Sunday, April 6, 2014

Back from Baltimore

I had a great time at this year's Comparative Drama Conference in Baltimore. This was my first year attending, and I was honored to be a part of a session sponsored by the International Shaw Society.

Thursday morning, Beck Holden from Tufts spoke about Charles Kean's 1858 production of The Merchant of Venice, and David Muller gave a fascinating talk about the effects of weather on theatre attendance at the Comedie Francaise. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Louis Morin took meticulous weather observations in Paris, and Muller compared Morin's weather reports with the ticket receipts at the theatre. Contrary to Muller's expectations, when it got colder outside, theatre attendance actually increased, though it did go down a bit when things got very, very cold. Excessively high temperatures also somewhat lowered theatre attendance, but Muller said he was surprised by how hardy audiences at the time were.

In another session later that morning, Shehzad Ghias of Brooklyn College spoke about women on stage in Pakistan. Some theatre historians claim women did not act in that country until Mary Fenton started appearing in Parsi dramas in the late 19th century. However, Ghias argues this includes only a very narrow vision of theatre. Women always acted in folk dramas, he said, though in those cases, the genders were segregated, with women performing for other women and men performing for other men. During Sufi festivals, women also danced publicly, even in the company of men, but these were religious celebrations, and not eroticized. Of course, erotic dance has also been around in Pakistan since time immemorial, including today in the so-called "Diamond Market," the red-light district of Lahore.

During the same session, Ariel McClanahan Watson of Saint Mary's University spoke about the Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour's provocative piece White Rabbit Red Rabbit. Though Soleimanpour in unable to travel outside of Iran, his plays can, and the piece has been performed all over the world. Elif Bas also came to the session from Bahcesehir University in Istanbul to speak about the state of theatre censorship in Turkey.

That afternoon, Rick DesRochers of Long Island University chaired a session on exceeding boundaries and resisting traditions in U.S. theatre. He spoke about the school plays of the Marx Brothers, many of which had routines that made it into the movie Horsefeathers. Kathryn LeTrent talked about another play that transitioned to being a film, Clare Boothe Luce's The Women. Sound designer Yu-Yun Hsieh also gave a paper on the use of silence in Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation and Suzan Lori-Parks' Topdog/Underdog.

After chatting with Rick for a while, I snuck into the Faust session, where Goethe scholars Downing Cless, Jan Hagens, and Birte Giesler had a very stimulating conversation. Jan made the interesting point that Goethe includes the Prelude in the Theatre with the dramatic poet before he shows the Prologue in Heaven. The effect, he said, was to show that even God is subordinate to the creative mind of the Poet. Now that's truly Romanticism with a capital R!

My own session was not until the late afternoon. I gave my paper on Back to Methuselah and Jesse Hellman gave a fascinating comparison between Lady Hamilton and Eliza Doolittle from Pygmalion. Both, of course, were born in the gutter, then trained and coached to fit in with the highest levels of society. Shaw wrote the part of Eliza for Pat Campbell. Prior to that, we were all interested to learn, Campbell appeared onstage as Lady Hamilton in a play called Nelson's Enchantress. The script for that play mysteriously disappeared, but some of Jesse's friends recently tracked down a misfiled copy at the British Library. I would love to read it!

There were a number of Shavians at the conference, and Jesse and I fielded some great questions from Tony Stafford of the University of Texas at El Paso, Christopher Innes of York University, and Mary Christian of Indiana University. That evening, I got to have dinner with them all, and then we headed over to Center Stage for Gavin Witt's production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. It was delightful.

Unfortunately, I had to head back to New York the next morning for a rehearsal of Moby-Dick. IATI Theater will be doing a staged reading of my adaptation on Tuesday with Montgomery Sutton, Gordon Stanley, Richard Dezmond, and Doug Rossi. Dev Bondarin is directing. Come out to see it if you can!