Category Archives: History

WHO WAS MIKE NICHOLS WHEN HE WASN’T PLAYING MIKE NICHOLS? ·

(Louis Menand’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 2/1; PHOTO: Nichols on the set of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), which swept the Academy Award nominations.Photograph by © Bob Willoughby / MPTV Images.)

An intuitive storyteller, the director perfected narratives—including his own.

Mike Nichols and Elaine May opened for Mort Sahl at the Village Vanguard in October, 1957. Apart from their manager, Jack Rollins, whom they’d met for the first time just a week or two before, no one in New York had ever heard of them.

Nichols and May had worked out their comedy act in Chicago, playing mostly hole-in-the-wall venues as members of a local theatre group called the Compass. They performed sketches—a man on the phone with his mother, a movie star getting interviewed, a man trying to pick up his secretary in a bar. They had a script, but left room for ad-libs, and they ended the show by asking the audience to suggest an opening line, a closing line, and a style (Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, Jack Kerouac), and then improvising a skit. They were an overnight hit. By the second week, they were upstaging Sahl, a man not renowned for the length of his fuse, and he began cancelling their set.

They moved uptown to a tonier joint, the Blue Angel, on East Fifty-fifth Street, where they did a midnight show. It quickly started selling out, and soon they were the talk of the town (night-life division). In those days, television variety shows scouted talent in supper clubs like the Blue Angel, and in December Nichols and May went on “The Steve Allen Show.” In January, they performed two sketches on an NBC special, where they were seen by tens of millions of viewers.

They were now nationally known and in demand. Rollins asked for big fees, and by the spring May had an apartment on Riverside Drive, and Nichols was living in a duplex on East Fifty-eighth Street and driving a Mercedes convertible. He was twenty-six. It was the first time that he had had any money. He found that he enjoyed the life style.

Nichols and May released an album, “Improvisations to Music,” in 1958. It made it onto the charts and was nominated for a Grammy. In 1960, they took their act to Broadway, where “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May” ran for three hundred and eleven performances. The album of the show went to No. 10 in the Billboard rankings and won a Grammy.

Some people who saw them perform—including the critic Edmund Wilson, who went to the Broadway show four times—thought that May was the star. May is a kind of comic genius. Her father, Jack Berlin, worked in the Yiddish theatre, and she had been appearing onstage since she was a child. She was fearless—also glamorous, sexy, and terrifying to men. (She and Nichols were not lovers.) There is a story that when they were performing in Chicago she would go onstage without underwear and flash the audience.

She married when she was sixteen, had a daughter (Jeannie Berlin, who became a movie actress), split from her husband, and hitchhiked from Los Angeles to Chicago, where she hung out at the university, attending classes but never registering. That was where she met Nichols, a University of Chicago dropout who had found a home of sorts as an actor on the local drama scene.

Nichols was widely regarded as (his term) a prick. He was supercilious and had a quick tongue—“a scary person,” as one colleague put it. May was introduced to him by the Compass’s director, Paul Sills, as “the only other person at the University of Chicago who is as hostile as you.” (The Compass became Second City, the legendary feeder troupe for “Saturday Night Live”; Sills was its original director.) They quickly recognized that they were soul mates. They were sophisticated, faster with a comeback than anyone they knew, and unencumbered by conventional, or even unconventional, pieties. They saw through everything and everybody, including themselves.

More to the point, as May put it, “we found each other hilarious.” Onstage, they were complementary. “He was always directing the scene while he was doing it,” one of the Compass players remembered. “Elaine would never do that. Her bursts were spontaneous. I always felt that in their act, she was really the driving force.” Nichols did not disagree. “She was more interested in taking chances than in being a hit,” he said. “I was more interested in making the audience happy.”

What made the show so hot? Nichols and May were witty people, but they used standard comic setups (the quarrelsome couple, the all-thumbs first date), and they lampooned some pretty soft targets—the British movie “Brief Encounter,” for instance, which they set in a dentist’s office. (“There, I’ve said it. I do love you. Rinse out, please.”) Despite the reputation the act acquired, the dialogue was not remotely risqué. They were not in Lenny Bruce territory. They were barely in Mort Sahl territory.

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MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV: A DANCER WHOSE FLIGHT TO FREEDOM BROUGHT HIM CULT STATUS ·

(Valeria Paikova’s article appeared in Russia Beyond, 1/28; Photos:  Russia Beyond. )

Mikhail Baryshnikov is not one to go unnoticed. A true living legend of ballet, he is one of the greatest dancers in modern history.

