Category Archives: Commentary


On Friday,  11/27 at 4:30pm, Anita Durst talked with Executive Director Bob Ost and the TRU Zoom Community Gathering about an organization she founded twenty-five years ago, one that supports artists by offering them free space–to create and show work (for one to four week periods). Chashama, pronounced sha-SHAH-ma—its Farci for “to have vision”–may be one of the last vestiges of live art and theatre available during the pandemic.  Window performances or storefront theatre continue to be allowed during COVID; behind glass, an inventive soloist, or distanced actors, dancers, and other artists–probably running repeatable shorts–may livestream onto the street, set up speakers for sound, or, as was more commonly done in 1995, ask viewers to call into a radio station.  Painting or sculpture also may be shown, as in a gallery—and those who need time to simply create can apply for a residency in picturesque Pine Plains, New York, near Rhinebeck. 

Durst, who has a street named for her in New York City and provides spaces in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Bronx, Matawan, New Jersey and upstate New York,  probably likes the adventurous best—she has worked with the New York City Fire Department to program “Free Tornado,” using real flames. Although she must postpone until 2021, her popular yearly gala, uses multiple floors in an office building to house, sometimes wandering, performance artists and art.  Years ago, she saw the need for affordable areas to work in and show skill.  Today, she not only continues to meet that need, but also may be a last purveyor who can remind us of art as we once viewed it.

–Bob Shuman, Stage Voices



(Alexis Soloski’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/25; Photo: Carla Gugino, left, and Audra McDonald planned to share a stage this summer in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but ended up recording their roles from closets in their homes.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times; via Pam Green.)

Williamstown Theater Festival’s summer season is now a winter experiment, all on audio. That includes “A Streetcar Named Desire,” recorded in actor’s closets.

A little over a year ago, the director Robert O’Hara and Mandy Greenfield, the artistic director of the Williamstown Theater Festival, phoned Audra McDonald with a proposition. They wanted her to play Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” McDonald, a six-time Tony-winning actress, hesitated. The role frightened her. “It’s a recipe for disaster and failure,” she said.

And that was before she met her co-star: a lawn mower.

McDonald accepted the role, and had a pandemic not intervened, her “Streetcar” would have opened in June. But when Greenfield realized that this summer’s festival, a proving ground for new plays and a holiday camp for celebrity actors, could not go forward as scheduled, she reached out to Kate Navin, a producer with Audible, the Amazon-owned audiobook powerhouse.

Together they dreamed up a grand plan, which they announced in early April: They would create an acoustic record of a summer that wasn’t, producing deluxe recordings of each show that the festival had announced for 2020 and releasing all of them on Audible.

Which explains, mostly, why McDonald spent two days in late August huddled inside a closet, recording Blanche’s anguish while a neighbor’s mower revved and a dog barked and her toddler daughter shrieked “No, I don’t want to!” just outside the door.

“It was a very wild way of trying to dive in and fall into one of the most iconic female roles in the history of theater,” McDonald said.

Beginning on Dec. 3 with “Streetcar,” Audible will release seven shows, one per week, more or less. The later releases: Anna Ziegler’s “Photograph 51,” Dominique Morisseau’s “Paradise Blue” and the world premieres of Stacy Osei-Kuffour’s “Animals,” Shakina Nayfack’s “Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club,” Sanaz Toossi’s “Wish You Were Here” and Daniel Goldstein and Dawn Landes’s musical “Row.”

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(Maya Phillips’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/25; Photo:  The ultimate hellish family gathering: Dinner with the Westons in Tracy Letts’s “August: Osage County.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)

With fewer guests at the table this Thanksgiving, theatrical reminders that food, drink and reminiscence can unsettle as well as comfort.

The stage loves a dining room table. This single piece of furniture represents sustenance and communion, and domestic dramas set at the table are — pun very much intended — the bread and butter of theater.

But for all the ways family plays reveal truths, trauma and traditions, they take on greater weight as I think about them this Thanksgiving, during a pandemic demanding all of us to figure out whether we can safely see our loved ones, and if so, how.

