Lovers & Players and other creatures of the night

modern commedia

modern commedia

I just saw something you don’t see every day: the first production of a new play.

I went to SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) last weekend to see my niece in a play, Lovers & Players, written by Kathryn Walat, who is on the faculty and who is an established playwright. Besides being delighted with Sara, as I always am, with how she makes a role her very own, I was even more delighted being in the audience of a first production that was fresh and compelling and just plain fun.  It was as if a whole new world was opening in front of me like an animated rose bud blooming before my very eyes.

Walat, I learned, had gotten a grant to study commedia dell’ arte in Italy over the summer and came back with this action-packed take on an old comedy form.

I have been interested in commedia and am always seeing modern versions of the old stock characters in much of the television I watch.  Those commedia actors did much to popularized theatre in Europe and established certain conventions of theatre that are still true today: standard character types that are recognizable from play to play (or TV show to TV show), plots that people can relate to with narratives that seem to be going one way but resolve with a twist, and physical action to keep everyone on their toes. Oh, and those bawdy bits to keep things interesting to most of the regular folk who would show up to watch these plays.

But here’s the thing some theatre critics might ask: Why would Walat want to write about the past? The simple answer is she doesn’t. She places the narrative in sixteenth century Padua, but with situations and sensibilities firmly in our present. Kathryn Walat has written a play that combines theatre history with a clever nod to the present day. And she has written it for these young, impressive SCAD troupe of actors, who just begs that she bring a modern sensibility to an old comedy form. Discovering those anachronistic is part of the delicious fun. One character proudly announces to us that what we just learned about him is his “backstory.” Another character, an apothecary, is a walking drug store, someone you expect to see loitering on a corner in a run-down neighborhood. There is even a local mobster who sounds like the Godfather, a character that has become a theatrical type.

Even the old plot standby, the lost twins reunited, works even though they look nothing alike and one is even the wrong gender. Gender misidentified has taken on a new meaning in modern day, but one gender being mistaken for the other is nothing new to the theatre.

The characters who are the actors who make their living as a traveling commedia troupe, are well-drawn, which is not an easy task since the standard stock characters of commedia are – well, stock characters. As the dramaturg, Eboni-Jade Wooten and the director, Sharon Ott, wrote in the program notes, commedia tradition is “- the wonderful, sometimes messy, always inspiring and often beautiful collaborative art we call theater.”

Lovers & Players carries on that tradition with this new play, written for a troupe of players who are right for it, directed by someone who understands the play, the playwright’s intentions, and the skills and personalities of her actors. What a collaboration!

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Modeling can be a form of acting

I watch ANTM. Yes, I do, and though I fast forward through all the tiffs and angst brought about by so many young women living in the same house, vying for the distinction of becoming America’s Next Top Model, I learn a lot about what it takes to rise above all that and become a performing artist.

I do think modeling can be a performing art and one that draws from other arts: a vision of what the art director sees, of how a costume enhances your character, and how a performing artist brings a sense of self to fulfill that in his or her own unique way. There are other arts brought in, movement, posing to show the costume and the model in the best light. How it looks on a body like yours, how to convey meaning through your voice and body.

It’s acting, in other words. Acting on many stages: runways, commercials, editorial attitudes, and meeting the right people at go-sees – all performing art.

I was watching the first episode of reruns of an early cycle of ANTM to see how people were chosen from what seemed like hoards of would-be models. I noticed a familiar face: Jaslene. I remembered her, how she grew into a real model with coaching from Tyra and her guests, turning into a model week after week before our very eyes. I remembered that she overcome all the obstacles, that she stuck with it and learned and grew as an artist.  She won.

I almost turned off the episode I was watching because I had already seen this cycle. I had spotted a contestant, Jaslene, who I remembered, but I continued to watch anyway. I wanted to see how so many girls would be eliminated and why.

I got a surprise. Jaslene was one of those eliminated and I saw her determined goodbye to Tyra when she was sent home. “I am not giving up,” she said or words to that effect. “I will be back.” Indeed, she did come back to a later cycle and went all the way to the top and won the competition and got modeling contracts and the whole bit.

I got it. The lesson of ANTM and life. You have talent. You and a whole lot of other people. But you know that only gets you so far. As does hard work. You need both, of course, but that is not all you need. To me, the most important thing is the growing part and that means growing into the person you were meant to be and not staying stuck in that holding pattern that keeps you in that “poor me!” mode. You have ambition, talent, and you acquire skills and technique. Then you let it go – the “wanting it soooo bad!” It will happen if you stick with it and grow and get the skills and mentoring you need and just let it happen.

