Category Archives: Commentary

OPENING NIGHT: JOHN CASSAVETES’ UNROMANTIC ODE TO THEATRE IS STUNNING ·

(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian 1/19/; Photo: Going on … Gena Rowlands in Opening Night. Photograph: Alamy.)

One of many tantalising theatre shows cancelled last year by the pandemic was The Second Woman, a 24-hour-long production at the Young Vic, London, in which Ruth Wilson was to repeatedly perform the same scene with a succession of 100 actors. This exploration of gender and power was inspired by John Cassavetes’ 1977 film Opening Night, about a troubled star’s out-of-town tryouts for a Broadway-bound play called The Second Woman.

After months of watching stage productions on screen while venues are closed, from archive NT Lives to lockdown live streams, I returned to Opening Night to start a new series looking at the ways cinema has depicted the world of theatre. I’m avoiding some of the more obvious titles (Birdman, All About Eve, movies based on plays or musicals such as A Chorus Line) and will be including a range of international choices over the next few weeks to see how film-makers have depicted the theatrical experience.

Cassavetes is hailed for ushering in a new style of American independent movies with naturalistic classics including Shadows and Faces, but he was no stranger to ambitious theatre. Within a few years of Opening Night, he was staging a trilogy of plays in Los Angeles with the same lead actor, his wife Gena Rowlands.

When we first see Rowlands in Opening Night, she is waiting to go on stage, calming her nerves with a nip of booze and a last drag on a cigarette. Cassavetes captures the jittery energy behind the scenes as well as the intense sensation of simply being on stage: when the curtain goes up, we feel the glare, echo and volume of the experience, the sheer nowness of it all. This is immediately juxtaposed with a rather dreary perspective from the stalls, where a fixed camera shows the uninspiring drama in which Myrtle stars.

What Cassavetes does brilliantly is present brief moments that exist somewhere between the private and public as we see the actor, Myrtle Gordon (the superb Rowlands), entering and leaving the stage, switching in and out of character, waiting for cues while hidden from an audience who loom in the background. This is what I’d love to see captured in more streams of theatre productions: multiple cameras used not just to shoot the drama but also showing actors immediately before and after their scenes.

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CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (108) ·

The words and wisdom of Constantin Stanislavski:

[Gordon] Craig dreamed of having the entire performance take place without intermissions or the use of the curtain. The public was to come to the theatre and see no stage whatsoever. The screens were to serve as the architectural continuation of the auditorium and were to harmonize with it. But at the beginning of the performance the screens were to move gracefully and their lines were to take on new combinations. At last they were to grow still. From somewhere there would be light. . . . . (MLIA)

HOW 8 COUNTRIES HAVE TRIED TO KEEP ARTISTS AFLOAT DURING PANEMIC ·

The National Theatre in London, Sept. 21, 2020. Governments around the world have tried to support the arts during the pandemic, some more generously than others. Lauren Fleishman/The New York Times.

by Alex Marshall, © 2021 The New York Times Company; via Pam Green 

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In December, owners and operators of theaters and music halls across the United States breathed a sigh of relief when Congress passed the latest coronavirus aid package, which finally set aside $15 billion to help desperate cultural venues. But that came more than six months after a host of other countries had taken steps to buffer the strain of the pandemic on the arts and artists.

Here are the highlights, and missteps, from eight countries’ efforts.

France

President Emmanuel Macron of France was one of the first world leaders to act to help freelance workers in the arts. The country has long had a special unemployment system for performing artists that recognizes the seasonality of such work and helps even out freelancers’ pay during fallow stretches. In May, Macron removed a minimum requirement of hours worked for those who had previously qualified for the aid. He also set up government insurance for TV and film shoots to deal with the threat of closure caused by the pandemic. Other countries, including Britain, quickly copied the move.