That’s not to say that family get-togethers onstage tend to go well. Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County” is the contemporary standard-bearer for all hostile family dramas. We join the Westons, a trash fire of a family racked with bitterness, guilt and resentment, in their Oklahoma home on the occasion of the absence, then death, of the patriarch, Beverly Weston.

Fed up with the family’s cruelty, Ivy, the middle daughter, declares to her elder sister: “I can’t perpetuate these myths of family or sisterhood anymore. We’re all just people, some of us accidentally connected by genetics, a random selection of cells. Nothing more.”

Not exactly an episode of “Full House.” But she (and the play) are right that the myth of family often wilts before the real deal. The Westons twist their intimate knowledge of one another to degrade, intimidate and manipulate. Be careful what you’re wishing for this holiday season: “August: Osage County” shows us that a family around a dinner table can be a battlefield — but here the wounds are personal.

The same is true of Stephen Karam’s fantastically brutal (and simply fantastic) “The Humans,” in which the Blake family, natives of Scranton, Pa., convene at the Manhattan duplex apartment of their younger daughter Brigid and her boyfriend Richard. Erik, Brigid’s father, is remote, supposedly because he hasn’t been sleeping well, and her mother, Deirdre, tries to connect with her daughters but is often dismissed. Amy, the older daughter, is ill. And Momo, Erik’s aged mother, is barely lucid.

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[Our] conscious laws [of acting] exist for the purpose of awaking another and higher superconscious region of creativeness. This latter is outside of our comprehension, and we are helpless in our consciousness when we attain it. It is ruled by inspiration. It is that miracle without which there can be no true art, and which is served by the conscious technique of the actor which I tried to establish.

THE SUPERCONSCIOUS THROUGH THE CONSCIOUS! That is the meaning of the thing to which I have devoted my life. . . . (MLIA)


(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/18; Photo: Astonishing … Lisa Dwan in No’s Knife at the Old Vic in 2016. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian.)

Dwan will play Winnie in a 60th-anniversary revival of the play at Riverside Studios in London

It is, perhaps, the perfect play for lockdown, as the heroine fills the hours between “the bell for waking and the bell for sleep” with despair, defiance and memories of better times. The indomitable Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days is now to be portrayed by Lisa Dwan in a 60th-anniversary revival directed by Sir Trevor Nunn at Riverside Studios in London next year.

Despite its clear resonance with the pandemic, which has kept so many isolated at home, Nunn said his and Dwan’s plans for Happy Days predate the coronavirus outbreak. The pair first discussed it before collaborating on a triple bill of short Beckett plays at Jermyn Street theatre, staged in early 2020, for which Dwan lent her haunting voice to Eh Joe.

Nunn said the timing is apposite because the lockdown has left many of us looking back at our lives. “We have been remembering all sorts of happy times in our lives and that phrase [Happy Days] comes up always. We say it with delight and with sadness and with regret. Beckett’s title is very carefully chosen to include all of those ideas.” The great Irish playwright continually explored endurance, Nunn said, and his dramas probe “how we seek for meaning”.

Armed with a toothbrush, a revolver and a parasol, immersed in a mound of earth with her partner Willie behind her, Winnie is one of Beckett’s greatest creations. Ruth White originated the role in New York in 1961 and recent Winnies in the UK have included Juliet Stevenson at London’s Young Vic and Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.

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Yuri Belinsky/Sputnik; Yevgeny Ivanov, Semyon Mishin-Morgenshtern/MAMM/MDF/

Just like any other clowns, they wore funny clothes, had painted faces and behaved in a silly way. Funny enough, in the Soviet Union, circus clowns probably played more important roles than silver screen stars. They helped those behind the Iron Curtain cope with mundane matters, proving the age old adage that laughter is always the best medicine.

1. Mikhail Rumyantsev (1901-1983)

Mikhail Rumyanyntsev was much inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s famous character, the Tramp.

