rep company, when I wrote scripts for my Cub Scout den, and we blew away the other dens and their knot-tying demonstrations for the Pack prize every month.

I wrote, acted and directed in college, and I've seen my scripts produced occasionally since. I've been a dramaturge and otherwise involved as a participant or close observer of professional, college and community productions. I love the process. So I wasn't looking forward to the inevitable hurt feelings. Besides, [film reviewer]Charlie can say anything he wants about films in his column, but Steve Martin doesn't live here.  They're unlikely to meet in Wildberries.

I also know that producers, directors and actors on the North Coast, as elsewhere, themselves make qualitative judgments, which can be quite harsh. They just don't often make them in public, and sign their names. Judgments are part of the process. Dealing with them is part of the job.

 Some may feel that community theatre should essentially be immune from criticism, but those theatres still charge admission and ask for contributions. Evaluation is a reasonable element, as it is for the artistic growth of the theatres themselves. Producers know that they are competing for audience with other entertainment, including available versions of the plays they're producing, just as theatre artists learn from excellent productions, and are inspired by them.

As for my credentials, I offer this additional information: Like a lot of small town working class or lower-middle class kids, I didn't see live theatre as a child, but I've since seen hundreds of plays in at least 15 different cities and towns, from the back of New York restaurants to Broadway, and from the Guthrie in Minneapolis to summer barn theatre in central Pennsylvania, and at the Changing Scene in Denver, which was down an alley past a dumpster and an old washing machine. That's in addition to plays at all North Coast venues in the past nine years.

Although I've written on theatre for three newspapers and several national magazines, most of the time nobody was paying me to go. These gigs did provide the opportunity to talk at length with Jason Robards Jr., August Wilson and many younger theatre professionals. But that doesn't mean I'm the expert, or I can't be wrong.

 Responses are individual. What I say doesn't prevent anyone from going to a show, nor should it deter anyone from feeling justified in enjoying it. But if I'm not honest about my own responses, what's the point?

Other things being equal, I'd rather not write about something I don't like. That's not always possible, and in last week's case I felt strongly about the play itself. I've seen Shakespeare's plays at every level and every sort of venue they're performed, up to and including Kevin Kline as Hamlet, and Glenda Jackson as Lady Macbeth. I don't expect New York or regional theater gloss at a community theatre. I am also dismayed by seeing a production there I'd expect to see in a high school, where the purpose is quite different.

I don't believe, as some do, that community theatres aren't capable of doing decent Shakespeare. But these plays probably require more time, attention and directed energies than other productions, and the best actors and directors in the community. The community deserves this. Great plays are great opportunities.

 In my columns here so far, I've deliberately highlighted the particular pleasures of live performance, and of the process of creating it. My subtext has been that in addition to movies, music and other forms of art and entertainment, stage matters. My hope is to encourage a thriving theatre community. But healthy theatre requires self-criticism and self-analysis, and ever-greater aspiration. My contribution is to add information and context, and describe my responses.

All I'm finally doing is adding to the discussion, while providing something I hope is worth reading. I feel a responsibility to the community and to the participants, but also (and primarily) to readers, and to the plays themselves, and the life and future of the theatre. I try to balance those responsibilities.

Monday, December 29, 2014

As I Did and Didn't Like It

The "Shakespeare" label on this site suggests that in my time reviewing theatre here, I've written about a total of 14 plays by William Shakespeare, at least four of them more than once.  (That's including North Coast Prep's editing of several Henry history plays into Mortal Men, Mortal Men, but does not include productions of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised], Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, I Hate Hamlet or Equivocation.

I wrote about some Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions, but coincidentally, not about Shakespeare plays that didn't also have North Coast productions at some point.  These were played at HSU, Dell'Arte, Shake the Bard at Arcata Playhouse, and Plays in the Park, but mostly at North Coast Repertory Theatre, which has the courage and commitment to produce a Shakespeare play nearly every season.

I enjoyed the opportunity to research these plays--to read them again, to read about them, to look at filmed or taped productions or actual movies made from them, and to recall productions I'd seen before.  This informed my viewing and reviewing, and gave me plenty more to write about on this site.  I am pleased to leave that for others to find on the Internet.

But I was often reminded that the audience for any given production would include at least some people who had never seen this particular Shakespeare play before, and may never have seen any.  This included adults as well as children and students.  More than once I've heard someone announce this fact in the North Coast Rep lobby.

After one show I was walking on the sidewalk in front of the theatre when a police car stopped, and the police officer inside asked me a question that I wasn't expecting: how was it?  Meaning the play--I don't remember which, but it was Shakespeare.  I stammered something to the effect of "good."  "Maybe I'll see it," he said, in a way that suggested to me that it's something he'd thought about before, but had not yet done.

People do go to see Shakespeare plays they've seen before, perhaps several times.  Why?  I don't think people go again for the same reason that producers and directors seem to feel they do--to see what new way this production has contrived to do the play.  Will it be a gender-flipped Hamlet on the Moon?  Or (as I suggested in an April Fool's piece) Othello set in the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers locker room, (retitled Shaqthello)  or a Macbeth recounting bloody competition among burl sculptors in Orick in the 1980s, with music by Devo, Cyndi Lauper and the Cars?

I think people go again and again, not for novelty, but because there is so much to see and hear.  The language is both more elaborate and compacted than we are used to, and there is a lot of it.  You notice something and you've already missed something else.  That's one of many reasons that clarity--vocal clarity especially--is crucial.  You never know which lines are going to jump out at individual audience members.

Appreciation is partly cumulative.  You look for different things, you hear different things. Different productions also emphasize different aspects of the play.  Actors offer different interpretations.  Sometimes (and the Shakespeare playgoer lives for this) the production and/or the actors make discoveries, that they make clear to you.

But as long as the words and actions are clear, you don't absolutely need that.  You make your own discoveries.  This happens in the moment.  But it can happen with some preparation--recalling prior productions, or having read about the play and other productions.  You might see how something is done differently this time, how some problem is solved.  So in many ways, every production--and to some extent, every performance--is new.

I've even written in this space about plays I haven't seen here, notably Hamlet and Macbeth.  I missed the Hamlet James Floss directed at NCRT, which was a year or two before I started writing Stage Matters.  I've mentioned  the first Hamlet I saw, which was the first Shakespeare I ever saw on stage, a few months after I started college.  It's a theatrical truism that your first Hamlet remains your favorite, and that's certainly true in my case.  But I've recently re-read the director's essay on it, and I can see why I loved it.

The first Shakespeare I saw in any medium I'm pretty sure was a Studio One television production of Julius Caesar when I was 11.  It helped that it's a fairly simple plot that I could follow, but I was otherwise enchanted by the language, even if I couldn't understand a lot of it.  That enchantment remains.

By the time I went to college I probably had also seen Olivier's Henry V on black and white TV.  Still, I was bowled over by it when I saw it years later in color, screened one Sunday afternoon at a small town art museum.  These experiences began an eagerness to see Shakespeare on film and television.  Apart from seeing some great actors, the verse is at least audible--and at home there's rewind.  But you do lose the sense of the whole stage, and the whole theatre, including the audience.  That particular sense of presence.

I've also written here on Macbeth-- that tragedy of rash decisions in which the action turns on the key character of the Thane of Ross.  And I'm not saying that just because I happened to play the Thane of Ross in a college production.  (Duncan was played by Richard Hoover, whose later fame came as a set designer for Twin Peaks and other Hollywood productions.)

Okay, that is why I said it, and it's probably not true.  But oddly,  for a play that is produced so often, I have seen Macbeth mostly on film. I've only encountered one stage production other than the one I was in (it starred Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson, and it wasn't very good).  Of course, you can learn a lot about a play that way.

