Monday, December 30, 2019

Jonathan Miller

Of all the people I didn't know who died in 2019, I was most saddened by the death of Jonathan Miller.  He was an important presence at various times in my life.  When I was in college in the 1960s, one of my teachers (Douglas Wilson) mentioned this comedic satire by four young Englishmen called Beyond the Fringe. I soon acquired the album from their Broadway show, and pretty much memorized many of the bits.  In many ways it was life-changing, and certainly influenced my creative life for a long time.
The four members of Beyond the Fringe--Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Arnold Bennett and Jonathan Miller--were the Beatles of comedy.  Without Beyond the Fringe there would have been no Monty Python or Firesign Theatre, and possibly no Douglas Adams or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. 

 But they were an artificial supergroup of funny guys from Oxford and Cambridge assembled by the official Edinburgh Festival to compete with its unofficial fringe festival comedies. They were such a hit they moved on to a commercial gig in London, and then to New York. After their Broadway success they disbanded, but while Bennett cultivated a career as a playwright, the other three stayed in the public eye throughout the 60s.  Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were the most visible, on British TV and a few Hollywood films (notably Bedazzled.) Miller was studying medicine, but kept get invitations to direct plays, TV shows and movies.

Meanwhile in my life, after intense periods in Boston and Washington, I returned to western Pennsylvania in the late 70s.  I was freelancing for magazines and then working on a book, so my life consisted of short bursts of travel and long periods of relative isolation.  My intellectual stimulation came chiefly from reading, and was mostly embodied by precious moments on film and especially on television.

The Body in Question, Miller's series carried in the US on PBS stations about the history of medicine, was one of the programs of the golden age for such stimulating series that included Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, the James Burke programs, Robert Hughes' The Art of the New, Ronald Harwood's theatre history All the World's A Stage, and Carl Sagan's Cosmos.  Probably the last were produced by Bill Moyers into the 1990s.  All of these were as important to my mental nourishment, sense of self, and my sanity.

Though Miller stopped formal performing, he was such an engaging talker that he was often featured on American talk shows, which were far more present and far more likely to hold some intellectual interest in the 60s into the 80s than since. In particular, he was given entire hours by Dick Cavett in the 1980s, often several strung together. His marvellous intelligence was inspiring and encouraging as well as stimulating. Miller's talk was absolute sustenance to me in those years.

 While I was aware of Miller as producer and director of several Shakespeare plays for the BBC project of filming all of them, and I'd heard him talk about at least one of them, it was years later in California when I was writing regularly about theatre that I watched tapes of these productions provided by the Humboldt University library.  It was then that I read with great interest his 1986 book Subsequent Performances, about approaching new productions of classic plays. Even more recently I caught up with his provocative 1960s television adaptation--or reimagining--of Alice in Wonderland on DVD.

directing Alice in Wonderland
In these and other ways, Jonathan Miller was a presence in my life over 5 decades, even though I didn't know him, never met him, and never saw on stage a production he directed.  Now, since his death was announced in November, I've been reading about him (including in a 1992 book, A Profile of Jonathan Miller), re-reading Subsequent Performances and watching what I could find on YouTube. There's actually quite alot: many interviews--including the 80s appearances on Cavett and several with Clive James, who died the same week as Miller--and several television dramas he directed.  I've deepened my knowledge of the man and his achievements.

As a director, producer and administrator of the Old Vic, he brought a fearless originality to his theatrical productions, while at the same time endearing himself to the people he worked with--particularly actors--with his humor, encouragement and respect for their own creativity.  Though he was the victim of clueless criticism, he got good notices as well.  Many of his theatre productions were hits with audiences, and several of his opera productions ran for decades.  Though I probably would not have agreed with some of his interpretations, they were dazzling in their daring and internal consistency.

Early in his directing career he mounted new plays and adaptations, with authors generally enthusiastic about his approach.  Even when he tended to stay with older works and favored Shakespeare and Chekhov in particular, he also rediscovered older plays seldom done on the modern stage, and brought a range of European plays to the British mainstream, particularly when he ran the Old Vic.

directing John Cleese in BBC Taming of the Shrew
Though Miller brought conceptual frameworks to his productions, and coordinated designs (often selecting painters for his designers to see), he felt his contributions as a director were in details--in small moments and gestures by the actors.  His approach was informed by what his novelist mother told him was a function of fiction: to make the negligible considerable, and the forgettable memorable. The job of directing, he felt, was directing attention.

He used his experience as a doctor observing everything about a patient to collect small human gestures which he suggested to his actors.  To the madness of Lear and other characters, he brought medical knowledge of how disorder or old age are expressed in concrete behavior.

Bob Hoskins and Anthony Hopkins in
Miller's BBC-TV Othello
 While his interpretations were sometimes controversial, they were grounded in history and had a particular logic, often based on actual human behavior rather than a metaphorical conceit.

Some changed how many plays are now approached.  For example, after his working class Iago (Bob Hoskins), no production of Othello can ignore the precedent.  He made the racial components of Othello and The Merchant of Venice more realistic by softening the apparent differences, while revealing and sharpening racial divides in The Tempest--also an interpretation no subsequent production can ignore.

He enlivened classics like Hamlet and Lear and several Chekhov plays partly by emphasizing characters that are usually played as minor, such as Claudius in Hamlet. He approached opera as another kind of play, bringing new interest to audiences.

Those who worked with him often mentioned his humor, and the sense of rehearsal as play.  "For me, what is attractive about the stage is contained in the name of what it is we do," he wrote.  "It is a play and is playful."

 He wrote this to explain his conflict at the National when Peter Hall took over.  He felt Hall (who I praise in an earlier memorial post) was too pretentious about the role of theatre.  He had enjoyed the National in the early years, when he worked closely with Lawrence Olivier, who he greatly admired.

In A Profile of Jonathan Miller, a notable number of actors and producers name Tyrone Guthrie as Miller’s closest resemblance in directorial style. In addition to his humor, they often mentioned his warmth with actors, inventiveness and keen eye for behavior. He began productions with a strong sense of time and place, and with a visual style selected, but collaborated closely with designers and actors to produce effects that worked for them, the audience and the show.