Die-hard fans of classical Russian ballet praise Baryshnikov for his powerful leaps and a lifelong passion for freedom, while his younger admirers, who first came to know him as Aleksandr Petrovsky, Carry Bradshaw’s Russian boyfriend on ‘Sex and the City’, worship him for taking contemporary ballet to a whole new level.

It seems like Baryshnikov has been swimming against the tide since childhood. He chose his battles wisely, though, and proved to be a brilliant long-distance “swimmer”. Baryshnikov’s story is an exciting tale of self-actualization and personal growth.

A star is born

Like many Soviet families of the time, Mikhail’s father was a strict military man and a devoted communist, while his mother came from a peasant background. It was she who instilled a love for the arts in Mikhail. The family lived in Riga, capital of then Latvian SSR. Baryshnikov fell in love with ballet and enrolled in his first professional dance school on his own. He told his parents that he didn’t need their moral assistance. Misha (a common short form of the Russian name ‘Mikhail’) literally proved he could stand on his own feet when he was only 9. He passed the entrance exams and was accepted.

Two years later, Baryshnikov moved to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to train at the famous ballet school (now known as the Vaganova Academy). There, he was taught by none other than Alexander Pushkin, the great Russian poet’s namesake and teacher of another ballet legend, Rudolf Nureyev, who defected to the West in 1961. 

Years later, Baryshnikov himself would be recognized as one of the finest ballet virtuosos in the world, along with Vaslav Nijinsky and Rudolf Nureyev.  

 

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SWEDISH ACTRESS AND DIRECTOR GUNNEL LINDBLOM HAS DIED AGED 89 ·

(Matthew Roscoe’s article appeared in EuroWeekly, 1/24.)

SWEDISH Actress and Director Gunnel Lindblom Has Died Aged 89

Gunnel Lindblom, who performed the lead role in Miss Julie for BBC Television in 1965, has died at the age of 89 after a period of illness.

Gunnel Lindblom was born in 1931 and trained as an actor at Gothenburg City Theatre in the early 50’s. She made her film debut in Gustaf Molander’s “Love” in 1952. After her debut, she started working with Ingmar Bergman, with whom she is particularly associated with, at Malmö City Theatre.

After the successful collaborations with Bergman, Gunnel Lindblom has continued to play at Dramaten in Stockholm. Since the 70s, she has directed several productions at Dramaten in Stockholm, including productions for SVT.

She also played the key role of The Mummy in Bergman’s staging of Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata in 1998-2000, a performance that earned her much critical acclaim.

In 2009, she appeared as Isabella Vanger in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which won a BAFTA for Best Film Not in the English Language. The film grossed over €85 million worldwide.

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(Second photo from top: CREDIT: “File:Gunnel Lindblom, Bokmässan 2013 3.jpg” by Albin Olsson is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

 

ON THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF ‘ROBOT,’ THEY’RE FINALLY TAKING OVER ·

(Christopher Mims’s article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, 1/23; Photo from The Wall Street Journal; via the Drudge Report.)  

A century after playwright Karel Čapek coined the word ‘robot,’ we finally have the technology to make the stuff of science fiction a reality—for better and for worse

On Jan. 25, 1921, Karel Čapek’s play “R.U.R.”—short for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”—premiered in Prague. It was a sensation. Within two years it had been translated into 30 languages, including English, to which it introduced the word “robot.” Čapek’s vision of unwilling slaves of humnity destined to rise up and destroy their makers has shaped our view of both automation and ourselves ever since.

In a century-long dialogue between inventors of fictional and actual robots, engineers have for the most part been forced to play catch-up, either realizing or subverting the vision of robots first expounded in books, movies and television.

Now, the reality of robots is in some areas running ahead of fiction, even ahead of what those who study robots for a living are able to keep track of.

Heather Knight is an engineer, “social roboticist” and one of 13 core faculty in Oregon State University’s robotics program. One day in late October, she was shocked to find the campus crawling with a fleet of autonomous, six-wheeled vehicles made by Starship Robotics. The San Francisco-based company had contracted with the campus dining service to provide contactless delivery.

“We’re at the point where not even the people in robotics know there are going to be robots on campus,” she adds.

This new visibility of robots—now in storeshotels and health-care facilities, as well as on our streets and above our heads—is an indicator of their evolving nature. It’s also the outward sign of a watershed moment.

In 2019, 373,000 industrial robots were sold and put into use, according to the International Federation of Robotics, a not-for-profit industry organization that conducts an annual, global robot census based on vendor data. That number has grown about 11% a year since 2014, to a total of 2.7 million industrial robots in use world-wide. Industrial robots—descendants of the Unimate robot arm first installed at a General Motors factory in 1961—are the kind common in manufacturing, performing tasks like welding, painting and assembly. They work hard, but they’re not very smart.

