Working Title: Just Pick One Already!

This week Will Leschber splits hairs and Oscar camps…

Ok theater geeks, it’s go time. This is our Super Bowl. The Academy Awards.

So many Oscar races come down to a title fight: 12 Years a Slave vs Gravity; Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker; The Kings Speech vs The Social Network; Crash vs Brokeback Mountain; Shakespeare in Love vs Saving Private Ryan; Goodfellas vs Dances with Wolves; Forrest Gump vs Pulp Fiction; Gandhi or Tootsie; Kramer vs Kramer vs Apocalypse Now; Annie Hall or Star Wars; To Kill a Mockingbird or Lawrence of Arabia; All About Eve or Sunset Boulevard; Citizen Kane or How Green Was My Valley; Gone with the Wind or Wizard of Oz; Wings or Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans… (trick question film nerds).

As you peruse this list I’m sure you are thinking a few things: I’m sure 12 Years a Slave is great and maybe I’ll watch it one day; Thank god that towering achievement Dances With Wolves won over the endlessly forgettable and uninfluecial Goodfellas; I know Pulp Fiction is better but I’m not gonna feel bad about loving America’s Tom Hanks. Win Forrest Win! And lastly, I can hear you thinking, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans…? Are you making shit up again? What the fuck is that?

The voices keep telling me to see Birdman but all I really want to watch is the Lego Movie...

The voices keep telling me to see Birdman but all I really want to watch is the Lego Movie…

I’m getting around the posing of the dichotomy…What is more important, the Unique and Artistic Production or the Outstanding Best Picture award? Once upon a time we had an award for both (all the way back in 1927) but now it seems there can be only one. These days, bouts between the heavy, artistic “important” pictures and the awesome spectacle that only lives in the places between the silver screens has become a common conversation. (See Avatar vs Hurt Locker, and 12 Years a Slave vs Gravity.) There’s no assumed judgement here. I loved all of these films for very different reasons. I know, I know, the best films are a balance of these elements, but that doesn’t make for a good debate! I’m saying, if you only get one and you had to pick, dear reader, which do you choose?


What is more valuable and what is more valued? Do we strive to delight and transport in a way only film can? Or do we strive to reach new depths of the human experience? Or do we strive to rage against the dying of the light? Calm down Christopher Nolan, we get it, you are super deep.

This year that title fight looks like Boyhood vs Birdman. I show up to spectacle any day. Birdman was a visual feat and feast! But the greatest and best film this year is also the quietest and the most unassuming. That’s why it achieves more. I’d love to see Boyhood win because it’s a one of the most successful films to capturing something all of us experience that rarely makes it into narrative film; the feeling and memory of growing up and the importance of all the unimportant moments that build the mortar of who we are. That’s my pick. But what should win isn’t necessarily what will win. I made peace with that award show truth long ago. Who knows Imitation Game may show up and surprise us all. We’ll see.

There can be only one…Who will you choose?

Cowan Palace: Uncovering April Fools

Ashley attempts to explore the origin of this hilarious holiday.

April Fools’ Day. It’s become the new holiday I love to hate. The day this gullible blogger falls for one too many grand Internet schemes.

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Even though, aside from Halloween, one could consider it an actor’s holiday. It’s a day centered around a whole lot of lies! And aren’t we supposed to be good at that?

It’s also the perfect time for pranksters to spread rumors about some more well-known celebrities. Which will often reappear on social media outlets after a few months forcing us all to fall for it again (no one should joke about Full House possibly coming back to TV). How did you guys enjoy yesterday’s jokes? Did you fall for Britney Spears being pregnant or Keanu Reeves and his remake of Citizen Kane?

Well, in the midst of all the horsing around (holla, Year of the Horse!), my need to research overwhelmed my Facebook desires (also, I hadn’t watched the highly anticipated series finale of How I Met Your Mother yet and wanted to avoid the spoilers). So I began to explore some of the origins of this sneaky day.

And unfortunately, the Internet wasn’t a huge help. No one seems to agree where or when it began.

