The Five: Tony Award Snarkdown

Anthony R. Miller checks in (on a different day) with smart ass comments about this year’s Tony Award nominations.

Hey you guys, looks like I didn’t get nominated for a Tony again, although my long-term plan for a regional Tony is still rock solid. In case you didn’t hear (due to the lack of Wi-Fi in the cave you live in) the nominations for the Tony Awards came out on Tuesday. If you haven’t seen ‘em yet, go to www.tonyawards.com and get with it. It’s cool, I’ll wait…

All caught up? Great, now we can dive in to a few of my own observations. And wouldn’t you know it, there are five.

So Apparently Hamilton is Pretty Good

With a record 16 nominations, Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of Hamilton might as well just sit onstage all night. I mean, that’s why we’re all watching right? It’s been about 20 years since a Broadway musical has been such a cultural phenomenon, which is depressing. But I guess we’ll take what we can get. Sure, it might not be fun to be one of the other nominated musicals who will probably not have as triumphant a night, but the fact that a whole crapload of people who would have never watched the Tony Awards are gonna watch is something to celebrate.

I Can’t Hear You

It’s hard for me to be witty when I’m genuinely mad about something. But the fact that there is no longer an award for Sound Design is total garbage. You would think they would bring it back this year just for the sake of giving Hamilton another award. Seriously though, sound designers are artists, and in many cases, friggin’ miracle workers. The art of sound design evolved beyond sound effects and intermission music a long time ago. Maybe I’m spoiled because the Bay Area boasts some brilliant sound designers. So hug a sound designer today, they make your show sound good.

Every Day I’m Shufflin’

Let’s give credit to Shuffle Along. In a Best New Musical category populated by musicals about historical events (Hamilton and Bright Star) and musicals based on movies (Waitress and School of Rock),  Shuffle Along is a musical based on a musical. So there’s that.

Good for You, Arthur Miller

The Best Revival of a Play I Had To Read In College Category features Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Noises Off, Blackbird, and two, count ’em, two Arthur Miller plays (The Crucible and A View from the Bridge). So keep your eye out for that up-and-comer Arthur Miller, he’s going places.

We Love It When Our Casual Acquaintances Become Successful

So if local hero Daveed Diggs wins for Best Performance By An Actor In A Featured Role In A Musical, I will boast not one, BUT TWO Tony award winners on my Facebook friends list. In 1998, I was an ASM for a production of Children of Eden at American Musical Theatre of San Jose. This particular production featured a young fella named James Monroe Inglehart, we became dear, dear friends, OK, not really. But a few years later I served him shitty Chinese food and he totally recognized me. Then he went on to be the Genie in the Broadway production of Aladdin and took home the Tony. Now we have an actor whom I saw once in a production of Six Degrees of Separation, everybody in the Bay Area has been in a play with, someone whom I exchanged 3-4 actual emails with a few years ago about producing a one-man show that never happened. Daveed Diggs is a swell dude (based on our in-depth email correspondence) and it’s always great to see local actors go on to success right after they leave the Bay Area. So here’s to hoping the list of successful people I kinda know just gets bigger. Unless of course they’re a goddamned sound designer.

Don’t forget to watch on June 12th!!!

Anthony R. Miller is Writer, Producer and Theatre Nerd, keep with him at www.awesometheatre.org and on twitter @armiller78

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Theater Around The Bay: The Great Blog Recap of 2015 Part II

Today we bring you three more annual round ups from three more of our core blogging team: Ashley Cowan, Will Leschber, and Dave Sikula! More tomorrow and the Stueys on Thursday!

The Top Five Thank Yous of 2015 by Ashley Cowan

1) You’re inspirational, Molly Benson
Aside from the incredible PianoFight mosaic we all continue to marvel at each time we’re in its proximity, you’ve managed to continue bursting through the creative scene while balancing parenting a small child (which I’ve personally found to be an incredibly difficult thing to do). You’re acting, you’re lending your voice to various projects, you’re making art, and you’re out there inspiring me to keep trying. So thank you and please keep it up!

2) You’re so great to work with, San Francisco Fringe Festival
2015 was the second year I had the chance to be a part of the SF Fringe Festival alongside Banal+ with Nick and Lisa Gentile, Warden Lawlor, Dan Kurtz, Tavis Kammet, and Will Leschber. (And this year, Eden Davis and Katrina Bushnell joined the cast making it even stronger!) Now, I always love working with this dynamic bunch but this time around, I was returning to the stage after a two year hiatus and straight off of having a baby and returning to work full time. Thankfully, everyone was so flexible and kind that when I had to leave a show immediately after my performance (skipping the other pieces in the lineup and curtain call) to relieve our babysitter, I was greeted with support and understanding. It made all the difference so thank you again.

