Category Archives: Commentary

MORE THAN THE GIRL NEXT DOOR: 8 ACTORS ON EMILY IN ‘OUR TOWN’ ·

(Laura Collin-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 1/6; via Pam Green.  In a Broadway production of “Our Town,” Helen Hunt, right, played Emily Webb with Jason Gedrick, left, as George Gibbs and Don Ameche as the Stage Manager.Credit…Brigitte Lacombe, via Lincoln Center Theater.)

With a history of the Thornton Wilder classic coming soon, we talk with performers who found personal inspiration in the play’s beating heart.

Life is a quiet affair in Grover’s Corners, N.H. Its citizens don’t do drama or fuss. But Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” set amid the mountains there, is no folksy paean to simplicity. It’s a boldly experimental play about the beauty of the everyday, and human beings’ tragic propensity to look right past that.

When that realization lands, late and joltingly, it arrives by way of a character we may have underestimated: Emily Webb, the brainy daughter of the town’s newspaper editor. She vows that she’ll make speeches all her life, then falls in love with George Gibbs, the boy next door. If the storytelling Stage Manager is the play’s marquee role, Emily is its beating heart — and a rare complex canonical part for young actresses just starting out.

After “Our Town” made its premiere on Jan. 22, 1938, at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., it swiftly moved to Broadway, and won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama. In the decades since, it has gained a reputation for fusty sentimentality, a misperception that Howard Sherman’s new oral history, “Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’ in the 21st Century” (out Jan. 28 from Methuen Drama), debunks through discussion of a dozen productions.

The New York Times chatted recently with eight actors who have played Emily: on Broadway and Off, in London and regional productions — two of them bi- or multilingual. Lois Smith, now 90, did “Our Town” a mere dozen years after its debut, on a college stage. Their thoughts on the role suggest just how capacious Grover’s Corners can be. These are edited excerpts from those conversations.

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FAUCI SUGGESTS THEATERS COULD REOPEN ‘SOME TIME IN THE FALL’ ·

(Julia Jacobs’s article appeared in The New York Times, 1/9; Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, right, speaking with Maurine Knighton, program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, at an industry conference. Credit…via APAP/NYC; via Pam Green.)

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci told performing arts professionals that if the vaccination program was a success, performances could resume with relatively few restrictions.

At the conference, held by the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, Dr. Fauci sought to assure people in the industry that the end of their acute economic pain was in sight, while emphasizing that the timeline hinged on the country reaching an effective level of herd immunity, which he defined as vaccinating from 70 percent to 85 percent of the population.

“If everything goes right, this is will occur some time in the fall of 2021,” Dr. Fauci said, “so that by the time we get to the early to mid-fall, you can have people feeling safe performing onstage as well as people in the audience.”

The industry conference, which typically draws thousands of attendees and features hundreds of live performances, was moved entirely online this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, underscoring the seismic impact the outbreak has had on the performing arts. According to the results of a survey released this week by Americans for the Arts, a national advocacy group, financial losses nationally in the field are estimated to be $14.8 billion, more than a third of nonprofit arts and cultural organizations have laid off or furloughed their staff, and a tenth are “not confident” they can survive the pandemic.

Speaking to Maurine Knighton, the program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Dr. Fauci said that if vaccine distribution succeeded, theaters with good ventilation and proper air filters might not need to place many restrictions for performances by the fall — except asking their audience members to wear masks, which he suggested could continue to be a norm for some time.

 “I think you can then start getting back to almost full capacity of seating,” he said.

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ROBOT WARS: 100 YEARS ON, IT’S TIME TO REBOOT KAREL ČAPEK’S ‘RUR’ ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/17.  Photo:  Satirical … a sketch for Karel Čapek’s RUR by Bedřich Feuerstein. Photograph: Dea Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images.)

