About This Blog

I really like theatre, and I like writing and talking about it.

This blog is mostly about my relationship with theatre, the moments that make me fall in love with this art form, and the times when we don't always get along.

I'll be writing about things that I like, that I think are good and interesting and want to share. I will probably also write about things that I don't quite get, or think are wierd. I may also write about things that aren't theatre, strictly speaking, because it's my blog and I can.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Stage vs. Screen

With most audiences gravitating towards movie theaters, there's been a lot of talk lately about making theater more high-tech, with moving scenery and live 3D projections, in order to compete with film.

I would like to suggest that the best way to compete with your rival is not to try to offer the same product they do, but to offer something you can't get from them.

I was reading the news this morning, and looking at all the reviews of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, which actually opened last night! As in, for reals opened. While much improved, it's still being described as "bombastic", "overblown", and "soulless". Similarly, I wanted to see the Metropolitan Opera's Die Walkure (forgive the lack of umlaut, I can't kind the keyboard shortcut) last month. While many reviews acknowledged the evocative images conjured by the impressive stage machinery, they complained that it was distracting, dwarfing the performers and pulling focus away from the heart of the story.

On the other end of the spectrum, I was reading about PigPen Theatre Company's show "The Mountain Song", who tell their story with practical forms of puppetry such as a dress on a stick, a blanket, and hand puppets (as in, literally just their hands). Shows like this are more often described by critics as "charming", "whimsical", "imaginative" and "intimate".

One of the greatest shows I ever saw (I swear I will sit down and write a comprehensive post about it one of these days) was Shockheaded Peter. I saw an article about it's old-timey, Grand Guignol-style stage effects in the New York Times, and took a last minute bus trip to New York just to see it. Critics (and I) agreed that it was unique, bizarre, and mesmerizing.

I'm working on a couple brainchild project concepts for the near-to-distant-to-possibly-never future, and my foremost concern is not how to give the audiences and experience that rivals the movie theaters, but one so unique they can't possible experience it anywhere else.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Audience Antics

Good news: I'm too busy working on theatrical productions to write about theatre.

Bad news: I'm too busy working on theatrical productions to write about theatre.

So for some brief entertainment, a quick anecdote from Saturday night's performance.

We had a very engaged audience. They seemed to be an intellectual bunch, and I think may have understood the material better than some other audiences we've had. They got more of the jokes (this being a Shakespearean tragedy, I'm not sure everyone realized there were jokes) and would nod and "hm" in appreciation at moments of deep truth and understanding. They gave us a lot of energy and were very involved, and generally a pleasure to perform for.

At the start of the second act, I was standing at the stage left crossover entrance behind the audience with a few other actors waiting for our cues to come on stage, when I heard a prolonged and loud crashing and scuffling from the audience. We looked at each other in confusion, but no one could figure out what was going on. After the show, I got a chance to ask the lead actress, who was on stage at the time and could see everything, what had happened.

To illustrate, here is a diagram I made of the stage in MS Paint:

So, at the start of Act 2 our stage manager made sure the lobby and restrooms were cleared before bringing down the lights and starting the show. At this point, someone apparently made a last-minute dash for the bathroom, which you can see on the right side of the drawing is right next to the backstage area, and in the middle of where the actors go to cross behind the audience for entrances on the left side of the stage.

Having come out of the bathroom and seen that the show was in full swing, instead of going around the front of the seating area, he decided to bust through the curtains blocking the audience off from the actor cross over. This did not work very well, as the curtains are pinned closed to prevent gapping. Also, there were a bunch of people sitting right on the other side of the curtain, and he had to climb over them, creating the aforementioned ruckus.

Major props to our lead actress for keeping her cool through a dramatic monologue while having to watch this ridiculousness right in front of her, since most of the opening scene is addressed directly to the audience.

Monday, May 23, 2011

There's No Dying In Theatre!

Saturday morning when I woke up, I felt pretty okay. I'd had some breakfast, and was sitting at my desk surfing the internet when I realized I felt kind of dizzy. My roommate advised me to drink some water, but I still felt woozy and out of it. After the extremely non-strenuous activity of playing some video games, I realized that I was feeling nauseous as well, and went to lie down for a while.

On any other Saturday, that would be fine. But on this day I had a 7pm call time for a show in which I have a very high-energy, physical role. And it's a small theater, so there's no understudies. Even in bigger theaters, you don't just call in sick if you're not feeling well. You have to be physically incapable of playing your role (and doing so safely). It's a matter of integrity as much as of convenience.

I knew Saturday would be a challenge--as I pride myself on the ferocity of my performance in this particular production, I wasn't about to half-ass it. I open the show flying on in a rage, and it's my personal goal to resemble a freight train in my entrance as much as possible. Besides that I have two fight scenes and a LOT of running. I would just have to grit my teeth and get through it.

Luckily, my head started to clear up once I'd been up and walking around for a while, and my stage makeup helped cover my zombie-like pallor. I had a couple friends at that night's show, and they reported that they couldn't tell at all that I hadn't been feeling well.


In other news, I completely failed at seeing the live broadcast of the Met's Die Walküre. After seeing Das Rheingold in the fall, I was really looking forward to it. However, the live screening was the day after my show opened, and I knew I'd be too tired to make it to the theater at 10am. We discussed catching the re-broadcast, which would have been on a Wednesday evening. At which point my opera companion pointed out that Die Walküre is five hours long.

Hell no. As much as I wanted to see this show, I know my own stamina level, and this just wasn't going to work out. *Sigh*. Opera fail.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

2011 Obies

I just want to say quickly how happy I am to see that Scott Shepherd won an Obie for his performance in Gatz! (narrating and reading the role of Nick Carraway), and that Punchdrunk Theater Company got a special citation for the design and choreography of Sleep No More.

 These are two projects I've been cheerleading for a while, but because they're both so unusual, they're not eligible for the same kind of accolades. It's nice to see some recognition for this kind of innovation and originality.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Hardest Job

I was recently chatting with one of my fellow actors after a rehearsal at which we'd done some costume fittings, and I mentioned how pleased I was with my costume, because:

a) I like the way I look in it
b) It is what I would have envisioned for the character
c) It's super comfortable

She and and I were discussing the fact that often your costuming in a show doesn't flatter your own personal vanity, but you have to put that aside for the good of the show. My favorite actors to costume are the ones who, even though they may not look cool or sexy in their costume, love it anyway because it enhances the character and fits the life of the play.

I once had professor in college who told us that scenic designers are listed ahead of costume designers in the program because their job is harder. Would it surprise you to hear that he was a scenic designer himself? I call bullshit. You're never going to hear a theater space complaining to its designer that the set makes it look fat. Costume designers have to deal with the personalities and hangups and physical comfort of the people we're designing for. You can't just hammer an ill-fitting wig into place like you can a set piece (although I've sure had people try).

I love reading theatre news on Playbill.com, and they have a feature they run on Mondays where they interview an actor, and one of the questions is always "what is the worst costume you've ever had to wear?" You don't hear them asking about the worst prop or sound cue.

Sorry, actors, but it's not always about you. We designers have to negotiate so many personalities; we're trying to keep you happy AND the director happy AND deal with things like quick changes or making the continuity of the story work. You may not like the way you look, but some times it does not serve the story for you to look cute. Every story needs its clowns and villains and grotesques. What's important is to do what's best for the show. And if that's looking ridiculous or ugly, then do it, and enjoy it! That's why we act, anyway, to be the things onstage we can't be in real life.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Focus on the Actors?

I was a bit irked yesterday by an email I received from my theatre company. It was an audition announcement for our next show, and came with a little note from the director explaining the concept, which said "...the play specifically calls for as little costume and set dressing as possible. What does this mean? This means this is a show for ACTORS!"

This drove me crazy. We're talking about a contemporary, intimate relationship drama. What are they going to be wearing, ballgowns? People seem to have this attitude that if everyone isn't in corsets and frock coats, they're not wearing "costumes", or that if the show is contemporary, costumes aren't important.