Macbeth is scheduled to be produced at NCRT in early 2015, and so it will be the first North Coast Shakespeare production in nine years I won't have the opportunity to review. The participants may not be lamenting this.  My point of view on producing Shakespeare is that with great plays comes great responsibility.  I've been harder on Shakespeare productions than the rest, although (like Shakespeare himself perhaps) I became more generous towards the end.

My first real pan came fairly early, of the first Shakespeare I reviewed.  Because it was my favorite of the comedies, and because I had seen a stage production and a few on film that were wonderful in part, and I knew the play so well, I was looking forward to this show.  Perhaps too much.

 Anyway that review caused a mild kerfuffle, which both scared and delighted my editors.  It was then that somebody told me that previous reviewers in town had been unceremoniously sacked if a theatre (I think the expression was "community theatre") complained about a review.  (I was later assured privately that  the community theatre in which this production appeared had no problem with my review.)

So at the risk of opening old wounds, I am reproducing that review here.  Consider it in the abstract (made easier by the fact that even at the time I didn't name any names), as a point of view on the perils and opportunities of producing Shakespeare, or of going to see a Shakespeare play.

Next time--and for this retrospective, it will be the last time--I will include the Stage Matters column I wrote after this one, responding to the response.

As I Didn't Like It    2006

In Truth and the Comedic Art, Michael Gelven calls As You Like It “one of the rarest few of the greatest comedies ever written.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream is funnier, he believes, and Much Ado About Nothing is wittier. But As You Like It “seems to fuse love with comedy almost to perfection.”

That’s how I feel about it. It’s my favorite of the comedies.

 Shakespeare wrote for a particular group of actors and the audience of the time. Romances were in style and the cross-town rivals of Shakespeare’s company had a recent success with a Robin Hood play. So he adapted a popular romance, and created a band of exiles in the Forest of Arden, infusing the conventional story with a wide and wonderful humanity.

 This is one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays. Rosalind, the woman who pretends to be a man, who then pretends to be a woman so that Orlando (the man she loves) can practice wooing the woman she actually is by pretending he is she, is perhaps the greatest woman’s part in the comedies. Famous actors have therefore pined to play her, from Dame Edith Evans to Katharine Hepburn, Maggie Smith and Gwyneth Paltrow, with Vanessa Redgrave’s 1961 Royal Shakespeare Company performance among the most lauded.

 It’s been done for television several times, with the 1978 BBC version of the full play (starring Helen Mirren) available on DVD. A 1936 movie abridgement can be found on video, notable for a young and dazzling Lawrence Olivier as Orlando, and some creative film editing by the young David Lean. Elizabeth Bergner, an accomplished Central European actress, plays a spirited Rosalind, though her accent sounds disconcertingly like Bela Lugosi.

 Later this year, As You Like It will get the Kenneth Branagh film treatment, starring two young actors with strong theatre credentials who are becoming movie stars: Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind, and Adrian Lester as Orlando.

 This is a rich and accessible history, for those who make and those who go to new productions. Every local company that does a well-known play has to compete to some degree with the best stage productions as well as existing films and videos. It’s unfair, but a reality, as is the justice of being judged.  Even when the players aren’t paid, they are often asking audiences to spend their money as well as several hours of their lives.

 Sometimes, as in the case of North Coast Rep’s last production, Once Upon A Mattress, they create something that’s better than the pros. Mostly they offer other virtues, the most basic of which is the privilege of seeing a good or a great play up close, when it’s done competently, with at least a few intriguing or pleasingly surprising elements.

 This in my view is unfortunately not the case with NCRT’s current production of As You Like It. Some directors have played it strictly for laughs, even as farce, which seems to be the intended direction of this attempt. Even when done reasonably well, this approach tramples on the play’s greatest virtues. As Michael Gelven observes (and I heartily agree), the central characteristic of this play and its characters is grace.

 But even on its own terms, I didn’t find this production anywhere near a minimal standard of watchability. On a nearly bare stage, it is set in a confused and unappealing version of the 1960s, with Beatles songs replacing those in the text, inflicting only slightly less damage on the Beatles than on Shakespeare.

 The acting style is apparently meant to be broadly funny, somewhere between sitcom and camp. It doesn’t work, as the lack of laughter from Friday’s audience made terribly clear. The only Shakespearian element of the acting is from Hamlet’s advice to the players on what not to do: mug the words and saw the air too much with the hands. Those who didn’t mumble went to elaborate lengths to act out their lines with stock gestures and motiveless moves that were likely antique in Shakespeare’s day.

 At times it all came across as laboriously condescending, both to the play and to the audience. The blocking was awkward, the costumes seemed deliberately ugly (likely somebody’s idea of a hoot), and the almost non-existent set was perfunctory at best.

 I wish there was an element of the production I could single out for praise, apart from the assumed sincere effort. I hold out for you the possibility that everything changed for the better in the second half, for I was long gone by then.

 It’s especially unfortunate, if my view has merit, because this comedy should have special appeal to Humboldt, particularly in the multiple contrasts of country and city. Think of it set in the Forest of Arcata. And be grateful that your happy memories (if such they be) of “The Long and Winding Road” remain intact.

Friday, December 26, 2014

R.I.P. 2014

Mike Nichols began as a comic writer and performer, and achieved fame as a film director.  But in between he became a stage director, and continued to direct Broadway plays during his film career, winning 9 Tony Awards.  He directed several Neil Simon plays, George C. Scott in Nichols' translation of Uncle Vanya,  and in 1984, had two major first-run plays on Broadway simultaneously: Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing and David Rabe's Hurlyburly.  I saw both of those productions that year.  And of course, his film career began with Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He also brought Angels in America to the screen.

Philip Seymour Hoffman acted on the New York stage before and during his film career, winning three Tony nominations for revivals of plays by Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller and Sam Shepard.  In the offbeat 2008 film Synecdoche, New York he played a theatre director who uses the money from a genius grant to mount a production that is being reworked in rehearsals for decades.  Meanwhile he responds to the many ways in which his life unravels, including a fatal illness.  He has the perfect last words for an obsessed theatre director: a final revelation that he knows how to do this play.

Robin Williams was a comic genius as a stand-up and television performer, and he was an accomplished film actor.  But he also acted on the stage, most notably opposite Steve Martin in a 1988 Broadway production of Waiting for Godot.

Marian Seldes acted in New York from 1948 to 2012, and was elected to the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1995.  She appeared in premieres of several Edward Albee plays, winning her first Tony for A Delicate Balance.  She was also a legendary acting teacher for several succeeding generations.

Also in that production of A Delicate Balance and also elected to the Hall of Fame in 1995 was another long-time legend, Elaine Stritch.  She acted in major plays both on New York and London stages, and became known as a show-stopping singer in musicals, including in the original cast of Company.  She made many television appearances, and performed in several one-woman shows.

Eli Wallach studied with Sanford Meisner (as did Seldes) and also Lee Strasberg, and helped to form the Actors Studio.  Known for many character parts in movies, he acted on stage from 1945 to 2000. He was an active champion for the American stage, appearing in several first productions of Tennessee Williams.

Among her many accomplishments as a film actor, playwright, screenwriter, poet and activist, Ruby Dee was the first black woman to play leading roles (Kate, Cordelia) in the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut.  She starred in the breakthrough play Raisin in the Sun on Broadway and on screen, and continued to pioneer in television (prime time, soap operas, documentaries, etc.) for new generations of African Americans, especially women.

Bob Hoskins was a unique and fearless actor in British and American films, handling comedy, drama and song and dance.  He also created a memorable and much imitated Iago for Jonathan Miller's Othello.