Germany

Germany’s cultural life has always been heavily subsidized, something that insulated many arts institutions from the pandemic’s effect. But in June, the government announced a $1.2 billion fund to get cultural life restarted, including money directed to such projects as helping venues upgrade their ventilation systems. And more assistance is on the way. Germany’s Finance Ministry intends to launch two new funds: one to pay a bonus to organizers of smaller cultural events (those intended for up to a few hundred people), so they can be profitable even with social distancing; and another to provide insurance for larger events (for several thousand attendees) to mitigate the risk of cancellation. Germany is not the first to implement such measures; Austria introduced event insurance in January.

Britain

In July, the British government announced a cultural bailout package worth about $2.1 billion — money that saved thousands of theaters, comedy clubs and music venues from closure. In December, several major institutions, including the National Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Company, were also given long-term loans under the package. Even with the help, there have already been about 4,000 layoffs at British museums alone, and more in other sectors.

Poland

European cultural aid hasn’t been enacted without controversy. In November, Poland announced recipients of a $100 million fund meant to compensate dance, music and theater companies for earnings lost because of restrictions during the pandemic. But the plan was immediately attacked by some news outlets for giving money to “the famous and rich,” including pop stars and their management. The complaints prompted the culture minister to announce an urgent review of all payments, but the government ultimately defended them, and made only minor changes.

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HOW THE LEGACY OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. INSPIRED THE DANCE THEATRE OF HARLEM ·

(Walter Rutledge’s article appeared on Playbill Online, 1/18; Photo of Arthur Mitchell by Sharon Perry.) 

THE GREAT AMERICAN ARTS INSTITUTION WAS BUILT ON A MODEL OF INCLUSIVENESS.

On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed a rally in Memphis, Tennessee, delivering his iconic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Initially, there had been concerns he might miss the rally due to a bomb threat. The following day, as King prepared for another rally, he turned to musician Ben Branch and said, “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” Then he stepped out on to the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. Julian Barber, a reporter for WTOP TV in Washington D.C., was the first to report Dr. King had been shot. Soon all three national television networks would interrupt their broadcasts with the news of his assassination.

Harlem seemed to react to Dr. King’s murder with a collective moan. Strangers embraced and openly sobbed on the street, then parted, going on alone, while others simply asked, “Why? Why?” this moment of deep despair Dr. King’s own words, “Only in the darkness can you see the stars,” offered both solace and the will to keep the dream alive.

Arthur Mitchell, compelled by the tragedy, took action. He saw the opportunity to change the lives of the young people in his community by opening a ballet school. In the beginning, Mitchell’s vision of bringing classical ballet to the youth of Harlem was met with doubt. “Well, the field really thought I had lost it,” explained Mitchell. “The rumors that went around—‘he’s crazy, insane, nuts, black kids can’t relate.’ Even the black community didn’t know why I was coming uptown to do ballet.”

Skeptics never deterred Mitchell. In 1955, he joined New York City Ballet. By 1958, he was a soloist and in 1962 he became the first African American to achieve the rank of principal of a major ballet company. At that time, only three other African-American dancers held positions in the city’s major ballet companies.

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THE DELIGHTS OF SEA-CHANTEY TIKTOK ·

(Amanda Petrusich’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 1/14.  Photo: After nearly a year of solitude and crushing restrictions, chanteys are providing a glimpse into a more exciting way of life, a world of sea air and pirates, of people singing in unison.Source: jonnystewartbass / TikTok.)

In late December, Nathan Evans, a twenty-six year old singer from Scotland, posted a TikTok of himself performing a multi-part sea chantey titled “The Scotsman.” Evans sang the piece a capella, in a rich, trembling baritone, while pounding his fists and clapping his hands. “The Scotsman” nails the essential gist—Girls! Booze! Travails!—of the sea chantey, a style of traditional folk song that, historically, was sung in unison by sailors, either to pass the time or synchronize their labor. “The Scotsman” has since racked up 2.7 million views (and counting). Evans posted another chantey performance a few days later, this time of “The Wellerman,” a piece more than a century old that likely originated with the small-boat whalers of New Zealand in the mid-nineteenth-century (a Wellerman was an employee of the Weller Brothers, which operated a whaling station on Otago Harbor, and paid its fishermen with “sugar and tea and rum”). The video presently has 4.1 million views, and has inspired imitations, remixes, homages, and the recording of ever more chanteys. According to Google Trends, “sea shanties” has been searched more now than at any other time in Google’s history. “I don’t really know what happened,” Evans told CNET.