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Awards season: more about the movies

In last year’s awards season, I went on and on about how Jessica Chastain gave the Best performance and Zero Dark Thirty was absolutely the Best movie, neither of which one the Academy Award. This year, I am not so sure. While I haven’t seen all the “significant” movies, it seems that whatever was the last movie I saw, that was the movie that became the front-runner for the Best.

Her

To me, the movie Her it isn’t a cautionary tale of what’s going to happen to the technical device generation. You know, all those people with phones stuck in their ears. I get it that a lonely guy could fall in love with an operating system that is programmed to become more what the he needs and wants with each encounter. Artificial intelligence learns by trial and error and by constant updates to behavior, etc. I get it that falling in love with someone who is always present for only you is alluring and seductive in ways that transcend the physical.

Further, I see Theodore’s attachment to Her as a condition of all relationships: falling in love is irrational. We see and hear and feel what we want to, what we’ve programmed ourselves to want. It usually has nothing to do with what’s “good for us.” Only what we want. And as with artificial intelligence, we learn to tweak our behavior and the stories we tell ourselves about the Other ever so slightly until we want more, or something different, something we begin to realize we no longer want. 

This movie won’t win but it is the best movie I’ve seen this year and I base because it touched and affected me most. But is it the best movie of the year? Just because I liked it best doesn’t mean: a) it absolutely has to win Best, or b) I have no taste at all.  It won’t win much even though Joaquin Phoenix was superb (as was Amy Adams) and Scarlett Johansson was devastating as only a voice, but a voice with ever-evolving personality traits that we associate with human thoughts and emotions.

Nebraska

But then I saw Nebraska and thought it was a beautiful, sweet/sad movie with great structure and filmed beautifully and had genuine performances from not only Bruce Dern but everyone, was funny and sad and real.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Ben Affleck’s Argo, I didn’t like it for Best Movie of the Year (Oscar), which it won. I thought it had mixed the tone of it too much from almost slapstick comedy to tragic situations with people who could have lost their lives in a hostile country. It did have thoroughly entertaining comedy turns by the best comedy actors but other scenes seemed to have almost nothing to do with the comedy.

In Nebraska, there are some sharp, funny one-liners but in the context of the movie, they were also sad and even sweet. It was a beautifully conceived and made film and Bruce Dern’s performance was memorable. But was it better than the other men up for the same award? How can you say any were better than the others. They were all terrific in their own way and had quality material to work with.

August: Osage County

Then I saw August: Osage County and yes, Meryl Streeped her way through, was absolutely amazing (better than when she won the Oscar for The Iron Lady, I thought) but she is on an acting plain that eludes most actors. Will you be the next Meryl Streep? No, you will not. You can’t be. No one can. But will you be brilliant? Maybe, maybe not, but it is only peripheral to what you will most likely do: you will move people, make them think, even help them work through epic issues in their lives, or just give them a reason to say that acting is the best profession in the world. But compete? It isn’t a tennis match when if you hit the ball in bounds were your opponent can’t hit it back enough times you win. There is no competition art. It just is.

For instance, there is Meryl Streep. And then there is you. You are both acting, is the best you can say. Will she wring more emotion out of reading, say, the phone book than you? Probably. But what if you were funny reading this same book? And what about Julia Roberts? Was she Better than the great Amy Morton who did the part on Broadway? Yes and no. The performances were just different and done in different media, which calls for different efforts. Film, after all, is not the theatre and different skills come to bear in both. (Don’t worry: you’ll fit in just fine.)

American Hustle

Then I saw American Hustle and thought that was the Best and that Amy Adams has always been a remarkable actor but never this remarkable. Another Best! The ensemble was amazing to watch work together, all four were like an acting symphony.

The lesson: grow as an artist

Tomorrow I’m off to see Dallas Buyer’s Club, not because I think Matthew McConaughey will be the Best actor, but because I want to see how far he has taken his art and how he is maturing and developing as an actor. He used to play, tentatively, parts that were light-weight and that relied so much on his easygoing personality. But what interests me, since what I think of as his breakout performance in Bernie, is his growth and what a person is capable of if they stick with it and work hard and follow what Martha Beck (life coach) calls your North Star. That, not the award, I find inspiring. That, not awards, is what you ought to work toward.