 Miller’s work in directing opera transformed opera productions down to the present. Robert Brustein claims that Miller’s direction of Robert Lowell’s Old Glory transformed American theatre. “Alot of stage directors...know only about the theatre and not too much about anything else,” observed opera orchestra conductor Kent Nagano. “Jonathan knows about everything.” In addition to his knowledge and intelligence, Nagano adds, “That’s what he brings into his productions—a sense of everyday life.”

  Miller directed tragedy, and in every play he looked for the irony.Whether or not it is a tragic irony, in the 1980s Miller helped found the UK's Alzheimer's Society and was an  its president for many years, using his skills and presence to bring attention to the previously obscure disease.  In 2019 he himself succumbed to it.  His mother died relatively young of early onset Alzheimer's, but Jonathan Miller, who once said he would be satisfied with living 80 years, made it to 85. May he rest in peace.  His work lives on.

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?

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Answer to The Question I Was Never Asked

It's been more than a year now since I stopped writing Stage Matters, and about a year since I collected past columns and wrote retrospective introductions for this site.

It seems more like ten.  A certain knot of anxiety is not even a memory.  What anxiety remains is based on the energies I spent over a decade on this endeavor, and as a consequence what I didn't do.  And what in that time apparently went away.

I had an explanation for my approach to Stage Matters that I don't think I ever presented.  I recall that I thought it was most appropriate as an answer to the question that was never asked.  For in all those years, I never once was interviewed (on radio for example) or asked to speak or participate in any sort of forum or discussion on the North Coast. (The sole exception was a class for students in theatre criticism held by an intercollegiate organization--the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.)  Perhaps that's a comment on the importance of theatre or theatre reviewing here, or perhaps just on me.  Or likely both.

So at least for the record, here it is.

Draw a circle representing everyone involved in North Coast theatre, both audiences and participants.

Draw another circle representing the readers of the newspaper.

There will be a place where the two circles intersect: denoting that subset of people who are both involved in theatre and read the newspaper.

How large or small that subset might be is open to debate.  But by necessity I wrote my theatre column for the people constituting the circle representing the newspaper's readership, with particular but not exclusive attention to the readers represented by the area where the two circles intersect: people interested in theatre who read the newspaper.

This is almost self-evident but a point that many people miss, especially theatre people.  But it should be especially clear to them.  They perform for the audience that comes to the theatre.  I performed for the readers who came to the newspaper.

In practice that meant writing to inform and entertain readers, most of whom had not seen a given production, and many who never would see it, including those who did not go to theatre at all.

People read reviews of books they will never read.  Probably less often, people read reviews of movies they won't immediately see.  I suspect for theatre, it's somewhere in between, but I did believe that I wrote also for people who might be enticed to read about theatre, but never or very seldom actually saw theatre.

I did hope that my writing would also nudge them towards seeing theatre, and I sometimes wrote with that advocacy as a chief goal of a particular column.

Some periodical writers come to see themselves as representing their theatrical community.  Spending so much time going to theatre, and talking to participants about theatre, a reviewer or columnist inevitably develops relationships, and sometimes friendships.  Some pursue these more than others, and inevitably feel responsible to them. It's a particular temptation for those who were or are participants themselves.

Tom Stoppard expressed this conundrum in an early interview.  He had been a newspaper theatre reviewer before becoming an established playwright.  In discussing his wonderful farce The Real Inspector Hound (which features two theatre critics) with New York Times writer Mel Gussow, he noted about his reviewing days: "I never had the moral character to pan a friend.  I'll rephrase that. I had the moral character never to pan a friend."

Priorities, moral and otherwise, come into play on a case by case basis, I suppose, especially when it comes to friends.  Some people go into criticism with an ideological agenda, and some because they enjoy saying nasty things.  I was neither of those.  A certain tact and delicacy is necessary because real people, their hard work and their feelings, are involved.

But the primary role is journalist, and the primary responsibility is to the profession of journalism (such as it is) and to the readers (whoever they are.)  The theatre community is necessarily of secondary priority, though my goal was to write for that subset as part of the readership.

What this means is various.  Some is regular practice, like making sure the name of the play, the theatre where it is presented and whether it is being presented at the time of publication, are all in the opening paragraph.  (Apparently not everyone holds to this standard.)

 But some of what it means is expressed in judgments particular to each case.  How much of the play's plot to describe, for the benefit of readers but not to the detriment of future playgoers?  Generally more description of the production than judgment is the goal.  Background to the play, the playwright, other productions can be of interest to all readers, even if participants in that particular show may be irked at the space wasted not writing about them.

Finally there was the problem of writing about theatre in a place with limited resources, where few participants are professionals, where the theatres themselves are physically difficult--several hereabouts cause reactions to mold etc. among members of their audiences--and most often with inadequate restroom facilities, all adding up to a less than professional impression.  Is criticism even appropriate for something pretending not to be basically amateur or academic?

That, plus my own discomfort with publishing what is essentially a judgment based on one particular experience on one particular night (for I agree with Stoppard that the job is to communicate that particular experience) was a factor in making Stage Matters a column rather than all reviews.  The balance got thrown off when it was for a time the only venue for timely reviews of current productions, and then by a new editor,  but my intent was always to do previews, interviews and news. Given the amateur compensation, I didn't have time or the resources to do as much as I wanted.

Theatre of course can be done anywhere, and the back of a wagon has been its principal venue for much of its history.  But writing about theatre is much more awkward in a small place.  The great writers about theatre like Eric Bentley and Kenneth Tynan could also be participants (Bentley wrote and directed, Tynan chose plays for the National Theatre) but they had the scope and the room to do both. (Not that I was ever given the opportunity here, except a couple of times in very limited circumstances.)  There's something even a little ridiculous about being a theatre critic or reviewer here.