It feels worth pointing out (particularly if you are accustomed to a more sly and mocking youth culture) that TikTok’s sudden embrace of the chantey is not ironic, exactly. In one especially popular reaction video, two young men drive while “The Wellerman” plays. The guy on the left knows all the words, and is singing along; soon, the guy on the right is doing it, too. “Now we lit,” a caption reads. There appears to be genuine pleasure on both of their faces.

It seems possible that after nearly a year of solitude and collective self-banishment, and of crushing restrictions on travel and adventure, the chantey might be providing a brief glimpse into a different, more exciting way of life, a world of sea air and pirates and grog, of many people singing in unison, of being free to boldly take off for what Melville called the “true places,” the uncorrupted vistas that can’t be located on any map. But it’s also not unusual for something to gain purchase on TikTok simply because it is unexpected. TikTok runs on an engine of chaos and unpredictability; users of the app are not expected to make logical sense of its offerings. Instead, TikTok is a narrative-free zone, which means it can work as a kind of psychic balm if you are prone to exhausting yourself by scouring art or media for meaning. On TikTok, there is no meaning beyond what is visceral and immediate. For me, at least, that can sometimes feel nice. As my colleague Jia Tolentino wrote back in 2019, “I found it both freeing and disturbing to spend time on a platform that didn’t ask me to pretend that I was on the Internet for a good reason.”

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TIM RICE: ‘EVITA WAS A BONKERS IDEA’ ·

(Rob Walker’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/14; Photo: Dynamic duo … Tim Rice, right, and Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1970. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images.)

As the great songwriter prepares to take Jesus Christ Superstar on a 50th birthday tour, he talks about penning hits, his idea for a new musical – and drinking from Lloyd Webber’s Georgian wine glasses

 Tim Rice had a hunch the Oscar was in the bag. After all, he and Elton John had been responsible for three of the five nominations in the best song category. But, as he walked on stage that night in 1995, after Can You Feel the Love Tonight from The Lion King won, the tall, slightly awkward-looking English lyricist had no idea what he was going to say. So he drew a breath then decided, on a whim, to thank his childhood hero, Denis Compton. No one in the Hollywood audience had heard of the England and Middlesex cricketing all-rounder and his words were greeted with a bemused silence.

Rice laughs at the memory and puts on a throaty American drawl to recount the scene back stage when reporters swarmed. “What movies was this guy Compton in?” “Oh, I said, he was in The Final Test.” “But what part did he play?” “Well, he played Denis Compton – and frankly, I thought he captured the character very well.”

He chortles away, still roguish at 76 and ever the raconteur. But then Rice is at his best telling stories. They’re the key to his craft. “A good story always inspires good words,” he says. And, over the past six decades, Rice has written some very good words for the biggest names in music, from Freddie Mercury to Madonna. Mention his name, though, and people are likely to think of him as part of a duo alongside – or even eclipsed by – Andrew Lloyd Webber. Yet as a lyricist, Rice has won three Oscars, two more than Lloyd Webber.

Why isn’t he more of a national treasure? “I really don’t like people saying everything is wonderful,” Rice says, when I suggest that he may be a bit too, well, self-effacing for someone with three Academy awards. “I don’t want to completely put myself down – because there’s the frightening possibility that people might agree.” Is there anything he will say? “I think I’m quite good at judging my material, partly because it’s only half mine in most cases.”

He’s speaking to me from his six-acre country home near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, a leafy retreat he moved to three years ago. Outside, the afternoon light’s fading and his dog is impatient for a walk. Rice has spent the day organising all the songs he’s ever written – putting his house in order “in case I get hit by a bus next week”. He’s been struck by how many never appeared in films or shows: 145 in all. Most are pretty average, he says, particularly the early ones. “It’s made me realise just how much a show helps a song.”

