Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Peter Hall

One of the many essays that appeared after Peter Hall's recent death, written by younger theatre artists he mentored,  ended with traditional words: We shall not see his like again.

Traditional, even cliched, and yet they are not only true in his case, it's hard to think of anyone in theatre since Olivier of whom these words so clearly apply.  And equally hard to think of anyone now alive to whom they could apply, at least in the same way.

His achievements were institutional and artistic.  He founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and led the National Theatre into prominence, taking it from a small company doing a half dozen plays a year at the Old Vic, to its huge new building with more than 100 actors and 500 staff producing 18 to 20 plays a year.  In the process, the National overcame general opposition to join the RSC as institutions so identified with British theatre that it seems they must have always existed.

Peter Hall was also a director who changed the way Shakespeare was performed and even spoken.  Together with John Barton (whose "Playing Shakespeare" series lives on YouTube) he found in Shakespeare verse the directions for speaking it, and playing the part.  He insisted that the director's job was to reveal the play on its own terms, not impose concepts or see the plays as opportunities for the director's self-expression.   He insisted on specifics and favored collaboration with the cast, even to the extent of involving the cast in set and costume design as well as the blocking of the play.

In the 1950s, Peter Hall introduced Samuel Beckett to England with his production of Waiting for Godot, and he was the first to direct Harold Pinter (going on to direct 10 of his plays.)  If he had done nothing else, this contribution to theatre would have been astounding.

His influence was felt in American theatre as well, as evidenced in this essay and in his New York Times obit.

Finally, these two excerpts from a kind of biographical monologue, also on YouTube.  May he rest in peace, for his legacy lives on.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

R.I.P. Sam Shepard

The most exciting evening I'd experienced as an audience member of professional theatre to that time, and really never to be surpassed, was seeing Curse of the Starving Class at the Public Theatre in 1978, by a playwright unknown to me named Sam Shepard.

 I walked into the Public Theatre in complete innocence. At that time the Public was like a multiplex of live theatre, with as many as four plays on stage every night. I chose Curse of the Starving Class partly because of the title, and mostly because there was a ticket available.

 Apparently in the cast were Olympia Dukakis, Pamela Reed and Michael J. Pollard, but it was the writing that blew me away: the words. They expanded my conception of what was possible at this level. Either at intermission or after the play I bought a copy in the lobby of Angel City, Curse of the Starving Class & Other Plays by Shepard.

 Although I would later see another original production--Fool for Love ( with Will Paton the week after he took over the role from Ed Harris)--plus the PBS filming of the Steppenwolf production of True West, and a production somewhere of Buried Child, my main experience thereafter would be reading his works--other plays and play collections, and his prose pieces in Motel Chronicles. All about the words.

 Shepard was a downtown Manhattan star before he became a movie star, and his lore was everywhere there. Wikipedia has him meeting Jessica Lang on the set of a movie, but legend of that time said he met her when she worked as a waitress at the hip downtown bar where he hung out.

 Shepard influenced others, and helped establish a theatre of words for awhile (the most successful of which probably was David Rabe's Hurlyburly which made it to Broadway.) This was much to my predilections as a writer, though I realized that I was not comfortable enough with violence to write quite like he did, nor as a consequence would I reach such deep places in an audience. But those long arias of words, spoken in one play by an actor playing drums, were riveting.

I saw all his movies for awhile, including the one he directed, Far North. Though his New York Times obit refers to his play A Lie of the Mind as "great," at the time reviewers called it disappointing, as I recall. He seemed to fade into the firmament by the end of the 1980s, though he kept writing and acting.

 Oddly then, it was only a couple of years ago that Fool For Love was first produced on Broadway. I don't know when Shepard was diagnosed with ALS, a disease that varies a great deal in his symptoms and progress, but always ends the same, as it did for my father. It's said that Shepard dealt with it with the same stoic dignity of his on-screen persona.

 At the New Yorker, Patti Smith writes an intimate memorial. I had no intimate or even actual relationship, but he touched my life nevertheless, and that's as much as I can honestly write about him. Sam Shepard died at age 73.  May he rest in peace.  His work lives on.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Arthur Miller Revivals

In addition to the much lauded local production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons, recently produced by Ferndale Rep and Arcata Playhouse, directed by Jane Hill, there is currently a Broadway revival of Miller's play The Price.  President Obama attended a performance with his daughter Malia.  The last time The Price was in New York was in 1992, when the playwright was alive.  It was the occasion for this interview with Charlie Rose.  Much of what he says about American theatre still pertains (though perhaps the quality of older actors in regional theatre is better), and what he says about playwriting and the role of theatre in society is perennially relevant.

It seems also that Miller's stature as an American playwright continues to grow. Both The Crucible and Death of a Salesman are produced frequently around the world by professional theatres as well as others.  In an American Theatre interview, contemporary playwright Theresa Rebeck said, "I have a theory that anyone who ends up with a career in the theatre was in either Our Town or The Crucible in high school or college."

Now other of his better known plays like The Price, All My Sons and A View From the Bridge are being done more often as well.  But Miller wrote other fine plays, including some shorter works with small casts late in his career.  These are at least as stageworthy as many such contemporary plays, and deserve to be seen.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The President Who Read Shakespeare

Only one more reason this country is going to miss this extraordinary President:

"Mr. Obama’s long view of history and the optimism (combined with a stirring reminder of the hard work required by democracy) that he articulated in his farewell speech last week are part of a hard-won faith, grounded in his reading, in his knowledge of history (and its unexpected zigs and zags), and his embrace of artists like Shakespeare who saw the human situation entire: its follies, cruelties and mad blunders, but also its resilience, decencies and acts of grace. The playwright’s tragedies, he says, have been “foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.”"

Michiko Kakutani
New York Times 1/19/2017

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Guess Who Turns Out to Be Shakespeare? (Hint: It Starts With S)

The so-called controversy over who wrote Shakespeare's plays has always been irritating, based mostly on the uninformed and class-ridden assumption that a glover's son from little Stratford couldn't possibly have gone to London and written all those plays of genius.

While textual arguments may go on, a writer for the Guardian asserts that new research findings by manuscript scholar Heather Wolfe pretty much prove that the Shakespeare who wrote the plays was indeed the Shakespeare from Stratford, and not some Earl or other.

Whenever the "controversy" is resurrected, with everybody presenting their evidence, it's routinely asserted that alas nobody has the proof and the available information has been so thoroughly analyzed that it's unlikely to be settled unless something completely new turns up.

That turns out to be nonsense as well. Because Heather Wolfe found the evidence in the library. She just looked where earlier researchers didn't--in the controversy over the Stratford Shakespeare's attempts to get a family coat of arms approved.  Though she doesn't make sweeping claims, she found enough to settle the matter--contemporaries knew that the Stratford Shakespeare and the playwright were the same.

This adds to what was already a pretty convincing case made by other scholars for Shakespeare as the author of his own plays.  Opponents built their doubts on the class system.   They assumed that someone  brought up in a provincial town couldn't get an adequate education, but the Stratford Shakespeare had a classical education more rigorous than most Americans get today, even in PhD programs.  

So if it wasn't education, it must be because lower middle class provincials, perhaps even raised Catholic, couldn't possibly have that level of verbal expression, let alone genius.

Well, guess what?