3) You trusted me to be a 90’s (Rose McGowan inspired) teenager, Anthony Miller
Last year when I had to back out of TERROR-RAMA, I was pretty crushed. I don’t totally know how I lucked out in getting a second chance with this October’s reading of TERROR-RAMA 2: PROM NIGHT but oh, man, I loved it. After feeling a bit rusty and uncomfortable in my post baby body, Anthony Miller and Colin Johnson let me play this sexy queen vampire 90’s teen. And I had the best time. Anthony’s script is truly hilarious and under Colin’s direction, the reading was a great success. But I was also left with that electric, “yes! This is why I do this!” feeling after I had the chance to be involved and for that, I’m super grateful. Thank you, Anthony. And thank you Rose McGowan.

4) You Made Me Love Being an Audience Member Again, In Love and Warcraft
One of my theatrical regrets from this past year was not singing praises or appropriately applauding creative teams when I had the chance. In this case, I didn’t really take the opportunity to give a shout out to all involved in Custom Made’s recent show, In Love And Warcraft. I was unfamiliar with most of the cast but, wow, they were delightful. The script was smart, sweet, and funny (and totally played to my nerdy romantic sensibilities) and the whole thing came together into such an enjoyable theater experience. I had such fun being in the audience and invited into a world of warcraft and new love. Thank you, thank you.

5) You Make Me Feel Tall and Proud, Marissa Skudlarek
In our two part Theater Pub blog series, Embracing the Mirror, Marissa and I uncovered new heights. Or, really, uncovered the heights that had been there all along and allowed us to kind of honor them. I’m so thankful that Marissa suggested this collaboration because the topic allowed me to reconnect with tall actress friends from my past while reevaluating my own relationship to my height. Plus, getting to do it with Marissa was a treat in itself. So thank you, Marissa for continuing to positively push this blog forward and allowing me to stand next to you!

Thank-You-Someecard-2

Top Five 2015 Films That Should Be Adapted Into A Stage Play by Will Leschber

Hi all! Since I spend most of the year trying to smash together the space between theater and film, why not just come out with it and say which bright shining films of 2015 should end up on our great stages here in San Francisco. So here are the top 5 films of 2015 that should be adapted to a San Franciscan stage production…and a Bay Area Actor who’d fit perfectly in a key role!

Now, since my knowledge of the vast pool of Bay Area creative performers isn’t what it used to be, lets just get fun and totally subjective and pull this recommendation list from a single show! And not just a single show… a single show that Theater Pub put up… AND I was in: Dick 3… Stuart Bousel’s bloody adaptation of Richard III. Yeah, talk about nepotism, right? Booyah… lets own this!

5) Room
This film adaption of the acclaimed book by Emma Donoghue would fit easily into a restricted stage production with the cloying enclosed location in which most of the action takes place. It’s a moving story dictated by creative perspective and wonderful acting, things that shine onstage. Brie Larson owns the film’s main performance but it if a bay area actress could give it a go, I’d love to see Jeunée Simon radiate in this role. Her youthful energy, subtle power, and soulful spirit would kick this one out of the park.

4) Steve Jobs
Regardless of the Aaron Sorkin lovers or haters out there, this film is written like a three-act play and would work supremely well on stage, as it does on screen. It’s talky and quick-paced as long as you keep up the clip of lip that the script demands. The perfect pairing to tackle this towering role of Steve Jobs and his “work wife” Joanna Hoffman (played respectively by Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet) would look excellent cast with Jessica Rudholm as Steve Jobs (Jessica is an unbelievably powerful performer and can command any room she steps into…perfect for Jobs) and Megan Briggs as the Joanna Hoffman character: resourceful, smart and can stand up to powerful chest-puffing men. Done!

3) Mistress America
This buoyant film by Noah Baumbach follows a New York pseudo-socialite, Brooke, embodied perfectly by Greta Gerwig, who has to fall a bit from her idealized youthful 20s phase of life towards something a bit more….self-realized…aka adulthood. At times a situation-farce houseguest comedy, and other times a story of searching for self discovery, the themes would read equally beautifully on stage. The second lead in this film is a bright-eyed, I-know-everything-in-the-world college freshman named Tracy, who befriends our beloved Brooke character. It’s a dual journey. Allison Page has more confidence than all the college freshman I know. She’d play the crap out of that! And for the main Greta Gerwig part… this is a hard role to fill with quirk and empathy, so I’d say let’s give Sam Bertken a shot at it! Sam as a performer has the whimsy of a confident yet lost late-20-something, but the charm and determination to persevere with her/his quirk intact.

2) Spotlight
This journalistic procedural which chronicles the story behind the Pulitzer-winning newspaper story of sexual abuse and the Catholic Church would be a heavy sit. But the story is powerful, the characters are true, and the setting lends itself to small scale theater. To play the stalwart Spotlight department newspaper lead editor, played by Michael Keaton in the film, lets go with Carl Lucania who’d give the role a nice imprint. AND to boot, the Mark Ruffalo character (who is the shoulder of the film, in my opinion) would be handled wonderfully by Paul Jennings. These two have the exact performing skills to juxtapose unrelenting determination and quiet, frustrated fury which fit perfectly for this story.

