Can you beat the Bard?
Questions by Joyce E. Henry, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Can you beat the Bard?
Questions by Joyce E. Henry, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/13.)
In the Guardian on Saturday, Martin Amis predicted it will be years before novelists can make sense of the pandemic. Theatre’s swifter turnaround – and technology allowing a form of live performance – have allowed Richard Nelson already to write and direct three Zoom dramas featuring the Apples, a liberal upstate New York family, first seen in four earlier stage plays.
What Do We Need To Talk About? and And So We Come Forth took them through aspects of infection, isolation and lockdown. In Incidental Moments of the Day, a character – with the shock of a bomb going off – meets a stranger outside. But now an election is coming.
Future historians will feast on this project for its reporting of extraordinary times
Future historians will feast on this project for its reporting of extraordinary times. Trainee playwrights will find it invaluable as an exemplar of negotiating staging restraints. Nelson’s uncannily naturalistic cast includes actors who live together in life but not art, and vice versa. Ingenious plotting has kept them in the medically permissible rectangles. With several actors simultaneously in vision, their constant subtle reactions are a new form of acting.
(Andrew Dickson’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 9/13; Illustration by Grace J. Kim; source photograph by Roberto Ricciuti / Getty.)
A conversation with the playwright and novelist about quarantine, comedy, and Chekhov.
Michael Frayn was born in the suburbs of London, in 1933. He studied philosophy at Cambridge, in the nineteen-fifties, before becoming a reporter and columnist for the Guardian and then a star columnist for the Observer in the sixties—experiences he put to wry use in “Towards the End of the Morning,” a novel about world-weary Fleet Street hacks, published in 1967. He turned to theatre in the seventies, and he may be best known, at least in Britain, as the creator of the imperishable stage farce “Noises Off,” which was first produced in 1982. A decade and a half later, his drama “Copenhagen,” which pried open the mysterious relationship between the nuclear physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the midst of the Second World War, won the Tony Award for Best Play. Another award-winning drama, “Democracy,” from 2003, delved into the muddied compromises of German politics. Frayn’s most recent play, “Afterlife,” is from 2008, and he has hinted it might be his last; it explored the checkered career of the visionary theatre director Max Reinhardt. (Like many of Frayn’s works, it was directed by Michael Blakemore.) He has written a memoir, numerous screenplays and television scripts, and a well-regarded philosophical study on the concept of uncertainty. He has also translated nearly all the plays of Anton Chekhov, among other works of Russian literature.
Despite his irksomely abundant talents, Frayn has an old-fashioned English distrust of over-egging anything, especially himself: in a Profile for this magazine from 2004, Larissa MacFarquhar described him as “optimistic, cheerful, tidy, hardworking, discreet, modest, logically scrupulous, and parsimonious in matters of sentiment.” Frayn told MacFarquhar, “I have a moderate view of life.”
He would have spent this summer doing the rounds of British literary festivals to promote his new book, “Magic Mobile,” a volume of short comic pieces, but he and his wife, the writer Claire Tomalin, with whom he has lived since 1981, are taking lockdown seriously, and venturing out as little as possible. “In a way, it’s nice to be released from all that, and just get on with working and reading,” he told me recently, on a Zoom call of intermittent reliability. He was sitting in his office among neat shelves of dictionaries and play scripts. His three children live close by, and “often come over and sit in the garden or go for walks,” he said.
We went on to talk about the possibilities of socially distanced drama, how laughter has become a health risk, the state of Britain in the wake of the coronavirus, and what Chekhov did during pandemics. Later, we spoke again by Zoom; these interviews have been edited and condensed.
Some theatres in Britain have tried reopening at reduced capacity, but there’s a fear that productions might not get going properly again until next year—assuming theatres even make it through Christmas. Has it affected you?
I have, I think, four revivals in the U.K. scheduled for next year, and they’re all just hanging fire. No one knows whether we’re going to be doing any theatre next year or not. It’s an impossible situation.
There’s something to be said for social distancing on the stage—some directors do a lot of it, because they want to use the whole area of the stage. Things like love scenes are much more effective if you get the lovers apart, on opposite sides of the stage, and make them play to each other across the width of it. I really don’t think we lose very much if all the people who are supposed to have sword fights onstage have to stay well out of bash-bash-bash range of each other.
But you do need to pack audiences in together. It’s just simply not financially viable to have audiences that are a quarter of the size of the audience you’re expecting. Also, the theatre works by having this very close, communal response. Particularly comedy—people do set each other off laughing. To get a comedy going, you really need to be very close to a lot of other people. Of course, when it doesn’t work, that’s even worse—when you’re sitting next to a lot of people who are supposed to be laughing, and they don’t laugh.
And laughter in the theatre suddenly seems to be risky behavior, doesn’t it? All those virus-bearing aerosols.
