Category Archives: Commentary

AUSTRALIA: DARK MOFO TO TURN ASHES OF DEAD TASMANIANS INTO FIREWORKS ·

(Nick Miller’s article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, 5/14; Photo: Pope Alice will appear at the 2021 Dark Mofo festival.)

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Hobart’s Dark Mofo will put First Nations artists at the heart of its festival next month, as it tries to make amends for commissioning an artwork that offended some Indigenous people and triggered a significant backlash and threats of a boycott.

But the festival still plans to push the boundaries, with a spectacular public ritual where the ashes of deceased Tasmanians will be launched in fireworks to explode over the Derwent.

Pope Alice will appear at the 2021 Dark Mofo festival.

In April creative director Leigh Carmichael had promised to listen and engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, after the festival was accused of stepping over the line with Union Flag, a proposed work by Spanish artists Santiago Sierra that would have soaked a British flag in the donated blood of First Nations people.

In Friday’s delayed program announcement for the festival, which begins June 16, the opening night includes a Home State Reclamation Walk featuring local Indigenous artists and leaders.

Participants will “follow fire and smoke [on] a street through our town retaken by vegetation” and the program says the “list of artists grows as individuals come forward to own the project”.

Dark Mofo cancels blood-soaked flag artwork

As part of an apology for the Union Flag debacle, Carmichael had vowed a “more culturally significant program” for future festivals.

Dark Mofo’s after-hours “art path” through central Hobart will feature Home State nipaluna, an installation described as “the first traditional hut of this kind built since the colonial invasion”, which will represent “the story of Country: a place of mourning and community… filled with stories and voices, objects and visitors” from a growing list of artists.

Carmichael said the cancellation of the festival in 2020 had left his team and artists “disoriented, confused and with a sense of loss”.

The “dark night of the soul” journey that many went on, he said, had given a context for this year’s festival, and “we pray it brings a glimmer of light in these uncertain times”. 

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‘THE BACCHAE’: MELVYN BRAGG AND BBC RADIO4 ‘IN OUR TIME’ GUESTS DISCUSS EURIPIDES’ GREAT TRAGEDY ·

The Bacchae

Listen 

In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Euripides’ great tragedy, which was first performed in Athens in 405 BC when the Athenians were on the point of defeat and humiliation in a long war with Sparta. The action seen or described on stage was brutal: Pentheus, king of Thebes, is torn into pieces by his mother in a Bacchic frenzy and his grandparents condemned to crawl away as snakes. All this happened because Pentheus had denied the divinity of his cousin Dionysus, known to the audience as god of wine, theatre, fertility and religious ecstasy.

The image above is a detail of a Red-Figure Cup showing the death of Pentheus (exterior) and a Maenad (interior), painted c. 480 BC by the Douris painter. This object can be found at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

With

Edith Hall
Professor of Classics at King’s College London

Emily Wilson
Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania

And

Rosie Wyles
Lecturer in Classical History and Literature at the University of Kent

Producer: Simon Tillotson

CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (117) ·

The words and wisdom of Constantin Stanislavski:

[With] Turgenev’s A Month in the Country . . . built on the most delicate curves of love experience. . . . it was necessary to do away with all that might interfere with the spectator’s process of entering into the souls of the actors through the eyes or from receiving, through the voice and its intonations, the inner essence of the feelings and thoughts of the characters of the play. . . . [The solution] was to let the actors sit without moving, let them feel, speak, and infect the spectator with the manner in which they live their roles . . . as to display the inner essence and the word picture of the spiritual lacework. . . . (MLIA)

CHICAGO’S GREAT CULTURAL COMEBACK IS COMING MUCH FASTER THAN WE THOUGHT. HERE’S WHY. ·

(Christ Jones’s article appeared in the Chicago Tribune, 5/5; Photo: Chicago Tribune.)

Just weeks ago, the working assumption around town was that this would be a relatively quiet summer in Chicago, a muted cultural season of masks, pods, social distancing and a few well-spaced (and well-tested) artists doing their far-off thing — somewhere out there in the wind.

