Friday, June 15, 2018

Playwrights are to be seen, not heard

Like many playwrights, I was dismayed when Jack Thorne, after winning the Tony Award for Best Play this year, was not allowed to give an acceptance speech.

Thorne scripted Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but you wouldn't know it given the way the hit show's writer has been treated. Two producers were allowed to make speeches for the Tonys, but the awards ceremony decided to cut off the writer before he could say anything.

I was very pleased that the Dramatists Guild this week decided to write an open letter to the president of CBS--which broadcasts the awards--addressing the issue. Guild President Doug Wright (who famously wrote about the silencing of authors in his play Quills) did a remarkable job expressing the hurt and anger many dramatists feel.

This isn't just about Thorne being snubbed, either. Songwriter David Yazbek, who composed the scores for The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, received a Tony this year for The Band's Visit, but CBS didn't air his speech, because apparently they think American's don't care about songwriters. Wright made it clear just how ridiculous this notion is, saying:

Many of the songwriters of the year's hit musicals are already bold-faced names, beloved all across the country. Aerosmith, Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, Lady Antebellum, John Legend, and cohost Sara Bareilles are just some of the composers responsible for SpongeBob SquarePants. The songwriters for Disney’s adaptation of Frozen, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, won an Oscar for the chart-topping anthem "Let It Go."

And yet the average American is supposed to know the names of supporting actors in Broadway shows? Really? I remember watching the Tonys while growing up in Florida. I was excited to hear about not just the dramatists, but also the directors, choreographers, and designers, since theirs was the work I might actually see. By the time I got up to New York to see a show or (more likely) a touring production came to town, no one in the original cast would be there. These were the artists who made a difference to me, not actors I would probably never get to see perform.

Wright also pointed out that other than Thorne, the writers of the nominated best plays were not even mentioned during the telecast! Maybe viewers might have wanted to know that Junk was written by the Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar, that The Children is by Lucy Kirkwood, that Claire van Kampen wrote Farinelli and the King, and that Latin History for Morons is by some obscure guy named John Leguizamo. Oh wait, he's also an actor. Quick, put him on camera!

What is most baffling is that the Tonys are basically unique in their disrespect for authors. As Wright pointed out:

Every year, the Academy Awards faithfully includes screenwriters in not one but two categories. And it's not just the Oscars; the Grammys, Emmys, and Golden Globes all award the writers in their respective industries on the air. And yet it's the theater that most esteems writers; we are generally recognized as the principal artistic force behind new work, and we even retain ownership and control over the material we create. Yet on the very awards show intended to celebrate our craft, we are effectively negated.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure I can agree with Wright that the theater most esteems writers. The theater pays lip service to writers, but while actors, directors, designers, and stage managers can all make livings in the theater (not to mention the legions of stage hands), essentially all U.S.-based dramatists have to work outside of the theater to support their habit of writing plays. Some teach, some write for television and film, some (like Leguizamo) also act or direct. A couple of dramatists make money off musicals, but I can't think of a single playwright who is able to make a living just off of writing straight plays.

If we as a society really respect dramatists, perhaps we ought to start paying some of them a living wage. If we can't do that, the least we can do is not silence them at the Tonys.

Monday, June 11, 2018

First Love

This past weekend, I saw Charles Mee's play First Love at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Director Kim Weild does an excellent job making the piece come to life, devising a series of magical moments to keep the audience engaged.

Her secret weapon is the set, designed by Edward Pierce to resemble a painting by René Magritte. A door made of sky stands at the center of the stage, opening to reveal a series of props and actors who appear seemingly by magic. Each time the door opens, it is a sheer delight.

Music plays a part, too, as it often does in Mee plays. A microphone on one side of the stage and a piano on the other both find their inevitable uses, usually just before a sense of monotony might threaten to appear. Monotony (or perhaps duotony) is a constant danger in a two-person play about falling in love, but while veteran actors Michael O'Keefe and Angelina Fiordellisi form the core of the show, the play has a another secret weapon in store for us as well.

