Category Archives: Interviews

TEA WITH TANIA FISHER: ACTOR, WRITER, PRODUCER ·

By Lori Beedsler    

As I look out to the glorious Manhattan skyline, watching the clouds and the sun play their own personal tug of war, I am sitting patiently in a semi-quiet midtown café, waiting to meet up with Tania Fisher.  It’s been years since we last saw one other in person.  We first met in an Italian restaurant in Melbourne, Australia, where, as a lowly British immigrant, I studied journalism and worked part-time as a waitress.  I recognized Fisher from popular TV shows (which made it to England) and TV commercials, daring to strike up conversation with her.  It turned out I needn’t have been so cautious.  She was courteous and generous with her time, despite my interrupting her meal with friends.

For those who don’t know Fisher, she’s been a familiar face on Australian TV for the past couple of decades.  Yet she struggled to make it. Her grandparents and parents immigrated to Australia from Italy after World War II, at a time when Australia was inviting Europeans to help their nation grow.  First generation Australian-born, she grew up in humble surroundings in the small town of Adelaide, in South Australia.  In her bilingual household, she grew accustomed to the immigrant mindset: “work hard, make money.”  Creativity and time for writing poetry, and putting on plays, was not encouraged.  Nevertheless, the sparkle of footlights and the words of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde found their way into her heart.

She’s certainly not loud or brash, but heads turn as she casually pulls off her sunglasses and waves a hand over her hair to control some stray strands.  “You’re early!” she exclaims, giving away her Aussie accent.  I explain that I am neurotically early for everything, and she leans over to give me a warm hug.

Fisher blames her Australian upbringing for her frankness and her Italian heritage for her passion and hand gesturing during conversations. She also is not cagey about sharing her difficult upbringing:  the violence, abuse, and a general crushing of childhood dreams.  Perhaps her openness comes from the fact that she has been working on a play and a book to cathartically expel some of the hurts. Or, as she puts it, to “articulate the damage unbalanced family dynamics can have on a child, so that clarity can lead to knowledge, which in turn can lead to healing.”

She tells me she’s been “acting professionally for nearly thirty years.”  Then she winks and flashes a smile, whispering through her voluptuous lips, “which I know is impossible, given I’m only twenty-five.”  Yet, she has found time to work around the globe, having starred in Alan Bennett’s Kafka’s Dick at The Garrick Theatre in London.  As a film producer, Fisher has been to the Cannes Film Festival and acted in New York in theater and film.  She sits before me taking in the room and looking as impressed as I am by the view.  “My, ain’t she grand?” Tania exclaims.   

Her admiration for Jerry Lewis then comes up early in our conversation, as he always does. 

Continue reading

SIR ANTHONY HOPKINS: “MOST OF THIS IS NONSENSE, MOST OF THIS IS A LIE.” ·

(Miranda Sawyer’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/26; via Pam Green.)  

For anyone who looks toward their later years with trepidation, Sir Anthony Hopkins (“Tony, please”) is a proper tonic. He is 79, and happier than he has ever been. This is due to a mixture of things: his relationship with his wife of 15 years, Stella, who has encouraged him to keep fit, and to branch out into painting and classical composition; the calming of his inner fire, of which more later; and his work.

Hopkins loves to work. Much of his self-esteem and vigour comes from acting – “Oh, yes, work has kept me going. Work has given me my energy” – and he is in no way contemplating slowing down. You can feel a quicksilver energy about him, a restlessness. Every so often, I think he’s going to stop the interview and take flight, but actually he’s enjoying himself and keeps saying, “Ask me more! This is great!”

We meet in Rome, where he is making a Netflix film about the relationship between the last pope (Benedict) and the current one (Francis). Hopkins is playing Benedict, Jonathan Pryce is Francis. He is enjoying this – “We’re filming in the Sistine Chapel tomorrow!” – and we are both relishing the lovely view across the city from the penthouse suite in the hotel where he’s staying. Still, he declares that the film we are here to talk about, the BBC’s King Lear, filmed in England and directed by Richard Eyre, is the piece of work that has made him truly happy. “I felt, ‘Yes, I can do this.’ I can do this sort of work. I didn’t walk away. And it’s so invigorating, because I know I can do it, and I’ve got my sense of humour, my humility, and nothing’s been destroyed.”

(Read more)

Photo: The Guardian

LAUREN RIDLOFF’S QUIET POWER: ‘MY LIFE HAS CHANGED IN EVERY WAY’ ·

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 02: Lauren Ridloff attends the 2018 Tony Awards Meet The Nominees Press Junket on May 2, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

(Michael Paulson’s article appeared in The New York Times, 5/11; via Pam Green.)  

Reviews like these are hard to come by. “Stupendously bold and expressive,” said The Wall Street Journal. “Instinctive brilliance,” said New York magazine. “Downright powerful,” said Entertainment Weekly. “Blistering” and “a knockout” said The New York Times.