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Many believe it’s thanks to France and their attempt to reset the calendar. Back in the 1500s, folks were undecided about when to pop that champagne (it is from France, after all) and make poor decisions at their New Year’s Eve bash. Some wanted it to be marked in January to follow the example of the Roman calendar while others believed the new year should be set by the start of a sunnier season: the spring. But as this decision wasn’t made immediately, it moved slowly through the population. And some people in rural areas continued celebrating in the beginning of April… thus becoming “April Fools” to those who scheduled their party in January.

But that story could easily be an April Fools’ joke of its own. There are other researchers who think the day came from spring festivals where pranking was just a general practice. These guys didn’t have the Internet so they had to entertain themselves in some way, right?! It’s also worth noting that April Fools’ Day falls around the time of other similar holidays, including both the festival of Hilaria and Holi. Most likely related to the words “hilarious” and “hilarity”, Hilaria also goes by the name of “Roman Laughing Day”. (Which, sounds like a BLAST.) Holi is celebrated in India as a way to acknowledge the new season; those taking part will often prank each other in good fun.

In any case, April Fools’ Day is something we continue to recognize. As news travels faster than ever, it’s become easy to prank almost any susceptible soul (so… me). And along with the havoc we Americans do with our fake pregnancy schemes, several European countries continue to celebrate it as well.

After potentially starting the tradition in the first place, those in France who get tricked are called a “Poisson d’Avril”, which if you’ve taken French in high school, you’ll know means “April Fish”. In fact, one common practice is to get a cut out of a fish and hook it to someone. Why a fish you ask? Well, that’s kind of unclear too. Perhaps it relates back to Jesus (because doesn’t it always?) who was often connected to fish or maybe it’s for those astrologers out there who know that fish relate to the zodiac sign, Pisces, which also falls in April.

In the end, whatever you believe about the potential origin of April Fools’ Day is up to you, pal. And how you celebrate it? Well, the jokester’s sky’s the limit! Any worthy pranks to share?

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: The Long Dark Night of the Tech Rehearsal

Dave Sikula on the perils of tech.

Over the past few days, I’ve been listening to a podcast focusing on Orson Welles’s “The Magnificent Ambersons.”

For those of you who don’t know the history and background of “Ambersons,” it was Welles’s follow-up to “Citizen Kane.” Nowadays, it’s a movie most noted for being one of the most frustrating film productions in history.

When Welles came to Hollywood in 1940, such was his reputation on Broadway and in radio that he was given a contract that granted him the unheard-of right of final cut; that is to say, no one at the studio could supersede what he wanted the film to look and sound like. (The contract was so iron-clad that, in the 80s, when Ted Turner thought of colorizing it, the terms of Welles’s contract prevented him from doing so.)

“Kane” was taken by many to be a barely-disguised expose of the life of powerful publisher William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, actress Marion Davies. Welles always denied the claims – and an examination of the film and screenplay show him to be correct – but Hearst did all he could to suppress the film before and after it opened (there were even rumors that MGM head Louis B. Mayer offered RKO – the rival studio that produced “Kane” – a substantial amount of money to destroy both the film and the negative before it opened). Fortunately for posterity, RKO refused – but the Hearst organization refused advertising for the film and did what it could to prevent its distribution. In a perfect world, “Kane” would have made a ton of money, swept the Oscars, and led to Welles being given continued creative freedom. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, and “Kane” was considered a box-office flop. It did win Welles and Herman Mankiewicz an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, and has come to be considered the greatest film ever made (“Vertigo?” Seriously? It’s not even Hitchcock’s best movie.)