I like a perfect rhyme. I don’t like time and mine, or girl and world

None more so than the hit musical Evita. A “bonkers” idea, he says, that came to him after hearing a radio programme about Eva Perón, the glamorous wife of Juan Perón, three times president of Argentina. The show made him drop everything and jump on a plane to Buenos Aires to do some research. “The best stuff I’ve written is when I have characters and I know what situation they’re in – and I think, ‘What would I say in that situation?’”

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ILLUSIONIST SIEGFRIED FISCHBACHER OF SIEGFRIED & ROY DIES ·

(Paul Davenport’s article appeared on the AP, 1/14; via the Drudge Report; Photo: Sigfried, left, with tiger: Reviewjournal.com.)

Siegfried Fischbacher, the surviving member of the magic duo Siegfried & Roy who entertained millions with illusions using rare animals, has died in Las Vegas, his publicist tells The Associated Press. He was 81.

Fischbacher died Wednesday at his home from pancreatic cancer, Dave Kirvin of Kirvin Doak Communications said Thursday. The news was first reported by German news agency dpa.

Fischbacher’s long-time show business partner, Roy Horn, died last year of complications from COVID-19 at a Las Vegas hospital. He was 75.

The duo astonished millions with their extraordinary magic tricks until Horn was critically injured in 2003 by one of the act’s famed white tigers.

In a statement announcing Horn’s death in May, Fischbacher said, “From the moment we met, I knew Roy and I, together, would change the world. There could be no Siegfried without Roy, and no Roy without Siegfried.”

He later told Germany’s weekly Bild am Sonntag newspaper his best friend would always stay by his side.

“For dinner, I will continue to have the table set for him, too. Like it always was the case. I’m not alone,” dpa quoted Fischbacher as telling the newspaper.

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CUOMO OUTLINES PLANS TO ‘BRING ARTS AND CULTURE BACK TO LIFE’ ·

(Sarah Bahr’s article appeared in The New York Times 1/12; via Pam Green Photo: “New York City is not New York without Broadway,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Tuesday in unveiling plans for the arts. Theaters have been closed since March because of the pandemic.Credit…Daniel Arnold for The New York Times.)

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said that New York urgently needs to bring the arts back — not only to help jobless artists, but to make sure that New York City survives.

Declaring that New York urgently needs to revive its arts and entertainment industry if it is to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Tuesday that the state would begin taking a series of interim steps to help to bring back some cultural events in the short term and put more unemployed artists back to work.)

“We must bring arts and culture back to life,” Mr. Cuomo said as he continued a weeklong series of policy addresses outlining his agenda for the state.

The governor said that bringing back art and culture was crucial — not just to help artists, who have suffered some of the worst unemployment in the nation, but to keep New York City a vital, exciting center where people will want to live and work.

“Cities are, by definition, centers of energy, entertainment, theater and cuisine,” Mr. Cuomo said, noting the threats the city is facing from the rise in remote work, crime and homelessness. “Without that activity and attraction, cities lose much of their appeal. What is a city without social, cultural and creative synergies? New York City is not New York without Broadway.”

Mr. Cuomo said that the state would begin a public-private partnership to offer a series of statewide pop-up concerts featuring artists such as Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, Renée Fleming and Hugh Jackman; begin a pilot program exploring how socially distant performances might be held safely in flexible venues whose seating is not fixed; and work in partnership with the Mellon Foundation to distribute grants to put more than 1,000 artists back to work and provide money to community arts groups.

The governor said that the state could not wait until summer, when more people are vaccinated, to bring back performances.

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CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (107) ·

The words and wisdom of Constantin Stanislavski:

Gordon Craig dreamed of a theatre without men and women, without actors. He wanted to supplant them with marionettes who had no bad habits or bad gestures, no painted faces, no exaggerated voices, no smallness of soul, no worthless ambitions. The marionettes would have cleansed the atmosphere of the theatre, they would have given a high seriousness to the enterprise, and the dead material from which they were made would have given Craig an opportunity to hint at that actor who lived in the soul, the imagination, and the dreams of Craig himself.