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Wanting a career in the performing arts

Just wanting it isn’t enough. There is wishful thinking and there is intention. You may see yourself getting curtain call after curtain call, getting your due for the talent you possess.

And what happens when you don’t get cast in the Fall musical? Some people think this is a wake-up call to give up these silly dreams and go do something practical. Like study quantum mechanics.

I got news for you. It is a wakeup call but it has nothing to do with talent or sex appeal or even wishful thinking. If you want a career in the arts, you must be willing to turn that dreaming into practical intention.

There is a big difference between thinking about doing something and your intent to do it. Just look at the law. You can go to jail for planning to harm someone. They call it “intent.” You won’t go to jail for having a random thought about how life would be without that annoying someone around you. The “intent” is only wishful thinking.

This brings up that pesky word “planning.” This is a word right out of a business model where if a company wants to make better and cheaper widgets and corner a market on them, they have to do some “planning” that takes it out of the wishful stage and puts it squarely on a course to succeed. What happens between the wishful – gee, I “wish” I could be in the movies – to taking an acting class? You have thought about the steps it takes to be an actor and turned dreaming into practical intent.

I had a discussion with my hairdresser – a talented person if ever there was one – about why she was not cutting hair in Hollywood for the movies, something she has wanted to do forever. It all boiled down to not wanting to take seriously the business end of creativity. She didn’t like having to “marketing” herself. She is a creative person and “marketing” is something she thinks she couldn’t possibly be good at. It was all about business. Like working in a salon isn’t business? And she said this after handing me her business card, something she had designed herself.

Here’s the thing about performance art and marketing. I have a friend who acts in Chicago. She relentlessly sends out postcards to producers and casting directors that has a head shot on the front and what role she is doing or has done recently. She asks them to come and see her in whatever the current thing is. I got more news for you. That is marketing and my friend has worked almost non-stop in professional theatre – with awards and everything – for almost 30 years.

I think the reason my hairdresser doesn’t like the business end is because she was told or tells herself that business is directly opposite to what is artistic. What we aren’t taught – in high school, anyway – is that business and art go hand in hand.  Just watch Nashville if you want to get up close and personal with the business end of show business, in this case the country music industry.

So I guess the question for you is, “What are you doing today that is on your plan for a career in the performing arts?”

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Why should a performer learn about what goes on backstage?

There’s a lot going on backstage that the audience doesn’t see.

The performer is waiting for the cue to enter. He has just peeked out of a side curtain (a no-no that the stage manager is ignoring) to see that there are PEOPLE out there! Not just Mom and Dad. A real, live, breathing Audience. The performer takes a deep breath and wonders what exactly is wrong with him for wanting to do this, go out on stage and say words that someone else thought up, to be somebody else, and to expose himself to the whole world. You have to be a sick ticket to want to be an actor, he thinks as panic rises. He looks around for reassurance, but the stage manager is busy.

Just as he locates the stage door for a quick escape, he feels a steadying hand grip his arm and turn him toward the door he will walk through to make his first entrance. Another wave of panic as he remembers this is the same door that came down on him during a dress rehearsal. He remembers he is supposed to come all the way down stage until he feels a stage light bright in his face. He enters. He cannot find the light and blows his first line. What is left of his confidence tanks.

During Act I, a piece of clothing rips– pants that have been giving him a hard time ever since the first dress rehearsal. He told the director they were too big and the director gave a note to the costume designer. But now the pants are too tight and a seam pops as he bends over to pick up a prop on the floor, not where it is supposed to be. And now that he can see the whole audience, it seems like half the seats are empty. He had enthusiastically invited a critic from a well-known paper thinking the critic might write about his performance and get him some notice, but the scant audience is sending, no beaming, the message loud and clear that this is not a production to take any note of. The producer had promised him large and enthusiastic houses. This audience is small and sitting on their hands and the critic is fidgeting.

This is a disaster, thinks the actor. This was to be his big break. The only thing breaking here is his heart.

What is going on?

No, the audience doesn’t know that the costume designer, the niece of the producer, doesn’t know how to even sew. Her only credential to costume design and making costumes is that she is a fan of Project Runway. They don’t know that the prop person was sick and sent in his little brother to fill in for him tonight and that the woman running the light board cues has a grudge against our actor. And they couldn’t know that the producer thought tickets would just sell themselves.