You want to communicate to your audience right away who these people are or how they live. This play is about a married couple who are both writers, and set in their home. Are they well off, or do they struggle to make ends meet? Are they preppy academics, or cutting-edge rebels? Do they live in Cape Cod, Arizona, or Brooklyn? These are all opportunities to flesh out the characters, and these details can be communicated to the audience through the costumes and set dressing.


It doesn't help the audience for the actors to wander on stage wearing whatever clothes they happened to have on that morning. That tells them nothing about the characters. It doesn't help the actors, either. Often, the key to realizing a character is looking in the mirror and seeing that character looking back at you.

That's not to say that you can't be completely transported by a well-acted show with minimal tech elements, but you need to create an environment in which the audience's imagination can fill in the blanks. Where you put the negative space in a play is a choice, too.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Sugar/Caffeine Death Spiral

I have a bit of a problem with my current show; I get off of work at 5pm, but rehearsal is not until 7:30. I work at about the mid-way point between my house and our rehearsal space, so I don't have enough time to go home first, leaving me with about an hour and a half to kill before I can head over there.

I've been doing a ton of overtime at work (yay, time and a half!) to fill the gap, but I don't get home from rehearsal until almost 11 o'clock at night, resulting in some very long days. And a very tired girl.

During the day at work, I start flagging. I would love to do something to get my energy up, like do some jumping jacks, or run around the building, or have a 10-second dance party.

Sadly, these things are generally frowned upon in a business environment. So instead, I turned to the only two options available to me: candy and caffeine.

I can't drink coffee--either it has more caffeine than I can handle, or the coffee is just too acidic, and it makes me super nauseous. So instead I drink black tea, although I can't have too much of that either, especially on an empty stomach. It has the odd result that I will have a HUGE sneezing fit (13 sneezes is my record). Physiologically, I don't know how those two things are related. It makes zero sense.

I also have a co-worker who has a candy drawer in her desk full of Twizzlers, Tootsie Rolls, and Mike & Ike's. I try to pack myself lots of healthy snacks to deter myself, but a fistful of Tootsie Rolls is more enticing than string cheese when you're trying to make it through the afternoon. But since I'm out of the habit of eating really sugary foods, a) I feel gross afterwards, and b) I can feel my veins vibrating.

I do sometimes manage to take naps during the day at work; a few people have couches in their offices, and there's a creepy nylon one in the breakroom. I think the next step is taking naps sitting up at my desk (while still typing, if possible).

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Greatest Lesson I Ever Learned From Theatre

When I was in seventh grade, my school started a drama club. In the fall we did three short comedic one acts, and I got cast in a pretty good part. In the spring we did a full-length, mostly dramatic (it had some funny bits) play. I was feeling so confident at the auditions, I just got up on stage and read through the script. I'm not sure I even looked at it before I went up there.

I did not get cast.

I remember pushing through the crowd at the back of the auditorium to look at the cast list taped to the wall, and looking over it again and again, but it remained the same. I was only an understudy. I managed to get out to the parking lot before I started crying.

Rehearsal was twice a week after school, and I may have only been an understudy, but I went to every single one. I didn't have any friends that year, and didn't have anywhere to be after school. So I went to rehearsal. I made friends there, and I would watch the scenes, or do homework, or study lines for the characters I was understudying. And if any of the actors weren't there that day, I would fill in for them.

Three weeks before the show, a girl in the cast realized she had a major basketball tournament the same weekend as the show. She had to decide which one was more important to her. She chose basketball, and I got her role.

The next year we did Alice In Wonderland for our fall show. I was worried I wouldn't get a good part, since I had such a small role in the previous show. But I was thrilled when I found out I would be playing the Queen of Hearts!

It turns out, I had made a huge impression on the director with my dedication and enthusiasm. She was willing to take a bigger chance on me in the next show once she saw how hard I worked.

I think that's important lesson you can apply to any job, not just theatre. You may not like the job you have right now, but if you kick ass at it, people will notice. It can take a while to earn people's respect and trust. But opportunities will come to you once you do.

No Small Parts

Seriously. There aren't any.

I remember a lesson from the summers when I went to a theater day camp during my vacations. We went to see a show at another children's theater--I don't remember what the show was, I think it was based on a Tomie dePaola book. The only thing I remember about it--and what we all agreed was our favorite part later--was the girl who played the goat. She had zero lines and her character was not important to the plot. Our camp counselors asked us why we all liked her so much, and why she was so interesting to watch.

It was because she was having fun. She was fun for us to watch because she was clearly having a great time playing her role.

Another good example is a production of Twelfth Night which I designed for my theater company this past summer. The character Fabian is usually kind of a throwaway role--he shows up halfway through the show which no introduction, everyone just acts like he's always been there. He helps out some other characters in their scheming, but that's about it. The director gave the role to Tracey, who played the role as a man. She's a great comic and Shakespearean actress, but he didn't have a female role that she fit in that show.

Well, she completely owned it as Fabian. She took a nondescript character, and turned it into a comic foil so funny, she consistently got spontaneous mid-scene applause. She's also the only person I know who can ad-lib Shakespeare successfully.

So now I find myself doing a Shakespeare play, and while I'm on stage a lot, there's not a lot of information about my character in the script, and I don't have a lot of dialogue. So I did the most important thing any actor can when creating a role- I made up a backstory for myself. A lot of it was based on the experiments we did with Laban Movement Theory; I discovered what kind of movement felt right for my character, and then came up with a reason why he might act that way (we're women playing male characters).

Thanks to my background development, I now have a character who has specific motivations and relationships that inform how she reacts to what's going on onstage, which gives me something to do even when I don't have lines. The best thing is, even though I completely made up this character's personality, my director is being completely supportive. He's even finding opportunities in the scene for my character to have more specific reactions. And as a result I'm having a lot of fun playing him.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Stage Combat

I gotta be honest; I love doing fight choreography. It probably comes from my latent desire to be an action star. I took Kung-Fu lessons when I was a kid, and I was part of a filmmaking club in college that specialized in action/thriller films, so I got to learn how to do stage fighting.

I remember doing one really long day of shooting for a thriller about a home invasion--my attacker and I spent most of it wrestling on the floor of a tiny bathroom before I chased him into the kitchen, and ultimately killed him with a meat cleaver. The bathroom was barely big enough to fit the crew, and we did a lot of shots with the cameraman standing on the toilet and the director hiding in the bathtub. I was so sore I couldn't move the next day, but it was extremely rewarding, and we got a great reaction from the crowd at our school film festival for the brutal fights.

So I'm really excited to be doing a lot of stage combat in the show that I'm rehearsing right now. Fights present a lot of challenges on stage; you need to make sure everyone stays safe, but you want the fight to look chaotic and spontaneous, but you need to keep the movement clean enough that the audience can follow the action.

One of the most important things is to make sure the audience isn't concerned about the safety of the actors. It's a weird dichotomy, but you need to maintain suspension of disbelief. The audience needs to believe that the character is being hurt, but not the actor. If they're actually worried for the actor, it will pull them out of the moment.

In my opinion, the most importants traits are to appear deliberate and determined. Each movement has to have a specific purpose; you can't flail or stumble about, even when you're the one taking the hits. I think the best way to sell taking a hit is to "ragdoll", but you still need to make it clear where the impact was, and how much it hurt. Which leads to the other element: determination. You have to act the fight. Are you angry? Scared? Tired? The fighters need to look determined to win the fight, both in their body language and facial expression.

When learning the fight choreography, you have to start out v e r y  s l o w l y, and then speed the action up. If you've ever watched DVD outtakes about fight scenes, you've probably heard the stunt coordinators say that learning a fight is like learning a dance. It sounds a bit cliche, but it's really true. Something we just started doing organically in rehearsals, and which I now use as an actual technique, is to narrate the fight as you walk through it. To literally say out loud:
"I go for a right hook"
"I duck and punch you in the ribs"
"I stumble back"
"I grab your shoulders and knee you in the gut"

It sounds really cheesy, but not only is it a great way to help remember the fight choreography, it results in clean fights.