On the other hand, I never would have wanted to be, say, the lead reviewer for the New York Times.  I knew Frank Rich before he became that, and talked with him about it while he was doing it.  He was philosophical about the effects of his reviews, but the alleged power to close a show (which he disputed he really had, but others claimed his reviews did to such an extent that it became conventional wisdom) is not something I ever would have wanted.

The career that was closer to my comfort zone was that of Frank Rich's colleague, Mel Gussow.  He was the second-string critic for the Times for many years.  He didn't get the big Broadway shows.  He either wrote about off and off-off Broadway shows, or did features and interviews connected with some big productions.  He interviewed Tom Stoppard (that quote comes from one of his), Edward Albee, Pinter, Samuel Beckett and others, and published book-length collections of these interviews with several of them, over years and decades.  In the process he got to know them, and they got to know him.

He wrote for the Times for 35 years, and became a valued part of the international theatrical and literary communities. After his death in 2005 he was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.   It was a modest career and yet a capacious one, and I admire it.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Songs of Cole Porter

In connection with the Humboldt State University production of Kiss Me, Kate (October 2015), I researched and wrote background stories that seem appropriate for the archives at this site.  There's even more at HSU Stage and HSU Music, indexed under Kiss, Me Kate on both sites.

An aside 10/18: By one of those flashes of serendipity that's become a familiar part of immersing myself in a particular subject, on the night after seeing the premiere of the HSU production of Kiss Me, Kate I happened to see a completely unrelated old movie, or so it seemed.  It was the 1982 Evil Under the Sun, based on an Agatha Christie novel. (It's one of the Peter Ustinov ones.)  But the composer credited with the score was none other than Cole Porter.  It took place at a seaside hotel, and when late in the film Hercule Poirot examines the guest book, the names of Cole Porter and "Fred and Adele" (Fred Astaire and his sister, who were dancing partners on Broadway for years) could be seen. The story is set in about 1938, and thanks to my research into Mr. Porter, I could appreciate that the particular Cole Porter music used--mostly "Night and Day"--first heard in one of those Fred and Adele Broadway shows--"You're the Top," "Anything Goes" and "Begin the Beguine"were all written in the 1930s, before 1938, and so were historically accurate.   

Songs from Kiss Me, Kate like “Another Op’nin', Another Show,” “From This Moment On,” “Too Darn Hot” and others have had lives of their own, but one notable feature of Cole Porter tunes is that they nearly all were introduced in Broadway shows or Hollywood movies, sung by Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante, Mary Martin, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, among others.

 But his tunes (including “Don’t Fence Me In,” “I Love Paris,” “Night and Day,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “True Love” as well as “Begin the Beguine,” “Let’s Do It,” “Anything Goes” and “You’re the Top”) were kept alive through recording and reinterpretations by several generations of singers.

These range from Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald through Elvis Presley, George Harrison, Natalie Cole, Elton John, Carly Simon and Celine Dion to U2, Annie Lennox, Elvis Costello, K.D. Laing, Alanis Morisette, Sheryl Crow and Diana Krall. Lady Gaga has recorded several Porter songs, and calls him one of her favorite composers.

Fred Astaire, Porter, Eleanor Powell
on set of Broadway Melody of 1940
Another notable feature of Cole Porter’s songs was that he wrote both lyrics and music. Along with Irving Berlin (Porter’s lifelong friend and supporter, who got him his first Broadway assignments), Cole Porter is exceptional among songwriters of his era in this regard.

 So while his lyrics are legendary, his music is strong enough to be recorded on its own, by big bands and jazz instrumentalists including Artie Shaw (who plucked “Begin the Beguine” out of a forgotten show and made it famous), Benny Goodman, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley and Charlie Parker.

 Though Porter wrote songs or parts of songs and kept them “in the drawer” for possible future use, he tended to write pretty much to order for specific shows. This was especially true for Kiss Me, Kate, since it was his first show to integrate the songs so completely with the story.

original 1948 Broadway cast of Kiss Me, Kate
He could write quickly, as the four day weekend when he wrote three of the songs in this show, including “Another Op’nin’, Another Show.

  But there was some trial and error involved.When the choreographer complained about one particular song, he dropped it and substituted “Too Darn Hot,” which the choreographer immediately loved because he could see it as a dance. Harold Lang, who played Bill/Lucentio in the original production, complained that his part wasn’t big enough and he didn’t even have a song. Porter wrote “Bianca” for him, pretty much on the spot, with cast members shouting out rhymes for "Bianca."

 Cole Porter wrote 23 to 25 songs for the show. Some were cut in rehearsals, but 17 remained. Kiss Me, Kate was so successful in its Philadelphia tryouts that no further songs were cut. In fact, a couple of choruses of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” that had been dropped were added back.

Porter & Shakespeare

 Two of the songs in Kiss Me, Kate include lyrics by Shakespeare as well as Cole Porter: "I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua” and “I Am Ashamed Women Are So Simple.” And despite the show’s title—Kiss Me, Kate—sounding like a snappy modernization, Petruchio actually speaks those words several times in The Taming of the Shrew. 

 Even though Porter had his doubts that a musical built around a Shakespeare play would attract Broadway theatregoers (something that potential backers also doubted), he seems to have found a kindred spirit in one aspect of the Bard’s comic writing: his use of wordplay, especially double entendres with sexual innuendo.

 Cole Porter was a past master of this himself, and it’s evident in this show in “Too Darn Hot” and “Always True to You in My Fashion,” for example. But Porter made the connection explicit in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” when he playfully turned titles of Shakespeare’s plays into sexual banter.

Song Lore

 There are stories about many of the songs, and they may even be true. 

“Wunderbar”: When Kiss Me, Kate was in early stages of preparation, the leading candidate to play the lead role of Lilli/Kate was opera star Jarmila Novotna. She was a social friend of Porter’s and one evening she brought a pianist with her to his apartment, who specialized in playing Viennese waltzes. When he finished she kept crying “Wunderbar! Wunderbar!” (“Wonderful!") The song by that title in the show is also a waltz.