What should be going on?

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes to support the performance the audience sees, including getting an audience to see it. The actor, had he had some idea of what people were supposed to be doing and why, might have read the signs of disaster way before inviting an influential critic to review the show. Had the actor had some experience with other aspects of play production, might have been better prepared to deal gracefully with mishaps and miscues. He might also have asked and gotten better support. The stage manager, at least, wouldn’t have shoved him so harshly on stage but would have reassured him that he would be fine once he said his first line.

Why should a performer take another kind of role in the production end? And why should a tech/production/designer person take a performance role? To be successful at whatever your career might turn out to be, you have to know the roles you support and that support you, and how they contribute to the overall success of everyone involved.

The actor knows in his heart of hearts, that he will be blamed for all that went wrong. “He just doesn’t have it,” he sees the critic writing. And he will be blamed because the audience only sees him and the other performers.

Had he only known.

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Season 3 of The Killing: It’s personal

In the beginning of Season 3, The Killing appears, on the surface at least, to be going the way of the latest serial dramas (The Following, The Walking Dead, etc.) where it isn’t enough to be looking for just any old garden variety killer to put away.  Now, a TV crime drama has to be about something more horrendous. Law & Order: SVU was maybe the first to raise the stakes when they went after more personal, sex crime criminals, people who hurt and exploited children. Even that wasn’t enough. Criminal Minds got us up close and personal with real monsters, many of whom were serial killers.

A new way to write for television

The newer television shows have upped the ante. It can no longer be just a killer – a bad guy – acting out and who, in television dramas anyway, are as ubiquitous as a mail carrier and though ordinary guys, are committing unheard of atrocities. Now the bad guys have expanded their personal agendas and are finding other like-mined psychopaths and are forming cults, preying on women who remind them of the first girl who said no to being his date at the Prom, or in other ways acting like mythic bad guys found in the Game of Thrones books or Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series.

And so Season 3 of The Killing gets on this bandwagon, afraid of getting lost in the dust. Part of what I like best about The Killing was the quiet, the contemplation, the way it took its time telling the story. You put a serial killer in that mix and now you’ve stepped up the pace. Now you’ve added an urgency to stop him or her from more killing. But well into Season 3, it is clear to me that The Killing has not abandoned what made it so good to me. It is doing more than trying to get into the hearts and minds of serial killers. It is getting into the hearts and minds of all the characters: the detectives, the bad parents, the caretakers, the abandoned kids. Yes, there is a serial killer out there and it is imperative that our dogged detectives find him before he kills again, but that is only the arc upon which so much else has been hung.

So, yeah, there are serial killings, but what saves it from being just another distance myth (a serial killer is a mythical character) is the way both Linden and Holder take it so damned personally. Finding the killer is not just a job with them. It is a reason for being. Their mission. That they go about it differently, just makes the hunt interesting.

An actor’s medium

It is personal with the two detectives, Linden and Holder. It is their hearts and minds we get a good, long lingering look at and that look isn’t always pretty. This is good news for actors who land gigs on television. It used to be that television was The Great Wasteland to the top tier of actors, and never, NEVER would they descend to that level. Television was for the also-rans.

Not anymore. All that has changed, especially with the shows that are presented in seasons rather than in single hour-long stories that end nice and neatly. Now there is a story arc (you writers take note) to follow. Really fine actors have done turns on shows like the Law & Order series and spinoffs. Heck, look at Vincent D’Onofrio, who is an actor’s actor if ever there was one, making a living on television in the Law & Order: Criminal Intent. He did it by revealing many facets of his character and someone – the producers? – allowed him to do it. So we got more than an interesting, quirky character. We got a prism of backstories just watching his face change.

The arc: a devise for both actors and writers

This is happening all over television, especially in the non-network shows that are finding their niches outside and inside the mainstream viewer tastes. Whoever thought a show about zombies and blood and terrible gore (The Walking Dead) would find such a diverse audience. I know of grandmothers and young adult males —extreme opposites, to say the least— who are addicted to it. The best part for you actors and writers working on your art is that you can see places to go with what you’ve worked on and honed without feeling compromised or a sell-out, like some twentieth century novelists and playwrights did going to Hollywood to write screenplays for the money. Now we now have long-running series anchored by arcs that span whole seasons rather than one episode, leaving the actors and writers the freedom to really create something.

