Thursday, December 13, 2012

20th Anniversary Memories: Playing Dreidel with Judah Maccabee

Peter Bean and Dmitri Friedenber
Playing Dreidel with Judah Maccabee was not originally written for Untitled Theater Company #61. A theater was seeking a Hanukkah play, and so I envisioned a story that explored Hanukkah through the form of an encounter of a modern boy and the historical Judah Maccabee. I was particularly intrigued by the chance to explore one of my obsessions…the difference between modern, rabbinic Judaism and the Judaism practiced in the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, with its High Priest and animal sacrifices.

I fear my interests proved too esoteric for the particular theater I was writing for. As a children’s author who has deliberately tackled complicated concepts in my books, I am a fan of any children’s book or story that does not talk down to its readers (or watchers). I do think children are capable of comprehending much more than they are sometimes given credit for. Thus my picture book about probability, A Very Improbable Story.

Of course, it occurred to me that the themes of the play were perfect for a Theater of Ideas. So I approached Looking Glass Theater, assembled the small cast, and arranged a once a week show during the holiday season.

The cast consisted of UTC61 veteran Peter Brown and Dmitri Friedenberg, a young actor/musician who had played cello for us in Hiroshima, Crucible of Light. As productions go, this seemed one of the simpler, needing only two actors, a couple of swords, a dreidel, a latka…oh yes, and an ark in which to do shadow puppetry. Providing that was the folks at Evolve Company, Tanya Khordoc and Barry Weil, our frequent puppet collaborators. As usual, they came up with something beautiful.

And yet…even the simplest seeming of shows can be a bit complicated. The fight choreography, expertly done by Cory Einbinder, took some time to incorporate. There was a Judah Maccabee costume from Carla Gant. And…did I mention the shadow puppets and ark? I am reminded of how much work it took to create it, now that the Evolve storage has become full and I was confronted with the question, do I want to store it? I do, of course…I hope to do the show again.

I have talked in previous posts about the themes of the play and even the Hanukkah music playlist (yes, having a Hanukkah themed play does inspire posts at this time of year). Hopefully, next post will be about visiting someone else’s production…it’s published through Theater 61 Press and I’m hoping that will inspire some shows that I can actually see, as so many small productions of my work have been done in venues too far for me to get to.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Hanukkah Music Playlist (the top 10..)

When I was directing Playing Dreidel with Judah Maccabee, I wanted to come up with some fun pre- and post-show music, and I was confronted with an age old problem: good Hanukkah music.  After searching far and wide, I was pretty proud of what I discovered.  Some are originals, some are reinterpretations of classics.  I've linked to YouTube when there's a good video, to Amazon when there's not.

Here are my top contenders, in no particular order.  Turns out, they add up to 10...

Sevivon, Sov, Sov, Sov (mixed with swing-era Swing, Swing, Swing, interpreted by Kenny Ellis)

Swingin' Dreidel (Kenny Ellis reinterprets Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel this time)

Hanuka's Flame (by Woody Guthrie,  interpreted by the Klezmatics)

I am a Latke (Debbie Friedman)

Nun, Gimel, Hey Shin (Debbie Friedman--sadly, find no good link for this)

Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah (interpreted by the Gbar Girls)

Ocho Kandelikas (Many good interpretations of this, but for the show I used The Maxwell Street Band)

Ocho Kandelikas (I didn't use Florry Jagoda's version, but like it)

How do you Spell Channukkahh (The LeVees)

Applesauce vs. Sour Cream (The LeVees)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Havel Collection: Intro to Leaving

