Hit record

For a while now, I have been working on a pet project: online coursework for high school performing arts classrooms. It would reverse the classroom model: Students would take the core part of the class on their own time and online, but would use scheduled class time to work with the teacher and each other on projects that would reinforce what they were learning.

Coming up with projects has forced me to face the reality that in spite of the timeliness of online coursework, I have been relying on outdated models for the assignments.

But. I have been preaching to my niece that it is her generation who will innovate, who will see the possibilities between old theatre and what will be. She is the future, I tell her. My role, I tell her, is to help her see the possibilities.

So. I read about a new television network in The New Yorker in an article by Emily Nussbaum, the television critic who I like a lot. Pivot the network is called. It’s supposed to be for the younger generation and even though the likes of me watches it, I guess it is. I’m hoping it will get me to see things differently. Explore the possibilities.

I now have an idea to include in assignments where students make performance works of art using the internet and all the production tools available to almost everyone. And to do it through collaboration with each other in one theatre class, or several in one school, or – what-the-heck- students in other schools all around the country. Each class would contribute part of the whole project. It would be managed and directed by the teachers – or even me – who would help students put the project together into a unified and exciting whole.

Guess what? Joseph Gordon-Levitt is already doing it, though on a professional level. On Pivot. He has a production studio called HitRECord that draws from contributors all over the world. His studio puts it together and the results are new, fresh, innovative, and fascinating.

So there you have it. The future is already here and why couldn’t this online class of ours do something innovative? Or maybe something that brings together live performance mixed with technology?

One of the modules I’m developing introduces the designers who work in the theatre to the students and one of these designers is a Media or Digital Media designer. Who knew? In my day there was no media to design and theatre people made the sets by putting pieces of lumber together, covering them with heavy canvas, and painting these pieces to look like what they were supposed to be. Back in the day (don’t you love that expression?) the only time I saw media on stage was in a new play by Grace McKeaney at a theatre near Chicago. She had video playing on screens behind the live actors and it was exciting. But it didn’t become a trend.

But now, whole sets are digital or have digital accompaniments. Happens all the time. Can we do this? Is it something anyone out there would like to work on? Can it be something that we would need a Digital Media designer for? Or do you know a student or two who would know exactly what to do?

Any thoughts or observations?

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Stage Management on the fly

I heard from my niece yesterday, the one who will be acting on Broadway someday according to her proud aunt. She has been asked to stage manage a community theatre production this summer and I said hurray for you. When she asked me if she knew how to do it – meaning did she get enough from her high school theatre classes to know what to do – I had to say no, she didn’t.

I know what they were taught and it was mostly acting and some staging. Nothing about running the show or keeping it all together during rehearsals or doing those invaluable jobs that make what the audience sees a rewarding experience. So, no, my niece does not have the knowledge or skills to be a stage manager. The formal jobs, the procedures, the checklists what a professional stage manager is expected to do and what intangibles make him or her invaluable to everyone connected with the production, was never mentioned in class or in production.

When she asked me if she could do it, I said ‘Sure” because I know the theatre involved and these were not professional (Actor’s Equity) people and wouldn’t expect her to do the work of a professional stage manager. Find out what the director wants from you and do it. Talk to a past stage manager from that theatre for advice. All will be fine.

The thing is, no one graduating from that high school or any others around there would know how to perform stage management duties. What happens so often in a high school production, acting is featured because this is where the student gets the most fun out of theatre, the visible part of being in the theatre. The less glamorous part of theatre ―stuff going on backstage ―develops slipshod and fills the immediate needs of the production with only a hint that these backstage jobs are skilled and even artistic. The play gets produced, the students get experience, and they move on to college theatre.

The reality is that theatre students do not get real knowledge of what it takes to do the various jobs that make up a theatre production and that’s what theatre arts teachers at the college level have to deal with when these same students show up for their first college theatre course. They get students who honestly think they know everything they need to know already and life on Broadway is just a matter of getting this BA or BFA degree and making a few phone calls.

And they ought to be right. By the time they get to college, they should have had real training in high school to prepare them for the more in-depth training they need from college. But what so often happens is that the college professor is faced with remedial coursework to bring these kids up to speed. Think of the high school athlete dreaming of a career in professional sports. Many high schools give those athletes the training they need to go on to the next level. Without real training and skill development, there is no next level. A college with heavy sports agenda will not give those without that training a second look.