But Lauren Ridloff, starring on Broadway in “Children of a Lesser God,” is so new to the theater world that she’s not sure what to make of it. On the day she was nominated for a Drama League award, she wondered, “Should I be excited?” as she searched for information about the contest. A week later, glancing at a phone at home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, she beamed as she saw that she had been nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award. And then came the Tony nomination, on a rough morning when her 6-year-old had woken her at 5 a.m., demanding a bath.

It’s been a long journey in a short time for this 40-year-old former kindergarten teacher who has been deaf since birth, has no professional stage acting experience, and who describes herself on her Google Plus bio as a “stay at home mama.” As the play’s run nears its end, she is taking meetings with casting directors, posing for photographers, signing autographs at the stage door, saying good night to her two boys (the younger son is now 4; both are deaf) via FaceTime.

“My life has changed in every way,” she said in one of several interviews conducted with the assistance of an American Sign Language interpreter.

(Read more)

TINA FEY, RENÉE FLEMING AND ANDREW GARFIELD ON THEIR TONY NOMINATIONS ·

(Reggie Ugwu’s, Michael Cooper’s and Sopan Deb’s interviews appeared in The New York Times, 5/1; via Pam Green.)

Whether your shelves are already groaning with prizes or you’re up for your first big honor, it feels good to be nominated for a Tony Award. Here are edited excerpts from conversations with nominees on Tuesday.

[Musicals lead nominations | Critics on the nominees | Who’s nominated?]

Tina Fey and Jeff Richmond

The husband-and-wife duo are longtime collaborators (Tina Fey writes, Jeff Richmond composes music) and had previously worked together on projects with musical components. But “Mean Girls” represents their first attempt at a full-length musical — and Ms. Fey’s Broadway debut. It was nominated for 12 awards, including for Ms. Fey’s book and for the score, by Mr. Richmond and his collaborator Nell Benjamin. REGGIE UGWU

How does it feel to be sharing this moment?

TINA FEY It’s incredibly thrilling. I am just ecstatic that these nominations are coming to every department — they’re so well deserved. And I cannot lie: I cried a little bit in the middle of Equinox this morning, and not because my workout was too hard — I do not push myself at the gym.

JEFF RICHMOND I’m just happy for my wife because she so seldom gets any attention or recognition for things she does, so this is just great [laughter].

(Read more)

ROGER HENDRICKS SIMON TALKS WITH TANIA FISHER: 40 YEARS OF THE SIMON STUDIO (Part 2) ·

Tania Fisher interviews Roger Hendricks Simon

You have an impressive list of celebrity students, or those that you’ve directed–Do you experience any major differences or difficulties working with acting students who might be new to the industry?

The difference is how to integrate them into the company.  Working with a big name you deal with what they offer you–they might want to be just a regular name in the cast. Others want to be treated as special.  You have to be aware of who you’re working with and be able to deal with them accordingly.

When I worked on Oliver Stone’s movie “Wall Street 2” as Bernie Jacobs, I was sitting at the same table as Michael Douglas, Josh Brolin, Shia LaBeouf, and Frank Langella.  We all sat around a table reading and working on the material, and we were all equal.  All they wanted from me was for me to do my job and all I wanted from them was for them to do their jobs.  Oliver (Stone) would give notes; we’d read it again.  The only difference between that project and doing the same work on an off-Broadway production was the tray of Nova Scotia salmon!  Really good actors when they’re working–that’s what they do.

The kid that’s new doesn’t have training or experience–and is working with those that do–is at a disadvantage unless he understands that he can learn from them.  He can get in there and be at the table with them.  It’s more than just having talent.  That’s why you have to train and gain experience.  Someone who’s just talented and not experienced is at a disadvantage–they have to be confident and look like they belong there at that table, and try not to look green.

There’s that old saying “Those that can, do, those that can’t, teach.”  But you seem to be constantly doing both; acting and directing in movies and plays. Where do you find the energy for all of this?

I hated that expression and that was always my fear because I always had a passion for teaching.

But I also felt it was totally unfair to great teachers, even those who were not practitioners, because there are some teachers who are not practitioners.  I just preferred those who were working at the same time.

When I come in to the Studio I’m excited to teach what I did that week—regarding my experience as a director, what I professionally experienced that week. I’m eager to share it and that to me is exciting.  If I was a student, I would want my teacher to come and share with me his experience of what he just got off the set doing.

My teaching reminds me how to do what I’m doing, and it’s keeping me fresh.  The ideas that I’m coming up with, as a teacher and sharing with my students, I’m also sharing with myself—I’m reminding myself that’s what I need to do in the other work that I’m currently involved with.  I learn a lot from my students, too, and from the directors and writers in the studio.  They’re giving me things I can use as a teacher, as well as work with professionally.

