Category Archives: Commentary

HOW A FAMILY TRANSFORMED THE LOOK OF EUROPEAN THEATER ·

(Joseph Cermatori’s article appeared in The New York Times, 6/11; via Pam Green; Illustration: Rotating the perspective to depict massive, magnificent interiors, the Bibiena family transformed stage design in the 17th and 18th centuries.Credit…Morgan Library & Museum.)  

The Bibienas, the focus of an exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum, dominated Baroque theatrical design.

Many of us have not seen the inside of a theater in well over a year. But as performance spaces around the country are on the verge of reopening, the Morgan Library & Museum is offering a quietly astonishing reminder of what we’ve been missing.

Open through Sept. 12 at the Morgan, “Architecture, Theater and Fantasy” is a small but exquisite show of drawings by the Bibiena family, which transformed theatrical design in the 17th and 18th centuries. Organized around a promised gift to the museum of 25 Bibiena works by Jules Fisher, the Tony Award-winning Broadway lighting designer, the exhibit is the first in the United States of the family’s drawings in over 30 years.

From Lisbon to St. Petersburg, Russia, the Bibienas dominated every major court theater in Baroque Europe. Their innovations in perspective opened new dramatic possibilities, and their lavish projects cost vast sums, with single spectacles running budgets of up to $10 million in today’s dollars. Writing to Alexander Pope of an opera performed outdoors in Vienna to consecrate the Austrian crown prince’s birth in 1716, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu described a massive stage constructed over a canal. Gilded flotillas sailed beneath it — a spectacle, she wrote, “so large that it is hard to carry the eye to the end of it.”

That production’s designer, Ferdinando Galli Bibiena (1657-1743), had arrived in Vienna in 1711 as the official scenographer for the Hapsburg court of Charles VII. His father, the Tuscan painter Giovanni Maria Galli (1618-65), came from a village in Arezzo called Bibbiena, and adapted its name as his own. Young Ferdinando started out in Bologna as a master of quadratura, or illusionistic ceiling painting. But his theatrical talents took his career in other directions in the 1680s.

Until that time, European scenery primarily utilized single-point perspective. This optical technique, perfected in 15th-century Italian visual art, arranged scenic images around a central vanishing point, creating the semblance of an infinitely receding space. (A Bibiena drawing already in the Morgan’s collection makes the regress dizzyingly, almost terrifyingly, steep.)

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RITA MORENO DEFENDS LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA OVER ‘IN THE HEIGHTS’ COLORISM CRITICISM: ‘YOU CAN NEVER DO RIGHT’ ·

(Ellise Shafer’s article appeared in Variety, 6/15; Photo: Samantha Okazaki.)

Rita Moreno is defending Lin-Manuel Miranda and “In the Heights” following criticism over the film’s lack of Afro-Latino representation.

On tonight’s episode of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” Moreno appeared to promote her documentary, “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” and later brought up the “In the Heights” controversy.

“Can we talk for a second about that criticism about Lin-Manuel? That really upsets me,” Moreno said to Colbert.

Moreno is referring to criticism regarding the lack of dark-skinned Afro-Latinos in the film’s cast, particularly in leading roles. Online discussion on the topic over the weekend stemmed from a video article in The Root, published on Wednesday. In an interview with “In the Heights” director Jon M. Chu and stars Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera and Gregory Diaz IV, journalist Felice León questioned the film’s casting decisions. “What would you say to folks who say that ‘In the Heights’ privileges white-passing and light-skinned Latinx people?” León asked, to which Chu replied: “I would say that’s a fair conversation to have. Listen, we’re not going to get everything right in a movie. We tried our best on all fronts of it.”

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BARD DAY’S WORK: WHAT I LEARNED FROM EAVESDROPPING ON RSC REHEARSALS ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/14; Photo: ‘It’s about the process, not the product’ … Lily Nichol as Joan la Pucelle. Photograph: Ellie Kurttz. Copyright @ Royal Shakespeare Company.)

The Royal Shakespeare Company is letting the public watch the usually secret processes towards performance – from clapping games to verse sessions

The creative process normally takes place behind closed doors. But the RSC has boldly upended that idea by streaming its Open Rehearsal Project for Henry VI Part One. What this means, in practice, is that cameras are admitted for three sessions each day. At 10am we watch a half-hour company warm-up. From noon, for 90 minutes, we get to see either a class (movement, combat, verse-speaking) or the rehearsal of a scene. Then at 6pm we eavesdrop on a green-room chat, in which company members mull over progress so far. After dipping in and out for the first fortnight – and there’s still more than a week to go before a streamed performance on 23 June – I’m intrigued by how much I’ve learned.