So those are my thoughts on stage combat. We're learning another big fight tomorrow, and I'm really looking forward to it. Because not only is fighting on stage fun to do, when done well, it makes your show more memorable.

It also looks really cool.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Le Comte Ory

I went to see this live screening this past Saturday morning. I had a very full week, and almost didn't go. But these are three of my favorite singers, and I've enjoyed all of director Bartlett Scher's previous work for the Met, and Catherine Zuber designed the costumes. So I dragged myself out of bed, threw on something barely resembling clothes, slapped some Nutella on a slice of banana bread for breakfast, and I went.

It was well worth it. It would've been a huge shame to miss Juan Diego Florez, Diana Damrau, and Joyce DiDonato all in the same show, each of whom is the best in their fach. Besides which, Florez had come directly from the birth of his first child (a son, Leandro). As in, the baby was born at 12:25 PM EST, and the opera began at 1:00 PM. He was clearly running on adrenaline and fumes, but did seemed completely focused on his performance. In the title role, Florez is disguised both as an old hermit and a nun, and his shameless mugging was hilarious.

Oddly, I'm not usually a huge fan of tenors. Sure, I've seen tenors who have been very good, but I don't find myself moved to adoration like I have been with baritones. There are certainly more baritones whose careers I follow than tenors. Don't know why that is. Open to suggestion. But Florez is definitely the exception for me. His voice is thrilling-it has such a bright, exciting sound.

Director Bartlett Scher decided to give this show a sort of a framing device--it is kind of an odd opera, as it is a medieval French farce set during the Crusades, with music composed by an Italian. To try to marry the two sensibilities, Scher set it in a theater during Rossini's time, so you can see period set mechanics and stagehands. For the costumes, Zuber made it look like they had just raided whatever was in the wardrobe closet. It was full of frothy pink confections, but the only thing I didn't entirely like about it was sometimes you'd catch a period from the future--I'd catch a Regency era gown here and there, and it was a bit distracting. But they did fun things like creating a storm with guys on the side of the stage shaking thunder sheets and wind machines, and someone was welding to create lightning (although the camera was having a hard time catching it).

Part of this stage device was a grumpy stage manager, played by Rob Besserer. It was essentially the same character he played in Scher's The Barber of Seville a few years ago, when he played the mute servant. I find it amusing because:
a) he looks like this little stooped over old guy, until the curtain call when he straightens up, and you realize he's the tallest guy on stage
b) he's the same dancer who played Herr Drosselmeier-my favorite character- in the DVD I have of Mark Morris' The Hard Nut.

Other things I enjoyed about the production:
- Choreographed stagehands twirling about while moving trees, therefore dubbed "treeography"
- A bunch of (often bearded) man disguised as nuns, hiding all the wine they've stolen under their habits. They also had a hilarious dance number.
-Rob Besserer's in-character creeping behind Renee Fleming as she introduced the broadcast
-The trio for the three leads as Ory sneaks into Countess Adele's bed, not knowing she's already got his page Isolier in there with her. They are ostensibly in the dark, so there was lots of hilariously entangled limbs and misplaced groping.

Here's a video of the scene I'm referring to, which I kidnapped from the Met's website:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

So...What Did You Think?

Another blog I follow lead me to an interesting article today, and I think it's an important topic that people who work in the arts (or have a lot of friends in the arts) need to address: how to tell your friend what you thought of their show.

The linked article is great, and I definitely suggest you read it. I would also like to share two memorable experiences I've had with this, one many years ago, the other quite recently.

As a student, I had a large role in a production of The Crucible. Another actor from the production and I were good friends with a girl who was doing Our Town at her school a few weeks before it opened, so we went to see it. Our friend was good, but many of the other actors were flat and it was generally a dull production. But when we greeted our friend after the show, we told her how good she was, and found some nice things to say about the show.

A few weeks later, she came to see us in The Crucible, and afterwords when we asked what she thought, she just said "I didn't like it". That was it! Now, I know the show wasn't Tony-worthy; it was a student production and obviously had its problems. But it was not completely without merit, and had a lot of really good moments. None of which she chose to mention.

As for the other story; I'm currently involved with a well-reviewed production that is enjoying a successful run in Los Angeles (I was the dramaturg; in this context I mostly acted at an artistic consultant). The play is notable for its "love it or hate it" twist ending. A friend of the company came to see it, and afterwards loudly announced to his friends that he had figured out the twist for himself, was disappointed by it, and from that point on had ceased paying attention.

So three of his friends are on stage, giving physically strenuous and emotionally gripping performances, but he doesn't like the plot twist, so he's just completely checked out. ???!?!!

Based on the above, I would like to provide a few tips for going to see your friends' shows:
-Stay for the whole thing, and make sure your friend at least sees you afterwards. You are there to support your friend, and not just for your own entertainment, so even if you're not enjoying yourself, stick it out.

-Give your friend a "Good job", whether it was deserved or not. Don't ruin the post-performance afterglow.

-Come up with something nice to say about the production; cool costumes, fun choreography, that one really funny bit. Anything, so long as you don't just say "Good job" and then stand there staring at your friend.

But the most important thing, really, is to know your friend. If you know he's really thin-skinned and can't take criticism, pick out a few strong points to praise, and hope the topic never comes up again. If you see a serious problem that may hurt your friend's career in the long run and needs to be addressed, find a way to gently inform him of it. But if you have the kind of friends who are capable of objectively deconstructing their own work, you can actually tell them what you thought of it (but I'd recommend this for drinks a week later, not in the lobby after curtain calls)

But with any luck, your friends' shows are all really good, and you'll never have this problem.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Playing with Laban Theory

I'm starting rehearsal on a new play (which I'm in), and after two days of just reading through the script, we did a night of movement. We did some stretching, and vocal and physical warm-ups, and playing some games to get us working together as a group.

For me, the most interesting part was the time we spent on Laban Movement Theory. You've probably dabbled with a bit of this if you've ever taken an acting class--walk in a circle, notice what part of your body you lead with, try leading with something else, etc. I've done this as an exercise plenty of times to develop a walk or movement style for a character, but never gone much further than that.

What we did in rehearsal yesterday was a little more in-depth, exploring four different contrasting ways of moving:
Direct vs. Indirect
Sudden vs. Sustained
Light vs. Heavy
Free vs. Restrained

I seriously wish I could've had a tape recorder in my head, because I noticed so many interesting things that I wanted to remember for later. When we were playing with indirect movement through space, I noticed if I was charging through the center of the room, and then suddenly changed direction, that seemed like a character who was very inconstant. Using indirect, restrained movement at the edge of the space, I felt more like a character who was very hesitant and unsure. It was enlightening to notice my personal emotional response to movement; when we were playing with restrained movement, I curled into a ball in the middle of the room; and it felt very exposed and scary.

For the character in this play, I thought about what kind of movement felt natural to me, versus how I thought my character would move. My ideas thus far had been that he is suspicious and conniving, masculine, and aggressive (this is a cast of women who are mostly playing male characters, but not actually "as men"). The kind of movement that felt right for him was a confident, swaggery walk, and I often found myself prowling the edge of the space, then picking a destination and charging straight across to it. In one exercise, we were asked to think about how we relate to people who are moving the same way we were, versus those who weren't. I found myself keeping and eye on people moving similarly (either as rivals or possible cohorts), while people who were using lighter, freer movement irritated me ("who are these frolicking idiots? Get out of my way").

This gives me some new ideas about how to play my character, who may not be so fleshed-out in the script, but who I can bring detail and specificity to. I have new tools to use in how to bring him to life. And now the cast has a common language that the director can use so the cast will understand what he's asking for.