I have seen four productions of Leaving, with four different directors, in three different countries.
For a play this new, that leaves me in rare company. Two were in English (one in Philadelphia, one in London), and two were in the Czech Republic (one in Prague, one in Brno). But each production gave me a unique perspective on the work, a perspective which deepened with each successive viewing.
I have another, personal connection to Leaving. Vaclav Havel wrote some of it while he was in New York, attending Untitled Theater Company #61’s Havel Festival, which I curated. The festival included every play Havel had ever written, and I see tiny elements of all of them within its text. Another, even more personal connection: a very small, very offstage character is named after me.
 So of course, I have no choice but to love the play, for those reasons alone.
But it is a difficult play. To me, Havel’s life and his full body of work are an ever-present prelude throughout. The main character, Rieger, is obviously yet another imperfect mirror of himself, much like Vaněk or the host of other Havellian leads from his previous plays. Which is not to say Rieger is Havel, that sort of reductionism serves no purpose but to satisfy amateur psychologists who want to see the play as a method of self-analysis (true perhaps, but also a common truth about most art). The essential characteristic of Rieger is that he is a once great political leader, now fallen.
An understanding of Havel may be necessary to understand the true tragedy of that occurrence. The typical Havel play, whether it be The Memo or Largo Desolato or Garden Party (aka Office Party) has as its protagonist an idealist who, in the course of the play, is eventually stripped of all his ideals. They are a warning about the slippery slope that one can follow just by allowing small lies into one’s life, one by one. The plays may attack Communism, but the target of their fiercest satire is the dissident who rationalizes himself into a state of capitulation with the state.
 In Leaving, Rieger is the state, and although he lives in a post-Communist era, he has clearly rationalized himself out of his original ideals. We never see him as the idealist he once was, though we hear of it. Instead, we witness his slow downward slide, with his ascent being an assumed event.
For Czechs or others who know Havel well and associate Rieger with Havel, that period of idealism is assumed. For those new to Havel’s work, the task of deciphering Leaving may be more complex.
Herein, of course, lies the director’s task, the task of interpretation. Each production I saw was interpreted vastly differently. They interestingly took on the characteristics of the director or the city around them. In London, the play felt like it could be a political drama on the BBC. In Philadelphia, Rieger had the dissolute feeling of a once-respected member of congress now plagued by scandal. The Czech versions had a more intellectual bent to their portrayals and veiled references not only to Havel’s personal history but also to his sometime political rival (and successor as Czech president), Václav Klaus.
The more I watched, the more I realized I preferred the interpretations that took a step away from reality. Leaving can feel deceptively realistic, but it is important to remember that Havel wrote in the absurdist tradition. The stylized repetitions, the direct quotations from Lear or The Cherry Orchard, the voiceover of Havel’s authorial musings, they all are an extension of a very particular tradition. Integrating that all into a single style may be a difficult task, but fortunately, we have the example of Havel’s previous work to guide us.
This all presents a challenge, an exciting one for a director to tackle. I have seen that challenge met in very different ways (I deliberately avoid direct evaluation, knowing some of the artists involved). If I should ever direct Leaving, it will be my job to solve those problem for my particular production.
But for now, I think it is better to end my thoughts in a Havellian way, not with an answer, but with a question.

Monday, November 5, 2012

20th Anniversary Memories: Audience

Dan Leventritt, Václav Havel, and Scott Simpson after Havel visits the performance of Audience at the Havel Festival

I have directed Václav Havel’s play Audience twice.

The first time was as part of a double bill, which included Slawomir Mrozek’s Striptease.  It was my first production in New York, and I was not only director, I was stage manager, set designer, lighting designer, costume designer, tech crew and  box office.  The second time was as part of the Havel Festival, and Havel himself attended.  The first time the translation was by Vera Blackwell, and I had found it in a big stack of Samuel French scripts and taken a liking to it, somewhat at random.  The second time the script was by Havel friend Jan Novák, who had been commissioned to translate all of Havel’s Vaněk plays for the festival.  The first time we averaged about eight audience members a show.  The second time we had a relatively full house every night.

Both times, the Brewmaster was played by Dan Leventritt, who seemed to me to be made for the part. Dan’s performance in 1992 stuck so strongly in my memory that I knew I wanted no one else to play the part in 2006.

Audience, for those unfamiliar with it, is a two-hander that introduced the character Vaněk, an alter ego of sorts for Havel.  Like Havel, Vaněk is a playwright who is forced to work in a brewery because the government has declared that he can no longer work as a writer.  I have written a little about the character in my essay that introduces the book The Vaněk Plays (you can find that essay here)

When I first directed the play, I was new to New York. I borrowed money from my father and brother to rent a black box theater for two weeks, but had no money for any other aspect of the production.  We rehearsed Audience in Dan’s apartment on the Upper West Side, where I and the actor playing Vaněk, Moni Damevski, crowded in around a small table.  Fortunately, a small table was about all the play demanded.

Simultaneously, I was directing Striptease with an actor I knew from college, Jason Katz (who now uses the name Jason Harris), and an actor who had appeared in my New Jersey production of Artist Descending a Staircase, Peter Brown.  Both became good friends.  They were game enough to follow me into a little empty space I found that seemed unoccupied, somewhere in midtown.  After a couple of rehearsals, we found out why it was abandoned, when men in protective suits came in and told us they were there to remove the asbestos.