1) Inside Out
Now I hear you…animated films with complex imaginary landscapes and vistas filled with old memories might not immediately scream stage production. But if The Lion King, King Kong or even Beauty & the Beast can do it, I know some insanely talented set designers, costume designers and lighting specialists could bring this world to life. More importantly, the themes of passing away from youthful phases of life, how hard and lonely a childhood transition can be, plus learning that life isn’t simply divided into happy/sad/angry/scared memories. The complicated reality is that our selves and our memories are colored with a mad mix of many diverse emotions and characteristics. Coming of age with this palette of imagination would be glorious on stage. And who better to play the central character named Joy, than the joyful Brian Martin. He just adorable…all the time.

Five Things I Learned on My Last New York Trip by Dave Sikula

1) “Traditional” Casting Is Over
Well, not totally, obviously, but as Hamilton showed (among so many other things), anyone can play anything. I’m old enough to remember when musicals had all-white casts, then, little by little, there would be one African American male and one African American female in the ensemble, and they always danced together. Gradually, you began to see more and more people of color in choruses, and they were now free to interact with anyone. Now, of course, pretty much any role is up for grabs by any actor of any race or gender – or should be. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see an Asian female eventually playing Hamilton himself. Whether this – and the other innovations of Hamilton – percolates into more mainstream fare remains to be seen, but it’s certainly to be hoped.

2) A Good Director Can Make Even the Most Tired War-Horse Fresh and Vital
For my money, there aren’t many major playwrights whose work has aged more badly than Arthur Miller. Yeah, Death of Salesman is still powerful, but the rest of the canon isn’t faring so well. Years and years ago, I saw a lousy production of A View from the Bridge, and even then, it struck me as obvious, tired, and dull. Ivo van Hove’s production, then, had a couple of hurdles to overcome: 1) it’s a London import, and 2) it’s, well, it’s A View from the Bridge. Van Hove’s 2004 production of Hedda Gabler (surely one of the worst “important” plays ever written) was enough of a revelation that I wanted to see what he could do with this one, and boy, did he come through. Tough, powerful, and visceral, it’s nothing so much as what we hear Greek tragedy was so good at. It was so good, I’m anxious to see his upcoming production of The Crucible, and see if he can make another truly terrible play interesting.

3) Even a Good Director Can’t Make a Tired Old War-Horse Work
In 2008, Bartlett Sher directed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, a show I’d seen too much and from which (I’d thought) all the juice had long since been squeezed. By digging deep into the text and back story, though, Sher and company were able to make it vital, exciting, and relevant. Flash forward to last year and the reunion of some of the band to remount The King and I, another show whose time has all but passed. Despite breathtaking sets, more delving into two-dimensional characters by very good actors (Hoon Lee and Kelli O’Hara are doing superb work in the title parts), and marvelous staging, it just sits there. The problem to these tired old eyes is that musical dramaturgy of today doesn’t always fit well with that of the early 1950s, and the show itself just has too many fundamental flaws to work anymore. It’s a pity, because a lot of time and effort is being expended in a futile effort to make the unworkable work. In the words of Horace, “The mountain labors, and brings forth … a mouse!”

4) There Is No Show So Bad That No One Will See It
We’ve dealt with the awfulness of China Doll before. Despite barely having a script and offering audiences little more than the chance to watch Al Pacino alternately get fed his lines and chew scenery, it’s still drawing people. Sure, that attendance is falling week by week, but last week, it was still 72% full and took in more than $600,000. Running costs can’t be that much (two actors, one set), but even with what imagines is a monumental amount being paid Mr. Pacino, it’s probably still making money. If I may (correctly) quote the late Mr. Henry L. Mencken of Baltimore: “No one in this world, so far as I know – and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me – has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

5) It’s Still Magical
Despite the heavy lifting of New York theatre being done off- and off-Broadway and regionally, there’s still something that can’t be duplicated in seeing a really good show on Broadway that has a ton of money thrown at it – especially one you weren’t expecting anything from. I went into shows like An American in Paris or Something Rotten or – especially – Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 knowing next to nothing about them and came out enthralled and invigorated by what writers can create and actors can do. In the best cases, they give me something to shoot at. (And in the worst, multiple lessons on what to avoid … )

Ashley Cowan is an actress, playwright, director and general theater maker in the Bay Area, alongside writer/actor husband, Will Leschber. Dave Sikula is an actor, writer, director and general theater maker in the Bay Area who has been in plays with Ashley and Will, but never both at the same time.

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: What’s Playing at the Roxy?*

Dave Sikula, in which the author begins to dissect his recent trip to New York.