"I Hate Men”: Several cast members told Patricia Morison, who ended up playing Lilli/Kate (see Kiss Me, Kate Meets Cinderella) that this song would embarrass her. It wasn’t going over in rehearsals. She mentioned her own misgivings to Porter, who remembered an operetta he’d seen in which the singer had emphasized a line by pounding his fist on a table. He suggested that she slam the metal tankard she was carrying. The effect worked so well that it was further emphasized by having her bang the tankard down on a couple of metal trays to make more noise. The song became a show-stopper.

 “Always True to You in My Fashion:” Cole Porter had that phrase of the title in his head but he couldn’t remember the source. The show’s writers, Bella and Sam Spewack, told him it was from a poem by Ernest Dowson, a late 19th century English poet and contemporary of Oscar Wilde who also contributed the phrase, “the days of wine and roses.” Porter’s song doesn’t bear much resemblance to this poem except for that repeated line of the title.

“Brush Up Your Shakespeare": Bella and Sam Spewack, who had worked with Porter before, were writing the script (“the book”) of Kiss Me, Kate. But at some point in creating this story about a couple having conflicts that bleed into the conflicts of the couple they are playing on stage, Bella and Sam themselves split up when Sam ran off with a ballerina.

 They’d split before, and would get back together again this time as well, but for awhile, Bella didn’t want to have anything to do with Sam. Sam’s major contribution to the story was the gangster subplot, and Bella was determined that it remain a small subplot, without a song involved.

 Unfortunately, Cole Porter came up with “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” for the two comic gangsters. When Bella recognized its quality—and guessed correctly that it would also be a show-stopper—she dropped her objections.

 “So In Love:” A song that Cole Porter said he’d intended for a movie musical, but was persuaded to use in Kiss Me, Kate. It was subsequently became a top 20 hit for Patti Page, Gordon McRae, Dinah Shore and Bing Crosby—all in the same year of 1949. More recently it’s been recorded by K.D. Laing.

Ann Miller in 1953 movie version
"From This Moment On":  It was common for songwriters to lift songs from other shows (especially those that didn’t do so well) but Kiss Me, Kate had a unique variation of this.

 The play itself had finished its run after two years, and a Hollywood film version was being prepared. At the same time, Porter had written songs for another Broadway show that had personnel problems, with the director being replaced. The new director threw out one of Porter’s songs, so it was never heard.

 But when the Kiss Me, Kate film producers asked Porter for another song, he gave them this rejected one. It was “From This Moment On,” now one of Porter’s all-time classics. This song was then included in the 1999 Broadway stage revival, and it’s been in Kiss Me, Kate ever since.

 “We Shall Never Be Younger:” This song was one of those cut from Kiss Me, Kate (because, according to Porter biographer William McBrien, “it reduced the audience to tears,” presumably at the wrong time.) It never made it into another show, nor was it published in Porter’s lifetime. But it, too, has had a life since, included in Porter songbooks and recorded by Bobby Short.

Cole Porter

“In a way no other songs of the period quite did,” wrote journalist Walter Clemons, “Porter’s created a world.”

 But the man who personified continental elegance and Manhattan sophistication grew up in a small Indiana town on the banks of the Wabash River. Its only distinguishing feature was as the winter home for a circus, and it was watching circus acts rehearse for the next season that young Cole got his first taste of show business.

 His maternal grandfather had made a fortune, starting with a dry goods business supplying miners during the California Gold Rush. His mother, Katie Cole, was born in Brandy City in Sierra County, now a ghost town.

His grandfather was determined that Cole would be a businessman, but his mother supported his artistic expressions. Cole went to Yale where he wrote over 100 songs and was the center of most musical and theatrical activity.

 His grandfather insisted he go on to law school, but after Porter’s disastrous first semester, the Dean of the Harvard law school himself suggested Cole pursue songwriting, and sent him over to the Harvard School of Music.

 He continued his musical studies in Paris, where he met and married another American, Linda Lee (a descendant of Robert E. Lee.) Though Cole Porter was actively gay and this marriage was in part a cover in an intolerant time, he and Linda remained devoted to each other until her death. He relied on her judgment for every song. Said Saint Subber, producer of Kiss Me, Kate, “Linda was the air that made his sails move.”

Linda Porter
They were in Paris in the 1920s, among notable American expatriates in the unique artistic ferment of this time and place. One summer the Porters rented a seaside chateau at Cap d’Antibes, an unheard of place to spend the hot months. They invited Porter’s Yale friend Gerald Murphy and his wife to join them for two weeks.

The Murphys loved the place, and returned for many summers afterwards, bringing with them such friends as Picasso, Stravinsky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Eric Satie. The Murphys (celebrated in Calvin Tomkins’ book, Living Well Is The Best Revenge) essentially created the Riviera. But Cole Porter had discovered it.

 In 1923 Murphy and Porter collaborated on an American ballet to be performed as a curtain-raiser for La Creation du Monde, a ballet by French composer Darius Milhaud. Porter wrote the score, a “witty parody of the piano music played in silent-movie theaters” (according to Calvin Tomkins) while Murphy wrote the story and painted “a striking backdrop, which was a parody of the Hearst newspapers of the day.”

 Murphy also helped Porter’s musical education. He arranged with Jimmy Durante’s drummer to send him the latest American jazz records every month, and he knew and sang still obscure American folk songs and spirituals.

The Murphys and Porters in Venice 1923
 Throughout his life Porter loved to travel around the world. He absorbed the local music wherever he went, and made use of it in his songs. In this era, if you wanted the world’s music, you mostly had to go and find it.

 Porter’s ballet score and his songs for various theatrical events won the enthusiasm of the artistic community and wealthy sophisticates in Paris and New York, but they were not mainstream enough for Broadway in the 1920s.

 Then popular tastes caught up to him in a big way in the 30s. He got his first Broadway revues thanks to recommendations by Irving Berlin, and a string of hit shows followed, notably the enduring classic Anything Goes.

