Category Archives: Television

WHEN COVID DROPPED THE CURTAIN ON BROADWAY ACTORS, TV KEPT THE LIGHTS ON ·

(Alexis Soloski’s article appeared in The New York Times, 5/12; via Pam Green; Photo: Denée Benton, left, and Louisa Jacobson during filming of the coming HBO historical drama “The Gilded Age.” Benton is one of many celebrated stage actors in the cast.Credit…Alison Rosa/HBO.)

New and returning TV series like “The Gilded Age” and “The Good Fight” have been a lifeline for celebrated theater actors during the pandemic. Will TV, or theater, ever look the same?

Back in March, the actress Kelli O’Hara arrived on Rhode Island’s Gold Coast. A company of theater heroes, with enough combined Tonys to crowd a mansion’s mantels, met her there. “It was almost like Broadway said, ‘We’re shutting down,’” O’Hara recalled during a recent telephone interview. “So 20 of us got together and said, ‘Let’s go do a play in a seaside town.’”

But O’Hara — and colleagues like Christine Baranski, Nathan Lane, Debra Monk and Cynthia Nixon — hadn’t come to Newport to for a summer stock job. Or even for the clam cakes. They were on location for “The Gilded Age,” a robber baron costume drama from Julian Fellowes that will premiere on HBO in 2022.

With Broadway theaters closed since last April, “The Gilded Age” joins current series like “The Good Fight,” “Younger” and “Billions” and upcoming ones like “The Bite” and a “Gossip Girl” reboot in providing a glitzy refuge for theater stars during the shutdown. Broadway performers have always appeared here and there on scripted series. (No 2000s Playbill bio was complete without a “Law & Order” credit.) But this past year, television work — which is typically better paid than theater and more luxurious in its perks — was pretty much the only show in town.

“People are just really excited to be working and to have human contact and to be on set and telling a story again,” Allison Estrin, the casting director of “Billions,” said. “Every actor I’ve talked to has just expressed nothing but gratitude and excitement for being able to work right now.”

And because every stage actor was suddenly available, television has never seemed so theatrical. (You could cast a credible Sondheim revival with actors on “The Good Fight” alone.) Will television ever look the same? Will Broadway?

A year or so ago, casting directors would have had to compete with — or maneuver around — Broadway commitments. “It was always a scheduling nightmare to work around people’s curtain times,” Robert King, a creator of “The Good Wife” and “The Bite” said.

“Sorry to say it, but it worked for us,” he added about the shutdown, “because we could schedule more freely.”

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A LOST ORSON WELLES TV PILOT THAT’S AS GROUNDBREAKING AS “CITIZEN KANE” ·

(Richard Brody’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 12/11; Photo: The New Yorker.)

The project that Orson Welles planned to film, in 1939, before turning his attention to “Citizen Kane” was a mystery called “Smiler with a Knife,” about a fascist plot to take over the United States. For his co-star, Welles wanted a young actress named Lucille Ball, but the studio turned her down. A decade and a half later, Welles was severely struggling to sustain a career; forty-one years old, he was famous as an actor but his directing career had been thwarted by producers’ unwanted recuts of his films and by poor box-office results. Ball had become a TV star and mogul, both starring in and producing (with her then husband, Desi Arnaz) “I Love Lucy,” which was on the air from 1951 to 1957 and made her both famous and very, very rich. When Welles’s Hollywood career was nearly nonexistent, he turned to television, and Ball and Arnaz, who by that time had the power and the money, turned a share of both over to Welles for his effort to establish himself there.

Only one episode of the resulting project was ever filmed, the pilot, titled “The Fountain of Youth” (it’s streaming on YouTube), and it’s as artistically original for television as “Citizen Kane” was for the movies, and—at least in part—for a very similar reason. The pulp-fiction plot, based on a short story by John Collier and set in New York in the nineteen-twenties, concerns a middle-aged scientist named Humphrey Baxter (Dan Tobin) who falls in love with a twenty-three-year-old burlesque dancer, Caroline Coates (Joi Lansing). When he leaves town for three years of study in Vienna, she leaves him for a muscular tennis star, Alan Brody (Rick Jason). When Humphrey returns to New York and finds himself dumped, he relies on the product of his research—a vial of an anti-aging potion, the titular fountain—to get his revenge. The story is both pleasantly seamy and inconsequential, as pat and flimsy as a mad-science soap opera. Its psychological dimensions are infinitesimal; its social context is nonexistent. But what Welles makes of the story is—or, rather, should have been—a template for what the art of television could have become.