I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on one of your classes and I was overwhelmed by the real feeling of respect and genuine support your students have for each other.  How do you manage to manifest that kind of comradery in such a competitive and ego-driven field?

I really work hard at that.  I do know how it happens.  It happens through hard work to try and make it personal with everybody there, and that’s very exhausting, but it’s a positive exhausting, although you have to like it.  Everybody there is actually special.

I happen to think that what we do is very important. I also think, OK, we don’t save lives, doctors save lives, but someone once said to me we do.  If you go to the theater or the movies and come out with an exhilarating feeling, you’re saving a life.  It’s what we do.  It’s what we do as actors and writers.  What we do is a healing thing: mentally, physically, and spiritually and therapeutically.  The whole act of doing what you love:  your joy, enlightening people–that’s special.  You are blessed that you have the talent to do it and thankful that you have the opportunity to do it, but on the other hand, it’s not nuclear science, it’s not medicine.  So part of the atmosphere is it has to be fun, joyous.  It has to be enjoyable and always to be full of pain or suffering.

In terms of the atmosphere, it’s hard work to get a balance–sometimes there’s too much fun going on!  You need to be relaxed to work, and it’s important to create a relaxed atmosphere, but not too relaxed, so people are  able to work.

What do you want your students to get out of your classes?

A respect for the kind of work that goes into what we do. A love of the work that we do.  An excitement, I guess, of what we can potentially do.  An awareness that much of what we do is not always fun–it’s not always even going to be good.  Usually, it’s more likely that it’s not going to be that good because a lot of people expect a great life for actors and envisage it’s all about having fun and parties, and I want people to come out of the studio realizing it’s hard work and frustrating at times; it’s not always going to be smooth. It’s going to be rocky, uneven–it’s going to have some difficult moments.

I want them to come away with respect–just like everything else, any work is not always going to be fun, even if you have a passion for it.  It’s not always going to be glamorous; very few people will end up making a real living from it, so you have to come away just loving the process.  In the end, if you don’t love the process of it, you’ll quit–because the rewards often don’t come.  You have to love it or you’ll be disillusioned.  I like my students to appreciate a realistic point of view–it’s not just an art, it’s a business.  It’s mostly a craft, and it’s mostly a business and very little of that pertains to true art.  The real art is the icing on the cake.

Roger Hendricks Simon is the Artistic Director and Founder of The Simon Studio.  For more details and class information contact Roger direct.   Ph: 917 776 9209 or email rhsstudio@gmail.com

Visit the Simon Studio 

(c) 2018 by Roger Hendricks Simon; edited by Tania Fisher.  All rights reserved.  Photos courtesy of the Simon Studio and Tania Fisher.

Read Part 1 of an article on Simon 

Read Part 2 of an article on Simon

ROGER HENDRICKS SIMON TALKS WITH TANIA FISHER: 40 YEARS OF THE SIMON STUDIO ·

Tania Fisher interviews Roger Hendricks Simon

At first glance, the man of no impressive stature seems like any other person on the street.  Simply dressed, in practical and conservative clothing, he strolls into the room seemingly unaware of his surroundings–you might even think he doesn’t remember why he’s here.  Then, when you talk to him face to face–and begin listening to his deep, husky voice, noticing the twinkle in his eyes (which can also bore through you)–you can’t help noticing that when he talks about anything remotely related to the film or theater industry that what he says isn’t ordinary at all.

A graduate and founding member of Robert Brustein’s Yale Repertory Company, Roger Hendricks Simon celebrates his 40th year of The Simon Studio; a renowned and highly regarded New York City acting studio. Roger has taught and directed the likes of John Travolta, Debra Jo Rupp, John Lithgow, Samuel L. Jackson, James Earl Jones, and John Woods to name but a few.  Elected to “Notable Names in American Theater” Roger has directed across the globe and has an inexhaustible list of impressive credits.

Director Oliver Stone refers to Roger as “that great actor and acting teacher” as Roger also keeps busy as a talented actor who has had roles in such films as Wall Street 2 opposite Michael Douglas.

Australian-born actress/writer Tania Fisher sits down with Roger to find out what it takes to have 40 years of success.

What led you to create The Simon Studio and teach acting?

I always enjoyed the idea of teaching, ever since I was very young.  I was always interested in it as part of my work, too–to do more than direct, or teach, or act.  When I was studying at Yale Drama School, the best teachers, for me, were the ones who were currently working professionally and passing on information about what they were doing that week. I felt I was getting the main line, rather than listening to someone who had done this many years ago.  I gravitated to people who are doing the work now.  What drove me to teaching was the desire first, the love of teaching, but I only wanted to do it if I was also a practitioner.

There’s something to be said for “when you get The Simon Studio you get Roger Simon”–can you expand on that?