 He transitioned to Hollywood with the star of one of his Broadway shows, Fred Astaire. Porter alternated between Broadway and Hollywood, often doing one show and one movie a year. His movie work continued into the 1950s.

 A performer friend described him as “kind, gentle, very elegant.” A journalist called him “The Indiana lad with the Buddha gaze.” He lived in luxury in a huge apartment in Manhattan’s Waldorf Towers with his two cats, Anything and Goes.

 But in the mid 1940s he’d hit a dry spell. Though it had been nearly 10 years since a riding accident crushed his legs, he was still in near constant pain. He saw that musical theatre was changing, and he wondered if he could change with it.

 Then he was presented with an idea for a Broadway musical based on, of all things, a play by Shakespeare. Kiss Me, Kate became his biggest hit and as a complete show, his most enduring success.

By this time, Cole Porter was deeply involved in all aspects of his Broadway productions--he raised money, participated in casting, attended rehearsals and largely staged the show.  This makes the success of  Kiss Me, Kate even more the success of Cole Porter.

Kiss Me, Kate Meets Cinderella

Patricia Morison in Hollywood
What would a hit musical be without a Cinderella story? In this case it wasn’t in the plot but in the original production.

 Cole Porter often wrote songs with the vocal range of the actor/singer in mind. But he started writing for Kiss Me, Kate before all the roles were cast, especially the female lead, the characters of Lilli and Kate.

 In the early stages, opera star Jarmilla Novotna was the likely choice. But eventually she couldn't commit to the show. Cole Porter offered the role to another operatic singer and actor, Lily Pons, and considered yet another opera singer, Dorothy Kirsten. Pons couldn't do it, and Kirsten wasn't interested.

 So Porter found himself without a leading lady. The show’s director suggested an unknown: Patricia Morison, not an opera singer or a professional singer of any kind. She was a working movie actress in supporting roles, from B pictures (Queen of the Amazons) to a cut above that. She has the distinction of performing in the last film of three popular series: the Thin Man, the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan and the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes.

 Though she sang for soldiers on USO tours and at the Hollywood Canteen during World War II, she hadn’t sung a note in the movies. Cole Porter invited her to sing for him at his house in Hollywood. Her agent told her it wasn’t for any particular role, and she did it just for the contact and the experience. But according to Porter, as soon as she walked in he knew she was the one—if she could sing.

He accompanied her on piano, and discovered, yes, she could.

 After she’d taken lessons to strengthen her voice, worked on some of the show's songs and brushed up her Shakespeare, Porter was even more convinced. He believed that overnight she might become “a great new star.”

 But the producers were still considering other possibilities, and the writers had to be consulted. Unfortunately they were all in New York, and Patricia couldn’t afford the plane fare to go meet them. Then out of the blue she was invited to sing at a Bob Hope USO reunion concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The producers and writer Bella Sprewack were in the audience, and they all were enthusiastic. Patricia Morison got the role as Lilli Vanessi.

She was an immediate success. At the opening night party, after the rave reviews came in, she told everyone that she felt Cole Porter “has just lifted me out of my pumpkin coach.” It was a Cinderella story for real.

After 1,077 performances on Broadway, Patricia Morison starred in the London production for another 400 performances. In the backstory she created for Lilli, Morison used her own life--disillusioned with Hollywood, seeking redemption through a hit stage play.

 Morison had another success in the original production of The King and I, both on Broadway and on its national tour. She subsequently sang in many touring musicals, and performed her starring role in Kiss Me, Kate many times, including in a television movie in 1964, onstage in Seattle in 1965 and for the last time, in Birmingham, England in 1978—30 years after her Broadway opening.

Patricia Morison turned 100 earlier this year [2015], and is the last surviving member of the original cast of Kiss Me, Kate. She lives in southern California.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Anna Deavere Smith and Salmon

On Monday, the Yurok Tribe hosted a performance by Anna Deavere Smith in Klamath.  It was first of all, the best hosted event I can recall attending on the North Coast.   We strangers from Arcata were welcomed--and fed.  Very very well.  Before and after.

 Her presentation, "Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education/The California Chapter" about "the school-to-prison pipeline"was taken from her show at Berkeley Rep.  The larger project is funded by the Ford Foundation and others, and this local appearance seems to have been partially funded by the California Endowment.

Speaking of her research visits previously with the Yurok, "my time with the tribe was one of the most transformative experiences of my life," she declared on KHSU Homepage, and repeated at the performance.  Her quest to explore the American character for the past forty years, she said, lacked Native American voices. Her attempts to access those voices were rebuffed by those who understandably resisted others speaking for them.  But the Yurok tribe, the largest in California, welcomed her, and her presentation included several people she met there, including tribal court chief justice Abby Abinanti, and a fisherman she had interviewed just that morning.

She began with two focusing inspirations: her grandfather telling her that "if you say a word often enough, it becomes you," and the two-line poem "I, the song/I walk here."  That's a pretty good description of what she does.

Her method is to use the actual words of those she interviewed, though in reconstructed form as a kind of poetry, and to capture their personalities and voices in her performance.  At the end of her program in Klamath she spoke words of the great writer and activist of the 1960s James Baldwin, and from what I remember from his interviews and documentary appearances, she had him down cold.  So I expect her other portrayals were on the money as well.

Her artistry and methodology is exciting and inspiring, and together with the relationship with the audience, shows what theatre can do.  But the content of what these people were saying--about school, prison and everything in between--stays long afterwards. (She explains some of the issues and the intent of her project in this PBS interview.)

Shorn of abstractions and analysis, these voices clarify, and connect directly. They can however make more meaningful the studies which describe the effect of trauma on learning, and the recent finding that trauma can be passed to later generations genetically as well as culturally.

Although her main focus was the school-to-prison pipeline identified as such in a speech by President Obama  (with voices from Baltimore, Philadelphia and elsewhere as well as California) she began with a Yurok voice talking about the cultural, economic, political and personal meaning of fishing on the river, and recalling the Fish War of 1978.