The writers can give something for the actors to play. In The Killing this season, Sarah Linden starts off happy, carefree, a new woman, full of health, love, and smiles. Then we get to watch as her old self reappears, the one who obsesses, who just has to get into the dark, seamy side of life until she discovers who is doing these horrible things and to put an end to it. Why does she do that? Why is it better for Linden to give up a really nice, cozy relationship with a really nice guy to take up smoking again, to ferret out the wrongdoer and to live on the edge and alone again? I can’t say why exactly, but I do know it gives Mireille Enos as Sarah Linden lots to play. We see her lean into an old lover who she knows she can’t have again, to wave off disappointment and criticism, and to play off the wonderful Joel Kinnaman as her partner Stephen Holder. We hear her anguish when what she is investigating turns the tables and forces her to confront her past. We watch her walk rigidly in another direction from a crime scene as if she was one of the living dead.

The best, though, is just how personal this all is: to the detectives who both have reasons to pursue this that has nothing to do with closing a case; to the people in the drama whose lives are so affected by what is going on in the larger arena of Seattle, which in this season is just the backdrop (it could be happening in any city where it rains a lot) and most by us, who know, like, and care about some of the flawed victims. This is not just another serial killer who needs to be stopped by the end of the hour. This is someone who is taking from us, taking people we have come to know and care about. This maniac is taking our people and people who mean something or are beginning to mean something to other characters in the drama. The writers and producer make us care. The actors make us care. Who can resist Bullet played by Bex Taylor-Klaus or even Seward (Peter Sarsgaard) about to be put to death for a horrendous killing? We know them. We have watched them change. We relate to them.

And that makes it personal.

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Seeing Art: more on holiday movies

My niece Sara is back at SCAD. Vacation is over. She had seen lots of movies over the vacation and some television as well. No, she’s not into The Walking Dead but she has kept up with Grey’s Anatomy enough to know that this season isn’t compelling.

She agrees with me totally about Les Misérables and was even more offended by Russell Crowe’s non-performance than I was. She agrees about Anne Hathaway wrenching the most out of her scenes. The critic I read wrote the whole thing off. It was Hathaway’s performance that seemed to sum up for him how over-the-top the movie was and how ridiculous it was. For him.

Full disclosure: I have to say that I am one of the few people who have never seen a stage performance of Les Miz thinking if it is so popular, how could it be any good? I know. Pure arrogance on my part.

So when I saw that there would be a movie and that they cast Hugh Jackman who at least has musical chops and with Anne Hathaway who has been working hard to move past ingénue parts, I thought it was time to cast my prejudice against Les Miz aside and get into this event.

I went into it as a research project. I read Victor Hugo’s novel (abridged), much of which was tossed aside in the stage version for more audience-pleasing tightening up. That tightening up, which was essential, obscured much of what was going on and why.

I listened to the 25th Anniversary version on PBS. My initial reaction was that the music wasn’t so much. Ordinary. Boring, even. When I Dreamed a Dream came up, I yelled at the TV screen, “Is that all you got?” I was not impressed. I wanted more arias, more ensemble voices, less recitative (look that word up!). The arias eventually crept in and the ensemble work by the men became strong and effective. By the barricade business, which would have been inexplicit to me if I hadn’t read the book and a bit about the history of the times, the music came alive for me. By the time Alfie Boe sang “Bring Him Home,” I had dissolved into tears, not for the hapless Marius but because the singing was so damned beautiful!

The movie version had none of that. No one beautiful voice (ok, maybe Samantha Barks as Eponine was good enough) to raise the music out of the ordinary. The movie brought me back to my first reaction I had when I got to the end of listening to the first act of the 25th Anniversary edition: The music wasn’t all that. So what in the world made this “one of the greatest musicals of all time?” Beats me. I still don’t get it.

Back to Sara and her movie-going. She loved Lincoln. Saw all that was worthy in it and she hit it right on the head with her every comment. It was the best of the holiday season’s offerings. How in the world would I, could I, like Jack Reacher better?

In a thousand years, Sara wouldn’t have liked Jack Reacher. Not her thing at all. Not her taste. Not her sensibility. She might have been impressed seeing a noteworthy and subtle performance by Rosamund Pike who was no longer playing a proper young lady in Pride and Prejudice but was somewhat lost in a testosterone-driven murder mystery. She sure held her own.