Hopefully, you always want to get to the source when you go anywhere. If you go to Princeton, in order to study with Professor X and he or she isn’t there, then you’ve been cheated; you’re getting learning second hand.  I’ve always felt that if you wanted to study Meisner, you should have studied with him–if not, then you’re just getting an interpretation, you’re not getting the real thing. I think that’s true of any teaching method.  It’s a relationship–it’s a personal thing between a teacher and a student.  The instructor shouldn’t be walking in and teaching and walking out of a classroom.   When you are studying with someone, you are dealing with a personality, not just theory.  If someone tried to teach the way I teach they would have to capture my personality as well; it wouldn’t be enough to just talk about what I taught. Teaching is about developing people; you’re not just developing professionals, you’re developing human beings.  That is just as important as the information you give, otherwise you may as well assign a text book and everyone reads the book and that’s it.  And that’s the problem with online courses; you read the paper, take the test, and it’s over.  Teaching is a very personal thing and no one else can really teach the way I teach.  It would be someone’s interpretation of what I said, and it’s not coming through my own personality.

You welcome writers and directors as well as actors into your class mix.  Can you explain why you choose to do this?

A performance is a collaboration of writers, directors, producers, and designers working together with a common language to produce something. Therefore, if that’s the case, why should most training be segregating?  If making art is collaborative, why not make the training collaborative?

With writers, it benefits both the writer and the actor to work together–actors learn how to read, do cold readings with new material that becomes part of actor training, and the writer gets to see and hear his work living on stage.  The writer is alive and here now and you’re creating beneficial relationships with people.

It’s also good for the actors to know that directors are in a room, so that that they can be around them–directors are often looking for talent for their own projects and can also give a different perspective on the actors’ work.  It’s valuable to have input from directors in class so that actors can hear different interpretations and directors who can work on a scene with them.

The directors learn from actors how to talk to them–they’re learning from me regarding how to talk to actors, and how eventually they’ll have to do that, so why not learn how to do that in the class?

It’s also important that the actor think about the other side of the fence when it comes to the work.

The studio becomes a place where projects can be developed and many are cast using my attending students.

For example, the work we did with the National Public Radio and the national endowment we received, went to our own people who were studying with us.  At times the class is like a little ensemble company.  A large part of the concept for the class actually came about from my directing in London at The Royal Court Theater.  There I came into contact with the BBC and impressed them with a radio drama, radio being an important part of their theater culture.

As a Director of Shakespeare Festivals and regional theaters I looked for ways to keep that radio theater alive and, in the 1990s, there was the NPR playhouse in the U.S., and there were a number of us who produced old-fashioned dramas.  Because my studio had writers, it was only natural that I looked to my students to develop plays in class.  Then I would take them and perform them as live theater at the Samuel French One Act Festival where we had quite a few winners.

In New York we’d go right into the WBAI radio station and record and present plays live on the air.  We didn’t have to rehearse, because we’d already been doing them as live theater shows.  We did a whole series of radio dramas.  Then, all of a sudden, NPR got interested in what we were doing, and they picked up a number of these live dramas that were done as new plays with no celebrities–they were just students in our class.  This gave my students terrific voice training.  These were young no-name writers who got national exposure on national public radio as part of The Simon Studio Presents, which went on to broadcast on the Time Warner channel and became a TV show that included interviews on the arts and so on.

There are an array of impressive guests that sporadically attend The Simon Studio classes:  agents, casting directors, producers, and so on.  What do you think the benefit is to your students in doing this?

The business has changed over the last 40 years–it’s all celebrity motivated now and if you pay out money you can get a night with so and so. It’s something I’m a little wary of and have always been careful about doing but, at the same time, I can see that’s how the times are now.

But I’ve always hated that you should have to pay for a showcase to be able to meet current industry people.  You shouldn’t have to pay to meet people–it was not like that when I started, and I really resent that it’s become that way, but I’ve come to realize that this is how things are–and casting agents and agents do make this part of their income.

It’s important that the actors get exposure, but it also needs to be a good teaching experience for them–and an opportunity to get the feedback from current relevant industry players.

The people I choose to come to my classes are required to give valuable and relevant feedback.  I feel if my students pay for the class they should get the experience–it’s not about getting cast or getting a job.

Roger Hendricks Simon’s interview with Tania Fisher will continue next week.

Visit the Simon Studio 

(c) 2018 by Roger Hendricks Simon; edited by Tania Fisher.  All rights reserved. 

Read Part 1 of an article on Simon 

Read Part 2 of an article on Simon

Photos, courtesy of The Simon Studio and Tania Fisher–from top, Roger Hendricks Simon; Abby Simon, John Lithgow, Roger Simon; Tania Fisher. All rights reserved.   