But are open rehearsals a good idea? There was a pivotal moment when Gregory Doran – who shares direction of the project with Owen Horsley – quoted a letter he’d received from an actor who said “the rehearsal room is sacrosanct – actors must not be exposed like this”. I spoke to a veteran actor who said she too was horrified by the idea of the public witnessing the trial and error that takes place in a rehearsal room.

I fully get that but there are extenuating circumstances that justify this experiment. As Jamie Wilkes, one of the company, pointed out: “It is about the process – not the product.” There is none of the pressure of an imminent press night or fully staged production. Mariah Gale also shrewdly observed that what works for an ensemble piece such as Henry VI Part One would be less suited to Hamlet or Macbeth, where individuals wrestle with intractable problems. But the ultimate vindication is that, for both participants and spectators, there is a peculiar joy about total immersion in Shakespeare after 15 barren, largely Bard-free months.

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CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (120) ·

The words and wisdom of Constantin Stanislavski:

When . . . somebody advised Chekhov to write a play about the [Russo-Japanese] war, the great writer was insulted:

“Listen,” he said, “it is necessary that twenty years should pass. It is impossible to speak of it now. It is necessary that the world should be in repose. Only then can an author be unprejudiced.” (MLIA)

KATORI HALL WINS DRAMA PULITZER FOR ‘THE HOT WING KING’ ·

 (Julia Jacobs’s article appeared in The New York Times, 6/11; via Pam Green. Photo:  Katori Hall in New York City last year. The playwright was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for “The Hot Wing King,” which uses a sitcom structure to explore Black masculinity.Credit…Amy Lombard for The New York Times.)

The play, which had its run cut short because of the pandemic, centers on a kitchen in Memphis, where a man is trying to concoct award-winning chicken wings.

Katori Hall, who has told stirring stories about Black life in America both onstage and onscreen, has won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “The Hot Wing King,” a family dramedy that centers on a man’s quest to make award-winning chicken wings while personal conflict swirls around him.

The Off Broadway play — produced last year by the Pershing Square Signature Center, where it had a truncated run — drew praise for challenging conventional conceptions of Black masculinity and fatherhood.

Its main character, Cordell, has recently moved into a home in Memphis with his lover, Dwayne, whom Cordell enlists to help him make his submission to the annual “Hot Wang Festival.” Things get complicated when Dwayne wants to take in his 16-year-old nephew, whose mother died while being restrained by the police — a tragedy for which Dwayne blames himself.

In the awards announcements on Friday, the Pulitzer board called the play a “funny, deeply felt consideration of Black masculinity and how it is perceived, filtered through the experiences of a loving gay couple and their extended family as they prepare for a culinary competition.”

Hall, 40, the author of the Olivier Award-winning “The Mountaintop,” wrote a play that was full of frenetic action (stirring pots, dismembering chickens, spicing sauces), emotional exchanges and sitcom-style ribbing.

She also co-wrote the book for “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” which is nominated for numerous Tony Awards (including best musical and best book of a musical), and created the Starz drama “P-Valley,” which follows a crew of dancers at a strip club in the Mississippi Delta. Hall is currently working on Season 2 of the series, which is based on one of her plays.

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SCREAMING ARTIST ELECTRIFIES BELARUS PROTESTS IN WARSAW ·

(Dario Thuburn’s article appeared on Yahoo, 6/11; Photo: France24.)

Jana Shostak says her protests is ‘a scream of spite, of anger, of powerlessness over what is happening in our country’

With her blood-curdling, lung-bursting screams of protest outside the European Commission office in Warsaw, 28-year-old artist Jana Shostak has become the angry face of the Belarusian opposition movement in Poland.

Shostak began screaming last year following the disputed re-election of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet republic since 1994.

“It’s a scream of spite, of anger, of powerlessness over what is happening in our country,” Shostak told AFP this week after a minute bellowing out her howl of anguish at one of the near-daily protests outside the European Commission office in Warsaw.

Shostak arrived by taxi — already rallying the protesters by shouting from the car, wearing a cotton dress in the white-red-white colours used by the Belarusian opposition.

Fellow Belarusians and Polish allies have been joining the protests. Next to outdoor cafes crowded with patrons enjoying the end of lockdown, dozens of people have joined Shostak’s screams to demand the European Union take more action against Lukashenko.

“We’ve had enough. We want real sanctions,” Shostak said.