This summer the Yurok tribe, the Hupa and other local tribes have been working to persuade federal authorities to increase the flow of Trinity River water into Humboldt County to prevent the kind of salmon die-off that happened on the lower Klamath in 2002.  As of this week, when a district court judge denied the attempt of central valley water districts to halt the increased flow, they have been successful.

The 2002 salmon die-off is at the center of a play created by an ad hoc group of Native and non-Native community members that HSU Theatre presented in 2006, called Salmon Is Everything.  As noted here, a book about the production and the issues it raised was published last fall, and it (also titled Salmon Is Everything) is HSU's 2015-16 Book of the Year.

On Sunday August 30 at 2 p.m., there will be a staged reading of excerpts from the play at the Van Duzer Theatre.  Theresa May, the book's author, will talk afterwards and lead a discussion.  It's free and open to the public.  There are more details at HSU Stage & Screen.

Update: The Van Duzer was nearly full for the 2 p.m. reading of Salmon is Everything on Sunday.  The audience included distinguished members of the Yurok tribe who had been involved in the Anna Deavere Smith project.  The reading was well-received and seemed to renew enthusiasm for the play to be mounted again.   During the discussion afterwards, someone said that the process of creating it and the play itself had been a milestone, and that recent progress in getting the Trinity water for the salmon this year would not have happened without this play in 2006!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Why Broadway Is Brit

Broadway is Brit.  British productions all but swept the Tonys, and more are to come.  British productions and actors are also present if not dominating off-off Broadway etc. in New York.

This article in the Guardian details these assertions and offers some reasons why British theatre is so strong, and American theatre comparatively weak, especially on Broadway.  The first answer is simple:

“It’s subsidy,” Levy says flatly. “It goes without saying that if you talk to theatremakers here, they wish there was government subsidy for the arts. It’s not impossible to develop excellent new work, but it’s much harder.”

UK not only has government subsidized theatre (although it is at least somewhat threatened by cutbacks there) but a long tradition of it, with institutions that have made creative use of it.  As the article notes, shows have the freedom to experiment and to spend more time on building a production from a small to larger scale.  Actors work all the time, and develop their skills.

Resulting productions, even when they go to commercial theatres, not only test the audience appeal but can be adapted to the Broadway stage with a fraction of the cost of mounting a new production there.

The last time the US had subsidized theatre was for a few years in the 1930s with the Federal Theatre Project.  Several shows it developed became commercial hits, and artists it developed fed New York theatre and Hollywood film for the next thirty years.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Spalding Gray: Stages of Life

Another post from elsewhere in my blogosphere that ought to be here as well, prompted by this recent New Yorker article by Oliver Sacks on Spalding Gray's brain injury, referenced in my review of Steven Soderbergh's film on Gray, as follows...

And Everything is Going Fine
 Directed by Steven Soderbergh 
 Criterion Collection

 I last talked with Spalding Gray at Wildberries Marketplace in Arcata,  on the afternoon of his last Center Arts performance here. I’d had dinner with him in Pittsburgh (along with six or eight others) several years before, where the general conversation was high-spirited—at least until he quietly observed that he couldn’t laugh anymore. He didn’t know why. He just couldn’t.

 But when I ran into him at Wildberries he smiled broadly and spoke with enthusiasm about the Humboldt landscape. It was January 2001, just months before he suffered major injuries in a car accident, including brain damage.

In this film about his life, Spalding Gray says that the years leading up to the 2001 accident were the happiest of his life. Three years later he was dead, presumably by suicide.

 Spalding Gray virtually invented the autobiographical monologue, although he preferred to call what he did “poetic journalism.” Several of his monologues became feature films, including Swimming to Cambodia (directed by Jonathan Demme in 1987) and Gray’s Anatomy (directed by Steven Soderbergh in 1996.) Soderbergh and his team assembled pieces of video—monologues, interviews, reflections—into a kind of posthumous autobiography, with the help of Kathie Russo, Gray’s widow.

 There are gaps (notably in the years of his greatest celebrity) and the portrait that emerges may or may not be accurate (there’s emphasis on death and suicide throughout.) But the contours of his life and career are here, from childhood obsessions to the fatherhood that started those happy years. Between them were the yearnings and penchant for seeking extremes, and then the need to construct monologues about the resulting experiences.

 In the film he says that at a certain point he got tired of talking about himself, and sought ways to talk about other people. I witnessed him one sunny afternoon in PPG Plaza in Pittsburgh, soliciting stories from an assembled audience. He was a careful, caring, enthusiastic listener, and people responded. In a performance later that evening he told some of these stories with as much pith and power as he told his own.

 What seemed to brighten his life in the happy years he described was fatherhood. It happened as chaotically and neurotically as all the disasters he describes in his monologues. But this one turned out for the best. He enjoyed being a father, a family man, and apparently was good at it. His son wrote music for this film.

 This DVD includes an informative “making of” extra, in which Soderbergh owns up to his cowardice in avoiding Gray after his accident. It also includes Gray’s first monologue, “Sex and Death to Age 14.” Although chaotic, it had his signature emphasis on details as well as the humor and honesty (and the poetic inventions) that he would learn to structure in his later, more mesmerizing works.

 The film’s title comes from a monologue in which Gray talks about his father’s attempt to create the perfect suburban home, but even though “everything is going fine,” there was always one more thing to buy or do to create the completely protected life.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The O'Neill

I posted this review on another site some time ago.  As I wind down new posts on this site, I thought I'd bring it over here, where it belongs.

The O'Neill: The Transformation of Modern Theater
 By Jeffrey Sweet
Yale University Press

 This coffee-table sized book is a solid history of an important institution in 20th century dramatic arts, even if it doesn't quite merit the grandiose subtitle (embarrassingly common these days, and I sympathize. The writer probably isn't responsible for it.)

 It's a 50th anniversary account of an institution--the Eugene O'Neill Center-- that began inventing itself in the late 1960s, in Waterford, Connecticut. The O'Neill began with the intention of nurturing new playwrights and new plays, which was not then the formal function of any other institution outside of a few university classes. This evolved into the National Playwrights Conference, held for a month every summer. Other programs were added over the years, and this book chronicles them.