The play Rossum’s Universal Robots clearly belongs to the 1920s but its satirical take on the meeting of humans and machines is all too relevant today

Not many plays introduce a new word to the language. One that did was Karel Čapek’s RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots that had its premiere in Prague 100 years ago this month. Every time we use the word “robot” to denote a humanoid machine, it derives from Čapek’s play, which coined the term from the Czech “robota” meaning forced labour. But a play that was hugely popular in its time – its Broadway premiere in 1922 had a cast that included Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien as robots – has now fallen into neglect. Given our fascination with artificial intelligence, it’s high time we gave it another look.

But what kind of play is it exactly? A dystopian drama attacking science and technology? Up to a point, but it’s much more than that. It starts almost as a Shavian comedy with a do-gooding visitor, Lady Helen Glory, turning up on an island where robots are manufactured out of synthetic matter. She is amazed to discover that a plausibly human secretary is a machine and is equally astonished when the factory’s directors turn out to be flesh and blood creatures rather than robots. With time, the play gets darker as the robots prove to be stronger and more intelligent than their creators and eventually wipe out virtually all humankind. Only a single engineer survives who, a touch improbably, shows two robots transformed by love.

The late, great critic Eric Bentley called Čapek’s play “a museum-piece”. And it is true that it belongs to a 1920s genre of expressionist drama about the threat of dehumanising technology: in 1923 Elmer Rice wrote The Adding Machine about a repressed clerk who, when replaced by the instrument of the title, murders his employer. Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, in her excellent book Science on Stage also implies RUR may have had its day in that theatre now eagerly embraces science and technology.

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HOWLING IN THE DARK: LEE BREUER AND ‘THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS’, ‘PATAPHYSICS PENYEACH’, AND ‘LA DIVINA CARICATURA, PART 1: THE SHAGGY DOG’ ·

(Photos: Mabou Mines)

By Bob Shuman

Some of us had never seen Lee Breuer, who died January 3, working without a stocking cap—but what is probably most surprising is that we saw a playwright, this hands-on, at all.  In 2010, upon early audience entry, at New York Theatre Workshop, he clarified tech, behind a huge plywood board, for his double-bill of monologues Pataphysics Penyeach (Summa DramaticaandPorco Morto”).  In 2013, with La Divina Caricatura, Part 1: The Shaggy Dog, at La MaMa, there was a question as to whether he might even be seen, as press performances were canceled due to his illness.  He appeared, hustling through the impersonal subway tracks of the set, though, where a dog had been abandoned.  That animal, Rose, a puppet, also the star of the show, caused a visceral reaction, when she began eating “poop,” a polite way of naming the grotesque situation—one this reviewer categorized as an aberrant absurdist element, while still shuddering.  Much later, now the owner of two Jack Russell terriers, one who had been deserted on a highway in South Carolina, the truth of the writing emerged.  Although our dogs are now ensconced in Massachusetts during the pandemic, for several years, Breuer remained on my mind often, his visual observation about pets acute, disgusting, and pervasive.

He was part of the East Village zeitgeist—I should say he was our Peter Brook. Mabou Mines offered performance based on hard theatrical theory and experience, not simple propaganda, although clearly leftist. Breuer volunteered at the Berliner Ensemble, under Communism, worked with Grotowski, adapted Beckett, and more, to give his work an international edge. It’s impossible to think of the American avant-garde, without him.  Tracking our way back from the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, along Seventh Avenue to Forty-Second Street, in 1988, someone, talking about the chorus, was saying how you weren’t “going to ask those big, mature Black women to do a lot of choreography,” as we understood musicals then, when someone noted the stately stage progressions, in The Gospel at Colonus.  The voices moved the audience, and caused them to dance, instead.  Lee Breuer was, almost inarguably, America’s finest theatre practitioner at the end of the twentieth century and early twenty-first, mainstream or otherwise. His aesthetic was so fully formed, centered, and grounded, in fact, that it seems an injustice to say that he was an experimental director. It’s better to describe him as a seminal one.

In a July 2020 Zoom interview from Segal Talks, hosted by Frank Hentschker, with Maude Mitchell, Breuer macrocosmically talked about playwriting, music: 

“I wanted to get this feeling of everyone contributing their melody to a larger whole, and that there would be a form that would arise from it.  I think music is the key to it.  I think if we can feel that all the currents–political, aesthetic—are joining together to make a statement–and if you can discern what that statement is–that you will have achieved a tremendous revelation about what our times and what our lives now are all about.”