The set included a table (which I found in the theater) and two freestanding doors.  I created the lighting on my own one night during what I loosely called “tech week,” running between the light boot and climbing up ladders to approximate some very basic cues.  I recorded a toilet flushing and used some Michael Nyman music as our only sound cues, except for the mixtape I made for preshow and intermission.

A day before we went up, there were still no doors.  The morning before the first performance I called my friend Mike Nuzzo.  “Can you please help me?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, always game to assist.  “Maybe tomorrow?”

“Curtain is in eight hours,” I said.

He drove in from New Jersey with two doors, and with the help of a little wood from Dykes Lumber, we somehow got them to stand.  When the actors arrived at 6pm, they expressed surprise that we had been able to set up the doors at all.

My brother David, who besides being our major funder/cheerleader was a stagehand/puppeteer for Striptease (there were two giant hands that needed manipulation), came in and learned his part in the hour or so remaining.  Then we opened.

Fourteen years later, at the Ohio Theater, Václav Havel sat in the audience and watched Dan and our new Vaněk, the wonderfully talented Scott Simpson, perform the show.  Afterwards he congratulated Dan and Scott, and I introduced him to our terrific stage manager, Taylor Keith, and the rest of our staff.

It was another small theater in New York, but it was a long journey between the two productions. And I am proud to say, Havel was pleased.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Václav Havel's Vaněk Plays: Audience, Protest, Unveiling, and Dozens of Cousins

Theater 61 Press is releasing five new books of translations of Havel's plays (The Havel Collection)    Here is one of my essays from the collection, about The Vaněk Plays. The website for Theater 61 Press (put up just last month) includes a number of other essays from the collection.
Who is Vaněk? He is an alter ego for Václav Havel, though, like most of Havel’s alter egos, he is an exaggerated reflection of one aspect of the writer. He is a theatrical construct, a foil whose own presumed moral purity inspires his fellow characters to justify their moral breaches. He is a symbol of the struggle against Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime, first employed by Havel, then by Havel’s friends, and even appearing in Tom Stoppard’s Rock n’ Roll (and my own Velvet Oratorio, written to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution).

I first encountered Vaněk during my freshman year in college. I found Audience in a stack of plays at the local library, and I was immediately drawn to the work. I was passingly familiar with the political situation in Czechoslovakia, but the play brought home its human dimensions to me. What struck me at the time was the empathy Havel had for the Brewmaster. The final monologue truly brought home the fact that it is not only the dissidents who struggle within a totalitarian—or rather, as Havel put it, post-totalitarian society. It is also the seeming collaborators, forced by the structure of their society into their roles.

The Vaněk plays (along with all of Havel’s work) were banned in Czechoslovakia when they were first written, but that didn’t prevent people from performing them in their living rooms, copying them surreptitiously as samizdat (illegal, faded copies of banned work), or even recording them on vinyl. These surreptitiously distributed plays helped create Havel ’s reputation, which in turn made him the natural leader for the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

The plays were clearly based on events in Havel’s life, including his own experience in the brewery in which he worked, once working in a theater was no longer an allowable option for him. On the underground recording of Audience made during the Communist years, Havel himself played Vaněk, while his friend Landovsky played the Brewmaster. One year later, Landovsky would go on to write a Vaněk play of his own.

I have directed Audience twice, first in 1993, then in 2006 during Untitled Theater Company #61’s Havel Festival, in which we produced all of Havel’s work. Though removed from the time and place that first inspired their creation, neither Audience nor the other Vaněk plays have lost their power. They all succeed in telling a very universal story about the ways in which we are all susceptible to moral compromise, about the way our own actions can contribute to the very same problems we protest.

The most recent of Havel’s Vaněk plays, Dozens of Cousins, is more of a short, modern epilogue to Unveiling. It is published here for the first time. Despite being set in the post- Communist era, we see the same tropes, the same lying and pretense that are echoes of his earlier work.

One of Havel’s core ideas in his philosophical essays is the concept of “living in truth,” that each small compromise we make with the truth leads to larger compromises, until it snowballs into a society-wide epidemic in which lying becomes the instinctual path. It is a danger in any society, no matter what the government. We all need a Ferdinand Vaněk to keep us honest.