Normally, people say that laughter is good for you—I like to think I’m dispensing medicine to the public. But if I’m also killing them that’s not so good.
If Zoom could make their system more sophisticated so that everyone in the audience could be represented by an avatar in the theatre, and each avatar could hear the other person, it would be as good as having an audience. But you see the difficulties we’re having even maintaining this conversation with two people. The thought of all the people with avatars being visible and audible, coming back into existence, going out of existence again, would be a very dicey prospect. It’s one of the criticisms that people make of actors sometimes, that they’ve phoned in their performance—but, theoretically, the audience could phone in their responses and that could be broadcast around the empty auditorium.
Theatre architects and technicians are working hard at the moment to try and find solutions that would allow for better audience capacity—I saw a scheme recently for surrounding every seat with plexiglass, so you’d be shielded from your neighbor.
If you’re shut away behind that, you might as well be shut away at home, using Zoom. If it would encourage the actors, you could have lots of little screens, five hundred screens in the house.
Your new book, “Magic Mobile,” is an array of comic miniatures and vignettes, and your previous book, “Matchbox Theatre,” was a series of playlets. Is there something appealing about working on a small scale?
No doubt I have more ideas for short pieces because that’s how I began my career, by writing stuff as a reporter for the Guardian. Then I became a columnist. Maybe I’m just in old age, or second childhood, reverting to where I began.
I’ve been thinking about comedy and the pandemic—obviously, so much of it has been so grim, but in Britain, at least, there’s been a lot of humor, too, partly because so many people think the government has been so incompetent.
I don’t know if it’s a particularly British thing. The British like to feel that they’re the only people in the world who’ve got a sense of humor—and particularly feel that the Germans don’t have a sense of humor. But that doesn’t actually survive going to Germany and meeting Germans. I think everyone in difficult situations tries to laugh about them if they possibly can, don’t they?
(Jesse Green’s, Maya Phillips’s, Laura Collins-Hughes’s, Elisabeth Vincentelli’s and Alexis Soloski’s article appeared in The New York Times, Sept. 11, 2020; Photo: The New York Times; via Pam Green.)
Six months dark. Thousands of artists out of work. Could this disaster have a surprise ending? Five critics on what must change, onstage and off.
When New York City shut down on March 12, its theaters were preparing for a busy spring season: big names on Broadway, Tony Awards mania, millions of dollars in sales and of course a smattering of thoughtful, important plays on smaller stages.
That’s all gone.
A cause for grieving, yes: especially for the thousands of artists out of work. Playwrights awaiting their breakthroughs no less than producers awaiting their windfalls instantly faced a future that had literally gone dark.
But what if the end of the business-as-usual party were actually the start of a new dream of what theater could be in New York — and by extension in the rest of the country? It’s not as if the shotgun marriage of art and industry that for decades decided what and whom we see onstage had produced an equitable, or even a sensible, result.
Just the opposite, as the Black Lives Matter movement and cultural offshoots like We See You White American Theater have pointed out. The racist assumptions, lordly practices and bad compromises that have favored some voices and squelched others at every level of production amount to what Jamil Jude, artistic director of True Colors Theater Company in Atlanta, has called “a gross case of malpractice.”
And then there is the garden-variety malpractice of an industry perpetually at odds with itself. As the increased violence against Black Americans has laid bare the inequities of creative access, the collapse of the economy has forced us to notice just how badly organized the business part of show business has been.
Things clearly had to change — and with the enforced pause of the pandemic, the opportunity has now arrived in the nick of time. If ever there was a need, and a moment, to fix the theater, this is it.
So for the six-month anniversary of the shutdown, The New York Times asked its theater critics — as well as dozens of people who make theater every day — what those fixes might look like.
Some of their ideas are pie-in-the-sky. (Profit-sharing?) Some are small-bore. (No more couches onstage!) None taken alone, or even all together, will effect an immediate, magical change to full equity, inclusion and financial stability. And even the biggest, best innovations will be difficult to sell in an environment that lacks concerted vocal leadership from those in power. It may be up to artists themselves, working from the ground up, to make change happen.
But it’s worth noting that the American theater has remade itself during disaster before. The Depression led to a flourishing of socially conscious (and often government funded) drama that produced a golden age of playwriting. In the aftermath of World War II, the regional theater movement arose to make the art form more responsive to local audiences and less fixated on profit.
Likewise, in the six months since theaters went dark, we have already seen that theater can arise from the ashes of the world’s (and its own) failures. In some ways it has even thrived. Artists in their lockdown apartments, whether next door in New York or anywhere in the world, have been creating new work online and delivering it to anyone who wants to watch it. This new ecology of all-access production has reminded many of us that the human need to make and share stories, not just to sell them, is immortal.
Even so, especially at moments of great change, it needs to be midwifed. As the actor and playwright Nikkole Salter has said of this moment, “Ask women who have given natural birth: There is a time to breathe and a time to push.”