Welles, the storyteller, is our narrator—he’s onscreen frequently, in closeups, throughout the twenty-seven-minute show, his presence punctuating the action and pushing it ahead. That action—also filmed largely in closeups of the actors—is conjured more from cinematic magic than from staged performance. Many scenes in “The Fountain of Youth” are sketched through the rapid montage of still photos; the sets are minimal and bare, a suggestion of places rather than a depiction of them, with special effects—morphing and gliding photographic backdrops, conspicuously unrealistic rear-screen projections, that lend a phantasmagorical mood to the tale’s lurid and macabre twists.

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ENTERING A PARIS THEATER, WARILY, AND FINDING A WEIGHT LIFTED ·

(Laura Cappelle’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/16; Photo:“Ionesco Suite,” directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota at the Espace Cardin in Paris. Credit…Jean-Louis Fernandez; via Pam Green.)

Audience members seemed to be asking one another, “Are we really doing this?” But the over-the-top physicality of “Ionesco Suite” was worth it.

After three months of coronavirus-related restrictions, the anxiety doesn’t go away readily. Setting foot inside a Paris theater for the first time in late June, I worried that it was too soon. The audience sat on three sides of the Espace Cardin’s smaller stage — with appropriate gaps — and many people looked at one another furtively, as if to ask: Are we really doing this?

Yet about midway through “Ionesco Suite,” a medley of absurdist scenes by the French playwright Eugène Ionesco, something gave. Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota’s production, first seen in 2005 and much revived since, piles on a series of eerily over-the-top characters, and on this occasion, the seven actors contorted their faces as if their lives depended on it. From feet away, their physical freedom was so tangible that I found myself laughing and wanting to cry; a weight was lifted that no amount of at-home live streams could have made lighter.

French artists are relatively lucky. Performers around the world are at the mercy of infection levels and public policy, and the spread of Covid-19 has been curbed enough in France, for now, that all theaters were allowed to reopen from June 22. Additionally, government funding for the arts means that playing to smaller audiences isn’t a ruinous proposition, even though viewers must leave an empty seat between themselves and other groups.

Still, only a small number of venues have opened their doors. Nearly all summer productions and festivals had been canceled because of the lack of rehearsal time and uncertainty, so many producers have elected to wait until next season.

The Espace Cardin, administered by the Théâtre de la Ville, was first. “Ionesco Suite” was part of “The Wake,” a 48-hour event that comprised performances, concerts and readings at all hours in and around the building. There is no telling who, exactly, emerged from lockdown with a pressing need to listen to Dante’s “Divine Comedy” at 3 a.m., but perhaps that was the point: At last, we could do something unnecessary.

Outside this celebration, small-scale productions are understandably getting the bulk of programmers’ attention. Through the end of July, the Théâtre de la Ville is putting on family-friendly plays with tiny casts at two venues, the Espace Cardin and Les Abbesses, while the Théâtre de Belleville opted to present one-person shows.

Under normal circumstances, all would very likely be overshadowed by more extravagant projects. Theater for young audiences, especially, tends to get short shrift. “Venavi or Why My Sister Isn’t Well,” a penetrating play about grief at Les Abbesses, was first performed in 2011 and has toured extensively since, yet it isn’t nearly as well known as it should be.

Its author, Rodrigue Norman, was born in Togo, and the plot is based on the belief there that twins are sacred beings, feared and celebrated as demigods. The only actor onstage (the highly likable Alexandre Prince) plays Akouété, who dies as a child, leaving his twin sister Akouélé behind.

A soliloquy from beyond the grave sounds grim on paper, but “Venavi,” directed by Olivier Letellier, delicately explores the need for closure after such a loss in terms that the many children in attendance could understand. Since Akouété’s parents don’t acknowledge his death, his sister’s growth is stunted as she waits desperately for him to return from “the woods,” where she is told he has gone.

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GEORGIA ENGEL, GENTLE-VOICED ‘MARYTYLER MOORE’ ACTRESS, IS DEAD AT 70 ·

(Neil Genzlinger’s article appeared in The New York Times, 4/15; via Pam Green.)

Georgia Engel, whose distinctive voice and pinpoint comic timing made her a memorable part of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” on which she played Georgette Franklin, girlfriend and eventually wife of the buffoonish TV newsman Ted Baxter, died on Friday in Princeton, N.J. She was 70.