Friday, October 19, 2012

20th Anniversary Memories: Cat's Cradle and Tom Berger


Guest blogger Tom Berger writes about his memories of UTC61/Cat's Cradle.  Do you have fond memories/scathing exposés that you can write about on the occasion of our 20th anniversary?  Please, write them!
Tom Berger choreography in action, as Timothy McCown Reynolds, Darius Stone, Horace Vincent Rogers and cast get ready to perform the boka-maru
 It’s hard to condense my feelings about UTC61 into one document; it’s hard even to take a step back and think of my experience as a separate section of my life. The incredible artists I encountered, the brilliant texts and music I worked with and the overall experience was wonderful. But I think my main love of the company stems from the broader push for new ideas and inspiring debate that is the crux of its existence, and the heart of why it’s important to me.
                  I worked with Edward and Henry for many years and in many capacities but I suppose I have to pick one project, so it might as well be my first. An interesting ad popped up on Playbill; a company was looking for someone able to assistant direct, assistant music direct and possibly choreograph a musical adaptation of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. A strange combination of skills, to be sure, but I always say that what I lack in talent I make up for in versatility (in other words, why do one or two things really well when you can do nine or ten things mediocrely?) [EDITOR'S NOTE: Tom's contributions are far from mediocre]. I submitted, scheduled a phone interview with the aforementioned Messrs. Einhorn and Akona, and picked up the book. It was nice to return to Vonnegut after a long absence and, of all his work, I feel that Cat’s Cradle makes the most sense to musicalize, as so little of his work was linear in a theatrical sense.
                  I got the gig, and was plunged into a room with some of the most terrifyingly intelligent people I’ve ever met. It was an eye-opening experience for me; as much as I’d done some scrappy Indie theatre (and ran a not-too-shabby company myself for five years) and liked to think of myself as a fellow of intelligence and broad interests, I was in a room of brilliant and passionate artists, who truly knew from where they spoke (I personally just fake it most of the time and amp up the charisma). But even with the ridiculous IQ points around the table, they were always open to new ideas and made sure that everyone’s input was carefully considered. As I dove into contributing what little I could to Edward’s wonderful libretto and Henry’s scintillating music, I began to realize something shocking – I was not only being listened to when I feebly popped in my two cents, I was being actively solicited for my opinion by pretty much everyone in the room. I had been under the impression that they needed a musical theatre hack to fill in the blanks and I was there just to make with the dance-y / musical instrument-y stuff.
                  And the rest was history, as they say (or will be, I’m sure, when the annals of theatre history will be written and we’ll all be fondly remembered as pinnacles of the age; right? Right?). By what is most likely my wildly inaccurate ballpark, I worked with the company on something like eight or nine shows over the next couple of years, as well as helping to run the International Jewish Theater Festival of Ideas and joining the Board. The running joke in the company was “If Henry and Edward had a love child…” I can think of no greater compliment.
                  Your success as an artist is only the sum of what you’ve absorbed from the artists who have touched you. With UTC61, I found an artistic home away from home, brilliant collaborators who challenged me every day, pieces that juuuuust stretched me beyond my comfort level (in a positive way) and friends for the rest of my life. I hope that, via quantity if not quality, I was able to give something back to this amazing group of artists in breathless gratitude for everything they have given me. Happy Anniversary, Untitled Theater Company #61.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Many thanks, Tom Berger.  Hopefully more to come about Cat's Cradle soon, where we make a full length calypso musical with a cast of 20+ actors/singers/musicians!]

Monday, October 15, 2012

20th Annniversary Memories: The Memo

The Memo was one of the two plays in the Havel Festival I was able to direct myself—no easy task actually, with all the work entailed in producing the festival.  But I very much wanted to have an opportunity to direct a few plays as well as produce.  One play I directed, Audience, was a short two hander, and I had already directed a version of it in 1992 (more about that in an upcoming blog post).  That meant restaging would be relatively simple—if one can ever call doing any show “simple.” The Memo however, was well over two hours in length and involved a large cast and a complex script.  I knew from the top it would be a challenge, albeit a joyful one.

One of the most exciting aspects of working on The Memo was the opportunity to work with the translator, Paul Wilson, on his new translation.  The Memo (then translated as The Memorandum) had been originally produced at The Public Theater in 1967, and Vera Blackwell’s translation had been the only one available before the Havel Festival.  My friend Doug had directed that translation in college (originally we had considered co-directing), so I was particularly familiar with it.

Paul’s translation has a more contemporary, American tone.  Before he became a translator, Paul had had a long personal relationship with Havel.  While living in Prague (he is a native Torontonian), he had been a member of The Plastic People of the Universe, the band whose arrest inspired Charter 77, the civil rights document Havel co-authored.

I cast the play early, since I knew I needed as much done as early as possible as I could manage.  It also allowed Paul to travel down to work with me, our dramaturg Karen Lee Ott, and the cast.  Karen and I had worked on some original translations before, during the Ionesco Festival, and there is something thrilling for me, always, about being part of that process.