Also in 2019, 173,000 “professional service robots” were sold and installed, according to the federation. That number is projected to reach 537,000 units a year—a threefold increase—by 2023. These are the kind of robots businesses use outside of manufacturing. They perform a wide variety of functions, including defensewarehouse automation and disinfection in hospitals.

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MABOU MINES’ ‘COLD HARBOR’–“A SARDONIC, SOCIO-PSYCHOLOGICAL PROBE OF ULYSSES S. GRANT” (STREAMING UNTIL 1/26–LINK BELOW) ·

INTO THE ARCHIVES | COLD HARBOR

View

Mabou Mines Home

MABOU MINES’

Cold Harbor

CONCEIVED AND DIRECTED BY

Bill Raymond and Dale Worsley

TEXT BY

Dale Worsley

WITH EXCERPTS FROM THE MEMOIRS OF ULYSSES S. GRANT AND JULIA DENT GRANT

“a sardonic, socio-psychological probe of Ulysses S. Grant.”

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PLEASE NOTE PORTIONS OF THIS VIDEO ARE VERY DARK, BUT STICK WITH IT, WE THINK IT’S WORTH IT!

 

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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ROBOTS TURN 100—AND STILL ENTHRALL US ·

(Adam Kirsch’s article appeared in The Wall Street Journal, 1/16.

The intelligent, human-like machines long promised by science fiction still don’t exist, but they’ve played an important role in the modern imagination.

In 2021, robots can be forklifts or machine tools, surgical instruments or bomb defusers. As a viral video showed this month, a new, human-shaped model from Boston Dynamics can even dance to the Motown song “Do You Love Me?” But when the Czech writer Karel Capek coined the word “robot” in his play “R.U.R.,” which made its debut in Prague 100 years ago this month, he had something much grander in mind: a new, man-made species, capable of tireless labor but also love, hope and self-sacrifice. As a robot declares in the play’s last scene, “We’ve become beings with souls.”

Actual robots may be a letdown by comparison, but over the last century, imaginary robots have become one of our best tools for thinking about fundamental questions: What is it that makes us human? How can we be sure of what’s going on in other minds? Do the benefits of progress outweigh its dangers? These used to be problems for religion and philosophy; thanks to robots, we now often approach them through science fiction.

Humans have always worried that the machines we make to serve us could eventually turn on us.

People told stories about mechanical men long before 1921. The Argonautica, a Greek epic from the 3rd century B.C., includes the story of Talos, “fashioned of bronze and invulnerable,” who guards the harbor of Crete. A 16th-century Jewish legend tells of the Golem, a huge man of clay made to protect the Jews of Prague. Both of these proto-robots are built with a kind of kill switch, giving humans a way to keep them in check. Talos is deactivated when the thin skin on his ankle is punctured, allowing the fluid that gives him life to run out; the Golem can be stopped by erasing the Hebrew letter written on his forehead. Clearly, humans have always worried that the machines we make to serve us could eventually turn on us.

Not until Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel “Frankenstein,” however, did a man-made creature become an object of sympathy. Dr. Frankenstein makes his monster out of body parts scavenged from “the dissecting room and the slaughterhouse,” and it turns out to be all too human. Indeed, the monster is driven to violence because people refuse to acknowledge that he has human feelings, especially a need for love. “Are you to be happy while I grovel in the intensity of my wretchedness?” he rages.

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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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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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MABOU MINES/BECKETT: ‘IMAGINATION DEAD IMAGINE’–DIRECTED BY RUTH MALECZECH (12/21-12/17) ·

MABOU MINES/BECKETT: ‘IMAGINATION DEAD IMAGINE’–DIRECTED BY RUTH MALECZECH (12/21-12/17)

Ruth Nelson (Voice) & Clove Galilee (Figure)
__________________________________

Light, voice, hologram and music play against one another in undulating patterns. Beckett himself could have been describing the eerie effect of Miss Maleczech’s stage piece when he wrote in his text about the striking contrast between the ”absolute stillness and the convulsive light.” ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’ lasts only 14 minutes, but it is a paradigmatic example of the Mabou Mines mastery of technology in the name of art.

– Mel Gussow, NY Times 1

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SAMUEL BECKETT’S

IMAGINATION DEAD IMAGINE

DIRECTED BY Ruth Maleczech

WITH

Ruth Nelson (Voice)

Clove Galilee (Figure)

PREMIERE

The Performing Garage – NYC , 1984

Running time 17 min

See full production page here. 

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SAMUEL BECKETT’S

IMAGINATION DEAD IMAGINE

DIRECTED BY

Ruth Maleczech

” the equivalent of hearing poetry read to sculpture … “

MEL GUSSOW – NEW YORK TIMES