Mickey Rooney's long career as a movie and television actor began with the role of Puck in the 1935 film of A Midsummer Night's Dream, a role he had played on the stage that same year at age 13.

Hollywood stars James Garner and Lauren Bacall began their acting apprenticeship on the New York stage. Bacall returned to Broadway in the 60s and over the next decades, winning two Tonys. German-born actor and Academy Award winner Maximillian Schell acted on stage in Germany, famed there for his Hamlet.

British film director and actor Richard Attenborough began as a stage actor.  One of distinguished film director Paul Mazursky's films was a modern adaptation of The Tempest.  Towards the end of his ground-breaking film-making career, Alain Renais adapted plays by Alan Ayckbourn and Jean Anouilh for the screen.

Many lesser known dramatic storytellers passed away in 2014, among them: actor Eddie Lawrence, who played in the 1950s New York production of The Threepenny Opera; film actor Juanita Moore, British actor Joseph Pasco, musical lyricist Sandy Wilson, actors Pauline Wagner (age 103), Leslie Carlson, Meshach Taylor, Nancy Malone, Beverly Long, Mona Freeman, Joan Loring, Perlita Neilson, Helena Bliss, Wendy Hughes, Phyllis Frelich, Marc Platt (age 100), Carmen Zapata, John Horsley (age 96), Christopher Jones, Rene Ricard.

The theatre also lost playwright, actor and director Roberto Gomez Bolanos, playwright Peter Whelon and drama critic Richard Eder.  May they rest in peace, and new generations carry on their work into the future.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Child's Christmas in Arcata

The Nutcracker ballet is an annual holiday season event in one form or another--and usually in several.  I've seen a number of non-professional and children's performances, and a professional production of the Duke Ellington jazz version in Pittsburgh.  I wrote about one North Coast Dance performance in December 2005.  Since it was not so much a review of that specific show as an evocation of these events beyond a single year, I am reproducing it here as a kind of Christmas card.  So happy holidays to all.

A Child's Christmas in Arcata December 2005

Outside, the moon was bright behind a scrim of luminous clouds in a cold and mostly clear sky. True, there wasn’t snow---not until a few faux flakes floated down onto the Van Duzer stage—but it was as close as Arcata comes to a fine winter night.

 Inside, in the opening night crowd for this year’s The Nutcracker, performed by North Coast Dance last Friday at HSU, there were a lot of children---possibly more than were in the show. Children on both sides of the footlights are a major reason this is a popular community event during the winter holiday season across North America and around the world.

 It’s a good show for adults, too, even those who don’t have a child in it. The NCD production has plenty of evocative sets, handsome costumes and magical lighting to entertain any eye. Artistic Director Danny Furlong fashioned a crisp first act, emphasizing the narrative, with lots of movement and comic asides, to set up the second act of mostly dancing, to the familiar music of Tchaikovsky.

But I kept thinking about a child’s experience. Children in the audience were brought along perhaps to cheer a sibling, or for the Christmas pageantry, or because they wanted to see the ballerinas (little girls in particular love ballerinas, as surely as they love purple).

 So The Nutcracker may often be a child’s first exposure to live dance, or even live performance. Seeing other children onstage---or other teenagers---presents the possibility that they, too, could enter this world that looks and feels quite a bit different from anything they’ve seen on American Idol.

 On Friday night they saw children perform with the presence, discipline and conviction of the adults onstage with them. Delia Bense-Kang was a perfect Clara, bringing the audience along on her journey with charm and economy. Tyler Elwell as her brother Fritz was shrewd casting, and he did his job---advancing the story and shining in his dance moments. This was true of the other children as well.

 Young dancers at every stage of learning and experience got the invaluable benefit of working alongside consummate professionals like Brook Broughton (the Sugar Plum Fairy) and Andre Reyes(Cavalier Ricola), who brought talent and standards accrued from dancing prominent roles in major companies such as the San Francisco Ballet.

 There were other experienced and skilled guest and local adult dancers to admire and emulate. Between the beginners and the veterans were dancers of various ages and levels of experience. Not everyone in such a large cast can be mentioned, but they all gave disciplined performances at minimum, with some flashes of fire and exhilarating moments.

 With his engaging, athletic performance, young Sam Campbell was a crowd favorite, the first Humboldt Native American dancer (Hupa) to play the title role of the Nutcracker here.

 Many of the younger dancers have already trained for years, and at each stage of their development take on new challenges to excel at exacting forms of dance and performance. Some will continue, perhaps to pursue a professional career elsewhere, or to find their fulfillment close to home.

 Others may find their passion fading as their ambitions and bodies change, but they will apply lessons learned to other aspects of their lives. Even to have simply experienced the gangly long limbs of late childhood and adolescence redeemed by the grace of dance is no small thing.

 They may retain the lesson Agnes DeMille wrote that she learned from Martha Graham, who told her: “There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it is lost…It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable…It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

 And they may become wise and still-passionate stalwarts of the arts audience, despite any melancholies of races lost and roads not taken. If so, they may well be bringing their children to a future production of The Nutcracker.

 Finally, this tradition of The Nutcracker most clearly connects the artists to the community, and the community to their artists. During intermission, audience veterans of past shows chatted about what was added, while others tried to keep their wrapped bouquets fresh for their loved one(s) onstage.

Clearly I was fascinated by the chocolate fountain
in the lobby.  I took way too many photos of it.
At the lobby reception after the show, Sam Campbell’s extended family gathered around him for lots of photos—both of his grandmothers were there, he said, and several aunties.

It was late for the younger dancers (one changed from her costume directly into her pajamas), but two girls made the rounds of the (slightly) older ballerinas, getting them to write remembrances in their programs.

Despite the festivities, it wasn’t quite Christmas---the dancers had a matinee and another evening show the next day, plus the final matinee on Sunday. Art means work as well as glory. For those privileged to participate, that’s part of the magic, too.

Friday, December 19, 2014

HSU: The Forbidden Stage

"Humboldt Unbound"
Commentaries and reviews of productions by HSU Theatre are conspicuously few on this site. There is a reason. As I’ve written too many times here already, I began my theatre column for the North Coast Journal at pretty much the same time as I began writing publicity for HSU Theatre. Both employers accepted the same condition, which I proposed: that I would not review HSU productions in my Journal column. My agreement with the Journal had an additional component: that the Journal would still cover HSU productions as they did everyone else’s.

 In a better or even what used to be a normal world, I wouldn’t need to write for both employers. One of them would supply a full time job. But this is the North Coast, now. Even together, these two supposedly part time jobs didn’t add up to anything close to a living wage. Situations like this aren’t uncommon here, which is why in some ways this might be the state capital of conflict of interest, if Sacramento and Los Angeles didn’t exist. And they do it bigger there.

 This initial condition was in response to the operating definition of conflict of interest, which is probably not well understood. It doesn’t have much to do with reviewing people you know, including close relatives. You’re better off disclosing the close relationships, but if I had to note everybody I knew or worked with in another capacity, the reviews eventually would have gotten extremely long.

"The School for Scandal" at HSU
And that’s not only because this is a small place, and a small theatre community. All theatre communities, even in New York, are pretty small. But it isn't about that (though maybe it should be.) No, it has to do with who pays you.

 Even then it can be a sometime thing—national political pundits and reporters that work for several competing print, media and online purveyors, while maintaining friendships and business relationships with people they cover, being an obvious case in point, with a whole lot more money involved.