John Quilty, her friend and executor, said the cause was undetermined because Ms. Engel, who was a Christian Scientist, did not consult doctors.

Ms. Engel was twice nominated for an Emmy Award for her work on “Mary Tyler Moore,” which she joined in 1972, during the show’s third season.

“It was only going to be one episode,” she told The Toronto Star in 2007, “and I was just supposed to have a few lines in a party scene, but they kept giving me more and more to do.”

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She had a high-pitched, innocent voice that, as one writer put it, “sounds like an angel has just sniffed some helium,” and she used it expertly to contrast with the blustery Baxter (played by Ted Knight) and the usually levelheaded Mary Richards, Ms. Moore’s character.

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SARAH RUHL: THE TRUMP-LESS KENNEDY CENTER HONORS ·

FILE PHOTO: A combination photo showing the 2017 Kennedy Center Honorees: Actress, dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade (L to R), singer-songwriter and actress Gloria Estefan, hip-hop artist LL COOL J, television writer and producer Norman Lear and musician and record producer Lionel Richie. REUTERS/Staff/File Photos

(Ruhl’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/25; via Pam Green.)

On Tuesday night CBS will air the Kennedy Center Honors, and President Trump will not be on the screen, because he declined to attend the eventwhen it was held on Dec. 3 in Washington. What does it mean that Mr. Trump didn’t have the nerve, for a single night, to be in a room with artists who have criticized him?

The president’s team claimed that he did not attend so that the artists could celebrate in peace rather than having a political distraction. But the president votes, as we all do, with his feet.

Though the arts have never been neutral politically, the honoring of artists is a bipartisan ritual. The Kennedy Center was a place where the left and the right could agree that the arts occupy a central place in our culture, worthy of our attention and respect. Artists chosen for the Kennedy Center awards generally have fans on the left and the right and everywhere in between. The checkbooks of art patrons are not marked with their party affiliations.

I came of age in the culture wars of the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan planned to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, and, instead, ended up whittling down its budget by a small percentage. Still, in 1984, before putting medals on Arthur Miller and Lena Horne among other luminaries, he reflected on the way Americans had developed “a culture that was as fertile as this new land” and had continued to innovate in arts and entertainment.

“And today our nation has crowned her greatness with grace, and we gather this evening to honor five artists who have helped her to do so,” he said.

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MAUREEN RYAN: INTRODUCING A NEW WAY TO THINK ABOUT FEMALE CHARACTERS IN TV AND FILM (AND THEATRE?) ·

(Ryan’s article appeared in Variety, 4/7; via Pam Green.)

TV viewers and moviegoers don’t see character introductions in scripts, but they’re enormously important. These short descriptions — usually just a line or two of text — provide a template for an actor attempting to create a portrait of a vibrant, unique, multidimensional human being.

This story first appeared in the April 05, 2016 issue of Variety. Subscribe today.See more.

Well, that’s the theory, anyway. Perusing scripts in his job as a film producer, Ross Putnam often found something else — especially when it came to female characters.

The descriptions contained little other than words like “leggy,” “erotic” and “alluring.” And, of course, there’s the ubiquitous “beautiful.”

Frustrated by the inherent sexism he found, Putnam created the Twitter feed @FemScriptIntros to share those character introductions with a wider audience. Spend some time reading his feed, and it’s hard not to wonder why actresses don’t quit the business en masse.

http://variety.com/2016/voices/columns/femscriptintros-twitter-1201746659/

PATRICIA N. SAFFRAN ON ‘POLDARK’ ·

 

He dashes around the lush green Cornish countryside. The audi­ence cannot  get enough of watching him. His smoldering good looks have created a sensation on the internet – he has his own Facebook page and his own articles in the press. Who is this magnificent one? They call him Seamus. He is the 14 year old Irish draft horse gelding star who plays the unnamed main horse of the hero, Ross Poldark, played by Irish actor Aidan Turner, in the BBC/PBS hit TV series, Poldark. The BBC first aired a Poldark TV series in 1975, with Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark. Mr. Ellis now plays Reverend Halse in the 2015 series. Both TV series’ are based on the widely read Poldark novels set in 18th century Cornwall, written by Winston Graham. The first one was published in 1945, but the written works did not achieve their greater popularity until the TV series based on them appeared in 1975.