You know, not unlike last summer, when it felt like a radical act to grab your laptop and watch a livestream in your own backyard.

My, how quickly things have changed!

In the last couple of weeks, our city and state officials have as consciously changed the narrative as they have the conversations, and announcements of Chicago’s great cultural return have been coming fast and furious.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is back at Symphony Center! The South Side Jazz Coalition with be “Jazzin’ on the Steps”! The Auditorium Theatre will present the American Ballet Theatre in Millennium Park! There will, after all, be neighborhood festivals, dance in Millennium Park, a Chicago Auto Show, a Chinatown Summer Fair, the Old Town Art Fair, shows at the Goodman and Court Theatres, on and on.

The city had most all of its nonprofit arts constituencies in line like eager petitioners: as soon as the mayor spoke, they hit “send” on their summer news releases.

And let’s not forget the suburbs. Ravinia is returning, too! If you run an arts organization, you’re now worried about being lost in the shuffle.

“We want you back,” said Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot at the Goodman Theatre on Wednesday, praising Chicago’s world-class cultural scene (and its colossal economic impact) and striking an optimistic tone. Mark Kelly, her commissioner of cultural affairs and special events, essentially told Chicagoans that they now had a moral responsibility to support their devastated cultural sector. Kelly’s verbiage was as upbeat as a concert promoter with a big show: He used words like “break-out moment” as he outlined a variety of city programs “peppered throughout the summer,” all designed to be the leading edge of an epic recovery.

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THESE FOUR STAGE DIRECTORS KNOW JUST WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE ·

(Scott Heller’s article appeared in The New York Times, 5/5/2021; via Pam Green. Photo: From left, the stage directors Whitney White, Tyne Rafaeli, Taibi Magar and Danya Taymor, who have taken on projects in other media during the shutdown.Credit…Caroline Tompkins for The New York Times.)

The pandemic pause has prompted a prizewinning cohort to ask hard questions about salaries, working in other media and choosing collaboration over “scarcity.”

By most measures, they’re doing great. Four prizewinning directors with notable Off Broadway résumés, working with such breakout writers as Aleshea Harris, Will Arbery and Ming Peiffer.

No top Broadway credits yet. But Tyne Rafaeli, 38, associate directed “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The King and I” there. And just as the pandemic struck, three had big breaks, with productions that dove into the maelstrom of race and racism: Danya Taymor, 32, was rehearsing Jeremy O. Harris’s “Daddy” in London, while Whitney White, 35, had just opened her revival of James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner” at Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington. Taibi Magar, 39, was in previews at the Shed with the world premiere of Claudia Rankine’s “Help.”

All those runs were cut short, as was a Rafaeli production Off Broadway. And, as for so many others, a year without live theater has left these four women — some longtime friends, all likely to have competed for the same opportunities — asking how their jobs and aspirations might change when the doors reopen. (A survey by their union had already flashed “glowing red warning signs” about the profession.)

Do theater directors create, or just support? Do their skills translate to other media? Is earning $40,000 a year enough? The foursome addressed those questions in a group Zoom conversation and through follow-up interviews, edited together here.

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JEREMY IRONS AND STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: ‘WE EVEN PERFORMED IT IN FRONT OF THE POPE!’ – HOW WE MADE GODSPELL ·

(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/10. Photo: ‘I dance like a duck’ … Jeremy Irons, right, as Judas in London; the musical’s first commercial staging in New York was 50 years ago this month. Photograph: Reg Wilson/Rex/Shutterstock.)

‘Religious groups didn’t like Jesus wearing a Superman shirt or the lack of a resurrection. So we told them the curtain call was the resurrection – when Jesus runs on and takes a bow’

Jeremy Irons, actor

Godspell opened in London in November 1971 and ran at the same time as Jesus Christ Superstar. It was the Rolls-Royce to our Ford Fiesta. I was 23, had just left the Bristol Old Vic company and was auditioning for everything. There were 30 of us lined up along the stage for the audition. I was on the end and taller than everyone else. I knew the Americans loved a level chorus line so I kept trying to sink down. I’d already done a few musicals including The Boy Friend and Oh What a Lovely War. But I’ve always said I sing like an actor and dance like a duck.