Their screams are now being heard far beyond Warsaw.

The unusual form of protest has gone viral on social media, and this week Polish actor Bartosz Bielenia surprised the European Parliament by screaming for Belarus after receiving an award.

– ‘Ultimate way to protest’ –

One of Shostak’s screams has proved particularly popular online.

It was on May 24 — a day after Lukashenko diverted a Ryanair flight between two EU capitals, forced it to land in Belarus and arrested a dissident journalist and his girlfriend on board.

That scream also attracted controversy in Poland because of a comment by a left-wing female parliamentarian, Anna Maria Zukowska, that appeared to criticise Shostak’s low neckline.

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WHAT DID I MISS? A CHILDREN’S THEATRE SPACE COMES BACK TO LIFE ·

(Sara Keating’s article appeared in The Irish Times, 6/9; Photo:  Naomi Moonveld-Nkosi stars as Kyla in The Ark’s What Did I Miss? by Sean Dunne, which explores and shares children’s experience of lockdown. Photograph: Ste Murray.)

Shaun Dunne’s play, in its fourth, lockdown-shaped iteration, is about to stream from the Ark

“What do you call a memory that never happened?” 13-year-old Kyla asks an imaginary group of peers as she rehearses the speech she plans to give at a belated graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020, whose primary school career was cut short by the pandemic. As she starts secondary school and says goodbye to childhood, Kyla is grieving, not just for those formal markers of transition from one stage of life to another, but for the little personal markers of her self-identity: her ability as an organiser, her talent as a dance captain.

Kyla is the central character in Shaun Dunne’s new play What Did I Miss?, which was to be the centrepiece of the Dublin Theatre Festival’s family programme in 2020, an annual partnership with the Ark, a cultural centre for children. Like all arts organisations around the country, the global pandemic presented the Ark with a challenge: how to reach young audiences when coming together is problematic.

As the Ark’s director, Aideen Howard, explained, What Did I Miss? was “actually version three” of their contribution to the Dublin Theatre Festival programme for 2020.

“There was our first international programme,” Howard said from a social distance at her standing desk in a stark white office brightened with children’s artwork. “That had to be cancelled obviously because of travel restrictions and limits on indoor gatherings. Then we came up with an idea for an outdoor production that would comply with Covid restrictions, which we could tour to schoolyards, and Shaun wrote What Did I Miss?

“Then the guidelines changed, so we decided to redesign it as an indoor production, and that’s the scenario we are working with now. Of course, we also have to have a plan for what will happen if things change again, but we are keeping our fingers crossed that nothing too dramatic happens to stop audiences coming back into us.”

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LLOYD WEBBER SAYS HE WILL RISK ARREST TO REOPEN HIS THEATRES ON 21 JUNE ·

(PA Media’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/8; Photo: The Guardian.)

 Impresario is determined his production of Cinderella will start this month in London as planned

Andrew Lloyd Webber says he may have to sell his West End theatres if venues are forced to operate at reduced capacities. Photograph: UPI/Alamy

Andrew Lloyd Webber has said he is determined to open his theatres on 21 June regardless of whether rules are relaxed, and is prepared to be arrested if authorities try to intervene.

The composer said he may have to sell his six West End venues if the government does not remove restrictions that have forced venues to run with reduced capacities.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Lord Lloyd-Webber also revealed he had remortgaged his London home, as the live entertainment industry struggles with the pandemic’s catastrophic financial impact.

Many theatres have remained closed despite the easing of Covid-19 restrictions as it still is not financially viable for them to open with smaller audiences.

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HOW ACT UP CHANGED AMERICA ·

(Michael Specter’s article appeared in The New Yorkers, 7/7; Photo: In 1988, protesters laid siege to the F.D.A. for a day, one of many interventions designed to capture public attention.Photograph by Catherine McGann / Getty.)

The defiant group of AIDS activists was itself riven by discord. What can the movement’s legacy, of both ferocity and fragility, teach us?

One day in June, 1990, at the height of the aids epidemic, I sat in the auditorium of San Francisco’s Moscone Center and watched as hundreds of activists pelted Louis W. Sullivan, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, with condoms. Sullivan had been attempting to deliver the closing address at the 6th International aids Conference. The protesters, from the aids Coalition to Unleash Power, or act up, were there to stop him. Shouts of “shame, shame, shame” were accompanied by whistles and air horns. Like many people who were in the audience that day—I was there as a Washington Post reporter—I remember everything about the speech except what Sullivan said. Which was exactly what act up wanted. The group had been formed to force a negligent government to take aids seriously. Not every federal official came under attack that day. Just an hour earlier, Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s chief aids scientist, had received a standing ovation after he essentially endorsed the protesters’ agenda, warning his colleagues that they “cannot and should not dismiss activists merely on the basis of the fact that they are not trained scientists.”