This is a time to push. And here are some ways to start. JESSE GREEN
Class, it’s time to review the syllabus. Shakespeare, Ibsen, Williams, Miller, Pinter: If the history books have taught us anything, it is that theater loves a singular image of brilliance — and that image is often of a white man.
To build a new theater, we need to break open this canon, making room for people of color to be studied in classrooms and thus, eventually, take their place on contemporary stages.
We have, and will surely see again, the plays of August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry. We are well-acquainted with Suzan-Lori Parks and have just met Jeremy O. Harris. But to expect them to represent the whole history of Black theater is lazy and ignorant.
Embrace Hansberry and Wilson and Parks and Harris, but consider them in a long, rich and largely unknown historical context.
Three points on the timeline: In 1821, William Alexander Brown opened the African Theater, the first Black theater in New York City, and two years later his play “The Drama of King Shotaway” was presented there. It’s considered the first work by a Black playwright produced in this country.
In 1896, George Walker and Bert Williams were the first Black performers on Broadway in “The Gold Bug.”
In 1916, “Rachel,” by Angelina Weld Grimké, became the century’s first full-length play written by a Black playwright and acted and produced by Black people.
I knew of Grimké as a noted Harlem Renaissance poet, but not as a dramatist. Is that because her work was billed as a “race play” and derided as too political?
“Rachel” — about a bright young Black woman who becomes disillusioned with the injustice African-Americans encounter and decides she’ll never bring children into this unjust world — is worth revisiting now, for its lively dialogue, advanced sexual politics and stubborn portrayal of racism.
There are countless others ready for their close-up. New York theaters have recently presented work by Adrienne Kennedy, including a brand-new play, and the Roundabout Theater Company promises to stage “Trouble in Mind” by Alice Childress on Broadway when theaters open again.
I want to hear from May Miller and Ed Bullins, Louis Peterson and Lonne Elder III and Eulalie Spence — playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement, moments in American cultural history marked by pride in self-presentation. (Several of them I learned about only through research; I, too, need to expand my education.)
The Black Arts figures were central to the tradition of activist art from the 1960s and ’70s. Agitprop gets a bad rap, but it was a powerful tool of protest against the Vietnam War. So if radical times demand radical means of expression, why not revive the incendiary dramas of Amiri Baraka? Or look further back, to the political plays of the Harlem Renaissance poet Georgia Douglas Johnson, who wrote fiercely about lynching?
We need to look forward, too. Contemporary playwrights of color are plentiful in the pipeline, and they are getting commissions. But they need more than residencies and promises of consideration; they need productions.
Once Covid has left us, let’s see theaters deliver full seasons of work by people of color, and not just fill a slot. Let’s keep track of the commendable promise just made by Lincoln Center Theater — commissioning writers of color for shows aimed at its big, potentially lucrative Broadway house, not one of the smaller spaces.
“The Negro is already in the theater and has been there for a long time; but his presence there is not yet thoroughly normal,” W.E.B. DuBois wrote. “His audience is mainly a white audience and the Negro actor has, for a long time, been asked to entertain this more or less alien group.”
That was 1926. Things haven’t much changed for Black artists, nor for Latinx and Asian and Native American ones, and every other nonwhite group.
In this time of turbulence, we must rally for a theater that rises to the full force of the moment.
While we’re at it: Schedule more “Black out” nights — discounted performances exclusively for people of color, as Harris arranged for “Slave Play.” This will help make theater welcome, and accessible, to audiences that rarely get to see people like themselves onstage.
Theater Must Embrace Streaming to Grow Audiences
Experiments in lockdown have made live performance far more accessible, reaching new fans all over the world. There’s no going back. By Jesse Green
Streamed theater was supposed to be a tourniquet: an emergency measure to stop the industry from bleeding out while the pandemic made in-person performance impossible.
Those advantages are so important that they need to be part of the new normal. When live theater finally returns, the streamed kind, far from disappearing, must continue in parallel.
Fairness alone demands it. The low-cost, high-impact, huge-reach format allows artists who could barely get past the gatekeepers before to establish themselves on a nearly equal footing with long-ensconced figures.
Can you beat the Bard?
Questions by Joyce E. Henry, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Adam Sullivan writes to say that last Saturday the 2021 International World Men’s Handball Championship Draw took place at the Giza Pyramids plateau, with Egyptian actor Khaled El Nabawy, famed Egyptian TV presenter Jasmin Taha Zaki, musician Omar Khairat, and the presence of a wide range of International Handball Federation officials, as well as representatives of teams participating in the championship.
The Minister of Youth and Sports, Ashraf Sobhi, praised Egypt’s organizational, technical and management capabilities, as well as its sports facilities, hotels, and international airports. He thanked President Abdel Fattah El Sisi for his directives to organize the prestigious championship.