High school theatre arts ought to do the same thing for theatre students.  Prepare them for what is coming, not only at the college level, but beyond. These high school theatre students are the future of theatre and we ought to give them what they need to succeed at the professional level and move theatre forward.

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Acting… or is it?

Quick. Name your three favorite actors. Got them? Now tell me are they actors or are they interesting personalities who act for a living?

I’ll give you my three: Jessica Chastain (The Help among other recent movies), Robert Carlyle (Once Upon a Time), and Sandra Bullock (lots and lots of movies).

Let me first say that there is nothing wrong, bad, incorrect, or anything else negative about being a popular personality. Nathan Lane is one and he’s made a good living doing it. (Note: If you don’t know any of these people I’m talking about, take the time to Google them.) Nathan Lane is hilarious; he has a good musical comedy style that delivers that wow factor. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry – (well, maybe not real tears.) You’ll be enthralled. You’ll say he was worth the exorbitant price you paid for that theater ticket. That’s his shtick and you have to love it.

But. Is that acting? Or is it his enormous personality? The answer to that is the answer to this: What is acting and how is it different from a popular, likeable personality?

There are lots of definitions of what acting is and you’ll see and hear many in your theatre career. One that has caught my eye was in a review in The New Yorker by Hilton Als about Goodman Theatre’s (Chicago) exciting production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. The review mentions not only Nathan Lane, but addresses the what-is-acting question much better than I could. Als wrote, “…he [Nathan Lane] is not an actor, at least not one who transforms himself for a role or allows his overwhelming personality to be subsumed in a character.”

The key is internalizing the character. Jessica Chastain did that in The Help. She disappeared into Celia Foote. I can’t tell you the first thing about what Chastain must be like in person but I know so much about Celia. She came alive for me in a way that has nothing to do with the person Chastain is but everything to do with what she dug out of the script and brought to light. What was essentially a stereotyped blonde bombshell marrying up and out of her class, became a person whose back story was evident in every brave reaction she had to the cruelty of the other women.  I felt something so true about Celia, what was  good and bad, her need for acceptance and her almost painful vulnerability seemed alive to me. The depth Chastain brought to the part, combined with technique – she has to have gobs of technique or how else would she be cast in Shakespeare (Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes?) – became a transformation from a person playing a part into a scripted character. So yeah, I’d say she’s an actor.

Robert Carlyle disappears in two distinct characters in ABC’s Once Upon a Time. Yes, yes, the rap about him is that he is shy and wants nothing to do with stardom and fame so of course he has no overbearing personality to flaunt at us and make us eager to know him or at least hang with him. But every time I’ve seen him act, he is someone new.

And Sandra Bullock. What’s not to like? I still remember my first reaction to her in Demolition Man, that she was an absolutely delightful personality and how I’d never seen anything quite like her on the screen. She was so much fun to watch and I couldn’t wait for her next line. I still have that same reaction, but since then she has also done some remarkable work where she was still delightful (that personality can’t help but peep through) but let the character she was playing come through (especially in some of her lesser known films like Practical Magic.) She’s a personality and yes, she can act, but it is hard for that personality to take a back seat and completely disappear?  So I need someone else to make the call. Sandra Bullock: Personality or actor?

Now it’s your turn. Can you pick out someone working as an actor and then identify whether you think they are actors or personalities? Can you tell me why you think that? (Please, feel free to leave comments so we all can dissect your choices. You know we will. Also know there are no right or wrong answers.)

Note:  If you don’t know who Eugene O’Neill is, you need to get started with a summer reading program. See my upcoming blog on “What to do with your Summer Vacation.”

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Death of a Salesman

A play makes it to Broadway. Out of the woodwork come the critics. Should you see it? Is it worth your time and money? Why you should, why you shouldn’t. What it all means to our educated and thinking society.

I read reviews and once in a while something comes along that grabs me and makes me want to board my cat and head for New York City to see it. This is true of the current revival of Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. And this time it is the reviews, not just the play that is getting my attention.

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller has been revived on Broadway with the excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman and directed by the estimable Mike Nichols.