I'm also pleasantly achy from a yoga warm-up we did; I think I'll need to incorporate that into my daily routine so I don't run myself down.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Life in the Wardrobe Department With Mary Poppins

I found this great little video on Playbill.com today that shows you what goes into keeping a show running on a day-to-day basis. This is what I used to do as an intern, and later professionally. It wasn't as complicated at the regional theater I worked at, though, because we only had 4-6 week runs, so we didn't have to deal with cast replacements and understudies only covered roles in case of emergency. Also we didn't have to have duplicate sets of costumes, as the rules are more lax for shorter runs in smaller houses.

It's fun to see a feature on this show in particular, as I'm planning to see it this summer!

Friday, March 25, 2011

My Favorite Things- Opera

For fun, I thought I would post some of my favorite opera video clips from YouTube. They're always the first ones I go to. I think everyone finds a version of a song from a show they love, and can't imagine them being done any other way. That's what these are for me.

First we have Joyce DiDonato and Peter Mattei singing the duet "Dunque io Son" from The Barber of Seville, directed by Bartlett Scher for the Metropolitan Opera. The two parts are perfectly balanced, and I love their fun, playful chemistry.

This is from the same production-- "La Callunia" sung by John Relyea. I know it's unusual to enjoy a villainous aria so much, but I love the way the whole song builds from a "little whisper" to "the roar of a cannon".

So, I was surfing channels one day, and I happened across PBS at exactly the point in the show where this clip starts. I kept watching because I loved the old-timey carnival style and tailored suits. Then Kathleen Kim entered and sang The Doll Aria, and blew me away. She has the most amazing precision and clarity. The opera is Les Contes D'Hoffman by Jacques Offenbach, also directed by Bartlett Scher for the Met. The aria itself starts at (5:00), but I recommend watching the whole thing.

Now, the first opera I ever saw when I was a kid was Mozart's The Magic Flute. It was one my grandmother often sung, and I found a version that had run on PBS that I liked a lot. I think that also inspired me to learn German later in life. Papageno was always my favorite character, and as I've mentioned before, I love Simon Keenlyside. He did a great version for Covent Garden where he played Papageno as more of a sad-sack character than the goofy comic relief.

And of course, what is The Magic Flute without the most impressive aria in opera? This version of the Queen of the Night's aria is from the same production, and is undoubtedly my favorite interpretation. Diana Damrau plays the role with the most incredible drama and intensity, but also nuance, that I've ever seen. There's some German dialogue at the start of the clip, and the aria begins at about (2:10)

Well, that was a fun excuse to watch some of my favorite performances again. I hope you liked them, too!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My Thoughts on Frankenstein (Spoiler Version)

I wanted to share some more thoughts I had after watching Frankenstein last night, but they ruin some pretty big moments in the show. So if you're thinking of going, don't read this yet.

The start of the show is incredible; it starts with the genesis of the Creature as he is birthed on to the floor with a plop, and spends the next 10-15 minutes alone onstage, discovering how his limbs work. As Cumberbatch said in the pre-show interview, he has a full-grown human brain, and learns super-quick. Which is probably part of his downfall; as a child's brain develops, it layers different kinds of understanding and builds on its knowledge. An adult instead tries to smash the puzzle pieces together to make everything fit.

Anyway, it was an incredibly mesmerizing scene to watch. I would challenge any actor who doesn't bother to study any type of movement to create a scene that requires such nuance and stamina. I have one complaint, though; Frankenstein comes in, sees his creature, rejects him, and quickly disappears. I would have liked for them to hold on to that moment just a little bit longer; to see some kind of admission from the doctor that he was completely unprepared for his experiment to actually work.


One of my favorite scenes was of the female creature (Andreea Padurariu), which the Creature has begged his master to make him. You could really see the crazy/inspiration in Miller's eyes as he began to imagine the improvements he could make in his next experiment. Now this is going to sound a little weird, but stick with me. I've always been fascinated by things that should be beautiful, but are marred or twisted in some way (like the dilapidated theater in my icon). The actress playing the Female Creature is an absolute paragon of female physical beauty--Frankenstein trots her out only partially re-animated and wearing only a small loincloth so you can see her perfect curves and angles, accentuated by neat rows of stitch marks along her pallid, dead flesh.

Frankenstein shows the Creature his bride, and asks him what love feels like. "My lungs are on fire, and I feel like I can do anything!" is his reply, and by the angry, haunted look on Frankenstein's face, you can tell that he has no idea what that feels like.

What happens next is that the doctor distracts his creature long enough to destroy his bride--Frankenstein himself is supposed to be getting married. His fiance Elizabeth is lovely, warm and vivacious, and he feels nothing for her. This thing he created understands what it is to experience life better than he does, so Frankenstein denies him the love he cannot feel himself. I found the bride's death oddly beautiful as well, created in silhouette behind the womb-like membrane we saw the Creature born from earlier, which then rotates to show the aftermath of his destruction.

Photo by Catherine Ashmore- The National Theatre.
The scene near the end where the Creature seeks revenge on Frankenstein by attacking Elizabeth (Naomie Harris) on their wedding surprised the hell out of me--the Creature was hiding in their bed and I had no idea he was there. It's hard to do a jump-scare on stage, because you have to get out there without anyone seeing you and stay hidden. They did it really well.

And at the end of the show, en route the the North Pole, I felt so bad for Jonny Lee Miller. He shaved his head, and was obviously dripping under his hot wig and frock coat, and then he has to put on this seal fur coat! Poor guy must've been dying.

Well I'm sure I'll have a million more thoughts about this show throughout the day, but I wanted to get these ones written down while they were still in my head. How wonderful to see a show that sticks with you so much!

I Have Seen the National Theatre's Frankenstein, and It Was Awesome

National Theatre Live: Frankenstein
I went to see this last night at Graumann's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, and I'm so glad I did. It was such a great production; well-acted, with some great pieces of stagecraft, and interesting transitions that made the movement of the show flow really well.

The play took the interesting perspective of following the story from the Creature's point of view (the book follows Frankenstein, and then the Creature has a chapter of "this is what I was doing that whole time"), which will be a huge change for people who are only familiar with the classic film.

Also, the Creature's ability to learn and speak may come as a surprise to some viewers, as well. The play contains several riveting scenes of intelligent discussions of morality, the nature of the human soul, and love, to name a few.

The show started with few behind-the-scenes clips and interviews (apparently a documentary is being made; I'll definitely be wanting that when it comes out). The actors said some really interesting things about how they created their characters; Cumberbatch studied stroke victims and people learning to re-use limbs, Miller watched his two-year-old child.

One thing that was a bit odd was that we got the opposite cast from the one we were expecting: Benedict Cumberbatch played the Creature that night, and Jonny Lee Miller was Victor Frankenstein. That was fine with me, I was absolutely thrilled with the performance I saw. I was just expecting it to be the other way around, so I was a little confused for a minute.

Most theaters have added additional showings, and the screening of the reverse cast is coming next week, so find out if its playing near you. You'll be glad you caught it.

The Steam Train- one of the brilliant bits of stagecraft in Frankenstein (all images credited to the National Theatre of London)

The Creature is born flailing into the world to discover alone how his mind and body works.

A note about going to Graumann's Chinese Theatre- this was my first time seeing a movie there, actually. I usually try to avoid that area due to the tourist crowding and creepy costumed street people. I discovered it's not a good idea to wear high heels there; that's where the handprints in the cement are, and I kept falling in the holes!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"Company" Has A Ridiculously Exciting Cast

Full casting has been announced for the New York Philharmonic production of Stephen Sondheim's Company, and once again I find I'm living i the wrong state.

Company has a crazily busy leading male role, backed by a strong ensemble of performers, and some very difficult music. It also has some characters who get great dialogue but don't have to sing as much; so you can have a varied cast, but play to all their strengths.