One of the things Paul was struggling with at the time was the names of the characters.  Many of the Czech names had been based on the original actors who played the part, but he wanted to anglicize them (Blackwell had kept the names of those original actors).  I suggested he use the names of our actors instead, and he agreed with that idea.  To my surprise, a few of the actors expressed reservations—the idea of playing characters who had their own names didn’t appeal to them.  But I asked them how they would feel watching the play onstage, twenty years in the future, with their role in the original translation immortalized?  That idea seemed to win them over, in the end.

I myself am very much looking forward to seeing The Memo onstage and hearing the names of the cast members in the role.  I think, now that the play has been published, that opportunity may come soon.

The work of the play was very much in the timing.  Entrances and exits are timed like a farce, and indeed much of the play had farcical elements, particularly the scenes in the translation center.  Fortunately I had three excellent comic actors for those roles (Ken Simon, Talaura Harms, and Skid Maher).  The classroom scenes were anchored by Peter Bean and Uma Incrocci, theater company mainstays who I knew would keep the play comic and alive.  And it was great fun as always staging them in them.  The hardest of scenes, I found, were actually the office scenes.  There too I was blessed with a number of good actors, but those scenes have some heavy lifting to do both in terms of exposition and philosophizing.  Those scenes put heavy burdens on the two leads, Andrew Rothkin and Maxwell Zener. But they both worked valiantly to conquer the material.

In retrospect, to be honest, I think I would stage those scenes a bit differently, if I ever revived the piece.  That may have to do with the fact that Havel’s single criticism of my work on the play related to those scenes.  But more on that that later.

The play was barely staged in time.  Tech is always a bit frantic during festivals, but I remember a sense of panic the whole time during our Memo tech.  How we got through the final cue, I don’t know, but we did.

By then, I already knew the Havel would be attending.  In fact, it was his test performance, in a way.  His office told me that they could not guarantee how often he would be able to attend, but that he would definitely be attending The Memo.  It became clear that it was something of a test performance.  If he liked The Memo, he would be back.  If not…I wasn’t sure.

In retrospect, he told me later, he regretted his initial caution.  He was able to attend half the shows, but if he had it to do over again, he would have scheduled in advance to try to see them all.

I had met Havel a few times before the show, and the encounters were pleasant without being particularly personal.  We had a more one on one get together planned, but it would not be until after he had attended.

As I remember, he came to the third performance, so we had had a chance to at least get into somewhat of a rhythm.  I had avoided telling the actors when he was coming, as I didn’t want it to affect their performance, but a few of them figured it out when they glimpsed his arrival.  I had mentioned to some in the festival that he would be coming, to be sure the audience would be full, and they in turn had told others.  To my embarrassment, Havel’s first arrival had a bit of the feeling of a scene from La Dolce Vida.  Cameras were flashing everywhere.

Havel took it all in stride.  As I was to realize much later when I visited him in Prague, this sort of activity was normal for him and didn’t really disturb him anymore.  I grabbed him a beer and sat him down front and center.  A bodyguard requested a seat behind him, which I accommodated.  I was assured that the bodyguard was used to being at the theater and a good audience member.

Then I cowered in the back row and watched.  To my great relief, pretty soon into the first scene, Havel laughed.  And he continued to laugh, even at the little jokes I had put into the staging that hadn’t been in the original script at all.

At intermission, I sat down with him, and for the first time we had a one on one conversation.  He asked me mostly about details of the festival and told me he was enjoying the show, much to my relief.  The second act passed a bit like the first, though I must admit, the timing which had seemed right on target in act one sometimes slipped during act two.  But all in all, I was very proud of the performance.

After the show, Havel posed for pictures with the cast and with Robert Lyons, who ran the Ohio Theater where The Memo was being staged (he runs the New Ohio now, but I will always miss the spacious and beautiful old theater).  And he very quickly told me he would be coming back.

Havel’s one criticism of the production: the silent character, play by V. Orion Delwaterman.  Not Orion’s performance, but my staging of him in the office scenes.  The silent characters, he told me, had been based on the silent government presences, the agents who would stand glowering somewhere in the background but ever present, a menacing mystery of sort.  I staged Orion in a much more active way, a silent but efficient functionary who movements mirrored the antagonist,.

Funny, in two American productions of The Memorandum I have seen since then (Blackwell’s translation) that same character was staged in similar ways.  A cultural Czech/American divide, I suspect.  But of course, that criticism made me rethink the staging of the office scenes, as I mentioned earlier, and I think I have a way to bring that idea to life, should I have a chance to do so again.