What does all this mean? It means you need to develop your own artistic and theatrical sensibilities. Your own. It is not important to be right or wrong about what you enjoy, what you like. You need to be honest about what affects you and you need to be able to know why. For me, a B movie was more fun than all of the A movies combined. For Sara, it was Lincoln. What was it for you? Do you like The Walking Dead? Why not? Because it isn’t cool? That’s not a reason. Although the plot lines are fascinating, it is waaaay too gross for my sensibility. That’s a reason.

So here’s me, the theatre teacher and drama critic. I liked Jack Reacher, Tom Cruise and all. Thought Rosamund Pike’s performance was a small hidden gem. How can I dare reveal that? Especially to theatre students? Aren’t I afraid that you may think I am a ninny and don’t know a thing about art? Maybe I am. Maybe I don’t. It is irrelevant. What did you see and what worked for you? Explore that. It is the only relevance.

The point is that you develop your own taste by what you see and your reactions toward it. It is not important to be “right” about a movie or performance. It is only what you see. What you see and experience will change as you change and as you learn more about the world. As you change, so will your reactions to art change. It is not important to be aligned with the critics. Or your friends. It is only important to see things honestly and be affected by art honestly so you can make good art yourself.

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Six plays to see in New York

Sara is going to New York in late December (2012) and is compiling a list of plays to see while she is there and wanted my opinion. (See Four Shows and a Wedding for how she wrangles tickets for so many plays.)

I made a short list. I eliminated musicals which usually speak for themselves and need no annotation from me, and I eliminated anything too far out. The list and descriptions are from www.broadway.com/ and the annotations in italics are mine.

1. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike — Off-Broadway

Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce star in Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Christopher Durang’s Chevhov-centric new play.

This to me is a flat out MUST SEE. Christopher Durang is my all-time favorite. If you find you like his humor, have I got a monologue for you: Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.

Sigourney Weaver – I’ve  mentioned her before – is someone whose work you need to study. She is sublime in so many kinds of roles.

Thing is, you may need to be familiar with Chekov’s plays to fully get this. But even if you don’t know Chekov, Durang’s comedy is always delicious madness!

2. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — Broadway

Steppenwolf’s production of Edward Albee’s classic arrives on Broadway starring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton.

Another MUST SEE. A play you need to know with performances by two notable people. Tracy Letts is a playwright as well as an actor and wrote August: Osage County which featured Amy Morton, who was so wonderful. I can absolutely see her as Martha.

3. If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet — Off-Broadway

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Nick Payne’s comic drama.

Excellent review from The New Yorker. New-ish play that sounds interesting. Read The New Yorker synopsis

4. The Heiress — Broadway

Jessica Chastain, David Straithairn and Dan Stevens star in the Broadway revival of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s drama.

The review I read wasn’t good, specifically Jessica Chastain, but I would see this because Chastain is a good actor and will be even better because of this misstep. I also like Straithairn. Another reason to see it is because you need to know this play.

5. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — Broadway

Scarlett Johansson and Benjamin Walker star in the Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ classic.

This hasn’t opened yet, but it is a play you need to know and it wouldn’t hurt to see Scarlett Johansson in this role that Elizabeth Taylor all but defined in the movie version. Debra Monk is in it and is always a welcome addition to any cast. Benjamin Walker (hey! he’s married to Meryl Streep’s daughter) is already a good actor (he graduated from Julliard and so did Jessica Chastain.) It previews beginning Tuesday, December 18 and opens Thursday, January 17, 2013.
6. Picnic — Broadway

Roundabout Theatre Company presents the Broadway revival of William Inge’s comedy.

Don’t know a thing about this production, except that it features Maggie Grace, Sebastian Stan, and Ellen Burstyn (who’s work you need to know). Picnic is a play you need to know. Just see it if you can.

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How improv finds its way into a play

If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve seen a little of where improvisation comes from how it developed in the 1960s, and where it ended up in the present time. Along the way, some of you may have read Sara’s blog (see this page for links) about how she spent part of last summer preparing to play various parts in 44 Plays for 44 Presidents. Here’s how that effort turned out and here’s what I saw of improvisation influencing a script.

See also:

What do you know about improvisation?

Improvisation: some background

The script started as an effort of the Chicago-based Neo-Futurists back in 2003. It was then called, appropriately, 43 Plays for 43 Presidents. It has become a national event and was produced in various theaters by various groups all around the country. There is even a web site to coordinate the events and there are videos on YouTube where you can see scenes of some of these productions.