Her name is Taylor Harvey. Appearing in a series of costumes as the "Young Woman" she helps to keep the show fresh as we work our way through the relationship of the main characters. The lovers are supplied with the names "Harold" and "Edith" but might as well have any other names. Mee is interested in the universality of love, which is fitting for the month of June, when we are frequently reminded that love is love is love.

However, my favorite moments were the glimpses of individuality--such as the opening scene on a park bench--when Mee gives us specific details about these characters' histories. Perhaps love isn't so universal after all, but different for each and every pair of people who have ever experienced it. In these moments, we hear about individual passions, and these two individuals' relationships to the pasts they have inhabited.

Those pasts are considerable. Both characters have lived full lives, been married, had kids, and are entering what should be their Golden Years, though until now neither seems to have been truly in love. This first love for them is not puppy love, but the sophisticated love of two people who have already lived full lives but are not willing to stop living just yet.

First Love is a limited engagement playing only until July 8th, so if you want to see it, get your tickets soon. You might not get a second chance!

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Othello in the Park

I was hoping to get in some Renaissance dance in Central Park last night, but that didn't work out, so instead I decided to try the standby line to see Othello at the Delacorte.

In case you didn't know, The Public Theater is currently performing free Shakespeare in the Park. Othello is playing until June 24th, and then Twelfth Night will run from July 17 to August 19th.

How easy is it to get tickets? Well you can wait in line or sign up for the mobile lottery. There's also free distribution throughout the five boroughs. However, I just showed up at 7:30 and got a ticket. The further into the run, though, the harder it is to get tickets, so go soon.

Coming into the theater, I happened to run into Rob Stauffer, who I met last year at the Shaw conference in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Small world! Unfortunately, I didn't bring a sweater, as I'd figured I would keep warm dancing that evening. Big mistake! If you go, make sure you bring something in case it gets cool.

How was the show? Well, I'm afraid I got in trouble last year for posting on my blog about Julius Caesar before it opened, so I am unable to provide you with a review of how good the show is and how you absolutely need to see it. I can't tell you that Ruben Santiago-Hudson does a masterful job directing, nor that Chukwudi Iwuji, who was wonderful as Edgar in The Public's King Lear a few years ago, is an Othello you won't want to miss.

It's really too bad, because I'd love to tell you how Corey Stoll, who played Brutus in last year's Julius Caesar, was unlike any other Iago I've ever seen. Motell Foster was also in Julius Caesar, but due to the press embargo, I won't be able to tell you what a revelation it was to see him play Roderigo. Heather Lind's Desdemona will have to go without note, as will Alison Wright's memorable performance as Emilia. I loved Flor De Liz Perez in the Public Mobile's production of Pericles, but I just won't be able to tell you how good she was as Bianca!

I guess that means you'll have to see it for yourself. Hurry, though! Once word gets out, you won't be able to just walk up at 7:30 and get standby tickets like I did.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Corpus Christi

Today is the Feast of Corpus Christi, which was inspired by a vision by the 13th-century canoness Juliana of Liège. The solemnity, celebrated on the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday in most of the world, but on the following Sunday in the U.S., is quite important to the history of medieval drama.

Juliana of Liège reported having a mystical vision of Christ in which she was told there must be a specific feast to celebrate the Lord’s true presence in the Eucharist. Juliana hesitated before describing the vision to her confessor, and perhaps with good reason. Her confessor spilled the beans to the bishop, who later proclaimed a Feast of Corpus Christi (Latin for "Body of Christ") in his diocese.

The feast remained a local affair until 1261. That’s when a former Archdeacon of Liège became Pope Urban IV. He waited until the last year of his papacy, however, 1264, to formerly institute the feast as part of the official calendar. He asked no less a personage than the great theologian Thomas Aquinas to write texts for a special mass. Still, celebrations of the feast spread slowly. How do you celebrate the theological doctrine that Christ is present in the host?

One idea was to take a consecrated host out of the church and parade it around the the town. This was also a time when plays were being performed outside, not just as liturgical events inside the church. The 12th-century Play of Adam, for instance, seems to have been performed in front of a church, given its stage directions. Why not process plays through the streets as well? Even after the tradition of parading through town with the host began to wane, a tradition continued of performing a procession of plays around the date of the feast.