Breuer’s statements could expose internal horror about the American and human condition, combining humor with the monstrous, as he did with Pataphysics Penyeach, which used children’s storybook  and cartoon characters facing contemporary political and sociological existence.  Back in 2010, he seemed to pinpoint how we had been overwhelmed by the technological: “Reality is not real,” a distinguished professor, a cow, tells us “—it’s virtual.”  The play demonstrated a “spin” on French symbolist writer Alfred Jarry’s pataphysics (a “send up of metaphysics”). 

According to Breuer, in a 2007 video conversation at Towson University,  theatre only exists half the time on the stage; the other half takes place in the head.  The viewer is choosing the play’s message after “balancing the work’s thesis and antithesis.”  The synthesizing process is apparent in a work like Pataphysics Penyeach because, through the ridiculous and cerebral, one attempts to decipher the meaning, to make sense of the divergent inputs, holding on in the hope of unmasking the secret of the piece.  Steadily looking for metaphor, in “Porco Morto,” the second one act in the evening, Breuer turned the concept of “capitalist pigs” into a playlet about a piglet, who talks like Porky Pig.

For those drawn to the stage of Lee Breuer, part of its appeal must be his interest in the viewer as thinker, not simply as blank page—he was an intellectual theorist himself, not only a defender of theory, whether Marxist, Feminist, Market, or other.  Breuer’s is a formidable intelligence to be openly missed; irreplaceable, still to be reckoned with, and learned from. 

Don’t cover it up.

© 2021 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Visit Mabou Mines.

 

Two Breuer Reviews from Stage Voices:

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LOST IN 2020: EPIC SHAKESPEARE, AND THE THEATER THAT PLANNED IT ·

(Maya Phillips’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/29/2020 Photo: Brendan Edward Kennedy, center, in the title role of “Henry V” at Brave Spirits Theater in Virginia.Credit…Claire Kimball; via Pam Green.)

Brave Spirits Theater expected to mount an ambitious cycle of eight history plays. Instead it became yet another victim of the pandemic.

I’ve written several versions of this story. First it was supposed to be an account of a small theater company’s ambitious stage project, then a story about that interrupted project and the company’s plan to regroup because of the pandemic. Now it’s an elegy for a small theater that the coronavirus shut down.

On a bright but chilly Saturday afternoon in February, I hopped on a train to Alexandria, Va., just outside of Washington. I was visiting Brave Spirits Theater, which was presenting the first part of a bold endeavor: staging eight of Shakespeare’s history plays (the two tetralogies, from “Richard II” to “Richard III”) in repertory, over the course of 18 months, culminating in a marathon performance of all eight works.

I was there to see the first two plays in the series, beginning with a matinee performance of “Richard II.” On the car from the train station, I peeked at the quiet suburbs of Alexandria — brick houses with wraparound porches, American flags by the door — until I arrived at the theater, which channeled the small-town whimsy of a playhouse in a storybook. The space, a converted church building, had pale yellow columns out front and bright turquoise trim around the windows, with red accents throughout.

Charlene V. Smith, who co-founded Brave Spirits in 2011, told me that the idea for the project occurred to her in 2008, when she saw the Royal Shakespeare Company in London do a marathon performance of the histories. Brave Spirits was claiming to be making history by being the “first professional American theater company to mount full productions of Shakespeare’s two history plays tetralogies and perform them in repertory.”

A few feet away from where we were sitting, in one corner of the lobby, was a chalkboard. Four calendar months were neatly drawn in perfectly symmetrical boxes — January, February, March, April — with a color-coded schedule of performances of the first tetralogy, which the company named “The King’s Shadow”: Richard in bright red, the first Henry in clover green, the second Henry in yellow and the last Henry in a crisp, royal purple.