It was, of course, an amazing experience.  Paul Wilson also seemed gratifyingly pleased with the performances.  And I still think of that show Havel attended as the beginning of my real relationship with Havel.  I am grateful for it.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Václav Havel's The Memo (aka The Memorandum)

Theater 61 Press is releasing five new books of translations of Havel's plays (The Havel Collection)  The initial book release event will be on Oct 4, in honor of what would have been Havel's 76th birthday.  Here is one of my essays from the collection, about the play The Memo. The website for Theater 61 Press (put up just last month) includes a number of other essays from the collection.)

Bureaucracy is often a deliberate mask for the misuse of power. Although it is possible for bureaucracy to creep in through an accumulation of well-meaning rules, there is another more sinister sort of bureaucracy that can be used as a tool. Communist regimes frequently depended on that tool, though in time, they also became entangled by their own bureaucratic structures. It is no coincidence that one of Václav Havel’s main obsessions in his plays was the workings of bureaucracy.
I came to Havel through Ionesco. I grew up reading Ionesco’s work, and it was the similarities between the two writers that first appealed to me. And Untitled Theater Company #61’s Ionesco Festival in 2001 was the inspiration and precursor for our 2006 Havel Festival. It was also Havel’s own love of Ionesco, I believe, that gave him the confidence to allow us to present his complete works.
I mention the connection because Ionesco’s influence seems clear in this particular play. Ionesco wrote at one point that his plays were about the tragedy that communication between people was impossible. In The Bald SopranoThe Lesson, and many other works, language explodes into nonsense.
In The Memo, language implodes into nonsense. It is the office bureaucracy that provides the pressure for the implosion…and by implication, the calculated government bureaucracy that was the hallmark of  Communism. Like in Orwell’s 1984, a new language is created whose purpose is pure manipulation. Unlike 1984, however, it is not a coolly powerful Big Brother that is organizing the implementation of the new language. The irony in this and many other Havel plays is that those in power are equally victims, equally caught in the machine they themselves created.
The Memo was written before Prague Spring, at a time when Communism was a bit more benign in Czechoslovakia than it would become soon after. There was a censorship board, but they were lax enough and unsophisticated enough that a play like The Memo could pass by unnoticed, or at least not completely understood. The Soviet crackdown had not yet taken place, and Havel’s writing was not yet banned. This was only his second play, though in some ways, this was the one that solidified his reputation, both as a writer and a dissident.
So many of the tropes that would become characteristic of Havel’s plays are evident in this early work: the shifting of power, the silent characters, the way that the hero’s moral compass slowly degrades through his own tragic flaws, the repetitions of phrases and of actions, the highly structured plot, the final monologue of capitulation, and of course the play with language.
When I directed the play during the Havel Festival, however, another of Ionesco’s phrases about his own work came to mind: tragic farce. With its constant and quick entrances and exits, The Memo works like a farce, and much of its humor comes when that rhythm is achieved. The absurd world that Ionesco was mirroring was that of France, soon after World War II. Havel’s absurd world mirrors 1960s Czechoslovakia. But the farcical world of The Memo is a world we’ve all experienced in some ways: one in which bureaucracy is deliberately employed as an excuse for otherwise unjustifiable behavior.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

20th Anniversary Memories: Artist Descending a Staircase

For our 20th anniversary season, I and other company memories will be writing about all the shows that span those 20 years.  An overview of those productions is on our (newly revised) website.  

In August 1992, in a small art gallery called Emmaus Soho West, a theater company began.

It began for one reason.  I had just graduated from college, and I wanted to direct a play.  I was interning at New Dramatists in New York and living at my parent’s place in Westfield, NJ.  The internship was interesting at times, with occasional brushes with celebrity playwrights (and plain old celebrities).  And I found the New Dramatists library a very happy place to spend some time.  But I wanted to do a show.  It seemed simple enough.  I needed a venue, a script, and a few actors.

Our oldest family friends, the Jaffes, owned the perfect place: an art gallery located in Springfield, NJ.  New Dramatists offered free rehearsal space, and a space to hold auditions.  Since it was an art gallery, I decided to put on an obscure play about art, Artist Descending a Staircase, by one of my favorite playwrights, Tom Stoppard.  Sam French told me the rights were available. I placed an ad in Backstage.  The actors arrived.

I remember the first two actors who walked through the door very well.  The first was a talented actor named Henry Pincus.  The second was an even more talented actor name Peter Brown.

Things had started out well.