It should be noted that Corpus Christi occurs in late May or early June, just as weather is getting really good in much of Europe, so it was an opportune time to perform outdoor theatre. The plays focused on how Christ saved humanity through the sacrifice of his body and blood, but Corpus Christi plays told the story of all creation, from the fall of the angels to the last judgement. In England, these plays were performed annually each spring, either on Corpus Christi or close to it, and came to be known as Mystery Plays.

In Christian theology, a religious truth known only through divine revelation is referred to as a Mystery. However, in the middle ages, the term "mystery" had another meaning as well. Each play in a cycle could be associated with a different guild or craft. The term "mysterium" denoted a craft, in part because a guild controlled the secret (or mystery) of how to perform a certain type of labor. Thus, during the middle ages, the term "mystery play" could have called to mind not just religious tenets, but also the practical skills possessed by the craftsmen who performed them.

If you're interested in reading a Mystery Play for Corpus Christi, a few years ago I modernized a portion of the play on the Scourging of Christ that was written by the famed Wakefield Master. The Wakefield Cycle is one of four cycles of English Mystery Plays that remain mostly intact, and many critics consider the plays attributed to the anonymous Wakefield Mast to be some of the best.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

That's DOCTOR Know-It-All to You...

I've been blogging for a while now about playwriting, contemporary drama, and theatre history. I've also been working on some more polished writing on these topics within the confines of The Graduate Center of City University of New York.

Last May, I defended a dissertation for a Ph.D. in theatre, and I've since turned that dissertation into a book that is currently under review by a certain academic press. Hopefully they'll like it. I found it interesting, anyway, and I hope others will appreciate my thoughts on actors and playwrights in Britain in the early nineteenth century.

Even though I successfully defended my dissertation last year, I still had to make revisions and deposit it, and the school does not accept deposits over the summer. I deposited the dissertation in the fall, but the school doesn't dress people up and hand out fancy pieces of paper more than once a year, so I had to wait a year to get this photo with my parents:

Yup, that's me with the deer-in-headlights look in Lincoln Center. I've spent enough time in the archives of the performing arts library there, it's only fitting that it's where I graduated, too.

I'll let you know, dear readers, when I hear about the book.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Other Norwegian Playwright

It's a joke, right? How many Norwegian playwrights do you know? There's only one. Ibsen. That's it.

Except of course that it isn't. Even during Ibsen's lifetime, he wasn't the only Norwegian dramatist of note. He still had to compete with Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.

Norway's National Theater in Oslo has three names carved across its front facade: Ibsen, Holberg, and Bjørnson. Ibsen we all know. He was the great pioneer of Realism, author of such plays as A Doll House and The Lady From the Sea.

Ludvig Holberg came a bit earlier. He was one of the pioneering writers of the Age of Reason in the eighteenth century. Holberg, whose comedies include Jeppe of the Hill, The Lying-In-Room, and The Beautiful Bridegroom, was born in Bergen, which is now in Norway, but at the time was a part of a joint Dano-Norwegian kingdom. He spent much of his career in Copenhagen, though, and is claimed by both Norwegians and Danes as their own.

Though both Ibsen and Bjørnson wrote in a dialect of Dano-Norwegian that isn't really spoken anymore, they also both lived to see Norway become an independent country again in 1905, with its own king and parliament--and its own National Theater. The National Theater was actually founded in 1899, before Norway gained full independence. Its first director was Bjørnson's son, Bjørn Bjørnson, who gave the theater three opening nights, one for Holberg, one for Ibsen, and one for his father.

Ibsen and the elder Bjørnson started out on good terms. Ibsen published his controversial verse drama Love's Comedy in 1862, gaining quite a bit of notoriety, and three years later Bjørnson became director of a theater in Christiana (now Oslo), and produced his own play The Newly-Married Couple. Both men were growing artistically, but it was Bjørnson who was enjoying considerably more success. Love's Comedy and The Newly-Married Couple both dramatize the conflicts between romantic ideals and the reality of everyday relationships. While Love's Comedy ends unhappily with the main couple torn apart, The Newly-Married Couple has a cheerful if conventional ending. Perhaps that's why Bjørnson was more popular.