As I start writing this, I’m sitting in my hotel room in New York, fully aware of three things:

1) I really should be in bed, since I have to pack up tomorrow morning.
2) I am going to have one hell of a time packing everything.
3) I really should be working on the work assignment I have that I hope to deal with on the plane tomorrow.

While I’m fully aware that I have what has been described as a negative approach to things, I prefer to think of it as both contrarian and snobbish (see here for my previous post on that issue). Yet, despite that rep (which could be easily proven incorrect by doing one of those stupid “here are the words I use most on Facebook” word clouds – something that just reeks to me of intrusive marketing), I found myself having a great time at eight of the ten shows (or ten of twelve, if one counts seeing Colbert and a cabaret show), and even the two misfires weren’t that bad – well, China Doll was, but that’s something to be dealt with later.

While I’m going to deal with this trip on a broader level later in the year (something I know you’ll all be waiting for … ), I wanted to do a post-mortem on what I saw.
When I plan a trip to New York, I’m lucky enough that I can usually schedule it for a long enough period that I can see pretty much everything I want to. In this case, that meant arriving on a Tuesday and leaving on the Thursday of the next week, giving me the opportunity to take advantage of three matinee/two-for-one days.

The festivities began with Stephan Karam’s The Humans. I’d seen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet a few years ago, so I was interested in seeing this follow-up. It’s a very good production of a very interesting script; that is as much about the Thanksgiving dinner that is its center as the previous play was about being Lebanese-American. The family dynamics are incisive and sharply observed, and it’ll probably get produced all over the country once designers work out how to re-invent its two-story set.

Because set designers need challenges, don't they?

Because set designers need challenges, don’t they?

Wednesday matinee: Robert Askins’s Hand to God. Another one that deserves a long shelf-life, but good luck to the actors who’ll be cast in the central role that combines puppetry with playing off one’s self with possible demonic possession and a bunch of swearing and simulated sex. Of particular interest was Bob Saget, new to the cast as a straight-laced pastor, but really quite good, but who paled – as most actors would – in comparison to Stephen Boyer’s work as the lead.

The next show was David Mamet’s China Doll, which I was starting to write about, but quickly realized that it’s going to take a whole post in itself to deal with – and that’s for next time. Suffice it to say that, when we heard about this one, we jumped at the chance to go. Granted, Mamet hasn’t written a good play since the ‘80s and Pacino isn’t what he once was, but still, the possibilities were there – especially since the notoriously phallocentric Mamet was actually allowing a woman – Pam MacKinnon – to direct. It’s a perfect example, though, of how Broadway in the 21st century isn’t what it was even 20 years ago.

This is not a still photo. This is a live feed of the action.

This is not a still photo. This is a live feed of the action.

Friday: Hamilton. We planned the trip around when we could get tickets. Now, unlike many folks, I wanted to go in cold. I had heard a little of the score (it’s next to impossible to avoid), and knew the basics of the conceit and approach. Now, while I kinda wish I’d exposed myself to the cast album (please note: not a soundtrack … ), I was floored. It was that rare occasion where, going in, my expectations were high, and the product not only met them, they left them in the dust. It’s an utterly phenomenal show and I can’t say enough good things about it. Everything you’ve heard? All true.

I was a little iffy about the next three shows; two because of my growing Anglothropism (that is to say, not buying into the idea that, just because a show has a London pedigree, it’s going to be good), and the third because it’s a dumb musical comedy. All three were brilliant though, starting with Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, directed by Ivo Van Hove (whose production of Hedda Gabler – a play I really dislike – was staggeringly good). This is an amazing production, played as the Greek tragedy Miller alluded to, muscular, tough, and no-holds-barred. The production offers on-stage seating, and I was no more than a couple of feet from the actors, so it was even more intense.

Yeah. It's that kind of a show

Yeah. It’s that kind of a show

The second of the three was by John O’Farrell, Karey Kirkpatrick, and Wayne Kirkpatrick’s musical Something Rotten!, which is that rarest of creatures – an original musical that opened directly on Broadway. I was leery, but had been told (by my wife, no less) that it was hysterically funny – and it is. It’s everything “a Broadway musical comedy” should be: smart, funny, and lively; full of allusions to other musicals and cast with actors who really know how to land the material.

The last of this troika was Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, a “future history” play set during the early days of the reign of the next British monarch, written (mostly) in iambic pentameter and blank verse and doing all it can to take on Shakespeare at his own game. It’s a risk, but pays off mightily, with a towering central performance by Tim Pigott-Smith, but the rest of the cast comes close to matching him. A riveting afternoon.