In the wake of “Kane’s” “failure,” Welles’s contract was renegotiated, and his right of final cut was removed. Under normal circumstances, this might not have been a problem. Even if Welles didn’t have final approval, he and the studio could have compromised on the final version of “Ambersons,” his second film. “Ambersons” was based on a novel by Booth Tarkington, and traced the way in which the genteel traditions of 19th-century were overrun by industrialization, as reflected in the downfall of a once-influential family. Welles had completed the film and an initial first cut of 148 minutes when World War II broke out. The Roosevelt Administration convinced Welles that he could help the war effort by traveling to Brazil and making a movie to help relations between the US and South America. Even though he wasn’t completely finished with his “Ambersons” edit, after RKO agreed to let him edit it while working on the other film, Welles agreed to the proposal – a decision which proved to be all but fatal to Welles’s career in Hollywood.

Before he left for Brazil, Welles cut “Ambersons” down to 131, the length at which it was previewed in Pomona, to an audience that mostly hated it. (To be fair, a good portion of the preview cards indicated a belief that it was better than even “Kane.”) Because of the change in contract and Welles’s absence, the studio butchered the film, moving scenes around, shooting new footage, and cutting it down to 88 minutes, eventually releasing at the bottom half of a double bill with (and I am not making this up) “Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost.”

The podcast (remember that? I mentioned it way back in the first sentence) – which, at four hours, is about three times the length of the movie itself – goes into great detail about how the movie was compromised, what Welles’s original intentions were, and how – had it been left alone – it might not only have been a greater film than “Kane,” it might have ultimately allowed Welles and other directors to express their creativity without compromise or interference from those higher up.

So, where is all this going? Well, to this, I guess. I sat through a long, long tech rehearsal tonight. I mean, ultimately, it wasn’t that long: I mean, the “long” part was only 3 ½ hours, and I’ve been through techs that were far longer and less productive. (In the late 70s, I was in a production of “Follies” that featured an all-night tech – for reasons I can no longer fathom. At one point, I fell asleep in the house for about an hour and, when I woke up, we were actually at a point earlier in the show than when I’d fallen asleep.) But tonight’s tech was so long because the director was determined to get the cues he wanted, without compromise.

That made me think of all the times where I’ve had to sacrifice the way I saw or imagined a moment, or a set piece, or an effect. Now, in many cases, the sacrifice led to something good, if not better than my original idea, but it was no longer my idea. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know if I know. I know that if the production of a play is an opportunity to present the conceptions of one single person, it usually “fails.” (By that, I mean, there are too many other factors – designers, actors, stage managers – for a single individual’s vision to overwhelm [though there are exceptions – but even then …]) Film is a far better medium for one person’s vision to be paramount.

I also know that stubbornness can be a virtue and that sometimes it’s worth sticking to your guns in order to maintain the “perfection” that one imagined. If I have an idea that a production is based on or is an important part of what I intend for a production, I’ll fight for it. A choreographer friend of mine recently had a prolonged legal battle with the director of a show they had worked on. The two of them had worked on a very successful show that the director had also written and produced. The issue was over who had originated the business involved with the choreography. Was it the choreographer, who conceived and staged the numbers? Was it the actors, whose movements and characterizations inspired what could be done? Was it the director, who had the overall vision? My friend, who had traveled across the country – and even internationally – to restage the show, was forced to cede her rights to future royalties because the issue was so muddy. There was no real way for her to prove what was hers and what was the work of others.

But, on the other hand, I also know that there are things to be gained when artists collaborate. Some of the best things that I’ve had happen in shows are the result of my being open to the ideas of others.

In spite of my (to be frank) boredom and frustration at the long, long rehearsal, I was willing to wait because I knew that, were our positions reversed, I’d appreciate people waiting while I got the exact effect that was important to me. Ultimately, it’s the production that ultimately benefits, and that’s the most important thing.

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: We & Orson Welles

Marissa Skudlarek ponders a quarter life crisis in prestigious company.

The fact that Orson Welles was 25 years old when he wrote, directed, and starred in the most acclaimed movie of all time is enough to give anyone a quarter-life crisis. I turned 25 this year, and am curious to know how Welles achieved so much at such a young age (while keeping in mind that the remainder of his life is a cautionary tale about early success). Plus, I have a major weakness for ‘30s theater and ‘40s cinema. So I’m currently in the midst of reading Simon Callow’s biography of the young Welles, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu.