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(c) 2015 by Patricia N. Saffran.  All rights reserved.

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PATRICIA N. SAFFRAN: “HORSEMANSHIP IN WOLF HALL PART I” ·

 

(Saffran’s article appeared in Horse Directory Magazine, 5/3.)

It is night (or close to it), or is there a storm, in the first scene of the made for television adaption of the novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. The horses are clomping along. Fortunately, the cameramen did not run into them, but then again, horses have night vision — it is part of what protects them from predators in the wild, so they know to avoid the cameramen. This is a candle/fireplace lit production, which explains why we see the profile of a distinguished black Spanish movie horse (from The Devil’s Horsemen, Wychwood Stud, Buckinghamshire, UK, Gerard Naprous, Horse master) but we cannot see much else.

The party is en route to Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor, played by the charm­ing Jonathan Pryce, to ask for his resignation. Once inside, the emis­saries are rebuked indirectly by Thomas Cromwell, portrayed by the  phenomenal, enigmatic Mark Rylance, who whispers advice in the cunning Wolsey’s ear. A great team. Then there are many changes of scenes — mostly all indoors without transition scenes of horses and riders going to the locations. After his wife and daughters die, Thomas visits his cranky, previously sadistic father (Thomas had to run away from home at an early age to escape his father or possibly from a stint in jail.) In this scene, Thomas’s father is still a work­ing blacksmith. Thomas walks to where his father is shoeing.

Where is Thomas’s horse in this scene? Young Thomas grew up around horses. It would have been more lively if Thomas rode into the stable yard, then his father would have asked him about what was probably an expensive horse, now that Thomas has moved up in the world — a way to counteract his father and a lost opportunity to reveal status in a class preoccupied society. While abroad, Cromwell fought for the French army in Italy in 1503, and then he was employed by Italians, who taught him about finance. Thomas also sold donkeys while in Italy.

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LEE DANIELS: “I HATE WHITE PEOPLE WRITING FOR BLACK PEOPLE; IT’S SO OFFENSIVE” ·

(Stacey Wilson Hunt’s and  Lacey Rose’s article first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine; via the Drudge Report.)

Six hit show creators, from 'House of Cards' to 'Good Wife,' gather for a heated, candid talk that reveals the state of opinion on Hollywood's touchiest subjects.

Just because the television business has made notable inroads in the realm of diversity this year doesn't mean the subject is any more comfortable to discuss. So when Lee Daniels, co-creator of Fox's Empire, recently questioned a table full of drama writer-producers about the racial makeup of their writers rooms, the group grew tense. But doing so ultimately led to an important discussion about the industry's shortcomings — as well as the challenges of collaboration, their frustration with critics and the day that Beau Willimon, showrunner of Netflix's House of Cards, danced shirtless on set with Russian punk-rock group Pussy Riot. Daniels, 55, and Willimon, 37, were joined April 28 in Hollywood for a frank conversation about the pressures and rewards of running TV's hottest dramas by Damon Lindelof, 42 (HBO's The Leftovers), Alex Gansa, 54 (Showtime's Homeland), Michelle King, 53 (CBS' The Good Wife), and Sarah Treem, 34 (Showtime's The Affair).

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/lee-daniels-damon-lindelof-a-794430

ANTHONY HOPKINS & IAN MCKELLEN TALK TYRANNICAL DIRECTORS, STATE OF TV & FINALLY WORKING TOGETHER ON ‘THE DRESSER’ ·

 

(Nancy Tartaglione’s article appeared on Deadline Hollywood, 3/19/15; via Pam Green.)

On the Ealing Studios lot, which once played host to Alec Guinness and the Ealing Comedies — and is now the residence of Downton AbbeyAnthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen have been shooting BBC/Starz’s upcoming The Dresser. This is the adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s classic play that’s produced by Colin Callender’s Playground Entertainment. It’s the first time in many years that a play has been adapted in such a way for television. And it joins the two veteran stars together for the first time. It will air on BBC Two this year and on Starz in 2016.

Callender tells me it is likely the first project of a six-part series of single dramas that Playground is developing for television that he will produce with Sonia Friedman. I was on The Dresser set last week, speaking with the principals on such diverse topics as Hopkins’ distaste for theater acting thanks to “tyrannical directors” and McKellen’s belief that some television is currently “in the doldrums.”

http://deadline.com/2015/03/anthony-hopkins-ian-mckellen-the-dresser-set-1201395026/