ROGER HENDRICKS SIMON:  CELEBRATING 40 YEARS OF THE SIMON STUDIO (Part 1) ·

One of New York City’s most respected and notable acting teachers, ROGER SIMON, offers Stage Voices’ readers insight into the inner workings of an actor’s technique 

PLASTIC VALUES–“A HOMBURG, DEAR BOY!”

By Roger Hendricks Simon; edited by Tania Fisher

“Plastic Values”–that’s what Nikos Psacharopoulos, my directing teacher at Yale School of Drama, called all of the things an actor comes into contact with on the stage: the props, costume pieces, sets, sound, and lights–the texture and feel, as well as the shape, color, and smell of those things when contact is made with them.  It’s not just the spoken words–and the relationships with other characters in the scene–but also the relationships with those items on stage that give a performance needed texture and dimension.  This means an actor is giving actual life to what otherwise are inanimate objects–and that life relates to the inner life of a character at the moment of contact.

Just the other day, I went to see a one-woman show:  The actor had talent, having not only written the work herself, but she also composed and sang her own songs.  On the tiny stage, she surrounded herself with one or two chairs and numerous costume changes and set pieces.  The performer then proceeded to play various roles from her life.  Throughout the performance, recorded sound effects were heard, which usually marked the end of one section and the beginning of another.  I watched the actor repeatedly take off her costume pieces and replace them, but nothing seemed to be happening, other than that a new scarf or hat was put on to indicate a new character.  The audience began to realize that we were only waiting for a costume change, rather than watching a character transform in front of our eyes.

The feel of that scarf going on–the smell and smooth, silky texture of it–should have conjured up the essence of a new character.  Then we would have been watching something exciting happening:  a transition that had real life to it–not simply a signal for a pause in the action.  How wonderful it would have been for the viewer to actually “see” and “feel” the actor make a transformation happen—to see Dr. Jekyll become Mr. Hyde!  When there was a taped sound effect–of a gavel banging, to signify the entry of the dominating father, for example–the actor failed to let that emotionally move her.  Her dominated, fearful daughter didn’t physically or emotionally grow, as she changed to the father’s role of judge or when she moved into the next scene. The same was true when the recorded sound of the surf took her from an interior setting to a beach.  Yes, we knew we were now on a beach because we heard it, but how wonderful it would have been to have had her actually visualize that beach, with all its sensuality, for a more fully realized and felt transition.

The actor has to do more than just put on new costume pieces or hear sounds, and so on.  He really has to allow himself to take on the new character during the process of giving “life” to that scarf or sound effect. Otherwise, the audience feels cheated.  And we should feel cheated, because the performance has stopped momentarily:  Actors need to find a character’s life in transition, too–not only before and after a scene change takes place. 

And those transitional moments, if fully realized–through the use of those props and set and costume pieces, lights, sound, and more–can be the most memorable and moving moments of a performance.  It’s often scary for actors to do this, particularly if they’re beginners, because they may feel the need not to be boring and to get on with the words–quickly doing the technical mechanics of putting on the new hat, in order to then become a new character.  But the irony is that if performers don’t take the necessary time to fully invest in allowing the “plastic values” to affect them, they truly will be boring!  Despite fears of an audience’s lack of patience, or the time limit of an audition,  it’s entirely necessary not to rush the process of making things happen.  That’s why people go to the theatre:  to see actors make things “happen.”  Particularly in the rehearsal process, taking the time needed to rehearse a scene or transition fully is essential, even if tightening occurs later. The audience will feel the captured life, because the actor has found it in the rehearsal process. If actors fail to be comprehensive, audiences might as well read the play in the library and try to visualize characters’ lives themselves.

So, I always say to my actors at The Simon Studio, here in New York City, “That’s why they pay us the big bucks! Take that needed time and make it happen!”  In our wonderful age of sound bites and the quick fix, we are, unfortunately, influenced by pressures to meet demands, particularly commercial demands and deadlines.  An actor or director has to be very careful not to rush the process by going immediately for results.

Roger Hendricks Simon is the Artistic Director and Founder of The Simon Studio.  For more details and class information contact Roger direct.   Ph: 917 776 9209 or email rhsstudio@gmail.com

Check back with Stage Voices next week to read the second part of Simon’s article.

(c) 2018 by Roger Hendricks Simon; edited by Tania Fisher.  All rights reserved. 

Read Part 1 of this article 

Read Part 2 of this article

Photographs courtesy of The Simon Studio and Tania Fisher; from top:  Roger Simon,  The Simon Studio, Tania Fisher

 

DEREK JACOBI ON PLAYING HAMLET ·

(Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 91; via Pam Green)

Renowned actor Derek Jacobi talks about the Shakespearean role for which he is best known, Hamlet. Beginning at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1957, Jacobi has acted this role on stage nearly 400 times, and as you can imagine, he’s devoted hours to thinking about Hamlet’s words, Hamlet’s motivations, and the best way to play the role. Derek Jacobi was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. 