 So I couldn’t review HSU shows in the Journal because HSU had paid me to publicize their existence. And the absence of a financial conflict is presumably why the Journal now publishes reviews of HSU shows by an HSU theatre student. (Because the money goes the other way I suppose.) Or for that matter, of shows in any local theatre by someone who has acted and directed for that theatre, and hopes to in the future.  But at least HSU shows are now reviewed there.
Venus at HSU

 I recognized however that this ban protected me as well as my employers.  The problems arose when the Journal failed to keep their end of the bargain. In my nearly 9 years as columnist, the Journal reviewed exactly one HSU show. If I didn’t get a few paragraphs of preview into a column, there would be nothing. But HSU shows were as much a part of the theatre ecology here as anyone’s.

 Since I wasn’t bound by anything but my conscience in what I wrote for this site, I had my say here about some of the productions, both good and bad. In terms of background, I wrote a lot for the blog site I started for the Theatre, Film & Dance department (HSU Stage & Screen) that I would have written here. So check the index over there (sorry, the “labels”) and see if there are particular plays and playwrights you’d like to read about.  Many do.  The site (like this one) gets visitors from all over the world.

 A retrospective about a decade of North Coast theatre would not be complete without noting such HSU productions as Hater and Humboldt Unbound (both directed by Michael Fields), The School for Scandal (directed by Clint Rebik), Translations (directed by Bernadette Cheyne, with Bob Wells), Brigadoon,  Helen, M. Butterfly ( directed by Michael Thomas), Fat Pig, Shakuntala, Some Assembly Required, The Winter’s Tale, Cloud 9, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Venus, An Evening with Rumi and Relative Captivity (Full disclosure! Written by my partner, Margaret Thomas Kelso) and several I’ve mentioned in earlier retrospective pieces, like Mother Courage, The Homecoming and Salmon Is Everything.

"Helen" at HSU
Many of these shows would not be produced by other North Coast theatres, so in addition to the educational goals they address, they offer audiences a variety, and at their best, either something daringly contemporary or an illuminating classic.  Some were very good, some were partly good, many were interesting, a few were really bad.  Like everybody else.

 Unfortunately, the fortunes of HSU theatre have fallen in recent years. Budget cutbacks threatened the very existence of the department a few years ago, but it still struggles against death by a thousand cuts. The loss of all graduate programs and the shrinking of the theatre faculty with the resulting weaknesses in vital areas have deeply wounded it.

 This diminution is already felt on other local stages. As I’ve argued before, HSU is a generator of talent and a source of support that helps make the relative plenitude of North Coast theatre possible. With the much smaller CR theatre program gone completely, it’s the last post-high school source of education and talent. (As an international school in a specialized area, Dell’Arte School is a special case-- most of its students don’t participate elsewhere and don’t hang around.)
"Shakuntala" at HSU

 The future is far from settled, but there is a vector getting stronger, a high school to community theatre express, often doing the same plays from one to the other (mostly the same musicals.)

 I’ll end this with a column from my first year that’s about the then-vibrant HSU 10 Minute Play Festival. I note the “full disclosure” elements in it, but it is a case in which the personal and the larger picture come together. I came here with Margaret when she was hired to run the dramatic writing program at HSU. It was robust in 1996, and a big part of HSU’s theatrical identity, especially with its national new plays contest.

 Over the years, as the department and the university faced one crisis after another, the writing program started to fade. The new plays contest was weakened. There was a staged reading of The Fire-Bringer in 2008, a different kind of "theatre of place." The last full production of a winning play was Jagun Fly in 2009 which I noted as a North Coast rarity then—a play by a black playwright about black people with an all-black cast.  But after that it lacked the resources to continue.

A program for new writing in the university itself was the 10 Minute Play Festival in the spring. It was a very popular show with audiences, especially student audiences, as well as with participants—many wrote and otherwise worked on the Festival more than once, and I noted in 2010 that one student, who did both undergrad and graduate work at HSU, participated in five of these annual festivals. (Here is the link to the posts I did at HSU Stage on the last 5 Festivals, and another to a blog about a few earlier ones.)
"Jagun Fly" at HSU

 But the festival was the result of a year-long graduate course process, and without graduate students, it wasn’t tenable. Margaret started the Festival, beginning in classrooms, then as a free event until it became a big draw on the regular schedule.  She coordinated all but the last two.

It ended with the 14th Festival in 2012. Few people noticed, which is the way that worlds end here—not with a bang but a whimper. Or the next text message.

 At their best, the festivals showcased energy and new perspectives.  Sometimes there was a gem or two, and sometimes that odd phenomenon of a year in which most of them were sort of amazing.  I still remember one play on one of the good years-- back when they were in the basement black box of Gist Hall-- about life, the future, and Star Wars: The New Hope. It was funny, theatrical, heartfelt and expressed a different perspective from a new generation. Those were 10 minutes worth waiting for.

 Even though the festival was restricted to HSU students, it was the last public forum or mechanism for new plays here, even ten minutes long. (I don’t count the 24 hour play contests, which are fun but mostly a game, a gimmick.) Now there are none.

From Page to Stage: The Ten Minute Year
 April 2006

Margaret Thomas Kelso
As the academic year ends, students at area high schools, Dell'Arte, CR and Humboldt State are presenting the fruits of their learning in theatre, music and dance on public stages. Perhaps the most complete exercise in creating new theatre will be the culmination of a year-long process, when the eighth annual Festival of Ten Minute Plays at HSU begins this weekend.

 I am now honor-bound to say that Margaret Thomas Kelso, the originator and coordinator of this event, and the head of the HSU Dramatic Writing Program, is also my partner. But that's just scratching the surface of journalistic disclosure. We actually met at a theatre conference held in conjunction with the Carnegie Mellon Showcase of New Plays. We both had ten-minute plays produced as members of a playwrights group in Pittsburgh, and Margaret directed a short play I wrote, with two wonderful CMU student actors (including Maduka Steady, who's since had a New York theatre career and a prominent role in the feature film Lorenzo's Oil).

2006 Ten Minute Playwrights
Here's how the process works at HSU: Students in advanced and beginning playwriting courses in the fall term write ten-minute plays, talk about them, and rewrite them several times.

 Around Thanksgiving, faculty members select scripts for the festival (nine this year) and those students continue working on them in the spring term. In the middle of the semester, directors are matched with scripts and actors audition, and writers keep working on scripts through rehearsals.

There is some staging and lighting for performance, but only what's essential to express the material. This playwright-centered process was pioneered at the Eugene O'Neill Center in Connecticut. One of the great experiences of my life was observing how it worked for several weeks one summer, and becoming part of that temporary yet recurrent and close-knit community. Spending hours talking and hanging out with August Wilson, one of the greatest of American playwrights, and Lloyd Richards, a legendary director and the Zen Master of the O'Neill Center, as well as meeting young playwrights who have since become important figures in theatre, television and film, only begins to suggest the privilege of that experience.

 But I definitely learned the value and integrity of a process that's centered on the playwright and the play, but with contributions from everyone. Because plays are not meant to stay on the page. It takes many people with different skills to make the leap: the director, searching for a shape and structure, designers who need to know how it should look and actors who have to be those words and actions.

 At its best, the questions confronting the playwright lead to moments like this: August Wilson had a character, a white Chicago cop, say something the actor playing him didn't think a Chicago cop would say. "What would he say?" August asked him. "Something like, `Look buddy, if you want it in a nutshell... '" Check the printed text of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and that line is there.

At HSU, the festival playwrights go through a similar process. "They have the opportunity to see their plays in three dimensions. They see their characters actually embodied," Kelso said. But the emphasis at all times is on the script: How it works to make the magic. "This is the heart of the process, and why it is so important. These are the essential skills that are needed to keep theatre alive. We need theatre that is still growing and reflecting our lives."

The final step is performance and the response of audiences, who get to participate in the creation of something new, and see what's on the minds of students this year. And if they don't like the one they're watching, they can wait ten minutes for another.