But, as it became clear later on, the denial of actors did not interfere with Craig’s enthusiasm for the slightest hint of true theatrical talent in men or women. Feeling it, Craig would turn into a child, leap in joy from his chair, propel himself headlong at the footlights. . . . (MLIA)

BELARUS THREATENS TO KILL TWO UK DISSIDENTS ·

  • “We will definitely find you … and we will hang you, side-by-side,” the main Belarusian government newspaper, Sovietska Belarus, wrote on 27 December 2020.reetheatre.com)

“Death threats were always part of our life … but this is the first time the main columnist of Sovietska Belarus is using such language,” she told EUobserver from London last week, where they have lived for almost 10 years after receiving asylum and UK nationality.

  •  British citizenship and international awards are not enough to make Belarusian dissident Natalia Kaliada and her husband Nicolai Khalezin feel safe after a high-profile death threat.

Kaliada, a former diplomat, and Khalezin, a journalist, are co-founders of Belarus Free Theatre, which puts on anti-Belarus regime plays around the world.

They also lobby for Western sanctions against regime financiers.

And these include Russian oligarchs, such as Mikhail Gutseriev, whose family also lives in London, and whose intimate links to Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko were recently exposed by British newspaper The Telegraph.

“Clearly, we’ve become a target … it’s getting more tense,” Kaliada said.

“We have British citizenship, so in that [Sovietska Belarus] column, they’re threatening citizens of other countries and the UK needs to take responsibility,” she told EUobserver.

“People somehow continue to be killed and poisoned here [in Britain],” she added, referring to previous Russian murders and attempted murders of Russian émigrés in the UK.

“The [British] government needs to understand the threat is also coming from smaller dictators than [Russian president Vladimir] Putin to citizens of their country,” Kaliada said.

A British foreign office spokeswoman told EUobserver: “The UK condemns the intimidation and persecution of Belarusian political opposition figures by Lukashenko’s regime,” in reaction to the Sovietska Belarus threat.

“We continue to call for a genuine and constructive political dialogue between the authorities, the opposition, and civil society to resolve this crisis peacefully,” she added, referring to pro-democracy protests in Belarus.

“I only hope the economy of Belarus is pretty weak, but if he [Lukashenko] previously found €1.2m for this type of thing, knowing that he has billions in his personal fortune, you never know,” Kaliada said.

She spoke after EUobserver revealed that Lukashenko, back in 2012, put a small fortune in a secret account to finance assassinations abroad.

“Knowing what Lukashenko already did to our friends … we feel like anything could happen,” Kaliada said, referring to the vanishing of four opposition activists in Belarus in 1999 and to what she called the “staged suicide” of eminent Belarusian journalist Oleg Bebenin in 2010.

Kaliada already came close to losing her life.

She was about to fly from Minsk to London to stage a play in the run-up to Belarus elections in December 2010 when it happened.

“It was 5AM when we got to the airport and some people dressed in black came over to me, just before boarding. They took away my passport and my boarding pass and said: ‘Do you understand you’re the leader of a terrorist group? Do you understand you’ll disappear now?’,” she recalled.

“They took me down several floors and into a dark corridor and I thought to myself: ‘They’re going to shoot me in the back of the head now, like they do with the death penalty [in Belarus]’. But I tried my luck and said: ‘Guys! It’s a bad idea to kidnap me on the way to London right before elections. If I vanish now, you’ll get into trouble and your boss, Lukashenko, will be in such deep shit, you’d better let me go’,” she said.

The men-in-black made some phone-calls, then let her board her flight, which had been held up for an hour over the incident.

But Kaliada has vowed to continue her opposition despite the risks. “It’s in my DNA,” she said.

She also paid tribute to pro-democracy protesters in Belarus, who have kept up demonstrations for over 150 days after rigged elections in August, despite police sadism and the onset of winter.

“I have no words to express how brave they are,” Kaliada told EUobserver.

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