 The proximity of New York and also of Yale Drama were crucial, as some of the best young actors in the country came up to be an intimate part of the process. (Two of the earliest, Michael Douglas and Meryl Streep, provide prefaces.) The O'Neill is young enough that many present at the creation, including its founder George White, were available to be interviewed for this volume.

 Sweet reports the story, and includes theatre lore to satisfy that appetite as well. Under the leadership of Lloyd Richards, the playwrights conference evolved into both a model and a unique experience. Many new playwrights thrived there, including its most famous alum, August Wilson.

 I attended two weeks of the 1991 conference for a Smithsonian Magazine article and saw how well it worked, and felt the personal bonds that it made and that nourished its success. For actors who went there every year (like John Seitz, who I interviewed and who is mentioned in this volume as having his ashes scattered there) it was a holy place, and participating was (as Seitz said to me) like "renewing my vows."

 Since this was the first of the O'Neill programs and the most influential, Sweet begins with it. He punctuates this narrative with chapters on other programs (National Theatre for the Deaf, the critics institute, etc.) though following the death of August Wilson with the Cabaret and Performance Conference is more than a little jarring.

 When I was there in 1991, the O'Neill and the Playwrights Conference specifically were already encountering financial problems, and a certain anxiety accompanied that summer's activities. There was a particularly strong feeling of appreciation for what it was, since it seemed it might not last.

 In fact the conference did undergo changes after Lloyd Richards left, many of them for reasons related to money. One year there wasn't enough to fund the open submission policy that was the heart if not the soul of the conference, but loud clamors of opposition to the change brought it back. Thanks to a fund set up by former O'Neill employee and playwright Wendy Wasserstein, and initially financed largely by Meryl Streep, the resources necessary to continue that process are safe, this book says, for a long time to come.

 But it does seem that the power has shifted towards the commercial theatre, particularly musical theatre, even within the O'Neill. This reflects a long trend in American theatre as much as the growth of university playwriting programs. Dramatists are now more likely to find creative homes as well as financial support in television, as was even the case among the 1991 playwrights I met and followed.

 I hope this book inspires more books and different books (with additional photographs that exist) that delve into the history and the magic of the O'Neill, and such extraordinary figures as Lloyd Richards, George White and Edith Oliver. My two weeks there were among the most memorable of my life. Just the theatrical stories told by participants and visitors in the Blue Genes cafe would fill volumes. In the meantime this book is a very good start.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Great American Playwright

American Masters series recently broadcast a 90 minute documentary on playwright August Wilson and his unsurpassed 10-play cycle about African Americans in every decade of the 20th century. It can now be viewed on the program's website here.  There are some segments there also that didn't make the broadcast film.

The film a good introduction and summary for its length, occasionally powerful, especially when August is talking, though it maybe could have done with less of Christopher Rawson, the Pittsburgh critic.  There are lots of other stories out there, and much more to know about the plays.  There's more to be explored for future filmmakers and writers.

It does put August Wilson's accomplishments in some historical perspective, especially for younger generations. His ten play cycle is unique, providing good grounds for calling him the American Shakespeare.  He treated large themes with specific characters and situations, and he brought something to theatre that has been much lacking since: a voice.

 I just read part of a Dramatist magazine discussion of  "devised theatre."  Its confusion convinced me that "devised theatre" is just another new marketing category, like "creative nonfiction."  There's always been a place for experimental and highly collaborative work.  But devised theatre has become fashionable, possibly because it's easier, on every level.  It can make contributions, but it's not by any means the only way to make plays.

Above all what devised theatre often lacks is a voice.  That's what Lloyd Richards always said the O'Neill was looking for: not a polished play or commercial potential--but a voice.  August Wilson was the greatest example.

The O'Neill fostered a kind of collaboration, but the playwright decided.  Did that line an actor suggested belong in the play?  The playwright decided (and August decided yes at least once.)  Devised?  Take a look at all the scraps of paper he assembled, culled, made cohere.  The voices came to him, and he gave them theatrical voice.

Easily the best example of an excellent play that began in collaboration that I know of is Arthur Giron's Becoming Memories.  It began with his students telling stories.  But it ended with Giron writing--arranging, structuring, and giving the play a voice.  It's a wonderful theatrical experience.  I've seen at least three productions, all different, all luminous: one in Vancouver, BC; one at a university in Pittsburgh and the best one at a central Pennsylvania college with untrained student actors, directed by Margaret Kelso.

The film on August Wilson included a monologue from Gem of the Ocean, performed by Phylicia Rachad, who played this role of Aunt Ester in the Broadway production.  (I saw the Oregon Shakespeare production, which featured Greta Oglesby, who originated the role in pre-Broadway productions.) Rachad tells the story of how Aunt Ester came to be.  August heard his characters talking--sometimes he didn't know who they were when he wrote down what he heard.  Sometimes he did.  So he knew who Aunt Ester was--the ancestor of everyone in the last 9 plays--because other characters had talked about her. But she had never spoken.

This is true. I sat at a table after dinner at the O'Neill with a few others, listening to August tell stories for his next play, and one was about Aunt Ester--perhaps the first mention of her.

Then one day she spoke to him, Rachad said.  He scribbled down what she said on some napkins.  Then afraid he would lose them, he called his answering service and read the dialogue so it would be recorded.  Then afraid it hadn't all been recorded, he went to a pay phone and called his cell phone, and read it again as a recorded message.

August Wilson and I grew up at about the same time, some thirty miles apart.  But our lives were very different.  There were points in common--the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960, for instance--and I think I did recognize things in him that seemed common to western PA kids of our generation.

So I don't know if this business of mistrusting chance and technology with something valuable is a Pittsburgh thing, or just a character trait we had in common.  Because when I sat down to interview him for the first time--at a picnic table on the O'Neill grounds--I turned on my tape recorder.  And then I turned on my other tape recorder.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Traffic Circle Purpose Revealed

Two crop circle investigators from England arrived in Arcata this week, but they weren’t on the lookout for bent corn.