 There's usually a mix of comedy and drama, realism and fantasy, as there appears to be this spring. Even the styles can say something different each year: the festival a few years back featured some dull dramas but exhilarating comedies -- that class had a real feel for comedy in performance as well as writing.

The ten minute play is a fairly new and still evolving form, which at its best "captures a peak moment," Kelso said. "It's usually the moment of change in a story."

"Free" 2007
She uses this form for teaching purposes because all the reexamining and rewriting would be too unwieldy with plays of greater length. "But it's an excellent way for students to really work through the process," Kelso said. "A lot of universities don't teach these skills."

One of this year's writers showed me several drafts of his play, and it's fascinating to see how much can be improved in such a short form. Writers also don't get this kind of respect for their work very often, which is why even established playwrights loved the O'Neill. Margaret is proud of this program at HSU, and so am I.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

On DeMark

Jeff DeMark is a unique presence in the North Coast stage ecology.  He's a storyteller who creates an entire show.  At first, inspired by the likes of Spalding Gray, his shows were mostly stories from his life, punctuated with a little music: Writing My Way Out of Adolescence, Went to Lunch, Never Returned;  Hard As the Diamond, Soft as the Dirt; They Ate Everything But Their Boots. He still does these from time to time.

 In recent years however he's increased the musical component, working with  established bands or a band he organized.  Sometimes there's been a theme, titled That Train Has Sailed, or The Thong Remains the Same.

At times he's put together an evening that I once referred to as tending towards something like a North Coast Home Companion. That came to a kind of fruition this past summer, when he played to a large, enthusiastic crowd in the Big Hammer Tent at Dell'Arte as part of the 2014 Mad River Festival. He hosted various musicians and other storytellers, with a house band and his own stories as well, with the general theme of summer.  They repeated the show at the Arcata Playhouse.

The Jeff DeMark label in the list over there to the right leads to mentions that suggest the range of venues and configurations of these shows over the years.  I was inspired to write at length about memories inspired by one performance of the baseball show at Ferndale Rep.  I mention that the shows are worth seeing more than once since new things jump out of you.  And that did happen when I saw this show again at the Arcata Theatre.  But there's also the pleasure of hearing again a story you really liked the first time.

Plus, as Jeff will tell you, every show is a little different.  Maybe he'll try something new, the musicians involved change things, but often it's the audience, and the interchange with them that makes a difference.  Most often (when I've been there) that's been a big positive, and Jeff has told me of other shows that were even better.  Sometimes it's mixed, as in this case which I wrote about briefly, and Jeff added a comment.

Of a 2008 appearance I wrote:  On a recent Saturday night, Jeff DeMark brought his particular brand of storytelling to an overflow crowd at the Muddy Cup in Arcata. He told some new stories along with selections from his fully-formed shows, accompanied by the UKExperience ukulele band. The combination was often magical.

DeMark’s stories are funny and sometimes poignant, and they seem to touch a chord with the local audience as shared experience and nostalgia. But they also penetrate with a poetic humanity, and this versatile ensemble of two ukes, electric bass and drums added to all these effects, but particularly the warmth. Some of the stories were a little rough in presentation but the final one perfectly summed up the potential of this combination.

 DeMark’s story about giving his mother her first marijuana high (at her request) was hilarious, backed at one point by the marching chords of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Then the images of his mother the day after, relaxed and liberated into a youthful freedom, dancing to her favorite recording of Patsy Cline, got just the right accent from the band playing "I Fall To Pieces" as DeMark remarked that he never saw her happier than on that day. 

Somewhere I wrote about a re-telling of his first show: By turns broadly comedic and then quite serious, Writing My Way Out of Adolescence tells stories of growing up in Racine, Wisconsin, including surreal encounters with a one-eyed nun, stealing a car and sneaking into a nudist camp, and a long psychedelic journey that is filled with humor and some real danger. 

 “When I wrote this show it was like a band making their first album---I packed in every thing I could, all these wild, funny and disturbing events from adolescence and interlaced them with as much passion and humor as I could summon, “ DeMark said. “At the end I realized I was so lucky to grow up in a close family. I might not have survived without that love and I mean that quite literally.” 

At another point I noted: There's really nobody like Jeff anywhere, every show is a new experience, even for his devoted fans who never miss him. There's no doubt however that Jeff is a popular and maybe even legendary figure on the North Coast, and doubtless back on his home grounds of Wisconsin as well.  It's a truism in writing that the more specific you are, the more universal the effect. Unlike a lot of truisms, this is often true.  It's true in Jeff's case.  It's fun to be in an audience that laughs at the humor but also smiles when an experience Jeff describes reminds them of something, perhaps long forgotten, in their own lives. (The music cues help, too.)

Jeff premiered one of his formal solo shows on my reviewing watch, in 2006, before I started writing on this blog.  What follows is a preview and interview, followed by the review afterwards.  It's still hard to describe in a label what his "funny art" is, but one key to the differences might be that his performances evolved not from comedy clubs or open stages but from poetry readings.

It's A Funny Art   Oct. 30, 2006

It’s a funny art, Jeff Demark says. It doesn’t even have a name—is it comedy? Monologue? Storytelling? It’s usually just called a one-person show, although in his upcoming performance, there will be a band (tiny tim) performing live music and sound effects on stage with him.

 But even when he’s the only one up there, other characters appear. By the second half of his first show, Writing My Way Through Adolescence, which he recently performed at the Muddy Cup, audiences can all but see the stage crowded with a dozen people.

 DeMark’s new show, They Ate Everything But Their Boots will debut at a KHSU fundraiser on November 11 at the Bayside Grange. When we talked last week, he was frantically putting together the entire event (his day job is as KHSU Underwriting Coordinator), which meant lining up the food and drink, dealing with the logistics of his show and the appearance of the Delta Nationals to cap the evening, among other things. As well as writing his show.

 Two weeks before its scheduled premiere, the show was about three-quarters written. “To a Dell’Arte person, that’s plenty of time,” Jeff quipped. “To anybody else it’s, are you out of your mind?”

 “I have to write it all down, to get the details I need, the finer images, the sharper colors,” he explained. “I write way too much, and then I have to boil it down to the essentials.”

This new show is about the process of buying a house in Humboldt County and remodeling it. “But it goes beyond that—what is home? What is home to you? I did a lot of drifting before I ended up here.”

 Apart from a lot of jobs in a lot of places (including a stint in the original In-Sink-erator factory in his hometown of Racine, Wisconsin), DeMark’s journey to this show began with poetry readings in Madison in 1974. His poems tended towards the narrative, and the more he told stories, the more comfortable he felt.

 “Telling stories was a natural part of life where I grew up,” he recalled. “Maybe it was the long winters, but people would drink beer and play cards and tell stories. My father was a great storyteller.”

 But it wasn’t until somebody from Dell’Arte heard him at a Jambalaya poetry reading that he got the opportunity to write a whole show. It wasn’t so rushed that time—he had six weeks to write the second half—but when he performed that first show at the 1993 Mad River Festival to a sellout crowd, he knew he found something.

“I’d been kicking around for 19 years—I just wanted to finish something—I wanted to make something I could stand behind and say, this is a completed work. So then I had one. Now, do I have two? Maybe I could do another one.”

 But besides creating, there was performing—and that was another home he had to find. Fortunately, he got some very good advice. “A friend of mine was in the music business—Danny Kahn, he manages Roseanne Cash now. He said, ‘you’ve got to go out there like a band and play. Do everything you can until you’re comfortable, so when someone asks you what you do, you can say, ’I do these shows.’ You don’t say, ‘Well, I’m trying to do them’ or ‘I’m hoping to do them.’ Not that you’re going to be famous or make money, but when you can just say you do them, then you’re there.’”