Mikhail never cried over bad grades at school – he was born with a gift of laughter. At the beginning of his career in the late 1920s, Rumyantsev was profoundly moved and inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s famous character, the Tramp. Like Chaplin, Rumyantsev, whose stage name was Karandash (“The Pencil”), was also fairly clumsy, awkward and funny, and constantly found himself in embarrassing situations.

There was something innately comical and sad about him. He would turn up on stage dressed in an oversized suit and a hat. Despite being very short, just 142 cm tall (that’s less than five feet) he never worried about his looks (his wife was tall, beautiful and twenty years younger than him). The way he carried himself left no chance for an inferiority complex.

Rumyantsev’s partner in crime on stage was a Scottish Terrier nicknamed ‘The Blot’. During his long career, Karandash had performed with at least 13 Scotties.

Rumyantsev’s partner in crime on stage was a Scottish Terrier.

Rumyantsev actually became a clown quite by chance. In 1926, America’s sweetheart of silent cinema Mary Pickford and one of Hollywood’s founding fathers, Douglas Fairbanks, paid a visit to the Soviet Union. Rumyantsev saw the pair and decided to become an artist. He chose his stage name in 1935, to pay tribute to the 19th century French satirist Caran D’ache (whose pseudonym, in its turn, was a creative French transcription of karandash (карандаш), the Russian word for ‘pencil’).

The Soviet artist worked in the circus for over 55 years and his name on the billboard was invariably the guarantee of a sold-out show. However, Karandash didn’t like posters with his name. His peers said he was too modest to brag about success. On stage, he was just an ordinary bloke, good-natured, witty, cheerful, full of childlike spontaneity and charm.

His performances crossed genres, boasting stunts in acrobatics and gymnastics. Karandash became the first Soviet clown whose popularity transcended the geographical barriers of that time. In his best years, he had an army of fans in Finland, France, UK, Germany, Italy, Brazil and Uruguay.

READ MORE: 10 funny Pepe the Frog doodles by Russian artists (PICS)

2. Slava Polunin (b.1950)

For Russia’s most famous clown, hope and laughter are like Siamese twins, bound together at some physical level. A sense of humor once helped Slava get through the turbulent times. Which is why Slava brings laughter wherever he goes.

Polunin's signature clown character ‘Assissai’ became the epitome of comic relief.

One of the founders of the Litsedei pantomime theater in St. Petersburg, Polunin is a master of tragi-comedy. His yellow clown character ‘Assissai’ became the epitome of comic relief.

Polunin made headlines shortly before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. He organized the so-called ‘Peace Caravan’, in which mimes and clowns from across the globe got together to give street performances in Europe.

His major tour de force – ‘Slava’s Snowshow’ – has been staged in more than 80 countries worldwide, praised for warmth and wit, wisdom and sadness. Veering between laughter and tears, it was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event and won dozens of theatrical awards, including the coveted Laurence Olivier award in 1998. 

His major tour de force – ‘Slava’s Snowshow’ – has been staged in more than 80 countries worldwide.

Polunin’s signature theatrical performances are like this: you laugh to keep from crying. Slava blends freedom with anarchy as naturally as a knowledgeable bartender mixes tomato juice with vodka. Polunin did himself a big favor when he allowed himself to be not only the clown, but also the artist and the thinker. 

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(Michael Paulson’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/19; Actors’ Equity and SAG-AFTRA’s agreement clears the way for more entertainment during the pandemic winter; via Pam Green.)

Two major entertainment industry unions have settled an internecine dispute over streaming theater, reaching an agreement that should make it easier for professional theaters around the country to film plays and musicals for broadcast during the coronavirus pandemic.

The dispute centered on a distinctly pandemic-era question: As theaters that have been shut down by the outbreak try to stream productions, should their contracts fall to the union that represents people who work in theater, or the one that represents film and television workers?

After a sometimes-bitter dispute, the Actors’ Equity Association, which represents 51,000 stage actors and state managers, and SAG-AFTRA, which represents 160,000 people who work primarily in film and television, announced the agreement Thursday evening.

“This is a great day,” Kate Shindle, the Equity president, said in an interview Thursday. “This gives people who make theater the ability to innovate in ways that they need in order to survive.”