So, let's examine these inspired casting choices:

Bobby (aka Robert, Bob, Robbo, etc)- Neil Patrick Harris, who has shown his singing chops in Rent, Assassins, Cabaret, and Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog.

Amy and Paul- Katie Finneran as Amy has the amazing patter song "Not Getting Married Today". Finneran just won a Tony (and the best reviews) for her comedic supporting role in Promises, Promises last year, so I bet she'll be great in this role. Aaron Lazar plays Paul, Amy's tolerant fiance. Lazar has been in everything lately; Light in the Piazza, Les Miserables, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Little Night Music, just to name a few

Harry and Sarah- Stephen Colbert and Martha Plimpton. Both are best known as character actors, but are also capable singers.
Peter and Susan- Craig Bierko and Jill Paice. He starred in the recent revival of Guys and Dolls, and she was just in a well-reviewed revival of Chess

David and Jenny- John Cryer and Jennifer Laura Thompson. He didn't have too much trouble finding another gig, so good for him. She starred in Urinetown and has played Glinda in Wicked.

Joanne and Larry- Patti LuPone and Jim Walton. Joanne has the songs "The Little Things You Do Together" and, more notably, "The Ladies Who Lunch". Well, it's about time she played this role, isn't it?

April-Christina Hendricks (from TV's Mad Men and Firefly) Can she sing? Who knows. More importantly, she needs to nail April's "Butterfly" monologue

Marta- Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls and The Princess and the Frog). Marta's big song is "Another Hundred People", which I bet she will kill (in a good way)

Kathy- Chryssie Whitehead. I actually had to look her up; she gets a lot of TV work, but is a really well trained dancer--so it sounds like they're doing the "Tick Tock" dance number, which often gets skipped because most people aren't Donna McKechnie.

So, awesome cast, right? By the way, if you haven't seen it, I highly recommend the DVD of the recent Broadway revival of Company starring Raul Esparza. It's a really excellent version of this show.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Dutch Masters- An Art Detour

Filing this one under "Not Theatre, But It's My Blog and I Can"
Cross-reference with "Things You Can Learn From Other Mediums"

So, on the aforementioned emergency trip back to Boston, I went with my parents to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. My family is extremely Dutch (my father is 100%, so I'm a good solid half), and my parents just visited the Netherlands last fall, so they had great fun running around looking at the famous old buildings in the paintings, and indicating which ones they saw.

The Netherlands is well-represented at the Peabody Essex Museum, as Salem is a port city, they emphasize trade and maritime art, and the Netherlands is famous for the Dutch East India Trading company, which dominated the seas and ports for almost two centuries.

As it happens, I've been taking art class lately to improve my skills; it's important for a designer to create sketches that are both accurate and compelling, so that the entire production team understands and is on the same page. One recommendation made to me was to study the masters, so I had great fun bouncing around the exhibit and making erudite art student comments. I managed to track down a couple images I found interesting, and here's some of the thoughts I had on them.

 Still Life with Roses in a Glass Vase, c. 1619 by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder

The placard on this painting pointed out the fact that none of these flowers were in season at the same time, so artists would sketch them all separately. While my father pointed out the cast shadow of the arrangement onto the stone archway, I noticed that the shadow doesn't really wrap around the figure itself (this is something we've been working on in my class). The light is obviously coming from the left, but the flowers on the right side don't seem obviously darker, or shaded from the light by the other flowers.

Still Life With Glasses and Tobacco, 1633 by Willem Claesz. Heda
Best. Lemon Peel. Ever.

Sleeping Dog, 1650 by Gerrit Dou
One of my favorite things about the entire exhibit was pointing out all the interesting little details (like the boots left to dry on fence posts in a winter crowd scene)--which led to the odd experience of a small older lady (who I did not know) following me from painting to painting, pointing out all the details she noticed.

Anyway, I thought it was really interesting that in any group paintings--family portraits, crowd scenes, etc.--there was always a dog. As my roommate pointed out, it was a sign of wealth to have a dog, so you wanted to make sure yours was included in a picture of your family. Or, in a more fictional scene, it was a good way to help indicate the social standing of the characters involved.

Frans van Mieris the Elder’s “The Old Violinist"
I loved this one for a few reasons: the incredible texture of that velvet sleeve, the shimmery and dimensional quality of the ivy, but most of all that violin. The perspective is absolutely perfect. To see it in person, it really looks like it's sticking right out at you.

There are so many other examples from this exhibit I could cite- and maybe ones that are more relevant to theatre. I certainly saw several paintings that were great examples of fashion history, or composition, or capturing a dramatic tableau. But these were the pieces that really piqued my interest.

A few other things I noted from the experience of going to a popular exhibit at a gallery:

If you are a very old lady, it is apparently okay to bump into someone, touch their butt, and not apologize.

If you have children, know what types of entertainment will interest them, and what their limitations are. Some kids can behave themselves really well, and will get a lot out of a gallery. Others will try to touch 400 year old furniture.

A "tronie" is a Dutch term for a kind of portrait where the expression or costuming elements are more important than the accuracy of the likeness. There were several very interesting examples of this type of work, but the group behind me were more amused by suggesting what cosmetic treatments the lady in the painting might benefit from.

I guess you need to know the maturity level of your adults as well as your kids.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Leave Something for the Moment

I apologize for being so long away from the blog, I had to go out of town on short notice. However, long days of travel give me a good opportunity to catch up movies (as long as I can rent them on my iPod Touch).

So on my flight back, I was watching the 2004 movie Stage Beauty, starring Billy Crudup and Claire  Danes. It's set in the 17th century, when women weren't permitted to act on stage. Men were trained to play women's roles, but suddenly found themselves out of a job when the rule was lifted.

The main thing that I loved about this film was the way it addressed the need to see and perform theatre; for actors, the chance to be something when we're on stage that we aren't in our everyday lives. And for audience, the restorative quality and catharsis that you experience from immersing yourself in a play.

My favorite scene is one in which recently minted actress Margaret Hughes gets an acting lesson from Ned Kynaston, whose job she stole. Ned learned to play women on stage through the more mannered, classical style of acting, and Margaret has never learned to act- she just copies what Ned did. Margaret needs to brush up quickly to impress King Charles II, so Ned helps her break down her contrivances and just play the scene.

It goes from the beginning to about 4 minutes into the clip (but you can keep watching to see how their performance turns out). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnT5pLUAzeI

I love it. Those moments in rehearsal are what we live for; when someone reacts in a way that you don't expect, and this whole thing comes to life with a fire of its own. When you surprise each other, you surprise the audience. You surprise yourself.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Knowing What's Going On

This is a follow-up to "Things to Pay Attention To". I was originally going to just say this in that post, but I couldn't think of a reasonable segue, so I just started a whole new post.

Last week I was at a concert, watching the bands "Man...Or Astro-man?" and "The Octopus Project". They're both very unique groups that incorporate projections in their stage shows--trippy cartoons, or old sci-fi films. They also both use theremins in their acts (and if you've never seen anyone play the theremin before, it's really cool. Especially if it's on fire).

Lately, I've been trying to soak up lots of different arts experiences (I happen to not have any major projects at the moment, so I can spend some time diversifying). I've been doing more things like going to museums and concerts. It's amazing what you can learn about drama from the composition of a painting, or about stagecraft from concert lighting (and I'm not talking big arena lights, I'm talking a string of dull yellow "Edison" bulbs and a row of fluorescent tube lights).

It's important for an artist in any field to have a wealth of inspiration and experiences to draw from, otherwise you won't have any perspective. My suggestion is to keep a file on your desktop, and every time you see an image that you react to-whether you think it's beautiful or strange or funny, save it into that file. Mine has subcategories for art, architecture, photography, graphic design, and cake.

For theatre artists, you need to pull your head out of the sand every once in a while; it's good to see a lot of shows and see what everyone else is doing. You also need to go experience other mediums so you know what they're not doing, and take advantage of the opportunity to innovate in that direction.