 "We've gone right off crop circles," Nigel confirmed. "We're onto something new."

 "Something big," Bruce whispered.

 "Very big," Nigel agreed.

 Bruce looked both ways before he talked. "Traffic circles," he breathed. "That's why we're here."

 Attracted by Arcata’s new circle, euphemistically dubbed the Bicycle Hub, the Brit duo revealed that they’ve had their eye on our local traffic circles for some time.

 “As you know, crop circles are navigational aids for alien space craft,” Nigel said. “That’s okay if you want to land in like Iowa and so on, but what about other places? Urban areas, for instance? Maybe starting with small towns where aliens could blend in. Arcata is perfect for that.”

 But do they really believe traffic circles are the work of aliens?

 "They don't make much sense otherwise, do they?" Nigel said. " They’re purposeless and confusing. I mean, what kind of intelligence would think up traffic circles?"

 "Not human," Bruce said. "Clearly."

 But these traffic circles don’t just appear, our reporter objected. They are designed, engineered, built. They have slogans and marketing campaigns.

 “But not very good ones,” Nigel pointed out.

 “The aliens behind all this just haven’t gotten it all down yet,” Bruce said. “But they’re learning.”

 So is this the prelude to a huge alien invasion?

 “I guess we’ll have to wait for the new X-Files series to know for sure,” Nigel said slowly. “But we think so.”

 “But I wouldn’t be too worried,” Bruce added reassuringly.

 Why is that?

 “Just remember what these aliens are creating as navigational aids,” Nigel noted. “Like this traffic circle. Confusing. Disorienting. Nearly impossible to navigate.”

 "If traffic circles are an indication of how they think," Bruce concluded, "it's entirely possible they'll never get here."

 "Think of it. Thousands of huge space ships circling around each other, nobody knowing who is supposed to stop for who, and where to get on or off the orbital path."

 "They'll be there forever." Nigel and Bruce smiled at each other. Nigel bent his gaze to the circle. “Then we can get rid of these things, once and for all.”

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Acting Lesson

Tom Stoppard is a very verbal playwright, especially his early work, so the plays read well.  But they are a challenge to act.  Here's Benedict Cumberbatch doing about three minutes in Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead.  He's renowned lately for his facility with lots of words (Sherlock being a major instance) but I think this three minutes demonstrates how to act all those words. He reveals their humor, but he also makes them the expression of the character's thoughts and feelings.  It's a very impressive three minutes, illuminating what makes Stoppard's words theatrical,  but especially it seems to me a clinic for actors, period.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Internet of Forever (and Everywhere)

Among visitors to this site in the past month or so were these:

Searchers from Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, UK; St. Leonard, Maryland and Cincinnati, Ohio found Neil Simon and several of his plays.

A post about past productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream enchanted folks in Mechanisburg, PA, Jakarta, Indonesia; Wolverhampton, UK; Dubai, Beaverton, Oregon; Lexington, Kentucky; and Qatar.

Othello on Film was viewed from London, Washington, DC; Naperville, Illinois; Suffolk in England; Waldorf, Maryland; Argentina, and Kirksville, Missouri.  Readers in Crowley, Texas and Berkeley, California leered at famous productions of King Lear.

The Tempest and the Time Lord, plus historic productions of The Tempest caught the attention of browsers in Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Brussels, Belgium; Calicut, India and Aiea, Hawaii. Someone in Anderson, South Carolina checked out Much Ado About Nothing.  Twice.

Aukland, New Zealand studied Greeks.

The perennially popular To Kill A Mockingbird got looks from Hong Kong, London, Toronto, Chatham, England; Jenks, Oklahoma and Sherwood, Arkansas, among others.

The surprisingly robust attention to "Chekhovania" (about the Christopher Durang play) came from Moscow, Chicago Heights, Hazlet, New Jersey; Dillon, Colorado; New York City, Tallahassee and Wakefield, Rhode Island.

Folks from Wallsend (Sting's birthplace) and Bromley (H.G. Wells' birthplace) in England dug The Pit Men Painters.  Bluffington, South Carolina embraced Our Town.

Athens and South Africa chose Look Back in Anger.  Georgia hearted Mark Twain.  Dakar, Senegal and Ankeny, Iowa looked Beyond the Fringe.

St. Ignatius, Montana bid Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter.  Kent, Washington explored posts on the Federal Theatre Project.  Ligonier, PA and Conway, Arkansas met G.W. Shaw and My Fair Lady.  Shakuntala attracted someone in Sulpher, Louisiana.

Inquiring minds in Koln, Germany and Rosny-sous-bois, Ile-de-France wanted to know more about August Wilson.

St. John's of Antigua and Barbuda were curious about Requiem in Arcata. Amsterdam traveled to Korbel V. Portugal accessed Babes in Toyland.  

Readers in Finland, Japan and Buffalo, New York were among those who paid their respects to Leonard Nimoy here.  Syosset, New York viewed "Print is the new vinyl," among those who selected recent posts.

So some of posts specifically selected were as recent as a few days ago, and some were posts from as long ago as 2007 (at least of the dates I noticed.)

I've said it before, I'll say it once more: This is the Internet I believe in: access to a backlist forever, from anywhere, at any time. An Internet for individuals as well as the swarm of the moment.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Lions in Winter

Here's a treat, though a long one.  Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart talk about important moments in their stage careers and their lives, as well as their feelings about their film/TV stardom.  It's a fascinating 90 minutes.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy started on the stage in Boston, and returned to the stage in the 1970s, appearing in Equus on Broadway.  His best-known role of course was Mr. Spock in Star Trek on television and in eight of the twelve feature films, as well as on several episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.   His attention to creating that role, protecting its integrity, and developing it over four decades is unique in modern acting, with multiple lessons for actors in all media.  The character he created transcended entertainment to become a contemporary archetype, one of the few mythological figures of our age.

Leonard Nimoy was buried today in Los Angeles.  May he rest in peace.  His work lives on, into the future.