This is the first of a two-part interview. In part two, Derek Jacobi talks about his career more broadly, including sharing the stage with Laurence Olivier, performing King Lear in 2010, and a struggle with paralyzing stage fright that drove him away from the theater for two years in the 1980s.

 

 

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA INTERVIEWS STEPHEN SONDHEM, THEATER’S GREATEST LYRICIST ·

(Lin-Manuel Miranda’s interview appeared in the The New York Times, 10/16; via Pam Green.)

Lin-Manuel Miranda speaks to the man who has consistently remade the American musical over his 60-year career — and who is trying to surprise us one more time.

This story is one of the seven covers of T Magazine’s Greats issue, on newsstands Oct. 22.

Sondheim: I hope you don’t mind doing this upstairs, I’m feeling a bit under the weather.

It’s July 2017. We are on the second floor of Stephen Sondheim’s Midtown Manhattan townhouse, and he’s nestled on his writing couch. There’s a famous picture of him reclining in this very spot from 1960: young Sondheim staring intently at a pad of paper, Blackwing pencil at the ready, framed by two windows. His right hand on his face, deep in thought.

Sondheim: The writing’s not going well today.

Nearly 60 years later, Sondheim is on the same couch. He is 87 years old. He’s wearing his rumpled-writer T-shirt and sweatpants, he’s got a sour stomach. He is writing a new musical with David Ives for the Public Theater, an adaptation of two films by the late Spanish director Luis Buñuel, and he’s staring down a deadline. And here I am, interrupting his writing day for this interview.

It’s hard to overemphasize Sondheim’s influence on American musical theater. As a young man, he was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the songwriting duo who revolutionized musicals with “Oklahoma!” in 1943. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote fully integrated songs that advanced the plot and revealed hidden depths in their characters; in their hands, musical theater matured into a storytelling art form. Sondheim built on Hammerstein’s innovations by experimenting relentlessly with subject matter and form: from his early lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s music in the seminal “West Side Story” (1957) and for Jule Styne’s music in “Gypsy” (1959) to more than 50 years’ worth of scores that have pushed the boundaries and subject matter of musical theater in every conceivable direction. He is musical theater’s greatest lyricist, full stop. The days of competition with other musical theater songwriters are done: We now talk about his work the way we talk about Shakespeare or Dickens or Picasso — a master of his form, both invisible within his work and everywhere at once.

(Read more)

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/16/t-magazine/lin-manuel-miranda-stephen-sondheim.html

Photos: The New York Times (Sondheim); HollywoodReporter.com (Miranda)

 

FIRE SCENE: BEHIND ‘BURNING DOORS’ AT LA MAMA WITH NATALIA KALIADA AND MIA YOO (INTERVIEW) ·

(c) Alex Brenner. Belarus Free Theatre presents Burning Doors.

NATALIA KALIADA, founding co-artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre, and MIA YOO, Artistic Director or of La MaMa, talk with SV’s Bob Shuman about their creative partnership, the U.S. premiere of ‘Burning Doors’, and how two companies set the world on fire.

The underground Belarus Free Theatre is in New York, at La MaMa, with Burning Doors, a production that examines how art persists under oppression. The troupe is everything Ellen Stewart wanted for her stage: illustrative and imaginative, their sacred theatre powerful, transformative, and moving.  Those who have read about the company know that they perform in apartments, cafes, at weddings and birthdays, and in the forests in their native country, stealthily hiding from established power, the situation so dangerous that founding members were forced to find refuge in England. They are beacons of resistance, bravery, morality in a world of human rights abuses, censorship, and brutality.  Stewart  found ways to bring them to the United States at the Under the Radar Festival, in January 2011, in a triumphant run—but it is here also where she died, leaving an unrecoverable emotional hole in her organization, as well as in the world’s theatre.  Six years later, Artistic Director, Mia Yoo, continues on at La MaMa, producing 60-70 plays a season; for two years prior to Stewart’s death, she was communicating with the founder daily on programming, as well as running the East Village-based company’s day-to-day operations. On the evening of Stewart’s passing, Yoo, gracious, smart, a stabilizer at the center of the madness of art, ensured that La MaMa’s signature cowbell rang, as it has since. Belarus Free Theatre took to the stage–an indelible image from Being Harold Pinter, one of its plays performed at the time, is of a young girl inside a plastic, transparent globe, trying to be recognized by punching her way out.  Two companies, from opposite ends of the earth–both reckoning with their own tragedies–entwined.

Today, just after humidity has broken in a warm October, Yoo recalls the first time she saw Belarus Free Theatre, at a Theatre without Borders conference, in 2009.  She didn’t know the company and was watching their play Discover Love, a true story of the Belarus opposition movement, finding herself moved not only by strength, but by vulnerability.   She found the work of the group intellectual and emotional—also of the body, about the body.  Unlike most theatre lovers, however, Yoo cannot simply praise:  she has to find production funding.  Around her, financial backing is drying up, particularly with the president’s destruction of the NEA, one of her theatre’s main national funding sources. 