Next was a pair of disappointments, lacking for similar reasons. The first was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, which I was looking forward to. The director, Bartlett Sher, showed an astonishing ability to wring every ounce of drama out of South Pacific, turning a war horse into a thoroughbred, and I had hopes he’d be able to repeat that magic here. While the production itself is everything one might hope – fine performances, beautiful sets and staging – the show itself just can’t match the production. I don’t expect there could be a better version of the show, but – for better or worse – its dramaturgy is locked into the early ‘50s, and musicals just aren’t written that way anymore. (Where I want numbers that delve into psychology, I got “hit tunes,” and characters who have – justifiably – been speaking in pigeon English all evening suddenly become fluently poetic when singing).

The second was Simon Stephens’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which, despite its many admirable qualities and intentions, just didn’t work for me. It’s an outstanding production, but that was the problem. It’s so overwhelming and facile that it covers up that there’s not much of a play underneath. I can’t imagine how another production of it – that doesn’t have a mammoth budget – will be able to tell the story.

Finally, I like to end my trips with something that will leave me with a glow of some sort; usually – but not necessarily – something uplifting, so I decided on Craig Lucas’s adaptation of An American in Paris, with a score by George and Ira Gershwin. From almost the opening moments, the show packed a particular punch. Given the still-fresh attacks on Paris, its start – detailing the German occupation of France and its aftermath (something the show was criticized for when it opened) – set things in a context that give it an immediacy and power that was shocking. The show itself is, well, lovely. One expects a dancy musical full of tap and “Broadway” dancing, and one gets an evening of breathtaking ballet (okay; there is one tap number … ). It’s moving and human in all the best ways – and couldn’t have been a better finale to my trip.

Boy, howdy.

Boy, howdy.

Next time: the dullness that was China Doll.

(*Nothing, actually. The Roxy was a movie theatre, anyway, and was torn down in 1960.)

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: The Topic That Wouldn’t Die

Dave Sikula, sliding in just before the weekend kicks off.

It’s the damnedest thing.

I don’t know what it is about this line of inquiry, but this series of posts garnered more clicks – and even Facebook shares – than anything else I’ve written. As far as I can tell, though, this will be the last entry for now on the topic. (We’ll see what happens in about 800 words when I realize I still have more to say and don’t want to strain your patience.)

Let me deal with the Arthur Miller reference I made in the last colyum. I need to preface that, though, with some background on Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre.

If I won't link to it, I should at least show it.

If I won’t link to it, I should at least show it.

Looking at their website, it seems like they’re a company dedicated to screwing around with other people’s creations while relentlessly patting themselves on the back for doing so. Consider this blurb for “Miss Julie:” “August Strindberg’s masterpiece has been hovering in the wings at Belvoir for a while now, waiting for the right people: Leticia Cáceres and Brendan Cowell both know how to combine tender and brutal to devastating effect. Simon Stone joins them with a rewrite of the play in the fashion of his The Wild Duck.” Note the “his” there, which refers to Mr. Stone, and not either the late Mr. Strindberg or the late Mr. Ibsen. Pretty much every description of the plays they produce refers to an “adaptation” of this or “a contemporary version” of that. Not content to adhere to the intentions of the playwright, they’ve decided that their only responsibility is to themselves.

Mind you, I'm not saying this would be Ibsen's opinion of Stone, but ...

Mind you, I’m not saying this would be Ibsen’s opinion of Stone, but …

In 2012, Mr. Stone decided to produce Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” – or, at least, some of it. According to Terry Teachout’s report:

Not only did he cut the play’s epilogue, but he altered the manner in which Willy Loman, Arthur Miller’s protagonist, meets his death. In the original play, Willy dies in a car crash that may or may not have been intentional; in Mr. Stone’s staging, he commits suicide by gassing himself. On top of that, Belvoir neglected to inform ICM Partners, the agency that represents Mr. Miller’s estate and licenses his plays for production around the world, that Mr. Stone was altering the script.

Since rewriting dead playwrights seems to be Stone’s stock in trade, I can see why he didn’t feel the author’s representatives were worth notifying. I’m actually surprised he was did something as boring, traditional, and mundane as casting a male actor as Willy. They’re currently doing “Hedda Gabler” (a play that’s dismal enough) with a male actor playing Hedda. Because A) it’s supposed to make a statement about gender roles and B) apparently there aren’t any women in Sydney who are capable of playing the part.

Hedda Gabler, ladies and gents.

Hedda Gabler, ladies and gents.

Mr. Stone’s defense of his bastardized presentation of Miller’s play was “”Until recently we accepted the Broadway or West End way of treating their classics, now we are bringing to them an Australian sensibility and technique. The world is responding.” Since the “Australian sensibility and technique” seems to involve violating copyright and ignoring a writer’s intentions, it’s no wonder the world is “responding” – mainly by refusing him the rights to do anything. A look at their current season shows rewrites of “Oedipus” (two of them!), “The Inspector General” (“inspired by Nikolai Gogol” – who only wrote the goddamn thing), “Nora,” (“after ‘A Doll’s House’ by Henrik Ibsen”), “A Christmas Carol” (“after Charles Dickens”) and “Cinderella.” They’re also doing “The Glass Menagerie,” but I’d imagine the rights-holders are keeping a close watch on them.