So he performed in bars, folk clubs, coffee shops and a combination theatre and bowling alley in Minnesota. “I played places no other theatre artist does, because if I waited for a theatre to book me, I would never get enough experience. I had to do 25 shows a year rather than four.”

 Since 1993, DeMark has created and performed five shows to general acclaim in Humboldt, but this will be his first new one since 2002. Like the others, it’s autobiographically-based, which is a tricky form, because it has to have room for invention and craft but it has to be true, at least emotionally.

 Though DeMark has changed some facts and included stories that happened to other people, he knows there’s a line he can’t cross. “If the audience thinks you’re lying up there, you’re done for. If they think you’re just making this up to be cute, then you’re in trouble.”

As for finishing this show, “Fortunately I have a lot of people helping me.” As seems typical for DeMark, that includes a dramatics teacher, Cathy Butler, and his old friend Larry in Madison. Then on show day, another friend told him, “all you have to do is prepare your heart for great joy.” So will Jeff DeMark pull together his show in time? Come out to the Bayside Grange on November 11 and find out, and I’ll meet you back here after.

"Did I Finish It?" November 2006

Orion's Belt seemed bolted atop the dark trees along Jacoby Creek Road on Saturday's clear, crisp night, as an exhausted Jeff DeMark asked me, "Did I finish it?"

That was essentially the question this column ended with last time, as DeMark  was working on his latest one-person show, They Ate Everything But Their Boots, for its first-ever performance at the Bayside Grange Saturday evening.

What helped get it done, he said after the performance, was rehearsing with what he referred to as "the band," which was mostly two guys with ukuleles (Tom Chan and Matt Knight) who nevertheless pulled off a credible version of the Jimi Hendrix psychedelic guitar classic, "The Wind Cried Mary." They also doubled as sound effects technicians.

 Music punctuated the show at the break and at the end (when DeMark joined in on guitar for a bit of Dylan's "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest") and provided an extra dimension to his tale of working construction on Fred Flintstone's house in an Arizona theme park, with a parody of a tune his building crew rewrote from its incessant radio play (America's "A Horse With No Name.")

Afterwards DeMark mentioned the struggle to get the details right, and this -- the song on the radio, the kind of candy bar -- is a key to bringing the stories to life.

 One of DeMark's goals for this show was to tell favorite stories he hadn't told before, and the capacity crowd at the Bayside Grange was with him for every word, not only laughing but shrieking and sighing.

 It helped that his main subject, the process of buying and remodeling a house in Humboldt, was an experience much of the audience seemed to have in common. But by now it's also a personal relationship -- the audience knows him, and was willing to follow him almost anywhere.

Partly that seems to be because, in one way or another, he speaks for them: His stories are variations of their stories. They responded not only to the ruefully comic but to the emotional and even mystical meaning of home.

DeMark moved around and used the stage well (with hanging doors and windows on a set created by artist Michelle McCall-Wallace), though transitions were rough -- clearly this was a first presentation. With its responses, the audience on Saturday suggested areas where it wanted to go, which should help DeMark as he hones this show. Some of the stories he told may not remain in it, so the Grange audience heard what other audiences may not. Which also means that as the show changes even people who were there will be eager to see it again.

Afterword: In fact this show did change. After several more performances, he went back to it in 2010 and told me, “I’ve edited parts of it, I wrote a new ending and generally just tried to find the truth and humor in it. I’ve realized it’s really about things other than the search for a house, though that is certainly in it, and the whole process and madness of rehabilitating a 100-year-old Victorian. It’s about the journey of trying to find a place to fit in, to feel home, and with that comes a lot of feeling of destiny, luck or lack of luck. There are thoughts about synchronicity and how little logic has to do with our lives as compared to chance and fortune.”

Monday, December 15, 2014

All's Wells

Lynne & Bob 2011. Photo by Bob Doran
No North Coast retrospective could be complete without Lynne and Bob Wells.  (That by the way is how the label reads on this site-- "Lynne and Bob Wells." It links to their individual performances as well.)

I've referred to them as the North Coast Lunts (and so had to explain who the Lunts were.)  Dell'Arte honored them in 2011, and I interviewed them on that occasion.

They told me then that they met when they were both cast in a Ferndale Rep production of a Neil Simon play.  In some ways their romance was itself out of a story: the rich girl and the poor boy.  But those circumstances have their unique aspects, and became part of a unique relationship.

It's one of those things that everybody knows but nobody talks about, so I felt a little trepidation in asking them about it.  But I did, and they talked about it easily. There wasn't space in the original column, but that column is structured pretty much as the conversation was, for they kept coming back to the show they were to do when they accepted their award, even when we talked about this.

"He's a poor boy," Lynne said.  "I was very fortunate--I'm a trust fund baby."
"She's a sugar mama," Bob said.
"I'm your sugar mama," Lynne laughed.  "Maybe we should do a bit about that."
"I've never done anything for money," Bob said.  "It has to be something I love.  I worked five years in the Post Office.  But I liked it."
"I never did anything for the money either but I always felt guilty about it," Lynne said, "because it's always come to me.  Always part of me saying, how do I deserve this.  But it's been a great blessing.  It allows me to give, and that's been great."

The family fortune had its roots in, of all times, the 1930s.  "My father started the first car and truck rental business in the United States," Lynne said.  "He started with a taxi, but never got calls for the taxi, just somebody who wanted to rent the car.  He was a man who always said my goal every day is to make a buck and do something for somebody else.  If I do that every day, I feel good."

"We were raised with a very strong work ethic," she said. "But as adults we also came into quite a lot of money when the business was sold.  But it's dwindling."

Once together, Lynne and Bob made an unusual move for actors in plays: a year of study at Dell'Arte.  I also don't know of many Dell'Arte grads who returned to the conventional theatre.  Lynne admitted it took awhile before what she learned there "got incorporated."  Bob remembered being told that it might take five years for what he'd learned to sink in.  "It took me ten."  

"Thinking back on the Dell'Arte experience for me," Lynne said, "we were the oldest ones at the time.  It was a huge accomplishment.  Donald Forrest was our acrobatics teacher, and he was so kind to me--and rough on everybody else.  At the end of an entire year my big accomplishment was that I was able to do a forward roll."  She did it in one show at Ferndale--"and never again."

"Donald Forrest is one of the most excellent actors I've ever met in my life," Lynne added.  "He taught me so much."

They both agreed on their favorite directors: Michael Fields and Rene Grinnell.  Bob added some names from Pacific Arts Center Theatre days: Gordon Townsend, Jeff Peacock.  (They also volunteered their least favorite director, but I'll keep that to myself.)

"I like a director who will come in strong, with a vision and with good direction in the beginning," Lynne said, "but in the last couple of weeks they adore you, they let you go. A director who is picking on you until the last minute, I don't want.  They have to know that they chose somebody for a reason, and at some point they've got to let you go."

in Glorious!
We were talking in the Plaza Grill in the afternoon, and the combination of ambient noise on the recording and my poor notes didn't record what performance Lynne said was "Bob's Hamlet."  But I did hear Bob say that Lynne's Hamlet was Glorious!, the comedy about Florence Foster Jenkins that opened Redwood Curtain's new theatre on Snug Alley.  "Lynne Wells unleashed" was how I described her tour de force performance.

Bob was with her in that production, funny and poignant.  Their most famous performance together apparently was as George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Doing it was an intense experience they definitely did not want to revisit.  "We didn't realize it was a comedy," Bob said. "There were just four of us, rehearsing that play for six weeks.  We were so into it, it seemed intrusive to have people there to see it."