Natalia Kaliada, founder and artistic director of Belarus Free Theatre. Photograph © Jane Hobson.

A group of singers for Simchat Torah is dispersing on the street below La Mama’s Fourth Street, third floor office. Natalia Kaliada, the founding co-artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre–and the co-author of Discover Love—is here to discuss Burning Doors, which, with Nicolai Khalezin, she co-directed and supplied Dramaturgy for.  She explains that the three dissidents her play highlights “put their voices on the front line, using their art to challenge the system”: Maria Alyokhina, of Pussy Riot  (she acts in Burning Doors and gives testimony regarding her nearly two-year imprisonment in the Russian system);  Petr Pavlensky (a radical actionist who sewed his lips shut after the Pussy Riot conviction, wrapped himself in barbed wire, and, as “a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of modern Russian society,” nailed his scrotum to Red Square); and Oleg Sentsov (a Ukrainian filmmaker, fallaciously accused of terrorism, who has served three years of a twenty-year prison sentence). Kaliada herself may be accused of being a dissident, for her involvement in spearheading her theatre group.  When asked about Belarus Free Theatre, however, the Minister of Culture in Belarus responded by saying: “those people do not exist.”

Intense, visceral, and true to Yoo’s observation, Burning Doors is about the body.  Naked, sweating,  heaving, exhausted:  bodies as power, bodies as strength, bodies isometric, bodies scatological,  kicked, slammed, propelled, hit, choked, hanging, twisted, smashed, violated, betrayed, tortured.   The result is extreme-action dance, physical theatre, circus, combat training; a documentary of perception; an artistic expression of desperation and systematic violence, living unnoticed, unheard, under unknown totalitarianism (Burning Doors is performed in Russian and Belarusian with English surtitles). Kaliada and Khalezin are making a powerful statement on the horror of the failed state, a failed economy, the failure of justice, and the failure of democracy and freedom. The theatrical techniques used to produce such effects include use of the absurd, mime, dense sketch material, nonlinearity, existentialism, the appeals of the silenced, the folksongs of the deep past, cultural masterpieces by Dostoevsky, and philosophy by Foucault.  Kaliada calls her system:  Total Immersion. “We don’t talk about classics,” she clarifies. “We are not interested in them because today’s life is more challenging and interesting.”  Kaliada was not allowed to become an actress, her first calling at age sixteen, she explains, because her father was a former vice-Chancellor of the Academy of Arts in Belarus, and her name would stop her from advancing.  Her brother recommended that she become a diplomat, instead, because they also “pretend all the time.” She was hired by the American government, moving nuclear weapons from Belarus, but believes that had they not been transferred, Belarus would be more widely known today.  (Countries with nuclear weapons, as Kim Jong-un proves, have a way of getting noticed.)  “We do what we do because we believe in it. We have enemies. We also have families, mothers and fathers.”

Kaliada wonders what her children would think about her if she did not resist. Pausing for a moment, thin, her hair cut short, she says that, coming from Eastern Europe, she does not seem very polite, compared to those in the West.  “In a dictatorship, knowing that your friend has been killed, when death surrounds you, you become direct.  Belarus Free Theatre travels around the world. We work in illegal refugee camps in Africa and you understand that if people have a chance to access some arts and some money it would really help the world find solutions, peaceful solutions, nonviolent-resistance solutions.  My fear is that companies, like ours, may disappear.  We really tackle society.  You go to see other shows and there are so many jokes.  Human beings do not matter anymore! No one is connecting.  Humanity and the morality in politics are completely lost.  All the talk that the fourth wall was destroyed in theatre—that’s not true: It’s much stronger.”

When played, the recording of the discussion with Yoo and Kaliada reveals the insistent sound of the city’s voice: sirens, jackhammers, horns, traffic,  ringing and buzzing devices, which were not apparent during the focused interview.   These artistic partners—Yoo considers Belarus Free Theatre a resident company–one from a presenting organization, the other from a theatre company that’s creating vivid, critical theatre, work together, with missions that are aligned.  They are attempting to sustain and support what Yoo believes is “one of the most important theatre companies in the world today.”  She is not alone in her estimation.
“I hate to say that art has to come out of suffering,” Yoo comments, “but there is something to that, when you must push up against and challenge. There is a rigor and a boldness that comes out in the work that might not surface otherwise.  A different kind of theatre emerges.  There’s urgency.”

Urgent.

A theatre of urgency.

Burning Doors continues at La MaMa until October 22.

© 2017 by Bob Shuman, Mia Yoo, and Natalia Kaliada.  All rights reserved.