This kind of conduct goes to the heart of how the Facebook discussion about the Mamet case went. The opinions ranged from the conviction that the writer owns his or her words and has every right to determine how they’re presented to an audience, to a belief that since plays are more intangible things than physical, they should the property of any director or actor who wanted to do anything they wanted with them. One poster tried to make his case by saying that if I bought a shirt, he was free to do whatever he wanted with it: cut off the sleeves, dye it, or whatever. Never mind that he’s not buying that particular shirt; he’s borrowing it from someone who probably won’t appreciate the alterations.

"Here's your shirt back -- or at least all the pieces."

“Here’s your shirt back — or at least all the pieces.”

We Get Letters:

Eric L. writes: “How do you think this incident compares to the Beckett’s objection and legal action against Akalaitis’s production of Endgame?”

Thanks for asking, Eric. As expected, though, I’ve reached my weekly limit and will return to this topic next time

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Just Because You Can Do Something Doesn’t Mean You Have To

Dave Sikula continues his discussion of Directors Gone Wild…

So, you may recall that I was reminded of this whole thing by a question from the “Farnsworth” audience about whether we could have just written a prologue or an epilogue contextualizing Sorkin’s play. And while I suppose we could have, it would have been pushing the boundaries of our contractual obligation.

 "Now that our curtain call is over, may we tell you the true history?"

“Now that our curtain call is over, may we tell you the true history?”

Not that that sort of thing stops other directors – and we’ll open that particular can of worms once I give this context. (I’m apparently all about “context” right now.)

Earlier on the Sunday on which the question above was asked, I’d read a story online about the Alchemist theatre in the Milwaukee are getting a cease-and-desist order that shut down their production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna.”

I'd have shut them down just for having lousy publicity photos.

I’d have shut them down just for having lousy publicity photos.

“Oleanna” is a play that had a relevance for about five minutes in the late 90s. The plot concerns a male college professor who’s accused of sexually harassing – if not downright abusing – a female student. I acted in the play back in the late 90s, so I know it pretty well. My experience with the play was not a happy one; the director was the kind of guy who would give notes like “I didn’t want you to stand there; I wanted you to stand here,” while pointing at a spot about a quarter-inch away. Plus, his daughter was playing the woman. (She was good, but still …). My understanding of the play – and I hate to ascribe motives, but Mamet is famously closed-mouthed about the meaning of his work (to the point where he even refuses to reveal what the play’s title means) – is that he thinks he’s written a Shavian dialogue that examines power relationships, with both sides getting fair treatment. In reality, the professor is pedantic and clueless (my long-suffering wife was of the opinion that it was a role that was tailor-made for me. I offer no comment on that opinion …) and the woman is written as something of a simpleton who’s acting at the behest of her “group” (a sinister cabal of feminists).

The Alchemist Theatre decided to cast to cast two men in the play, not only muddying the issues and the gender politics, but incurring the wrath of Mamet. In Mamet’s early days, he wrote some brilliant plays, but in recent years, he’s become something of a crank. Politics aside, he hasn’t written a very good play for a couple of decades. (Let me say here that I don’t mind his turn to conservatism. I’ve often said that I wish conservatives had more of a presence in the theatre, if only to force me to defend my own positions.)

He’s stated his conviction that there are no characters in plays; there are only words on a page, and it behooves actors in his plays to merely recent the words; not to give meaning to them. Anyone who’s suffered through the films he’s directed will know exactly how that comes across. The “performances” given by (in particular) his wives have been wooden enough to restore the Brazilian rainforest to their full splendor. Regardless, he’s notorious for watching over who does his plays and in demanding that his plays be done only in the way he intended. (I recall about a decade ago, someone I was working with wanted to do something of his, and they were turned down flat, for no apparent reason.) In short, if you screw around with Mamet’s plays, you’re just asking for trouble.

Given his litigiousness, I'd never dare say that  Mr. Mamet looks like a self-important tool here.

Given his litigiousness, I’d never dare say that
Mr. Mamet looks like a self-important tool here.

The good people at Alchemist must have known this, in that (according to reports) they kept the all-male casting a secret until the show began previews. From the local reports, it sounds like they knew they were going to get into trouble, but decided it was better to ask forgiveness than to seek permission.

In a statement issued Friday evening, Erica Case and Aaron Kopec, owners of Alchemist Theatre, said: “We excitedly brought this story to the stage because even though it was written years ago, the unfortunate story that it tells is still relevant today. We auditioned for this show looking for the best talent, not looking for a gender. When Ben Parman auditioned we saw the reality that this relationship, which is more about power, is not gender-specific but gender-neutral.”