Though people are inclined to consider Welles a filmmaker foremost, he achieved his earliest successes and learned most of what he knew from working in the theater. (Citizen Kane was his first movie, the bastard.) Reading this biography, I can’t help comparing the theater of Welles’ time to that of our own, wondering if such a meteoric rise to fame could happen nowadays, and seeing if his story has any lessons for young theater-makers of the 21st century.

Well, in terms of Welles’ rise, it certainly helped that he was a tall, striking, charismatic young man with a beautiful speaking voice. At the age of 17, he traveled to Ireland, finagled his way into an audition at the Gate Theatre, and won the second-biggest role in their current production, portraying a character over twice his age. While it’s hard to imagine any theater today hiring a teenager to play a dissipated 40-year-old Grand Duke, I can easily picture a contemporary theater having trouble filling that role. In 2012, we’re always complaining that the pool of “leading man”-type actors is too small, and it seems that in the 1930s, the same problem existed. If the teenage Orson Welles showed up on the scene today and auditioned for one of our shows, we’d probably still go crazy for him.

In the ‘30s, people really did go crazy for Welles – such a talented actor and director, so hugely ambitious, so skilled at self-promotion and creating a stir. (His penchant for rehearsing at odd hours and the tough demands he placed on his design team, meanwhile, drove people crazy in a different way.) Again, it’s hard to imagine anyone following Welles’ trajectory today: directing large-cast plays in New York at 20, starting a repertory-theater company on Broadway at 22, making a Hollywood movie at 24. Things take longer these days; the theater places more of an emphasis on professional credentials and is wary of entrusting a big job to a newcomer. Our attitude toward the theater has subtly shifted – while it has gained some dignity and respectability as a profession, it’s lost the sense of being a playground for eccentrics and visionaries.

Yet even in the ‘30s, it wasn’t like just anyone could have achieved what Orson Welles did. Most obviously, Welles was a white male in an era far more racist and sexist than our own. In 1941, the 26-year-old Orson Welles got four Oscar nominations for writing, directing, starring in, and producing Citizen Kane; in 2012, the 26-year-old Lena Dunham has four Emmy nominations for writing, directing, starring in, and producing Girls. I’m not claiming that the playing field is completely level these days, but I am saying that blanket statements like “The barriers to entry in the arts were much lower in the ’30s” ignore the reality that, for the majority of the population, the barriers to entry are lower now.

Welles also had many other advantages in his youth: he came from an upper-middle-class, arts-loving Chicago family; he traveled extensively before he was out of his teens; he went to a liberal private school whose headmaster basically let him take over the school theater and do whatever he wanted. It’s a good reminder that a lot of success is due to one’s external circumstances, or to being in the right place at the right time. (Similar points can, and have, been made about Dunham’s privileged background.)

Even so, the crucial reasons for Welles’ success came from within: his chutzpah, his energy, his ruthless drive. Simon Callow’s biography of Welles makes some guesses as to the psychological factors behind Welles’ enormous ambition, but in truth we will never really know what lit the fire in his belly. This book is never going to teach me how to replicate Welles’ success and become a 25-year-old world-famous genius; if a book could teach that, we’d all be famous already. Instead, this detailed exploration of Welles’ high-flying early career is actually a cautionary tale for any theater artist. I’d heard of Welles’ groundbreaking work at the helm of the Mercury Theatre — a classical-repertory company that enjoyed astounding critical and popular success from the get-go — but what I hadn’t realized is that the Mercury nearly fell apart within 12 months of its founding, due to Welles’ egotism, disorganization, and lack of consideration for his fellow artists. Welles’ motivations for becoming a quadruple-threat writer-actor-director-producer may still be mysterious; the reasons for his quick flameout, though, are depressingly obvious. And while the American theater could use a jolt of Wellesian ambition and energy, I’m not sure that we need all of the other, less positive qualities that often accompany those virtues.

Marissa Skudlarek is a journeyman playwright toiling in obscurity at the age of 25.