In my time as columnist, I saw them work together in Painting Churches at North Coast Rep, Glorious! and The Language Archive at Redwood Curtain, and in a couple of Christmas shows at the Arcata Playhouse.  In addition to their skills that create credibility and delight, they do have a kind of mystique that is a delight in itself.

I had the additional pleasure of being onstage with Lynne.  In fact, we played husband and wife for a couple of hours, at the anniversary reading of It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis at Dell'Arte. I got to feel a little of that energy exchange that's an essential pleasure of acting on stage, when it's good.

Among my happy memories of Bob was his singing and dancing performance in North Coast Rep's My Fair Lady.  As I wrote then: "From his opening number (“With A Little Bit of Luck”) his performance as Eliza’s father was astonishing. It did better than stop the show—it energized it forward."

But the first thing I noted about Bob Wells was his speaking voice.  I commented on it first in The Ladies of the Camellias. "Nobody could make the two syllables of 'password' funnier than Wells does."  But then I wrote a column with his vocal work as its theme, and instead of the interview column, that's what I will reproduce below.

I do it to honor both Lynne and Bob, for their approach to the art and craft of acting and performance, their respect for the text and for the audience.

Bob Wells' Vocal Magic  February 2010

According to renowned early 20th century Italian actor Tomasso Salvini, the three most potent elements of acting are: “Voice! Voice! Voice!”

 You might expect that sentiment from an old-school actor like Salvini, or even actor and director John Gielgud, who suggested that while attention is often lavished on other aspects of performance, how the words are spoken “can have more effect than anything else.”

 But open almost any book on stage directing or acting, and they proclaim the importance of voice. The purported Stanislavski “Method” may have enshrined mumbling on American stages, but director Robert Lewis quotes Stanislavski writing at length about vocal acting: “Letters, syllables, words—these are the musical notes of speech, out of which to fashion measures, arias, whole symphonies.”

Harold Clurman (another Method-influenced director) writes about it—even Jerzy Grotowski devotes some 30 pages to vocal technique in Towards a Poor Theatre.

 A revelatory object lesson in vocal acting is available this weekend at the Arcata Playhouse, where Bob Wells performs in a short play by Arthur Kopit, directed by Dan Stone.

 First of all, every word Wells says can be heard, and every word can be understood. With these foundations in place, Wells goes on to act with his voice—his intonations, pronunciations, the words he stresses hard, the syllables he lets linger and float away.

 Beginning with his surprising “entrance,” Wells captivates, even when he does almost nothing except create this character with sound. He’s masterful: both poetic and clear. We know who this man is, and we attend to what he has to say.

 The play, called Sing to Me Through Open Windows, is more problematic. Arthur Kopit is a contemporary American playwright with a long career that began with revolutionary absurdist romps like Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad, but more recently has included musicals, including Nine, which reached the silver screen this year with Kopit as an executive producer.

 Whether Kopit has copped out or America has caught up to his absurdism is an open question, but this early play is at best an exercise in poetic symbolism that for me remained fairly elusive in this production. There’s the old magician (Wells), the boy who visits him (played by newcomer Zachery Davis with appropriate vulnerability) and a clown whose relationship to the others is difficult to assess (played with appropriate physicality by Craig Klapman.)

 This is the kind of challenging work that Dan Stone often chooses. Figuring out what was happening was more difficult because Bob Wells was the only one who was clearly audible all the time. Even so, a kind of ambiguity is inherent in this play.

The stage imagery, including the music (all created by Dan Stone), worked well. The lighting was especially clarifying, but other choices (like the puppets) less so. The themes of life’s transitions and mythic cycles are there when you think about it, but the impact of aging was absolutely clear as an experience.

That’s the work of Wells, playing a magician who is in the process of himself vanishing. “Fear is like regret,” he concludes, “only with fear, there’s not much time left.”

 Remarkable words to come from a 22 year-old playwright (as Kopit was when he wrote this), but very powerful when spoken by a veteran actor in conscious control of a superior vocal instrument. I particularly urge young actors to experience—and listen to--this performance.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Jean (and John) and the Northcoast Prepsters

set for Light on the Piazza
Jean Heard Bazemore began directing theatre on the North Coast in 1969.  She directed and taught at HSU until the late 1990s.  In my almost-decade of reviewing, I saw two shows she directed for the Humboldt Light Opera: Souvenir, a small-scale production of a play about Florence Foster Jenkins, and a large summer show, Light on the Piazza.  But mostly I saw the shows she directed with high school students of what came to be called the Northcoast Preparatory Academy.  She began that school, and has been its director ever since.

I'm reproducing two of those pieces below. The first is about Strindberg's The Dream Play she directed in 2007.  It was also the play she directed in the same theatre (the Van Duzer) in 1969-- if I recall correctly what she told me, back then she had been drafted to do it on short notice when another production fell through.  This column squares the circle further by telling the story of local musical favorites Joyce Hough and Fred Neighbor, who met when acting in that play.

But mostly this column is a decent introduction to the work she did at Northcoast Prep.  The school's productions were (and are) part of the educational process, and usually involve a long period of study and discussion.  (The actual productions I believe tended to get put together pretty quickly.) The students select the plays they want to do, which in some years meant the plays they wanted to combine, or perhaps do two.  Generally the first and second years did one show, the third and fourth years another.  The shows they did--and the editing Jean did on the scripts--favored participation by as many students as there were that year.

So the student experience came first.  But audiences (even apart from parents and relatives) got the benefit.  For one thing, they saw plays that they could not see elsewhere on the North Coast--plays that not so long ago used to be part of the repertoire for any student of the theatre, casual or serious.

The Northcoast Prep students always brought something special to these plays.  Their commitment, first and foremost, and enthusiasm, but also talent and skills.  Still, these shows depended on Jean Bazemore's taste, talent and skills as a director.  And on the elegant stage designs by Gerald Beck.  They ensured that the audience got clarity, as well as a viewpoint, an illumination.

Sancho Panza and Don Quijote 
So we got Brecht, Shaw, Strindberg, Arthur Miller as well as Shakespeare and Sophocles.  We got a youthful presentation of older heroes to youth:  Don Quijote de la Mancha , Cyrano.  And of an elder tragic hero, in Lear.

Their youth was also an asset in itself: adding verisimilitude to the young women in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, for instance.  But most impressively in Spring Awakening, which concerns adolescent feelings and experience.  That they could also do the adult roles convincingly in these same plays made them all the more compelling.

cast of Spring Awakening
For me the most memorable were The Crucible, Shaw's Joan, the version of several Henry plays from Shakespeare with a strong point of view about war in Mortal Men, Mortal Men.  And Spring Awakening.  The age of the actors relative to the characters and the play added a dimension, but it did not dominate the experience. I'm not even sure how they did it, but in most of these productions they had my complete confidence, and I was absorbed in the play itself.  Since they were different groups of actors, I have to conclude that a lot of it was due to Jean.

I am also appending to this column another (from 2006) that doesn't appear elsewhere on this site. Its only other virtue is that it concerns two directors I admired then, and admire still for the work they've chosen and produced: Jean Bazemore and John Heckel.   The first play I saw on the North Coast was directed by John Heckel--it was the 1996 winner of the national playwriting contest that HSU Theatre Arts department used to run.  Shortly after that, John directed a play by my partner Margaret Thomas Kelso at HSU, to which I contributed two songs.

But beside his good taste in directing several of Margaret's plays, he was responsible for some of the best theatre I've seen here.  His direction of both parts of Angels in America, in the relatively intimate space of Gist Hall Theatre, was mesmerizing.  He did a play by Cree playwright Tomson Highway that was astounding.