In a humble but well-done production, Brave Spirits had Richard II crowned and killed, and his successor, Henry Bolingbroke, a.k.a. Henry IV, was named the new king. After the audience left, the cast milled around the space, chatting in the kitchen, which doubled as the box office. “Is your bag of heads upstairs?” I heard someone call out from the hall. A few wore shirts that were being sold by the company, black tees with gray block lettering that read “Richard & Henry & Henry & Henry & Richard.” (Ever the Shakespeare nerd, I bought one.)

That evening I saw “Henry IV, Part I,” and every seat was filled. Older couples and families and a couple of teens gabbed and waved at one another; everyone was a local. I left on the train the next morning, still buzzed with the energy in that tiny converted church.

I wrote the article, but before it was published the pandemic shut down the performing arts across the nation, and the story of Brave Spirits changed. Like many other theaters, it was forced to cut short the histories project, which DC Metro Theater Arts predicted would be “one of the must-sees of the 2021 season.” April 19-20 was supposed to be a big weekend for the company, when all of the plays in the first tetralogy would be staged in repertory, ending in the capstone of the first half, “Henry V.”

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LEE BREUER, REST IN PEACE (1937-2021) ·

(from Mabou Mines) 

Dear Friends,

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Mabou Mines co-founder Lee Breuer on January 3, 2021. He died peacefully at home surrounded by love and loved ones. Lee is survived by his wife and artistic partner Maude Mitchell, daughter Clove Galilee, sons Lute Ramblin Breuer, Alexander Tiappa Klimovitsky, Mojo Lorwin, and Wah Mohn and grandchildren Bella, Ruma and Jack Breuer.

Numberless are the world’s wonders
But none more wonderful than man
Words and thought rapid as air
He fashions for his use
And his the skill that deflects the arrows of snow
The spears of winter rain

From every wind he has made himself secure
From every wind he has made himself secure
From all but one … all but one
In the late wind of death he cannot stand 

Sophocles, Adapted by Lee Breuer for The Gospel at Colonus

For more information about Lee’s life and career go to website.

(Photograph: The New York Times.)


 

CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (106) ·

Maeterlinck is a charming, kind, and joyful host and companion. For days at a time we spoke about art, and he was very glad to know that actors were entering so deeply into the very being, meaning, and analytical study of their craft. He was especially interested in the inner technique of the actor. (MLIA)

JAMES GRAHAM REVEALS COVID CRISIS ACCELERATED ELTON JOHN MUSICAL COLLABORATION ·

(Mark Brown’s article appeared in the Guardian, 12/31; Photo: Tammy Faye Messner with Jim Bakker. Photograph: Associated Press.)

Writer says singer’s cancelled farewell tour resulted in ‘real progress’ on stage project

For writer James Graham, one plus side from the grind of 2020 was being able to work with Elton John and Jake Shears on a new musical telling the wild story of televangelist turned gay icon Tammy Faye Bakker.

Graham has written the book, John the music and Shears the lyrics. The project has been brewing for two years and because John had to cancel his farewell tour this year he had more time to get it finished. “We’ve made real progress and we got a workshop together in November,” said Graham. “We hope we might get it in to a theatre second half of next year.”

It was John who thought Bakker, a big-haired, shoulder-padded embodiment of 1980s televangelism, would make a great musical. “She became basically a gay icon because of her liberal support for the gay community during the Aids crisis.”

Graham said he was also interested in the intersection of evangelicalism and Reaganism and how that happened again with Trump. “That sounds really boring and dry doesn’t it,” said Graham. “But it’s with some kick-ass tunes by Elton John!”

Working with John and Shears provided some welcome relief from what was a rollercoaster year for Graham, who was a passionate and vocal campaigner to get government help for the Britain’s threatened performing arts sector.

His high-profile involvement was an accident of timing in a way, Graham says, in that his ITV series Quiz, telling the story of the coughing major on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, was broadcast in April meaning he had to do lots of publicity and interviews.

Graham also donated his TV fee from Quiz to a fund helping freelance workers. The drama came from a stage play with actors and creatives helping to develop it, he said. “I just felt that was a clear example of my profiting from something that was made collectively.”