Shindle said she was hopeful that the agreement will make it possible for theaters to stream more work for the duration of the pandemic. “We want this work to happen,” she said.

Under the agreement, which is tentatively scheduled to last until Dec. 31, 2021, the two unions agreed that Equity will cover work recorded for digital distribution that replaces, or supplements, a live audience.

There are many restrictions — the Equity-covered work is supposed to be distributed to ticketholders or subscribers, and not broadcast to the general public. The audience, over the course of the streaming run, must not exceed twice the theater’s seating capacity over that time period, or three times the capacity for theaters with fewer than 350 seats.

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(Joseph M. Hassett’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 11/20.)

The elixir of love is potent medicine for all locked in by pandemic or the virus of hatred

WB Yeats’s December 14th, 1918 letter to New York lawyer John Quinn alludes to the dramatic impact of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 on the Yeats family. He recounts that his wife George fainted upon receiving the telegraphed news that his father had been stricken with potentially fatal influenza and pneumonia. The poet’s initial impression that the fainting was caused by this news turned out to be wrong – in fact, George also had life-threatening flu and pneumonia.

The situation was especially dire because George was expecting their first child in February. The prospective parents were temporarily living in premises at 73 St Stephen’s Green that had been leased by Maud Gonne, the longtime elusive object of Yeats’s romantic pursuit and the subject of many of his poems.

The Yeatses had taken over Gonne’s lease for six months while she was imprisoned in England on suspicion of participating in a wartime conspiracy between Irish republicans and the Kaiser’s secret service. On November 24th, 1918, Gonne, who had been released on medical grounds, but barred from travelling to Ireland, suddenly appeared at the Yeatses’ door demanding entry. Given George’s condition, the potential for a police raid in search of Gonne, and the tight quarters occasioned by the presence of nurses attending George, Yeats refused entry to his erstwhile muse. A bitter quarrel ensued. Yeats eventually found new accommodationsdown the Green, his wife and father recovered, and Anne Butler Yeats was born on February 26th, 1919.

The month before Anne’s birth, her father was writing his apocalyptic poem The Second Coming, which famously declares:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned….

The first World War, the Russian revolution and incipient anarchy in Irish politics were part of the cauldron of disturbance out of which the poem emerged. Still, one wonders, following the lead of Ambassador Daniel Mulhall in The Irish Times on May 25th, 2020, whether the turmoil visited on the Yeats family by the 1918 pandemic was part of the mix. The Second Coming vividly captures a sense of the world spinning out of control.

Lessons to be discerned from this traumatic experiment in living were not articulated until three years later when the sequelae of 1918 merged with similar turmoil, troubling Yeats while he was isolated in his Galway tower amid the violence and uncertainty of civil war. The poem that emerged this time was The Stare’s Nest by My Window. It describes the circumstances of its origin in terms that resonate with the fear and anxiety we suffer while locked in, physically and psychologically, by Covid-19:

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty.

Yeats later explained that he responded to these pressures with “an overmastering desire not to grow unhappy or embittered, not to lose all sense of the beauty of nature”.

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It is only through a strongly developed outer and inner technique that one can reach . . . the complete concentration of one’s inner life on the stage, the ability to fire one’s passions and show it in its nakedness without theatrical methods and with the help of imagination and creative effort. This is the greatest demand that can be made of a great and finished actor. (MLIA)


(Timothy Bella’s article appeared in The Washington Post, 11/18; Photo:; via the Drudge Report.)

As Dolly Parton tells it, her first-ever car accident in October 2013 was minor, but left her bruised and sore enough to seek medical advice at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

That’s where she met Naji Abumrad, a physician and professor of surgery. Abumrad knew next to nothing about the beloved megastar with big, blond hair, but he soon befriended her because he deeply enjoyed their talks about current events and science.