So I was standing at this concert, having my eardrums blown out by a flaming theremin, thinking about how glad I was that when my roommate with awesome taste in music asked me if I wanted to go see some band I knew nothing about about, I said "Sure, why not?"

London Theatre In Your Hometown: Part 2

I wanted to follow up on developments since I first posted about the National Theatre's production of Frankenstein, and Digital Theatre's online downloads.

Frankenstein recently opened in London, and the reviews have been generally positive (and the show has sold out), receiving strongest marks for atmosphere and memorable stage pictures. The biggest complaint was that the script is a bit lopsided, with the well-fleshed out character of the Creature leaving the underwritten role of Victor Frankenstein left looking even thinner by comparison.

My roommate and I decided that we were just too poor to see the production on both screening nights, and agonized over which version of the cast to see. Eventually, my roommate made an executive decision, and we will be seeing Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Frankenstein and Jonny Lee Miller as The Creature. This was before reviews were posted, and (at least according to the NY Times) they are better suited in those roles. I also found out that British electronic music group Underworld wrote the music for the show, so that should be exciting, as well.

I also checked out the website for Digital Theatre, and they offer some exciting stuff. You can download shows with British stars like The Walking Dead's Andrew Lincoln, and a production of Into The Woods which caught my eye when they published dramatic production stills on Playbill.com last summer caught my attention. Unfortunately, the latter is listed as "coming soon", and they haven't posted a trailer yet. But there is an fun-looking, stripped-down production of Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors, which you can purchase alone, or bundled with a making-of documentary. Downloads are offered for less than $10, so I'll probably get Comedy of Errors first, and let you know how I like it.

You can't embed the trailer, but you can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hie-ks6gD8

I'll update this post with some related media later; I've been sick lately, so I keep half-writing posts, then forgetting why they were interesting in the first place and abandoning them, so I wanted to get something out there before the cough syrup wins out again!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Things to Pay Attention To

I recently had a meeting with a costume design professor, in which she was wondering what groups or artists currently working I was aware of/influenced by. A named a few; like Boston's American Repertory Theatre, Punchdrunk Theater Company, and Robert Wilson, and the professor suggested a few other groups that she thought I should be paying attention to. One of them was The Wooster Group.

So I started looking for them on the internet, and realized I had just missed their production of Tennesee William's Vieux Carré at REDCAT here in Los Angeles, but it's playing in New York now. The Wooster Group is an experimental theatre company known for use of multimedia (like TV screens), sexuality, mashing up classics, and generally bringing the weird in their shows.

I like experimental theatre, even though it's a total crapshoot (And it's certainly not for everyone). That's the way things go with experiments--they don't always work. But I love seeing people do new things and trying something different.

Here's a nice review in the LA Times: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2010/12/theater-review-vieux-carre-at-redcat.html
And an article in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/21/theater/21vieux.html?_r=1&ref=theater

Most interesting is this article in the LA Weekly: http://www.laweekly.com/2010-12-09/stage/tennessee-williams-wired/. Stephen Lee Morris responds to the suggestion that works need bold re-interpretations to keep them from becoming irrelevant versus the idea that works should be seen the way they were intended to be performed by the author. Vieux Carré, however, is not a widely-performed play, so how do you re-interpret something that hasn't been interpreted that much to begin with?

Morris conceded that The Wooster Group's production would not cause significant damage to those unfamiliar with the source material. My question is, is it the artist's problem at all whether their audience is familiar with the source material? Should entertainment experiences come with pre-requisites? I don't think so. (Okay, that was two questions) My opinion is, don't worry so much about whether something is a good version of a particular play, just worry about whether it's a good show.

**PS: Scott Shepherd, should get some kind of MVP award. He just finished playing the narrator of Elevator Repair Service's Gatz!--that means he's the guy who has the entire text of "The Great Gatsby" memorized (See #7 in their FAQ), and now he's in this show, too. Actually, he just got nominated for an IRNE Award in Boston, so that's pretty close.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Scott Shepherd, left, and Ari Fliakos

Friday, February 18, 2011

2011-2012 HD Season at the Met

The Metropolitan Opera just announced which shows are going to be included in it's Live in HD screening series next year, so of course I'm already picking out which ones I want to see.

A new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni will star Mariusz Kwiecien, a handsome young baritone who is already well known for the role. I'd love to see Kweicien, but I think I'll wait and see how the production looks before putting this on in my itinerary.

I know nothing about Philip Glass's Satyagraha, but the directors are Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, so that alone makes it worth my while. Those two are best known for directing the critic-proof musical The Addams Family, but more importantly Crouch directed Shockheaded Peter, so you know anything with his name on it will be creative, stylish, innovative and whimsical.

This is a revival, but those two are also directing a new production of The Enchanted Island, so I may have to see that one, too.

(My feelings are more mixed on Philip Glass; he might just not be my cup of tea. My DVD of Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast has an optional track he composed for it, and I don't think the two pieces fit together very well. Interestingly, I was in the play Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread a year or two ago, which still causes me to start chanting Glass-style rhythms when opening the bread box.)

I will probably see Manon just because of Paolo Szot. He is just ridiculously charismatic and engaging to watch on stage. I will never forgive my DVR for failing to tape the PBS broadcast of the final performance of South Pacific.

And of course I'll be finishing out the second half of Wagner's Ring cycle.

Here is next year's complete HD screening schedule. Which ones do you want to see?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Quick Fashion History Lesson: Italian Courtesans

I wanted to talk a little bit about historical reference in costuming, because I had some mixed feelings on the designs of the costumes I saw in Dangerous Beauty at the Pasadena Playhouse. There were some things that were really cool about them, but I found some designs to be inconsistent and overdone. 

The funny thing is, there's another representation of Venetian courtesans in current media which is much more period-accurate: the video game Assassin's Creed 2, and it's sequel, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. I know that sounds strange, but it's surprisingly well-researched. 

So let's start with the research they're referencing: below is the most famous period rendering of an Italian courtesan:

This is a sixteenth century engraving entitled "Cortigiana Veneza" - Venetian courtesan - by Pierto Bertelli. It is from Diversarum Nationum Habitus , 1591. There is a copy of it at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

These are courtesans from the video game "Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood". Modernized, but not too far off, right? They even got the horned hairstyle. In the game, they can be seen wearing the breeches you see under the skirt in the historical drawing (Unfortunately, I couldn't find a decent screenshot to post here).

Angel Reda
Angela Reda
Photo by Jim Cox, Pasadena Playhouse

One of the Ensemble Courtesans from Dangerous Beauty. This is a more modernized, runway-style on the look, with a very contemporary hairdo. These costumes were interesting, because they doubled as general women's ensemble costumes; they had a hood, and the bodice could be zipped for more or less modesty, and the skirts folded and fastened back to reveal the legs--and while the outer fabric was very beautiful, folding the skirt back revealed much fancier material on the inside. In the preview I saw, the bodice didn't have that pink ruffle on it. I think it may be too much.

In the film version of Dangerous Beauty, Veronica Franco has a release party for her first book of poetry, and shows up in a fashionable female twist on contemporary men's fashion:
Catherine McCormack and Oliver Platt

After being taunted by Maffio, Veronica rips the overskirt off and duels him, wearing something similar to the breeches costume shown at the top. However, I wasn't as thrilled with the overstuffed version of this costume in the musical, which involved a bizarre pair of skinny jeans, with rhinestone knee-pad details, a vine of flowers wrapped around one leg, and partial pumpkin breeches on top.

Bryce Ryness and Jenny Powers
Bryce Ryness and Jenny Powers
Photo by Jim Cox, Pasadena Playhouse

They did do a better job with their interpretation of period undergarments (the Italian women were the first to wear underwear)
Jenny Powers
Jenny Powers
Photo by Jim Cox, Pasadena Playhouse

  Caternia Sforza and Ezio getting it on. Are those boy shorts?