This strikes me as disingenuous at best. As a director, if I know I’m casting a play that is written for one man and one woman, I’m not going to go into auditions seeking to do gender-blind casting – and I can’t believe that, in the greater Milwaukee area, there weren’t actresses who were capable of performing the role.

“We stayed true to each of David Mamet’s powerful words and did not change the character of Carol but allowed the reality of gender and relationship fluidity to add to the impact of the story. We are so very proud of the result, of both Ben and David Sapiro’s talent, and Erin Eggers’ direction.”

Again, I’m calling “bullshit” on this. The dynamics and relationships between a man and a woman – which is what the show is about, one way or another – are vastly different from those between two men or two women, and altering that relationship alters the writer’s intentions.

Dramatists Play Service, which represents Mamet and which gave Alchemist the rights to produce the play, didn’t see it that way. The firm sent the cease-and-desist letter Friday, the day that reviews of the show appeared online and revealed the company’s casting decision – a decision that the company went to unusual lengths to keep hidden before opening curtain.

And that, for me, is the final nail in the coffin. They knew they were doing something they felt they needed to hide from the licensors, the writer – and the public. I know if I were involved with a production that had the potential to radically alter the audience’s perceptions of a play they thought they knew, I’d be shouting it from the rooftops.

I’d go on, but once again have reached what I assume are the limits of your patience, so another theatre’s attempt to make the late Arthur Miller turn over in his grave will have to wait until our next thrilling chapter.

"You can't kill me again, no matter how hard you try."

“You can’t kill me again, no matter how hard you try.”

Everything Is Already Something Week 35: Caution, Contents May Explode

Stop reading about the film version of “Into The Woods” and read this instead- it’s Allison Page! 

My big problem now isn’t inspiration, it’s dread of content. Let’s say you’ve got the ingredients for two pie recipes – one is for a Chocolate French Silk pie and one is for a Personal Fears And Worst Parts Of Yourself Plus Chocolate Shavings pie. They both contain some chocolate, but the first one sounds less painful to make, right? That’s what’s going on with me right now. I’m keenly aware of what I should be working on. I have 75% of a draft of a play that’s really important to me and is filled with lots of real shit. And it’s been 75% done for months. I haven’t touched it since February. I NEED a completed draft this month, and it currently has no ending. A play should probably have an ending, so they tell me. And then I have this other play. I have a fully completed draft, I’ve had a reading of it, and I don’t *need* to make the necessary revisions until fall. But I’d much rather work on that, than the more pressing script. Who wouldn’t choose a juvenile horror comedy with a mythical beast to work on over something that so closely relates to their own demons, and the demons of people who have been close to them?

Wait, it's not going to write itself? BUT PEOPLE SAY THAT ALL THE TIME.

Wait, it’s not going to write itself? BUT PEOPLE SAY THAT ALL THE TIME.

Overall I think it’s a cop-out to say that you can’t write anything unless you’re in the mood or feeling inspired. Maybe I say that so that I can convince myself not to wait for inspiration, knowing that I’m so lazy I might never get around to feeling inspired. (I enjoy playing tricks on myself to force myself to work. I do it all the time. Just setting bear traps around my apartment to create a sense of urgency. You know, regular stuff.) But dreading the content isn’t much different from “not feeling inspired” if the end result is the same – not getting shit done. I’ve been primarily writing comedy for the last several years, which is obviously fun. Even when it’s hard, it’s fun. You know what’s not always fun? Writing a character that you love who is completely sabotaging their own potential for happiness. UGHHHHH, RIGHT?!?

YOU CAN'T TELL BUT I'M HAVING THE TIME OF MY LIFE!

YOU CAN’T TELL BUT I’M HAVING THE TIME OF MY LIFE!

’m hoping this is one of those situations that I’ll later look back on and say “That was really hard but SO WORTH IT.” and not “That was just really hard. Pass the bourbon, stranger.” I feel bad even talking about it, somehow or other people write way more exhausting/personal/tragic/depressing/catastrophic stories than the one I’m working on. I recently saw a production of The Crucible (while in the middle of pondering this topic) and thought “Yowza. Imagine writing all that misery.”

Arthur Miller: Bucket Of Fun And Smiles.

Arthur Miller: Bucket Of Fun And Smiles.

Or Titus Andronicus…that couldn’t have been a good headspace for Shakespeare to live in. Ah, to be a fly on the wall of those therapy sessions. I guess that’s part of the toil of being a playwright – not always wanting to live in the world you’re building, and worrying that it’ll take you somewhere you’re afraid you’ll never be able to leave. This isn’t just a problem writers face, but something actors can get stuck in too, obviously. I’ve done some heavy actor-brooding in the past. Antigone wasn’t exactly a giggle-fest.