Photos: Mia Yoo (The New York Times); Burning Doors–men (Evening Standard); Pavlensky (widewalls.ch); Sentsov (the Voice Project). 

Visit La MaMa: http://lamama.org/

Visit Belarus Free Theatre: https://www.belarusfreetheatre.com/

Read the Stage Voices review of the work of Belarus Free Theatre from 2011: http://stagevoices.com/2011/04/19/belarus-free-theatre-in-repertory-review/

 

BELARUS FREE THEATRE

Returns to La MaMa with

NY premiere of

BURNING DOORS

October 12-22, 2017

 Cast includes Maria Alyokhina from PUSSY RIOT

 Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) – the internationally acclaimed troupe known for its stage works that confront some of the most urgent issues of the day – returns to La MaMa (66 E. 4 St. in NYC) with the NY premiere of BURNING DOORS:  previews are set to begin October 12 prior to a press opening Oct. 16.  La MaMa presents BURNING DOORS in association with Belarus Free Theatre, the only theatre in Europe banned by its government on political grounds.

 Devised and performed by Belarus Free Theatre, BURNING DOORS is directed by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada.  DOORS is written by Mr. Khalezin, with dramatury by Mr. Khalezin and Ms. Kaliada, choreography by Bridget Fiske and Maryia Sazonava and original testimony is by Maria Alyokhina. 

 The cast of BURNING DOORS includes guest performer and collaborator Maria Alyokhina of PUSSY RIOT, the Russian feminist punk-rock group, along with performers and co-creators Pavel Haradnitski, Kiryl Masheka, Siarhei Kvachonak, Maryia Sazonava, Stanislava Shablinskaya, Andrei Urazau and Marnya Yurevich.

 As governments clamp down and walls go up, BURNING DOORS examines how art persists under oppression, and how artists living under dictatorship illuminate complacency in democratic societies, reminding us of the true cost of freedom and the danger of passivity.  BURNING DOORS draws from the personal experiences of three dissidents who were arrested and imprisoned by the government of Vladmir Putin of Russia – Ms. Alyokhina, Petr Pavlensky and Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian national who has been imprisoned in Russia on terrorism charges after Russia invaded Crimea.

In the case of Mr. Sentsov, who has served three years of his 20-year sentence, his experiences are depicted as told to the creators of BURNING DOORS by members of his family, who have been allowed rare visits and received one smuggled correspondence from him during his time in prison.

BURNING DOORS debuted last year in London, where critics called it:

            “A scorching piece of theatre:  uncompromising, urgent and angry.  4 stars.”

                                    Financial Times

            “A spiky, furious mosaic.  4 stars.”  The Sunday Times

 

Belarus Free Theatre is the leading refugee-led theatre company in the UK. BURNING DOORS draws on the company’s own experience of political oppression and continues their campaign to stand up to artistic freedom and human rights across the globe.

Belarus Free Theatre has previously performed at La MaMa:  TRASH CUISINE, BEING HAROLD PINTER, DISCOVER LOVE and ZONE OF SILENCE.

BURNING DOORS is dedicated to Pavel Sheremet, Oleg Sentsov and all the Kremlin hostages.  The production features the following contributions: 

            –“Fear” and “Russian Contemporary Artist in a Russian Jail.” By Petr Pavlensky

            –“Final Statement” by Oleg Sentsov

            –Extract from “How to Start a Revolution” by Maria Alyokhina

            –“Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault

            –“The Idiot” and “The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

            –“Lonely” by Boombox

            –Russian and Belarusian folk songs

BURNING DOORS was created in partnership with ArtReach as part of Journeys Festival International; Co-commissioned by Arts Centre Melbourne; Developed at Falmouth University’s Academy of Music and Theatre Arts (AMATA), and funded by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

La MaMa is dedicated to the artist and all aspects of the theatre. The organization has a worldwide reputation for producing daring performance works that defy form and transcend barriers of ethnic and cultural identity. Founded in 1961 by award-winning theatre pioneer Ellen Stewart, La MaMa has presented more than 5,000 productions by 150,000 artists from more than 70 nations. A recipient of more than 30 Obie Awards and dozens of Drama Desk, Bessie, and Villager Awards, La MaMa has helped launch the careers of countless artists, many of whom have made important contributions to American and international arts milieus.

La MaMa’s 56th season highlights artists of different generations, gender identities, and cultural backgrounds, who question social mores and confront stereotypes, corruption, bigotry, racism, and xenophobia in their work.  Our stages embrace diversity in every form and present artists that persevere with bold self-expression despite social, economic, and political struggle and the 56th season reflects the urgency of reaffirming human interconnectedness.

Scheduled October 12 to 22, BURNING DOORS will perform weeknights at 8 pm (no performance October 17), Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 4 pm.  Tickets are $30 ($25 for students/seniors) and can be purchased by calling 212-352-3101 or online at www.lamama.org