The production at SCAD

Right before the elections, ad-weary and my head overstuffed with what both presidential candidates were claiming about the other, I went to SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) to see 44 Plays for 44 Presidents and that put everything presidential right into perspective. I went mostly because I wanted to see how my niece Sara made out after her summer’s preparations but the performance soon became all about the ensemble and not individual performances. Not only was it entertaining and oddly informative, it put forth the notion that these men (I can’t wait to someday be able to write men and women) into the context not only of their time, but of what is common to all times. I howled at what were some clearly inept leaders, cried for some good leaders who never had a chance (Jimmy Carter comes to mind) and mourned for some who, even though they had time in office, were cut down too soon.  Imagine how much more Lincoln would have achieved had he lived, and what would JFK’s legacy had been if he had lived long enough to see the Camelot metaphor encompass the whole country?

Some misunderstood, or understood only too well, as George W. Bush, played with a hint of deformity in this production by the inventive Ian Mather, shaped his whole presidency around showing up his father. None of the “plays” gave us a complete, unbiased picture of any presidency, but 44 is a heck of a lot of plays to present in one evening, so vignettes have to do. Yet the evening worked and the pall from being bombarded constantly with “messages” from all candidates loosened its hold on all of us watching. We lightened up. We saw that we needed to let go of the “life and death” hold elections have us in and just vote. The world will not come to an end if one or the other is elected. It will just be different. Either way. The message was, just vote. So we did. My brother is now ready to move to Canada, and I’m content that policies already in motion will get to play out.

But beyond that, what this production had was a lusty vibrancy to it that felt like even though it was obviously scripted, this cohesive ensemble were playing off each other and what was already in the script, and what they knew about each president. Everyone had a contribution that was both unique and alive. Got to credit director David Storck for giving the production a firm foundation the cast needed to give everyone a jumping off place to create. Storck has ties to Second City and is the former artistic director of Gotham City Improv in New York and it showed.

So what about improvisation in 44 Plays?

Finding creative ways to deal with staging a script that presents 44 people everyone thinks they know in a way that illuminates and also entertains, is a daunting task. The script does well, but finding 44 unique and memorable ways to illuminate 44 men in a couple of hours needs collaboration. That is where discussion and improvisation comes in. Improvisation can suggest creative staging to the director and creative business for the actors that become part of the finished performance. Sounds like a perfect set-up for improv to me.

In this production I saw an ensemble that was seamless, weaving in and out of presidents and the characters surrounding them, taking on and discarding the symbolic presidential coat, moving easily from one scene to another. And they did it by presenting each of our presidents in a very specific, physical, and theatrical way. To get to this level of performance meant there had to be brainstorming of some kind. Improvisation could lead to script enhancements and inventive business that put a unique stamp on each of the characters. The script would be the starting place. Improv would be the finishing.

In my view, criticism doesn’t revolve who was good or bad, who was the best, who should be voted best actor, etc. I see it as who fulfilled what was asked of them and how did they do it and how well did it work, depending on what they were asked to do. So I can’t pick out the best actor, but I can say that Ian Mather went way beyond what the script asked of him as he improvised physical ways to bring a character, like George W. Bush, to life through his body, his face, his voice, his attitudes. It was memorable to me, how he moved in an almost deformed way and how he seemed to be in pretzels at other times, all to show us who this character was internally, what was going on in the character’s mind. And Jorge Bolanos, a tall, sad Lincoln and who subtly and physically seemed to become whoever he was playing. Sara Turner, who knows how to build a comic scene and who, when improvising, uses her inner terror to make the character vibrate. (Improvising is terrifying to me, so naturally I think everyone who does it must be terrified.) Candace Kitchens brought a vulnerability to all her characters and I still feel the pathos of her Jimmy Carter, the outsider, who never did fit in. The twinkling eyes of Matt Webb, and all around good, insightful performances, too many to go into. Besides, I promised this wouldn’t be a review.

Improv meets the written script and a good time was had by all. Except for some of those guys who held the highest office.

Try it – improvising – in early rehearsals. See how it works for you. Of course, be sure you get your drama teacher on board first.

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Improvisation: some background

Improvisation has made its way into most legitimate acting programs and we are familiar with it as a way to teach acting or as form all its own. We know it and therefore we like it. We look upon it kindly as a good way to hone the actor’s skills.

It wasn’t always that way.