Assassin's Creed took some...umm..."creative license" here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

It Was A Show

The title of this post was how I answered my roommates when they asked me "How did you like Dangerous Beauty"?

I'm a big fan of the 1998 feature film starring Rufus Sewell and Catherine McCormack; it's a beautiful film about women's right to autonomy set during the Italian Renaissance. It's very sexy and romantic, and has a strong female lead. For those who don't know the story, it's about Veronica Franco, Venice's most famous courtesan. Unable to marry her love due to lack of a dowry and social position, Franco was forced to learn the trade of the courtesan in order to support her family. While wives were possessions, courtesans were respected as equals, and were the only women allowed to be educated. Franco was valued as much for her intelligence skills as a poet as for her romantic companionship, but was eventually charged with witchcraft by the church.

So the film has been turned into a musical, which is now running at the Pasadena Playhouse, and I went to see it last week, while it was in previews. And like I said, it was a show. It had a script, and songs, and actors and sets and costumes and lights. But I never quite felt like everything came together. There were some nice songs, but none particularly memorable. The costumes (by Soyon An, and Emmy winner for "So You Think You Can Dance") are beautiful and creative, will many modern fashion-runway touches. However it's very clear which costumes they spent all their time on, so they look out-of-place next to the ones that were rented or pulled from stock.

I eventually realized that the reason this show didn't charm me as much as the film (despite having the same writer) was that the show's pacing and the director's emphasis. The thing that sets Dangerous Beauty  apart from other love stories is that Franco isn't any weepy heroine--she's in a very unique position, as she can have any man she wants, she just can't marry him. As long as he can afford her. But the show rushes through the complex social issues, and spends too much time dwelling on the "I love you but we can't be together" stuff.

Interestingly, I found myself most drawn to the character of Maffio, played by Bryce Ryness (Broadway's Hair), a man in a position similar to Veronica's--he's low-born, and survives by his art, as long as the nobles continue to find him entertaining. He is charmed by Veronica and asks her out, but she turns him down on the basis of "neither of us can afford to do this for free". He is bitter at the rejection, and turns first to drinking and antagonizing Franco, then joins the church and becomes the villain of the show's climax.

This was the most interesting dramatic arc in the show. I actually have to say the musical handles his transition a little more deftly than the film did. His pain and bitterness is more palpable, so I really felt for Maffio, but also realized he could not be redeemed.

Bryce Ryness, James Snyder and Megan McGinnis
Photo by Jim Cox, Pasadena Playhouse

Jenny Powers
Photo by Jim Cox, Pasadena Playhouse

Monday, February 14, 2011

London Theatre In Your Hometown

I've talked a lot before about going to the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD screenings, but they're not the only ones doing them. The National Theatre in London is doing broadcasts of their shows as well to movie theaters across the country. Their season thus far has included a production of Hamlet which was well-reviewed, but there's lots of good Hamlets around, so I decided to hold out for some unusual fare.

Luckily, NT will be delivering next month with the debut of a new production of Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle (best known as a filmmaker, his works include Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 Hours).

If that's not exciting enough, they're doing something really interesting with the casting of the leads. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller are starring in the title roles of the Creature and Victor Frankenstein. Yes, both of them. As in they are alternating the roles. Miller is pretty well known to US audiences for his roles in Trainspotting and the TV show Dexter; Cumberbatch is not exactly a household name (yet), so do yourself a favor and track down the BBC miniseries Sherlock he did this past year with future Hobbit Martin Freeman. Cumberbatch played a modern-day version of the detective--I think the show ran on PBS Mystery in the US, and it also has a cool online element which ties into the use of blogging in the show's plot.

Frankenstein opens in London in a few weeks and runs through April. The live screening will be in March, and I was very excited and curious to see how they would handle the issue of which cast to run. Well, prayers answered, they're screening it twice, so you can see either one you prefer, or (if you're a giant nerd like me) both.

The screening schedule is:
17 March: Benedict Cumberbatch (Creature), Jonny Lee Miller (Victor)

24 March: Jonny Lee Miller (Creature), Benedict Cumberbatch (Victor)

And full details are available at: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/62808/productions/frankenstein.html

Now, if you'd like to watch some British theatre without even leaving your house, I found this article on Playbill.com today about downloading productions from www.digitaltheatre.com. I unfortunately can't check the link out on this computer, but I'm very keen on seeing their production of Into The Woods, as Playbill.com had posted a gallery of photos when the production was running, and it looked like there was some interesting stuff going on. So I'll see for myself later, and let you know how it works!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Value of Criticism

As predicted, most major news outlets released their reviews of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark on Tuesday. I'm not going to re-cap them, you can find them anywhere on the internet.

Of course, the producers decried their actions as "not cool!" As a theatre artist, you would probably expect me to side with the show over the critics; but I'm also a theatre consumer, so I align with the critics based on the value of the service they provide.

The point of theatre criticism is not to record for the annals of history the official word on the quality of a show. Reviews certainly don't decide whether a show will live or die--panned shows will still prove popular with audiences, or fare well in regional and community theatre.

Theatre criticism exists to help the consumer make an informed decision on how to spend their valuable time and money. So I think it's totally valid to release reviews of a show like Spider-Man which, for months, has been charging full price for audiences to come see performances. It's been running since November, for crying out loud, and many people suspect that they'll keep pushing back "opening night" until everyone's forgotten they haven't had one yet.

At my current professional level, I find myself yearning for the validation of criticism. Most Los Angeles critics overlook the technical elements of a show, and focus on the acting and writing (and summarizing, of course). Criticism is difficult to take well, because most people take it to extremes; it's either "eff those guys, I'm awesome, they don't know what they're talking about" or "oh my god, they're right, I suck, I might as well end it all right now." And of course, as Anton Ego so keenly observed, most critics get off one finding the most eloquent ways possible to verbally ream their victims.

The most difficult thing to take away from a well-balanced, at least slightly thought-out review is "does this guy have a point, and if so, what can I learn from it?" I know too many people who react to the slightest bit of criticism with "this guy's a hack, we're awesome, this show is perfect", and I often find myself thinking "well, no, it's not perfect".

If a review's purpose for the audience member is to help them choose what to see, its purpose for the artist is to help them grow and improve. If you don't take an honest look at your flaws, how will you ever improve them?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Supply & Demand

While I'm at it I wanted to jump on this bandwagon: Speaking at a conference about new play development at Arena Stage in Washington on Thursday, Mr. Rocco Landesman, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, addressed the problem of struggling theaters. “You can either increase demand or decrease supply,” he said. “Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.”

Now, I work for a tiny theatre company trying to establish a foothold in the over-saturated Los Angeles Theatre community. I agree, there's a lot of theater going on around here, and it's hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Most L.A. theater companies exist for one of two reasons:

a) because someone came up with one good idea, started a company for the purpose of putting up that one show, and then don't do another one for ages
b) as a showcase to get picked up for TV and film work.

Once you weed out those, what you have left is companies like mine that just love putting on good shows. We are also why you'll never be able to decrease supply, even in tough economic times; because people love to create art. No matter if you're living in poverty or the middle of war, humans have always still gotten together and acted out stories, or sang songs, or found one piece of charcoal with which to scratch the contents of their soul down on something. Even when there's no one around to see, artists will keep going.

As I started to get into in my last post, there's a huge disparity between the people who make theatre, and people who go to see it. A friend of mine who's in New York now reported back on his experience seeing American Idiot (he didn't want to miss Billie Joe Armstrong, who had joined the cast for a short stint), and commented how both glorious and bleak it was to see something as angry and rough-edged as Green Day's music put in a format peddled to suburban tourists. I remember that the theater I interned with in college, though popular, struggled with new or edgy material because the audiences wanted to see something comfortable and familiar, like Oklahoma or My Fair Lady.

I'm not sure what it's going to take to get audiences excited about new theater, but even if all audiences ever want to eat is MacDonalds, we're going to keep on making foie gras.