I knew Godspell was St Matthew’s Gospel told by a company of clowns. That was enough for me. I was cast in the dual role of Judas and John the Baptist. David Essex was Jesus. He was the variety boy, the lovable, cheeky one. As usual, I was the chap you’re not quite sure about. On the first day John-Michael Tebelak, the writer, asked all the actors to write a list of everything we could do – play the guitar, juggle, whatever. He took the lists and said he’d try to get it all in the show. That meant we all looked amazingly talented. I played my fiddle and planned to ride the unicycle, but when I found out we had a raked stage I wasn’t too keen.

There was a wonderful freedom. My understudy went on one night so he could have a crack while I went out into the audience to make notes on the show. We were a very democratic company and would give each other notes in the interval – sadly, that is unusual in theatre, that actors have the trust of each other like that. During Godspell I realised, on the stage, that this was a business I’d sort of wandered into instinctively and put on like a glove – and it fitted completely.

John-Michael was a great big cuddly teddy bear – a sort of hippy, bearded, fuzzy guy. We weren’t particularly religious but every night before curtain-up we’d do a huddle and say the Lord’s Prayer. If you do that show without a real respect for God and for Christianity, it doesn’t work. You have to imbue yourself with that spirit – and that’s what John-Michael gave us.

Stephen Schwartz, composer and lyricist

John-Michael Tebelak was a drama student at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh who had thought of becoming an Episcopal minister. He went to a service one Easter and felt it missed the joy, energy and revolutionary quality of Jesus’s teachings. So he married theatre and theology together with the first version of Godspell in 1970. It had a book – based on the Gospel According to St Matthew – by him, songs by cast members and music from a student band. Students from Carnegie Mellon performed it, then took it to fringe venue La MaMa in New York.

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DAVID HARE: COVID-HIT UK THEATRE NEEDS A JOHN OSBORNE-INSPIRED REVOLUTION ·

(Lanre Bakare’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/8; Photo: Jimmy Akingbola and Simon Harrison in a production of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger at Jermyn Street theatre in 2008. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian.)

Playwright mulls mass appeal of Osborne, who is being honoured with an English Heritage blue plaque

British theatre must take inspiration from John Osborne and make itself essential to a mass audience if it is to thrive in a post-Covid world, according to David Hare, who says the artform is in need of a “revolution”.

Osborne is being honoured with a blue plaque from English Heritage, which will be placed at 53 Caithness Road in Hammersmith, west London, where he wrote his seminal play Look Back in Anger, which was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre 65 years ago on Saturday.

Hare, who was heavily influenced by Osborne’s acerbic brand of social realism, said British theatre once again needed to find voices that reached beyond its usual audience, as Osborne did.

“Two plays – Look Back in Anger and [Shelagh Delaney’s] A Taste of Honey – are words that the whole country knew about … I don’t know of a play in the 21st century that people know about in the same way,” he said.

“[Jez Butterworth’s] Jerusalem is probably the most successful play of the 21st century, but I doubt if anyone who isn’t a theatre hobbyist has heard of it.”

In August, Hare’s play Beat the Devil opened at the Bridge Theatre and detailed his experience with Covid-19, during which he lost 8kg in a week before recovering.

Hare says the pandemic has provided British theatre with an opportunity to refocus and the honouring of Osborne – whom he describes as writing in a “hot, warm, passionate voice that was quite un-English” – could not be better timed.

“I think it’s very timely because we are, as it were, inevitably about to reinvent the British theatre,” he said. “It’s very important to remember that all revolutions are created by writers, and John Osborne invented the modern play, and it hasn’t really been superseded.”