Their bond of nearly seven years received worldwide attention Tuesday after it was revealed that Parton’s $1 million donation to Vanderbilt for coronavirus research, made in honor of Abumrad, partially funded the biotechnology firm Moderna’s experimental vaccine, which a preliminary analysis released this week foundis nearly 95 percent effective at preventing the illness.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Abumrad recalled how Parton’s curiosity about Vanderbilt’s coronavirus research led to a gift that helped fund the vaccine that could be one of two available in the United States on a limited basis by the end of the year.

Among the agencies and universities listed as funding sources for the Moderna vaccine was “the Dolly Parton COVID-19 Research Fund,” which left some on social media joking about singing the refrain of her hit “Jolene” replaced with the word “vaccine.”The doctor said he was elated over his friend’s contribution to the early stages of a vaccine that eventually received nearly $1 billion in federal funding.

“Her work made it possible to expedite the science behind the testing,” Abumrad, 76, said on Tuesday night. “Without a doubt in my mind, her funding made the research toward the vaccine go 10 times faster than it would be without it.”

Speaking to NBC’s “Today” show on Tuesday, Parton, 74, expressed gratitude to those working tirelessly for a vaccine to help stop a pandemic that has killed at least 247,000 people in the United States.

“I’m just happy that anything I do can help somebody else, and when I donated the money to the covid fund, I just wanted it to do good,” she said. “Evidently, it is. Let’s just hope we find a cure real soon.”

Their friendship may seem unlikely, bonding a Lebanese-born physician and a cultural tour de force who ended up building an amusement park graced with her own name. But after the car crash, the pair found out they were both poor, mountain kids trying to get by, though they were raised more than 6,000 miles apart. Abumrad said Parton became someone he could confide in.

“Our homes were almost identical where we grew up,” Abumrad told The Post.

The physician’s son, Jad Abumrad, at first didn’t believe his father whenever he talked about his friend Dolly. Even when the physician’s phone rang and the name that came up was “Dolly Parton,” he remained skeptical of his stoic father’s claim of having the famous friend.

“It’s not that I thought he was lying, but it’s just such an odd thing,” said Jad, 47, in a text message. “He’s not the type of guy who hangs out with the Dolly Partons of the world.”

The true test came when Jad, host of the nationally syndicated “Radiolab,” wanted to interview Parton for the show and asked his father for an introduction. By the time the father and son walked into Parton’s headquarters in downtown Nashville, Jad’s doubts dissolved.

“That’s when I thought, ‘Well, okay, he actually DOES know Dolly,'” Jad recalled. That first meeting sparked the 2019 series, “Dolly Parton’s America,” a nine-part special exploring her impact on music and the world, and the singer’s ability to bridge society’s deepest divides.

When Parton asked Naji Abumrad toward the beginning of the year about coronavirus, she wanted to learn as much as she could about what was being done to study the virus, the physician said. Abumrad told her about “exciting developments” made on early vaccine research by a team at Vanderbilt led by Mark Denison, a physician and professor of pathology, microbiology and immunology.

Shortly thereafter, with the nation in the first weeks of lockdown, Parton wanted to do her part to help. She announced her seven-figure gift for coronavirus research on April 1, making the donation in honor of Abumrad – “My longtime friend.”

“Honestly, I never had to ask for her support for the research,” said Abumrad, calling his friend “the kindest and most philanthropic human being” he’s ever known. “She’s the one who suggested it.”

Though the promising news surrounding the Moderna vaccine was far from an individual achievement, Denison told the New York Times that Parton’s $1 million donation went a long way toward funding the “critical” early stages of research and testing.

“Her money helped us develop the test that we used to first show that the Moderna vaccine was giving people a good immune response that might protect them,” Denison said.

The major reaction this week to Parton’s role in the vaccine has left the two friends overwhelmed, said Abumrad, but it has also reaffirmed his belief in science’s role to help as many people as possible.

Now a firm believer in his father’s friendship with Parton, Jad Abumrad said he’s probably not the only one thankful for the “weird luck” that brought them together years ago.

“He’s spent his entire life dedicated to helping people. And she’s famously the same,” he said. “Every day, their partnership makes a little more sense to me.”

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