What is startling to me is that the two reviews I read go way beyond the usual notes about how it was to be there, what the play means to us, what it looked like, how it was acted and directed, and whatever is noteworthy. This time, the reviews were on a different plane. We all see things, probably movies and television shows that we feel like we’ve been entertained and taken away for an hour or two. But when I read these two reviews, I couldn’t help thinking this production did way more than entertain. They became a life experience.

John Lahr, senior drama critic writing for The New Yorker, ends his criticism with “this staging of “Death of a Salesman” is the best I expect to see in my lifetime.”

I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything so direct and definitive.  John Lahr is probably the best of the theatre critics writing today and has seen everything.

Read the review of Death of a Salesman,  “Lives in Limbo” by John Lahr in The New Yorker.   http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/theatre/2012/03/26/120326crth_theatre_lahr

I also read a review in a blog I follow, Extra Criticum, written by John Yearley about his experience at this production of Death of a Salesman. While he is not a recognized critic, he was very articulate at reporting what he saw at the play.

He wrote “However great most theatrical experiences are – thrilling or funny or heartbreaking – they usually are, for me, aesthetic experiences. I have an amazing time, leave the theatre elated, and relish it for days afterward. This production of Death of a Salesman, however, felt qualitatively different. It wasn’t like I’d seen something. It was like something had happened to me.”

Yearley goes on to talk about a “phenomenon” that went beyond the usual superlatives.

They weren’t able in this production to just sit back letting it all wash over them as we do when we watch most things on television or at the movies. These guys, one a respected critic, one an articulate observer, had an experience that was beyond them and yet grabbed them by their throats and included them in it. Visceral, I’d call it if I were writing a review.  In spite of what they had for dinner, who they talked to, or whatever was happening in their lives that was interrupted by having to see a play, they got drawn in to it.

Read Yearley’s observations for yourself at :


From all accounts, it is a marvelous production and one you should get to see if you live in New York or are planning to go soon.  But you have to do it now. It’s playing through June 2, 2012.

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Don’t say… (insert your favorite catchword here)

You are driving your parents, teachers, and other adults in your life crazy. You have latched on to a few words and phrases that no longer mean what they once did and because you and your friends just have to be accepted into some secret club that we old folks cannot see the value of for the life of us, you are driving us to distraction with, “like” as every third word, “whatever” when you can’t come up with a good argument or you want to dismiss the argument as not worthy of your attention. Everything is “amazing” even when you are not amazed.

So you ignore your English teacher or whoever is trying to drum a few communications “rules” down your throat. He has you write an essay about what you think these words mean when kids use them all the time and why they overuse them.

So what? you say. You use “like” to distraction as do all of your friends. You understand what each other is saying. You communicate. You get along just fine. No need to change a thing. Besides, change is just plain tedious.

But. And this is a big but. You want a career in the theatre. You want this now, not when you are old, like 25. So you go to an audition. This could be your big break. They are looking for someone just like you. You are absolutely perfect for the part. So you bring it.

Here’s the thing. At the other end of things, you have me, a theatre person in my 40s. I have been around the block and I have had an especially trying day listening to auditions from people who have not yet had any experience and most of them are awful or just not what I am looking for.  I look at my watch. I need to get to the airport to pick up my boyfriend at 7:00. We will have dinner at the airport and then he will fly out again for another gig. We have been together for five years. Why aren’t we married? Why isn’t he ever home? This situation is getting on my last nerve. He is an actor and out of town a lot. I am a director and in town a lot. This situation is getting so old.

Now you come along late in the afternoon with your prepared monologue and you aren’t bad. Next, I need to find out if I can actually work with you. So I do an interview, ask you open-ended questions about your life and what you want out of it. You answer, “I, like, wanna be, you know, like, an actor, or whatever. I, like think, like this is, like soooo amazing….”

You think you are right on your game but I have tuned you out. I want to say: “What the heck are you talking about? but I no longer have the energy to listen to one more “like.”

I need to leave for the airport. You are dismissed. We do not connect. You don’t get the part. I don’t get to discover the next bright young talent.

This is what you don’t yet realize. You are not a regular person, no matter how hard you try to be. You are going into a very competitive field where only the extraordinary need apply. Most of your friends are just regular folk. Nothing wrong with that. It’s what most people are. You may fit right in, but what you want out of life demands you do better than just mimic what is going on around you. You need to be able to talk to someone out of your circle and connect with them. “Like” and “whatever” and the like (haha) just doesn’t cut it.

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