It was a triumphant moment for act up, which had become known for its outrageous stunts. Behind what seemed like radical unity, however, the organization had already begun to split into two distinct camps. One believed that the best way to advance the cause was to continue to protest—loudly. The other did not reject public actions but didn’t focus on them; it was known as the Science Club, and had formed a kind of academy within act up.

In “Let the Record Show: A Political History of act up New York, 1987-1993” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Sarah Schulman, a novelist, journalist, and activist, chronicles the early years of a vigorously oppositional group that was itself riven by discord and factionalism. Any history of a movement presents an argument about its identity—about which internal tendencies most faithfully represent its mission and which betray it. Schulman has strong views on this subject. On one point, though, there can be little disagreement. When act up began, its founders could not have guessed how high the group would soar; they would have been even more surprised by the particular conflicts that brought it down to earth.

By the time act up was born, in 1987, tens of thousands of Americans—mostly gay men—had died of aids, and more were dying every day, even as the government remained largely indifferent. Early that March, Larry Kramer, the writer and activist who had helped found the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, delivered a speech at New York’s Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, on West Thirteenth Street. “O.K., I want this half of the room to stand up,’’ he later recalled saying. “I looked around at those kids and I said to the people standing up, ‘You are all going to be dead in five years. Every one of you fuckers.’ I was livid. I said, ‘How about doing something about it? Why just line up for the cattle cars?’ ”

The aids Coalition to Unleash Power was formed two days later. Its members met at the Center on Monday nights. They came to plan actions and to socialize but also to get answers. More than anything, it was a safe place for people who had nowhere else to turn. They were, Schulman writes, “a despised group of people, with no rights, facing a terminal disease for which there were no treatments. Abandoned by their families, government, and society.” The New York membership expanded from an initial hardcore cadre of several dozen to several thousand, including many people who were neither infected with H.I.V. nor at much risk of becoming so. Although plenty of other cities started their own chapters, act up ny was always at the center of the movement.

act up members lived by a creed set out by Ann Northrop, one of the organization’s more media-savvy leaders: “Actions are always, always, always planned to be dramatic enough to capture public attention.’’ The activists delivered. They wrapped the home of the North Carolina senator Jesse Helms in a giant yellow condom; invaded St. Patrick’s Cathedral during Mass; laid siege to the Food and Drug Administration (“Hey, hey, F.D.A., how many people have you killed today?”); and dumped the ashes of comrades who had died of aids on the White House lawn. These and many other high-profile interventions raised awareness about aids. But the group’s most important accomplishments were not as easily captured in headlines. Because so many people with aids were forced to live on the streets, act up members founded a philanthropy that evolved into Housing Works, which directed resources (including money raised by a chain of thrift shops) toward aids services and homelessness. act up helped establish the first successful needle-exchange programs in New York City. It also took on insurance practices like the exclusion of single men who lived in predominantly gay neighborhoods.

Nothing the organization did had a more lasting impact, however, than the work of the Science Club, whose members served on act up’s Treatment and Data Committee. They would congregate each week at the East Village apartment of Mark Harrington, who, though he had no formal scientific training, eventually won a MacArthur “genius” grant for his work on aids. Harrington, a wiry man with reddish-blond hair, seemed both constantly in motion and unusually deliberate. As Schulman recounts, the gatherings in his apartment were like a “doctor’s weekly rounds,” where attendees discussed a particular problem and “assigned themselves immunology and virology textbooks.’’

Harrington was hardly averse to public demonstrations: he helped organize act up’s “Seize Control of the F.D.A.” protest, in 1988, and its “Storm the N.I.H.” event, in 1990. But he believed that anger had to be allied with expertise. He and other members of the Science Club came to know the arcane rules and the impenetrable bureaucracy of the F.D.A. better than most of the officials who worked there. They prepared a detailed assessment of N.I.H.-sponsored clinical trials, and argued that people facing almost certain death should have access to experimental drugs that had been shown to be reasonably safe, even if they had not yet demonstrated efficacy. By 1990, the F.D.A. had adopted this approach (known as the “parallel track”), which would make selected drugs available to H.I.V.-positive patients. The slogan “Drugs Into Bodies” moved from placards to policy: act up had forced a fundamental change in the way clinical trials are conducted in the United States. Today, drug candidates for life-threatening conditions are frequently put on a parallel track for “expanded access.”