Hare said Osborne’s influence was such that established authors such as Muriel Spark and Doris Lessing began writing plays because they could see what impact a play could have. “Do I think that’s happening at the moment? No, it hasn’t happened in the British theatre for a very long time,” he said.

“Certainly, it’s very hard to think of playwrights under 50 who can fill theatres. And the danger is that we become feebler and feebler because we’re talking only to ourselves.”

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SECRETS OF RUSSIAN BALLERINAS: HOW TO STAY YOUNG WELL INTO YOUR GOLDEN YEARS ·

(Eleonora Goldman’s article appeared on Russia Beyond, 5/6.)
Maya Plisetskaya danced until 70!

Maya Plisetskaya danced until 70!

Vasily Malyshev, Vladimir Vyatkin/Sputnik

Maya Plisetskaya, Galina Ulanova, Ekaterina Maximova—even after retiring, these three outstanding ballet dancers continued to amaze everyone with their regal posture, chiseled figures and enviable vitality. What were their secrets to staying young?

Maya Plisetskaya: “No need for dieting”

Maya Plisetskaya during rehearsal in Colon Theater, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1976.

Maya Plisetskaya (1925-2015) is the author of a popular catchphrase: “One should eat less.” Legend has it that this was her standard reply to never-ending questions about how she managed to keep in such an excellent shape. In fact, what she meant was that ballet dancers burn so much energy on stage and during rehearsals that they do not have to worry about dieting. “Ballet dancers do not have to stick to a diet because they work out a lot, everything is used up, and there is simply no time to get fat,” she used to say. “When you feel that you need to [lose some weight] before some performance, that you have gained some extra weight, you just need to eat a bit less.”

Famously, Plisetskaya was fond of beer and herring and, as far as she was concerned, the best dish in the world was a slice of ordinary bread with butter.

At the same time, she always emphasized that being a successful ballerina required a lot of hard work. “All my life I regularly go to class, whether I want to or not doesn’t matter.” 

As for the secret behind her trademark “swan-like” arm movements and posture, Plisetskaya said she learned these from observing birds in the zoo. 

She performed on stage till she was 70.

Galina Ulanova: “Nature gives me strength”

Choreography teacher Galina Ulanova (left) and dancer Maya Plisetskaya (right) rehearsing, 1969.

Galina Ulanova (1910-1998) was not only a famous ballerina, but also a legendary instructor who taught choreography to generations of young dancers, including Plisetskaya.

She was a very private person, and in rare interviews she said that she drew strength from outdoor activities. One of her favorite pursuits was kayaking. “I can row for hours. Many were surprised that I did not get tired and knew how to control the boat. I would take my kayak far, far away, steer it into tall reeds, lie down in the boat and look at the sky for a long time…Nature is what gives me strength.” 

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BROADWAY IS REOPENING. BUT NOT UNTIL SEPTEMBER. ·

(Michael Paulson’s article appeared in The New York Times, 5/5; via Pam Green; Photo: Broadway, a powerful economic driver of New York City, will begin to reopen Sept. 14 with full-capacity shows.  Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)

Even as New York City begins to reopen this summer, Broadway will not resume performances until Sept. 14. Here’s why.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo says that most pandemic capacity restrictions will ease in two weeks. Mayor Bill de Blasio says he wants the city to fully reopen on July 1. But Broadway, a beacon for tourists and an engine for the economy, is not quite ready to turn on the stage lights.

Most shows are not planning performances until September or later. But there are signs of life: Mr. Cuomo said Wednesday that Broadway shows would start selling tickets for full-capacity shows with some performances starting Sept. 14.

Why the four-month wait? With as many as eight shows a week to fill, and the tourists who make up an important part of their customer base yet to return, producers need time to advertise and market. They need to reassemble and rehearse casts who have been out of work for more than a year. And they need to sort out and negotiate safety protocols.