That probably sounded pretty grim. In actuality, I’m really excited about this play – it’s just not easy. There is plenty of humor in it, but I’ve got that part down. It’s the other icky-sticky-dark-murky stuff that needs my attention.

PS. If you see me looking forlorn, staring down at the sidewalk…buy me a cookie.

Allison Page is an actor/writer/director/whatever and you can follow her on Twitter @allisonlynnpage.

Working Title: The Forging Power of Witch Trial

This week Will looks back and marvels at the The Crucible.

A curious thing happens when you see a new production of a show you once worked on. An uncanny fusing of auditory time travel and welcome familiarity stacks upon the material. In the most recent case, I took in The Custom Made Theatre’s production of The Crucible directed by Stuart Bousel. This Arthur Miller masterpiece happens to be the first play in which I had the pleasure to act. I played the small part of Frances Nurse. I had 18 lines. I know because I counted them. Boy, was I proud of those 18 lines. I was also proud to have found a home amongst the odd, hodge-podge, theatre kids in my high school. Anyone within the theatre community can tell you their origin play and when they felt the bite of the theatre bug. What is nice, all these years later, is when I see a production that reminds me what good theatre feels like and possibly why I got into this creative madhouse in the first place.

The San Francisco theatre scene is very proud of it’s new works. More new plays are premiered here than anywhere else in the country, or so I’ve heard. So why do The Crucible? Why now? We have a 1996 film version with Daniel Day-Lewis and Joan Allen. It’s hard to get better leads than those two. Often when discussing film and theatre, I can favor the best of the film offerings when placed against the average production here in the bay area. That may be an unfair fight, but we all have our biases. But this case is different. Why do The Crucible? Why now? Well, it’s never a bad time to put up a great play with outstanding actors and a clear vision of direction. More directly, there is a potency built within this play that unfolds more powerfully when performed in a close space. The 3/4 thrust staging of this current production refuses to allow the audience an emotional escape. We are locked in the closed courtrooms and cloying country houses as the world falls around these characters. In the best theatrical experiences, you, as an onlooking audience member, become a part of something. You are not separate. You are more than a mere watcher. You are entwined. Your experience wraps in the actions of the actors on stage and the fellow audience around. All become one, living the drama before us.

The cast is large and I’ll admit, in the past, I might have thought it possibly too large for the performance space. But this is not the case. Due to the precise direction, I never felt that the cast was overwhelming the space or the audience. It just fits. In the film, the realism afforded in the setting also allows the dark clothes and the dark hair and the plentiful drab town-people to blend together. It’s easy to mix up one Goody from another Goody or one old grey haired judge from another grey haired judge. There are many admirable things about Nicholas Hytner’s film but the realistic breadth of the town may be a detriment that distracts from the emotional core of the story. The play does not suffer from this problem.

One would think that the long scenes written into the structure of the play could create a pacing issue. With a less apt cast this might be true but the play clips by with speed and intensity. Film, in general, has the ability the solve pacing issues through editing tools or the ability to cut to new locations and new scenes without pause. However, this trick also can carry along an audience whether they are invested or not. In this case, The Crucible film races over increased stakes and plot developments as Abigail cries witch, more towns folk are hanged and our dear Goody Proctor is accused. The way Arthur Miller writes the lengthy scenes of his play, the revelations have time to breathe and then impact the audience fully. The film covers all the same notes yet undercuts the emotional impact with truncated script choices. Arthur Miller, who wrote both the original and the adapted 1996 screenplay, would probably dislike my saying so of his screenplay. But the play simply works in a way the film does not.

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The film gives a fuller sense of the rampant chaos when Salem is turning with the witching upheaval yet it is from a more distant point of view. When John Proctor gets the news of towns disruptions from Mary Warren, it’s more personal news. As if a friend is dolling out town gossip to the audience personally. We overhear this news as if it were local gossip. The intimate space rounds out much atmospheric emotion.

The production aspects that excel throughout are the costumes, acting and sound design. While the film matches the quality acting and costumes, the sound doesn’t achieve the disconcerting heights of the production’s original music and sound design by Liz Ryder. The soundscape is both haunting and moving. It folds the audience in the maddening world of Miller’s Salem, echoing the longing desire and futile separation inherent in every character.

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The silver screen can offer a personal journey that rings a unique bell in our being. I love the art of film and will always return there. But there is something individual about those journeys. Less communal. It’s personal. Great theatre is both personal and communal. Instead of “I see”, it’s “we experience”. We must not underestimate the power of sitting in a small space together screaming at witchcraft birds and the tragedy of prideful poppet pins. This production is a reminder of that power.

The Crucible runs the next few weeks at Custom Made Theatre Co. You can get more info and tickets at http://www.custommade.org.

Photo Credits:

Yamada, Jay. Proctor’s Final Embrace. 2014. Photograph. Www.custommade.org, San Francisco. Web. 27 May 2014.