The 2021 World Men’s Handball Championship will be held in Egypt from January 13 to 31, 2021.
I speak of the truth of emotions, of the truth of inner creative urges which strain forward to find expression, of the truth of bodily and physical perceptions. I am not interested in a truth that is without myself. (MLIA)
(Nobuko Tanaka’s article appeared in The Japan Times, 9/11; photo of actor Shinichi Tsutsumi.)
Back in January, when English director Lindsay Posner visited Tokyo for preparatory meetings to stage the iconic courtroom drama “Twelve Angry Men” at Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon in Shibuya Ward, he was expecting to return in a few months to a city abuzz with excitement over the Summer Olympics.
Instead, the pandemic has put both the Games and international travel on hold — resulting in Posner having to log into Zoom in the early hours of his day to conduct rehearsals from his home in London with an all-Japanese cast eight hours ahead and more than 9,500 kilometers away.
Running Sept. 11 to Oct. 4, this production also marks the reopening of Theatre Cocoon following its closure on Feb. 28 due to the government’s state of emergency in response to COVID-19.
Posner, 61, has only worked through an interpreter once before, when he staged a musical version of “Cinderella” with a Russian cast in Moscow in 2016. Now add to that the challenge of working long-distance and you’d think the director might be at his wit’s end, but Posner says he welcomes the experience to work with a cast who don’t speak English.
In fact, he cheerfully notes during our video chat, “it’s interesting how you get used to things very quickly.” His enthusiasm also stems from a long-standing desire to stage this work by the socially incisive U.S. writer Reginald Rose.
First broadcast as a 60-minute television drama in 1954, Rose rewrote “Twelve Angry Men” for the stage the following year. However, it was 1957’s Hollywood adaptation, titled “12 Angry Men” — which Rose wrote and co-produced with the film’s star, Henry Fonda — that propelled this tale told almost entirely from within a murder trial’s jury room to wide acclaim. It was nominated for three Academy Awards and, in 2008, the American Film Institute selected the film for its second-place spot on a list of the Top 10 greatest U.S. courtroom dramas (behind 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” starring Gregory Peck and Mary Badham).
The story revolves around 12 male jurors from a wide range of backgrounds who are to deliberate the case of a poverty-stricken 16-year-old boy accused of stabbing his abusive father to death. The judge has instructed the jurors that they must arrive at a unanimous verdict, and if they find him guilty then the teen will receive the death penalty.
At first it seems the boy’s fate will be sealed quickly as a majority of the jurors — known only by their numbers, one through 12 — agree that he is guilty — all except Juror No. 8 (played in the Tokyo production by Shinichi Tsutsumi), who casts doubt on the prosecutor’s case so effectively that the others start reversing their verdicts one by one.
Ms. Rigg also played many classic roles onstage in both New York and London and, late in her career, found new fans on “Game of Thrones.”
Diana Rigg, the British actress who enthralled London and New York theater audiences with her performances in classic roles for more than a half-century but remained best known as the quintessential new woman of the 1960s — sexy, confident, witty and karate-adept — on the television series “The Avengers,” died on Thursday at her home in London. She was 82.
Her daughter, Rachael Stirling, said in a statement that the cause was cancer.
Ms. Rigg had late-career success in a recurring role, from 2013 to 2016, as the outspoken and demanding Lady Olenna Tyrell on HBO’s acclaimed series “Game of Thrones.” “I wonder if you’re the worst person I ever met,” Lady Olenna once said to her nemesis Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). “At a certain age, it’s hard to recall.”
But Ms. Rigg’s first and biggest taste of stardom came in 1965, when, as a 26-year-old veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, she was cast on the fourth season of ITV’s “The Avengers.” As Emma Peel, she was the stylish new crime-fighting partner of the dapper intelligence agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee), replacing Honor Blackman, who had left to star in the James Bond film “Goldfinger.” (Ms. Blackman died in April.)
Although Mrs. Peel, as Steed frequently addressed her, remained on the show relatively briefly, she quickly became the star attraction, especially when “The Avengers” was broadcast in the United States, beginning in 1966. Reviewing the 1969 movie “The Assassination Bureau,” in which she starred, Vincent Canby of The New York Times described Ms. Rigg in her Emma Peel persona as a “tall, lithe Modigliani of a girl with the sweet sophistication of Nora Charles and the biceps of Barbarella.”
She had left the show by then for a luminous career in feature films. Her other roles included Helena in Peter Hall’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1968), Portia in an all-star version of “Julius Caesar” (1970), a free spirit who tempted George C. Scott in Arthur Hiller and Paddy Chayefsky’s satire “The Hospital” (1971), and the cheated-on wife in Harold Prince’s interpretation of the Stephen Sondheim musical “A Little Night Music” (1978).