The Homecoming at HSU
I wasn't crazy about every move he made in his shows, and sometimes they took me out of the trance.  But his instincts for the mythic could add another dimension, and there were few others willing to take the chance on trying.  In more recent years, he directed some modern classics that nobody else would touch in this neck of the woods, Harold Pinter's The Homecoming at HSU and John Osbourne's Look Back in Anger at Ferndale Rep (which only happened because another show fell through.)

These two directors have very different approaches and get different results, but their choices of plays and playwrights are similarly rewarding, and for the North Coast, unfortunately unique.

The Dream Play  January 2007

The Dream Play by August Strindberg is performed at the Van Duzer Theatre by the Young Actors Guild. These shows from the Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy are unique. They bring together young people devoted to an arts-based education with visionary theatrical veterans (director Jean Heard Bazemore and set designer Gerald Beck) in adaptations of stylistically unconventional and substantive plays that these days just aren’t seen much on the North Coast.

 The play’s not the only thing of interest on the stage. As with performances of other high school, junior high and young people’s group (such as those at Dell’Arte, Ferndale Rep and NCRT) that aren’t reviewed here, the experience of witnessing young people discovering themselves on stage can be inspiring, resonant and educational for the audience as well as the students. The play in turn can itself be infused with more meaning by youthful enthusiasm and sincerity.

 The Dream Play has all of that, plus an efficiently flowing, focused production, and Beck and Bazemore’s magnificent stage pictures: there’s a scene with a trapezoidal door suspended in space, with similarly shaped screens floating above an elegantly composed set of actors that’s breath-taking.

 These are juniors and seniors, some of them in their fourth or fifth play, and some on stage for the first time. The cast also includes exchange students from China, Germany and Ghana. A school production allows large casts, and there are as many as 20 actors on the stage in this one, with a Greek-style chorus that big enough to suggest the power of the people’s voice, whether used for good or ill.

 I saw Saturday’s performance, with Isaiah Cooper deftly expressing the Officer’s changing moods and circumstances (he alternates with Sterling Johnson-Brown), and Tehya Wood, stately, radiant and beautifully costumed as the Daughter of the god Indra (she alternates with Hanna Nielsen and Nicky Vakilova.)

 Bohdan Banducci, blessed with a fine stage voice and presence, plays the impoverished Lawyer whose marriage to the Daughter reveals earthly woes. Fiona Ryder’s aria wowed the crowd, student James Forrest composed the dramatically effective video projections, and all the actors capably brought out the humanity and the humor of the characters and the play.

 This isn’t pure Strindberg—there are musical interpolations and a much different ending, extolling the virtues of relationship and group action rather than the author’s emphasis on the eternal tensions of the human condition. But that’s also fitting for a youthful vision, and I found that seeing this play in action illuminated a further reading of Strindberg’s text.

 Saturday’s audience, which was clearly involved in each stage moment, included a certain couple with an extra interest. Joyce Hough and Fred Neighbor are familiar figures in the North Coast music scene. Jean Bazemore directed an HSU production of A Dream Play in the Van Duzer in 1969. Joyce Hough played the Daughter, and Neighbor was the Lawyer. They met while doing the play, and their nightly 20 minutes alone crouched in a crawlspace waiting for their entrance might have had something to do with an ensuing romance and marriage a year or so later. They were there together Saturday, sitting in front near Gerry Beck, who also designed the 1969 production.

The Accidental Brecht-a-thon  February 2006

Bernadette Cheyne as Mother Courage
y sheer coincidence, this week the HSU campus will become the Brecht capital of the world. At least I know of nowhere else that is hosting two productions of Bertolt Brecht plays in the same fortnight, with two nights that both plays are staged simultaneously.

 The HSU Department of Theatre, Film and Dance production of Mother Courage and Her Children begins tonight at Gist Hall Theatre, directed by John Heckel. Next Tuesday (Feb. 28), The Caucasian Chalk Circle opens at the Van Duzer, mounted by the Young Actors Guild of the North Coast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy, directed by Jean Bazemore.

 Although it’s accidental, this local Brecht-a-thon is not eccentric. The unique ways his plays address searing issues that are suddenly central to this moment is a chief reason that Brecht is being revisited on stages from Los Angeles to New York, where a new adaptation of Mother Courage by playwright Tony Kushner will appear this summer, starring Meryl Streep.

 Bertolt Brecht was a central figure in Berlin’s vibrant theatre scene in 1928 when became famous for “The Threepenny Opera,” with music by Kurt Weill. By the time Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Brecht had escaped to Scandinavia, where he wrote Mother Courage and Her Children. Brecht uses plain language and dark humor to tell this story of a woman trying to eke out an existence selling goods from her cart to armies on the road, while protecting her three grown children from the very war that feeds them.

 Commenting on this play, Brecht said: “War is a continuation of business by other means, making the human virtues fatal even to those who exercise them.” For director John Heckel, the core question Mother Courage faces is: “How do you remain soulful, how do you retain a sense of nurturance?” in this situation.

 Brecht himself directed this play’s official premiere in 1949, with his wife, actor/director Helene Weigel, as the first “Brecht girl” to play Mother Courage. HSU actor, director and teacher Bernadette Cheyne plays her here, surrounded by a mostly student cast.

 For the songs in the play, popular North Coast singer-songwriter (and recent HSU grad) Lila Nelson wrote the music to Brecht’s lyrics, and leads the live band during performance.

 While Mother Courage is a kind of tragedy, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a comedy with a happy ending. Brecht escaped to America in 1941, thanks to the support of a large expatriate German colony in Hollywood (including actor Peter Lorre, who’d worked with Brecht in Berlin) and the sponsorship of Luise Rainer, star of The Good Earth, even though they’d never met. But when they did take a walk on the beach together, Rainer suggested he try a story using the “chalk circle”—a kind of King Solomon method for deciding a child’s true mother. Brecht agreed, and eventually wrote this play while living in Santa Monica. (He returned to Germany after the war.)

 Director (and teacher) Jean Bazemore staged it about five years ago, when the Academy was new and only fifteen students were involved. This production, which uses only freshmen and sophomores (juniors and seniors did the fall show, Antigone & St. Joan ), has a cast of more than thirty actors and musicians, with music composed by students Izzy Samuel and Greg Moore.

 Her students respond to this play, Bazemore says, because of its humor and its core message--“that there are good people who take risks and make difficult choices in difficult times. They love it. The opportunity to meet characters who make courageous choices is really appealing to them.”

 Now I need to disclose that writing this column is one of my freelance gigs, and another I started at about the same time is doing publicity for this semester’s HSU-produced shows. That’s why I don’t review those shows here, but it’s still pretty awkward, because it’s impossible to write about North Coast theatre and ignore HSU. So I can only ask you to decide on how many grains of salt you want to apply to my remarks.

 In the nine years I’ve been here I’ve seen most of the plays these two directors have done. I also know them, and I wrote two songs for a play by my partner, Margaret Kelso, that John Heckel directed. (So add more salt and let simmer.) As directors, they have in common a strong visual sense, a feeling for theatrical space and the rhythms of performance, and a sure touch with actors.

 Their shows and choices of plays aren’t to everyone’s taste. But I know of no better directors on the North Coast than John Heckel and Jean Bazemore.

 Schools like HSU and the North Coast Academy are best able to do these plays because they can supply the large casts, live music and other production requirements that further their educational mission.  But since Brecht is a unique playwright not often performed, these are particular opportunities for audiences as well.

 For many years Brecht’s plays have been obscured by theatrical theories (many of them his own) and Cold War politics (due to his Communist sympathies.) But it’s said that the motto he kept above his writing desk was: “Simpler, with more laughter.” This may be the moment his plays can be seen for themselves, without the baggage.