The first act of The Newly-Married Couple shows Axel, a young man recently married to Laura and now living with Laura's wealthy parents. When the two are invited to a ball being held in their honor, Laura declines to go, because her mother has a cough and she cannot fathom attending a ball without her dear mother. Axel is amazed that his young wife is more attached to her parents than she is to him. He progressively tries to assert himself, suggesting he and Laura move out on their own so he can get a job with his uncle's law firm and make a name for himself. All this is foolishness to Laura and her parents, but eventually her father relents, sadly admitting that it is only natural for a daughter to forsake her parents and cling to her husband.

As the second act opens, the audience sees Axel and Laura's sitting room, which is arranged almost identically to the sitting room of her parents in the first act. Axel has had to arrange everything exactly as it was before just to keep Laura mollified, and has even hung two large portraits of her parents in the room. In spite of her husband's efforts, Laura is still homesick, and when her friend Mathilde introduces her to a sentimental novel with a plot suspiciously like her own situation, she becomes even more miserable. A surprise visit by Laura's parents looks like it can only lead to disaster, but the parents mistakenly observe how the couple have made each other profoundly happy. The two young people have their eyes opened to how much the other has sacrificed for love, and all ends happily.

When the play opened in 1865, Ibsen and Bjørnson respected each other as comrades both fighting to elevate the literature of their native language. True, Bjørnson was enjoying considerably more success, but Ibsen does not seem to have held that against him. Two years later, Ibsen's play Brand was being performed in Stockholm, and he was publishing his masterpiece, Peer Gynt. Bjørnson loved Peer Gynt, giving the poetic drama high praise, but in 1869 Ibsen published his satyrical play The League of Youth, and Bjørnson believed that he himself was being made fun of in character of the protagonist, Stensgaard. Ibsen denied this, and even wrote a letter to Bjørnson to patch up their friendship, but the damage was done.

The two became reconciled years later due to another play, Ibsen's Ghosts. Critics mercilessly attacked the play, but Bjørnson saw its merits and vigorously came to Ibsen's defense. A couple years after the publication of Ghosts, Bjørnson wrote his controversial play A Gauntlet. By that point, Bjørnson had drawn the ire of so many people in Scandinavia that he had difficulty getting the play produced. It was first performed in Hamburg, Germany, in an altered version Bjørnson hated. Both playwrights were now having to deal with a hostile public.

Ibsen and Bjørnson had another reason to reconcile as well. In 1892, Ibsen's son Sigurd married Bjørnson's daughter Bergliot. The two greatest Norwegian playwrights of their day eventually became a family. Incidentally, their mutual grandson Tancred Ibsen became an important Norwegian film director. Small world.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Last Follies

Yesterday, I attended Astoria Performing Arts Center's production of Follies, a musical that takes place in a theatre about to be torn down.

The set design by Ann Beyersdorfer was perfect, and conveyed the dilapidated nature of the play's setting. The production was made all the more poignant, however, by the fact that this was the last day of the last production APAC would ever perform in that theatre.

APAC's theatre space, by the way, is a church gymnasium, which worked perfectly for their production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, but has also been memorably transformed for Merrily We Roll Along and other shows. Both of those productions were directed by Dev Bondarin, who also helmed this wonderful Follies.

What was wonderful about it? Well, let's start with Stephen Sondheim's lyrics being perfectly articulated by a cast of veteran actors. Victoria Bundonis made sure you understood every last syllable of "I'm Still Here," and Greg Horton (who played Karl Lindner in last year's production of Raisin at APAC) gave one of the most insightful performances of "Buddy's Blues" I've ever heard (with help, of course, from younger performers Mandarin Wu and Kathleen LaMagna).

My favorite performance, though, came from Tina Stafford (who was a memorable Mrs. Corney in Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's Oliver Twist) as Sally Durant Plummer. Her rendition of "Losing My Mind" was heartbreaking. Her younger doppelganger, Andrea Dotto, was a magnificent Young Sally, and clearly has a bright future ahead for herself.

Where is APAC off to next? They haven't announced where they'll be performing next season, but keep your eye out for them. If Follies is any indication, we should be expecting great things from them in the future.