But the biggest reason is more gut-based: individually and collectively, they are trying to imagine when large numbers of people are likely to feel comfortable traveling to Times Square, funneling through cramped lobbies and walking down narrow aisles to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers. Most Broadway shows lose money even in the best of times, so producers say there is no way they can afford to reopen with social distancing, given the industry’s high labor and real estate costs.

“We’ve never done this before,” said Victoria Bailey, executive director of TDF, the nonprofit which oversees the TKTS ticket-selling booth in Times Square. “The last time the theater industry opened from a pandemic, Shakespeare was still writing new plays.”

Broadway’s emerging timeline, which is constantly being re-evaluated, serves as a reminder that New York’s rebound from the pandemic will be slow and gradual. Edicts from elected officials are only one factor in reopening: every economic sector will have to figure out when and how to restart, and every individual will have to figure out when and how to re-emerge.

Broadway, home to 41 theaters, drew 14.6 million people who spent $1.8 billion on tickets in 2019. The coronavirus pandemic forced them all to close March 12, 2020, and reopening is clearly going to be far more complicated than shutting down. One of the biggest challenges the industry faces is the dearth of tourists, who made up roughly two-thirds of the Broadway audience before the pandemic struck.

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IRELAND: ALL THE WORLD IS A VAN: SHAKESPEARE IN A TIME OF COVID ·

(Patrick Freyne’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 5/5; King Lear in a Van: Arthur Riordan as King Lear with Karen McCartney as Cordelia and Matthew Malone as Kent. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw.)

King Lear in a Van is a clever way of bringing theatre and drama to the masses

If you were loitering around Ely Place in Dublin recently you may have heard some worrying bellowing from the car park/loading bay of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA). Don’t worry, it was just King Lear, sitting on a yellow Ikea throne in the back of a converted van having it out with his daughters Cordelia, Regan and Goneril.

“Where we’re rehearsing today is the first time we have had good acoustics,” says Matthew Malone who plays Goneril, Regan, Gloucester and Kent in this production of King Lear in a van. “And Arthur is booming.” King Lear is played by Arthur Riordan. “It’s been a while since I’ve heard that. It’s like the Abbey, this car park.”

King Lear in a Van is the new offering from Festival in a Van which was devised at the outset of the pandemic by regular Irish Times contributor Gemma Tipton. King Lear is on the Leaving Cert this year and the team are available to perform at schools with help from the Bank of Ireland/Business to Arts Begin Together grant. Tipton has form with festivals. She ran the Kinsale Arts Festival and the Backwater Opera Festival. “I’d been writing about festivals closing down, talking to people who didn’t know when they were going to work again,” she says. “I thought, well, is there a way to do live performance safely?”

She had an epiphany and woke in the middle of the night saying: “Festival in a Van!” She enlisted production manager Rob Furey and production manager and health and safety expert Pete Jordan and, with financial support from Creative Ireland, they bought a van, hired two more vans and built sets that could be unfolded from them in just 10 minutes. “To start with,” she says, “I thought, ‘Oh, people won’t want to be in a van.’”

She hadn’t reckoned with how hungry performers were to perform and how hungry audiences were for live performance. They’ve worked with storytelling group Candlelit Tales, opera singers like Gavin Ring and drag performers like Avoca Reaction and arranged performances at schools, care homes, direct provision centres and housing estates. “One of the things that’s been good about Covid is the forgotten spaces have been looked at again,” says Tipton. “Who cared about care homes and direct provision centres?”

‘Heartbreakingly gorgeous’

She is now aware of a “map” of isolated care homes scattered all over the country and thinks there could be scope for projects like this to continue beyond the pandemic, bringing art and music to people that don’t always have access to it. Some of the experiences they’ve had, she says, have been “heartbreakingly gorgeous”. Furey recalls an 84-year-old former session musician moved to tears experiencing live music from the van. Tipton tells me about a letter she received from a woman who runs a care home after a performance by Gavin Ring. “She wrote saying ‘This is the only nice thing that’s happened in 12 months’, which also makes you realise how shitty it’s been for them.”

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