In May he appeared on Question Time, powerfully articulating the case for investment. He’d been warned that arguing for arts funding at a time of global financial collapse might bring a social media backlash. “To my absolute surprise it was way more positive and receptive than I thought and I think that was partly because people had really valued drama and entertainment, in whatever form, during lockdown.”

It was not until July that the government finally announced its £1.57bn rescue package for arts and heritage.

Many saw it as long overdue. On the Sunday it was announced, Graham was at his lowest ebb because of newspaper stories suggesting a secret plan to mothball theatres. Whether that was a strategic move by Dominic Cummings, “to puncture our faith, makes us grateful hours later” he does not know, but if it was the strategy “it worked”.

Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, spoke to Graham directly to reveal the deal. “I was so surprised at the number and so grateful and so relieved. It certainly wasn’t perfect. I had huge fears about how it would filter down to the freelance artists. But because it was of a scale I knew thousands of jobs were going to be saved and it would make a difference.”

Graham has fears and optimism for the future of theatre, a sector which pre-pandemic was one of Britain’s shining success stories.

“I don’t want to romanticise it to say that we’re going to come out of this stronger or we’re going to build back better like that’s an inevitability, because I don’t think it is. It is going to be incredibly tough for buildings and theatre companies to get through the next few years.

“We’ve lost tens of thousands of freelance artists and technicians who have had to leave to find work elsewhere and they won’t come back and we don’t know what is going to happen to audiences, how hard it will be to bring them back to physical proximity with each other.

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AN IMPOSSIBLE DREAM? THE TROUBLE WITH UTOPIAN DRAMAS ·

(Natasha Tripney’s article appeared in the Guardian, 12/30; Photo: A mirror on the world … Mark Rylance in Jerusalem at the Royal Court. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian. )

While many writers have created troubling dystopian visions, few plays have imagined better futures. But the act of theatre itself can embrace utopianism

When the UK entered its first lockdown in March, there was a lot of talk about using this enforced pause as a chance to reassess and maybe even remake the world. As the months took their toll, that energy waned. But with a vaccine rollout and a man for whom empathy is not an alien concept about to take up residence in the White House, it does not seem unreasonable to start imagining a better tomorrow.

In literature there have been many attempts to create utopias, other lands more golden than our own, untainted, Edenic, more equitable societies in which war and poverty are things of the past. From Thomas More’s 1516 book, which gave us the term, through the writings of William Morris and HG Wells, to the comic-book monarchies of Wakanda and Themyscria (respective homelands of Black Panther and Wonder Woman), to one of the most enduring utopian societies of them all – the Star Trek universe, people have used art to imagine better worlds.

When trying to identify a play that exemplifies these ideas, it gets a little trickier. There are numerous dystopian plays: Caryl Churchill’s prescient Far Away, Dawn King’s Foxfinder, Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, Karel Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots, Alan Ayckbourn’s interminable The Divide, but it’s harder to name a truly utopian play. Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem could be read as utopian if viewed through the eyes of its protagonist, Rooster Byron. Ella Hickson’s The Writer explores the concept of feminist utopia, but as one of a series of narrative resets and rug-pulls. But the list is not a long one. Is there something that makes them particularly challenging to write?

To playwright Vinay Patel, whose television credits include Doctor Who, “actual utopias – as opposed to the places that just seem to be utopias – are, by themselves, inherently undramatic. But it’s the contrast they provide to dystopias or, indeed, our present day that make them compelling.”

For Anna Jordan, a Bruntwood prize-winner for her play Yen, and part of the writers’ room for Succession, “perfect societies are harder to imagine because we have access to social media and more information than anyone has had before. It makes it harder to believe that while there is so much difference in the world there could be such a thing as a perfect society.”

From More onwards, all utopias are essentially refractions of the world in which they were created. Utopian fiction necessarily reflects the preoccupations, struggles and divisions of the time and culture in which it is produced. The various Star Trek offshoots still bear the hallmarks of the explicitly post-conflict universe created by Gene Roddenberry in the 1960s.

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