A Peculiar Financial Interest in Being Mocked

"If most theater artists and producers are intensely protective of their shows, those at “Spider-Man” have a peculiar financial interest in being mocked."

The above quote links to an article from today's New York Times. It sounds like while the producers are enjoying the "any publicity is good publicity" philosophy, The artists involved (see Julie Taymor's reaction to the criticism at the end of the article) seem to cringe a bit more.

 The show's notoriety is putting butts in seats, but it's important to care whether your work is good. If you don't, seriously, head home. There's a professional opera singer whose blog I follow who obsesses over each performance; she's constantly concerned with whether she did her best in each performance, and is devastated if she flubs a note. She sees it as a flaw, but I see it as a virtue. The priority needs to be that the audience sees the best possible version of the show for their money every time, which is why it's so disdainful that the Spider-Man producers are charging full-price for tickets to what are essentially dress rehearsals, and sucking up the mockery as good advertising.

You'll actually probably see a fair number of critics releasing reviews after tomorrow, even the show is still technically in previews for another months. The show finally has an ending, and supposedly there will be no further substantial changes to the show. This week was to be the official opening before they pushed back by another month, so while critics are still far from a consensus on what appears to be a finished show that refuses to open, we'll see who continues to hold off until they make things official.

Another quote from today's NYTimes article jumped out at me: "Michael Cohl, the lead producer, said in an interview. “What I know is that people are talking about ‘Spider-Man’ to what seems like an unprecedented degree.”

Isn't that what I said about Elevator Repair Service's Gatz! a few months ago? Yup, I did.  Notice Point C in the linked post. Yes, theater can be critically praised AND polemic AND get people talking. Of course, Spider-Man reached a lower common denominator by appealing to people who have heard U2's music and seen a Spider-Man film (I'm not counting on them having read the comic book), whereas Gatz! appeals to people who read novels.

Ok, maybe I'm getting a little sarcastic about the American arts consumer, but there's a big disparity between people who create theater, and people who go to theater. Maybe I'm just not willing to admit to myself that Spider-Man is what people want to see, but it's current success may change when the reviews finally start coming out. To quote producer Elizabeth I. McCann the NYTimes article for one last time:

 “But at some point, I think, people are going to say that the emperor has no clothes where the so-called musical spectacle of ‘Spider-Man’ is concerned, and the adult audience will start to lose interest.”

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

La Fanciulla Del West

I know I promised more Dracula, and I'll get back to the vampires soon, but I wanted to talk about this show before it was too long gone from my memory.

Last week my opera-going companion and I went to the re-broadcast of The Metropolitan Opera's La Fanciulla Del West. We missed the live broadcast due, but this ended up being a good choice. It ran in the evening (as opposed to the early mornings of the live broadcasts), and was therefore much less crowded, and we got to sit wherever we wanted (we arrived late-ish to Don Carlo, and got stuck with the chump seats down in front).

I'm not going to comment too much on the show itself, the Met puts on top-notch work with the biggest stars, and they were performing Puccini's favorite of his own operas, so there's certainly nothing to complain about (ok, well some people complained that Deborah Voight was clearly pacing herself, and was therefore off near the start of the show, but my ear is not skilled enough to comment).

What I did find interesting was the way the relationship between the romantic leads, Minnie and Dick Johnson (Marcello Giordani), grew as the show went on. How many operas are there where the lovers merely catch a glimpse of each other, or in some cases only see a picture of each other, and they're suddenly bonded in this deep and unbreakable love.

In Fanciulla, Dick and Minnie met out on the road a couple weeks before the action of the show. They hit it off, but nothing really came of it. Then he turns up in her saloon, and over the course of the first act they slowly flirt and get to know each other better. Minnie admits that she doesn't think much of herself, but Dick reassures her of what he sees in her: a big, warm heart, and the face of an angel. It was really nice to see a show where the leads have a reason to get together, other than that the show says they must.

My companion and I were amused by the between-act interviews with the cast, conducted by Tosca star Sondra Radvanovsky. The most common question was "is it hard to get into character playing a cowboy"? All these men, especially the Italians, came of age in the era of Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone. Every one of them wanted to be John Wayne as a kid! These guys spend most of their days at work in tight and funny hats--they must be thrilled that their kids finally think they're cool for once!

I also had the very strange experience of getting into an argument about the Transformers movies while at the opera. It started because we were talking about Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark (and what theater fan/comic book nerd isn't?) One of the main complaints coming from people who have seen the show (and then tweeted or blogged about it or whatever) is that it's hard to tell why the action is playing out in that particular way. It made me think of my reaction to the recent Transformers films: "Why is winning this fight, and why?" Action should be clear, whether on stage or on film. You can't just have a lot of stuff going on.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Vampire Wrap-Up (and extras)

Well, I hope everyone liked my vampire musical posts! You might want to go back and take another look at the Dance of the Vampires and Dracula posts; in my research I found a little more media to add, so those both have new videos at the ends.

So, why have vampire musicals struggled so much in the past 10 years?
Dance of the Vampires-muddled by competing artistic visions, but still going strong in its original version in Germany and Austria.
Dracula- suffered from major narrative issues, an issue somewhat remedied for overseas productions
Lestat- not a perfect show, but a victim of vampire burnout more than anything else.

Film and television may still be trying to capitalize on the recent vampire trend, but after the quick and bizarre run of a recent Dracula stage play (more on that in another post), I have a feeling we won't see any more vamps on a Broadway stage for a while.

Now for some fun and extras: Lesser Vampire Musicals:

The North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, MA produced a production of Dracula: A Chamber Musical. Written by Canadian theatre critic Richard Ouzounian, it was more popular in his native country. This review in Variety is not particularly flattering. I found a still from the North Shore production, and a clip of a song that I think is from the Canadian production, but I'm honestly not sure. There's apparently a DVD available, but I haven't had any luck finding video.

A recording of the main love duet (along with production stills) from a recent Swedish version, written in English:

And now for the fun part: The Dracula Puppet Musical from Jason Segel's film Forgetting Sarah Marshall. This rockin' version of "Dracula's Lament" was done for the Craig Ferguson show:

and in original flavor:


Thursday, January 27, 2011


So now I come to the most recent Broadway attempt at getting vampires on stage, based on the Anne Rice novel, and with music by Elton John.

The show did well box office-wise in its out of town tryouts, probably due to the notoriety of the artists and material. This show opened in 2006, right on the heels of two previous vampiric flops, and critics had probably had about all they could take. It closed after 39 performances.

Now, I haven't read the novel Lestat, but I have read Interview With The Vampire (and seen the film, of course). But it sounds like one of the problems this show encountered is that it tried to cram the plots of both of those novels into the show, and too many extraneous details. For example, in the novels, when drinking from a victim, their live flashes before the vampire's eyes. This was depicted in the show through video projections, and while the quality of the special effects was generally praised, it actually has nothing to do with the plot.

While many of the technical elements and performances managed to impress critics, the music did not do as well, and the lyrics were said to be overly literal.

Okay, lyricists. What going on? Time to step up. Look at my last couple posts of heavily-criticized shows; the other two vampire musicals,  Love Never Dies...it seems like music that is "just ok" can be elevated by insightful, poetic lyrics--or completely destroyed by plodding, pedestrian ones.

The difference between this and the other two shows? Well, it's not big in Germany. It has not gone on to success in any other markets, or had any other stagings since Broadway. It also has not had an offiicial cast recording released.

This was the official advertisement. Didn't actually give you an idea of what the show would look like. No actual songs from the musical in there, either.

Luckily, we have bootleg Youtube videos to show us what the production looked/sounded like. The performers are Drew Sarich and Hugh Panaro:

As I was watching these clips, I remembered that Lestat has the distinction of being way less heterosexual than Dracula or Dance of the Vampires. That probably didn't help make the show more popular with mainstream audiences, either.

Here's the New York Times review: http://theater.nytimes.com/2006/04/26/theater/reviews/26lest.html