From there the auditions went downhill.  I remember a recent Japanese immigrant struggling to pronounce Stoppard’s dialogue, and the disappointment with which he heard the news that he would not be appropriate.  I remember meeting an actor who I literally thought would attack me in mid audition.

Ironically, I ran into him a year ago.  He has his Equity card now.  Perseverance.

I eventually had additional auditions in New Jersey.  The cast only needed four actors, and eventually, I gathered them.  Then Pincus dropped out.  More auditions.  A cast.

I should mention one other important member of the nascent theater company.  My friend, Mike Nuzzo. He helped run the auditions.  Eventually, he would record the sound cues, help build the set, sell the tickets—he himself was a filmmaker, and now I was cashing in all my chips from the help I had given him.

When sending info for listings in the Newark Star Ledger, I was asked what the company was called.  I didn’t know.  I called my friend Daniel Coble for suggestions.  Something related to being in an art gallery, I said.

“Untitled Theater Company?” he suggested.

Sounded good.  Untitled Theater Company #62, I told the newspaper.

In rehearsals, I tried to use acting exercises I had been taught in college.  Most of them seemed fairly ridiculous, but I was still trying to direct the right way, rather than the way that seemed natural to me.  But still, a good script, at least a couple good actors, maybe some clever ideas and decent blocking, some chairs, an ad in the Newark Star Ledger, and we had a show.  Simple.

It almost killed me.

I borrowed chairs for the audience from a nearby temple.  Mike and I built a light booth out of circuit breakers, and placed a chair next to it on a block build to display sculpture.  My stereo and his speakers were our sound system.  I gathered props and put them on display (My idea was that a prop from each scene would be on exhibit in the gallery, the most noteworthy of which was an authentic victrola I had borrowed from a friend.)

But the biggest challenge was the table.  There was a beautiful, handmade wood table that belonged to the gallery which I had made part of the set.  It looked wonderful.  But it was heavy.  And the actors who had to carry it on and offstage (offstage being a balcony/fire escape) felt that perhaps we should just rent a regular goddamn table.  One of the actors, Mr. Brown, spoke for the company.

“Also, we really shouldn’t charge on opening,” he said.  “Since we’ll be working with the table for the first time.”

I caved. I rented a new table.  I called the first show a preview and made the five-dollar entrance fee optional.  Harmony was restored.  But going home after that final rehearsal, I collapsed in despair.

“I never, never want to do this again,” I told Mike.

We opened the next day.  It was a great success—and not just with my grandmother, who declared she would attend every single performance (which she did).  Despite our preview night and low ticket price, I actually made money—about $80.  And the audience seemed genuinely enthusiastic.  Due to word of mouth, our final performance was sold out.

Well, maybe one more time, I thought…

While loading out of the gallery, I knocked over a display dummy.  It smashed a small window.  Replacement cost: $80.  So much for making money in the theater.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sarah Ruhl, reviews, and indie theater

Sarah Ruhl recently had an article in The New York Times, explaining why she chose not to have her latest play, Melancholy Play, reviewed.

Her reasons were: The low budget, which she reported as being $50,000, although further donations from True Love as well as in kind donations such as a piano and rehearsal space were not included in that total.  The small number of performances, which do not allow for previews.  The fact that the musicians will only be playing once or twice in rehearsal before performances begin.  The fact that the ambition of the piece far outstripped its resources.

Her column in turn caused some outrage among many downtown indie theater folks.  To us in the indie theater scene, a budget upwards of $50,000 is luxurious, especially when tied to an organization willing to do much of the work to support the show.  The number of performances is standard, and we feel lucky when we can eek one or two previews into the performance schedule.  We can never afford to pay musicians for more than one or two rehearsals.  And our ambitions always far, far outstrip our resources.

We could refuse reviewers.  But that would mean our work would be unseen, unmarked.  Reviews lead to audience, lead to grants, lead to recognition, lead to the small amounts of money we receive for our companies.  Most of us do not have the luxury of refusing reviewers.  So instead many of us are desperate for more reviews, no matter whether we have been given the time and resources to present the work in its ideal state.  Recently, my shows have received reviews in a relatively reliable fashion, and I am grateful for that.  Many of the reviews have been good.  But anytime I receive a bad review it comes with a measure of terror the reviewers will stop coming.

Honestly, for my own part, even if I didn’t need reviews for practical reasons, I would choose to have the reviewers come.  Theater is an ephemeral art, a fact that I (sometimes reluctantly) accept, or even (sometimes defiantly) embrace.  But I do want that record, that memory, that manifestation that an audience member came, thought about the play, and recorded his or her thoughts.  Whatever the thoughts might be.