Eventually, in what Schulman refers to as act up’s period of “distress and desperation,’’ the Science Club broke away from the organization, and, led by Harrington, it formed the Treatment Action Group, to focus on accelerating the pace of research. Although the tag defection involved fewer than two dozen people, it was a painful divorce, with unexpected repercussions. act up’s ferocity concealed a genuine fragility. The group fearlessly hurled itself against the medical bureaucracy, the Catholic Church, even the White House; what proved much harder to weather was its own crisis of identity.

Although “Let the Record Show” bills itself as a history, Schulman maintains that “a chronological history would be impossible and inaccurate.” She does hope to offer contemporary activists “general principles and takeaway ideas,” but her book is best approached as a sort of modified oral history, a curated archive of nearly two hundred interviews conducted over the course of two decades. One can open this seven-hundred-page book at random and find something interesting to read: a mini-biography, firsthand recollections of major events, contentious perspectives on the goals of different groups within act up. (The interviews—which Schulman did along with the filmmaker Jim Hubbard—are available online, as the act up Oral History Project.) Schulman draws, too, on her five years as an act up member, but largely eschews other people’s research, and the book provides scant interstitial narrative; some readers may struggle to put these passages into context. Still, her labors will provide an invaluable resource for the social history of the movement that remains to be written.

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NATIONAL BLACK THEATER PLANS NEXT ACT IN A NEW HARLEM HIGH-RISE ·

(Julia Jacobs’s article appeared in The New York Times, 6/4; via Pam Green; Photo: National Black Theater is working with developers to replace its longtime home. This rendering shows a planned 21-story building that will include a mix of housing, retail and a gleaming new theater.Credit…Luxigon, via National Black Theater.)

The pathbreaking company plans to replace its Harlem home with a 21-story building with apartments, retail and a new theater.

It was more than 50 years ago that Barbara Ann Teer rented space in a building at 125th Street and Fifth Avenue in Harlem that would serve as the home of a nascent organization called National Black Theater.

The theater blossomed into an important cultural anchor, presenting productions by, and about, Black Americans when their stories rarely appeared on mainstream stages, and hosting artists including Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Nina Simone, Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou. When the building was destroyed in a fire in 1983, many feared that the theater was doomed, said Sade Lythcott, Teer’s daughter. But Teer had another idea: She decided to buy the damaged 64,000-square-foot building on Fifth Avenue, with a vision of revitalizing it and trying to use real estate to help pay for the theater’s work.

“She saw it as the next piece of this temple to Black liberation, which is ownership,” said Lythcott, the theater’s chief executive. “Ownership would allow the real estate to subsidize the art, which was a model that would disrupt the standard practice of nonprofit theater funding.”

The move did not solve all their problems. There were struggles over the years, and a series of financial disputes that at one point left the theater on the brink of losing its home, but the work continued. Now National Black Theater is getting ready for its next act: It is replacing its longtime home with a 21-story building that will include a mix of housing, retail and, on floors three through five, a gleaming new home for the theater.

Lythcott and other National Black Theater leaders see the $185 million project, and the partnership they are entering with developers, as a new chapter with the financial and institutional backing to allow them to live out the dream of Teer, who died in 2008: to nurture a space where Black artists can thrive, and the company can work to bring a deeper sense of racial justice to the American theater industry.

“What we’re building today really has been informed in all ways by this blueprint that Dr. Teer put into place starting in 1968,” Lythcott said. “It feels like what our community of Black artists and the community of Harlem deserve.”

To realize the development project, National Black Theater has partnered with a new real estate firm, Ray, which was founded by Dasha Zhukova, a Russian-American art collector and philanthropist. Also joining the project are the subsidized housing developer L + M, the architect Frida Escobedo, the firm Handel Architects, and the design firms working on National Black Theater’s space, Marvel, Charcoalblue, and Studio & Projects.

The planning for the new development has come at a turning point in the theater world. With theaters closed for more than a year because of the pandemic, many institutions have been called on to turn inward and interrogate their own histories of racism and inequity, with many prominent voices calling for change when theaters reopen. It is the kind of discussion National Black Theater has been involved in for decades. This year Lythcott has advised Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on reopening the arts and, as chair for the Coalition of Theaters of Color, has spoken up about racial justice in arts budget negotiations.

Before they decided to work together, Lythcott and Zhukova had to have a frank conversation early on about a high-profile misstep in Zhukova’s past.

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