Improvisation had a big boost with the Commedia dell’Arte in 16th century Italy and then Europe, where troupes of actors went from town to town setting up a stage, playing stock characters with a plot that was more like an outline of where things would go. There was no real script. What the actors said and did to get the plot moving was often improvised, with the business becoming bawdy. People would gather around to watch and be entertained by romance and a kind of Punch and Judy show where someone was always being whacked around and the situations became more and more absurd, violent, obscene, and of course funny. Slapstick, like the three Stooges, but with real slapsticks that made a lot of noise when someone got slapped around with one. I imagine commedia to be like one of those raunchy/funny kind of movies like Get Him to the Greek that I always thought appealed only to dumb beer-swelling guys until I saw it and actually liked it. (I neither swill beer, nor am I a guy, but funny is funny.)

And later on, in the 1960s, there was Off-Off-Broadway. What was it like back then? Let’s image you are a theatergoer before the 1960s and there was only Broadway. You dress up, take a cab to the theater, and take your seat in the orchestra. In front of you is a lush red velvet curtain bathed in tasteful light, waiting to go up, signaling that the play is to begin. The curtain is surrounded by a gilded arch carved with intricate motifs. The surrounding walls are equally ornate and the chandeliers coming down from the ceiling are tasteful and dim. The stage itself has a kind of lip that comes out a little over to where the orchestra would be if this were a musical. You are in your element, you think, as you watch from your fifth row center seat. When the curtain goes up, you know what you will see. Something called realism, which makes you think you are spying on a bunch of people where they talk to each other and work out their problems as if you weren’t there. At the end of  the evening their problems are solved and you go home thinking that you are lucky to be you and not those screwed-up people you just observed. But you are safe out there in the dark and if things get boring, you can always nod off without anyone knowing. When the curtain comes down, signaling that the play is over, you go out for a late supper, meet some friends, call a cab, and go home. A nice, carefree, entertaining evening, which means nothing visceral.

But there soon comes a time that something new comes to town. Your friends say you are getting stuffy and fuddy-duddy and need shaking up. There is something you must try, something your friends say is Off-Off-Broadway, whatever that is. They plan to meet you at something called the Living Theatre. Or La Mama. Whattheheck? What happened to the good old Helen Hayes theatre where people who knew what they were doing produced shows for your entertainment? La Mama? Really?

You look at your watch and wonder if you should make reservations for after the show. You pile into your car, but you go past the usual Broadway theaters and drive downtown even further.

Inside, you are disorientated even further. Where is the theater? There is no fifth row center orchestra seat. There is no gilded proscenium arch, there is no chandelier dangling from the ceiling, and worse, there is no curtain, red velvet or otherwise. Everything is stark and inhospitable. You are already longing for the familiar opulence farther uptown. Then you realize that what used to be just a lip of a stage gracefully peeking out in front of the curtain, now there is this giant apron of a stage rudely thrust right into the audience. In fact, there are audience members sitting on three sides of this crude stage and worse, there is furniture and props and things already set on this stage, if you can call it that, right there where everyone can see it. There is no curtain! you think again, suddenly panic-stricken. How will they start the play!

The lights go down and you think, Whew! Something is going right about this night. The lights come up and there are actors on that thrust of a stage and the play begins. Only what is wrong now is that you can no longer pretend you are spying on a bunch of people with problems. You are right there, in the midst of them. You are part of their problems. And it gets worse. There is no discrete nodding off here. The actors are practically in your lap and are asking you to participate. One brave soul sitting on the other side of the three-sided stage does and then the actors take off in a kind of jazz riff about what he just fed. What happened to the dialogue? These people are improvizing it as they go along. There seems to be some kind of a plot, but how they will get to the end of it, beats you. You are terrified they will grab you next and pull you on stage. The play ends and you stumble out of the theatre space. You can no longer call it a theater.

You cancel your supper reservations. No way can you eat after that. What is the world coming to when actors can’t even bother to learn their lines and they have to upset the audience for inspiration?

That’s how it was for some theatergoers back then. The end of theatre as we knew it. To others, it was the wave of the future, where theatre came to the people, where you could no longer be passive observers, but must become a dynamic part of what was “happening.” This form of theatre has lasted, even as the more legitimate Broadway has.

For a hint of the legacy of that Off-Off-Broadway theatre today, that used improvisation as a matter of course during a performance, check out things like Theatresports and interactive theatre like Sleep No More (see Sara’s blog, “Perchance to Dream.”)

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