And they might be anything.  Over time, I have realized that the standard for reviewers is not their taste in theater or their perception, it is their ability to express themselves.  Reviews are written mediums, and reviewers are, above all else, writers of a certain genre, the genre that in less fallow times was more grandly called criticism.  The reviewers do have the experience of having seen other shows, they are not theater novices.  But there are many who match their experience.  So reading a review allows one to open up an audience member’s brain and hear their opinions as they spill out.  Those opinions may be wise, or they may be foolish.   But because the reviewer has a venue to express those thoughts, they do have influence.

A friend of mine recently complained that theater reviewers do not know how to write about music.  It is true, most are untrained in music.  That is not a requirement for the job.  As for me, I often lament that they do not note the circumstances of creation.  A show created on a $20,000 budget is usually judged by the same standard as a show that cost $200,000.  Sometimes, I want to grab a reviewer by the lapels and say, look, can’t you see, it was a miracle, I just created a miracle for you.  With no budget and no time, in a circumstance in which others (such as Sarah Ruhl) would not dare to be reviewed, I have created Art.  I have given it to you whole, and I have called it finished, because I must.  Yes, talk about the good and the bad, what you enjoyed and what made you squirm.  But talk about the fact that the circumstances in which I, in which all my fellow indie theater artists create, are impossible and absurd. 

One of the greatest compliments I ever received was from Ralph Lewis, from Peculiar Works.  He told me, with most indie shows, you can see the potential of what it could be, given more time and money.  But, he said, you manage to finish your work, you manage to realize the creation.  Reviewers take heed!  Talk about that.

But it is not their job to say talk about that.  And perhaps, for that reason, it is wise for Sarah Ruhl to keep them away.  She recognizes the fact that the reviewers can look at one, unfinished performance, and say the play has failed.  And that label can stay with the play for years.  Sometimes forever.

But as for me, out of necessity but also out of desire, I will continue to present work, continue to invite reviewers, and continue to call it a finished work.  It never is, of course.  But then, it always is.  Once you present, once a single audience member watches it, for that person, it is finished.  And for that person, one must strive to have completed it. 

Plays are never finished, as the saying goes, only abandoned.  You will find my next play abandoned once more on the doorstep of The New York Times.  I hope they don’t mistake it for the trash.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Zen and the art of publicity (how I became my own theater publicist)

I am my own publicist.

This is a relatively modern phenomenon.  It began, really, during Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  For about 15 years I had used a variety of publicists, some skilled, some less so.  When you had one who was very enthusiastic about a project, it could make a big difference.  Many, however, took the money, sent out the emails, and never bothered to attend the show.  And they are, as a whole, a major show expense, usually 5 – 10% of the overall budget.  Sometimes they have even been more.

So I started to break down what a publicist does.  Three things.  One, they give time.  They spend the time to call, to follow up, to write a press release, to do all the things that a publicist does.  Definitely, it the middle of production, you don't want that extra stress.  Two, they give expertise, in terms of publicity strategy, experience writing a press release, etc.  And three, and most importantly, they give access.  Publicists never gives out their contact lists, and for good reason.  They have spent years accumulating those contacts.  And most people not only don’t have the contact info, the would not be able to find it.

With Androids, however, I realized a few things.  One was that, in 15 years of working in theater, I had actually met a lot of the people who work in journalism.  Before Androids, I was finding that half the press came through my own contacts.  There were still a lot of people I didn’t know, but on the other hand, the more I did publicity myself, the more I would get to know them.

Two, I wrote press releases as well as many of the publicists.  Not that mine were perfect either, but I had seen enough that I had a sense of what worked.  The best and most revelatory exercise in writing a press release I had learned years before, when Kirk Bromley helped me write one for Richard Foreman’s My Head Was a Sledgehammer, which was playing at Nada.  I had taken a workshop on writing press releases that had been helpful, but he broke some of the rules I had learned.  We got great press.  I realized that the rules of press releases that I had heard were less relevant than the main goal of the press release: interest the reviewer, or the editor in the project, however you can.

Three, was that Androids was an interesting project in itself.  I knew that it would get press, whoever sold it and however it was sold.  With a less interesting project, it wouldn’t matter if I had the best publicist in the world.  Hopefully, with Androids, I would do.

So I contacted every press person I knew and started asking for emails, phone numbers, etc.  Some I was able to get.  Some I needed subterfuge to get.  Many publications guard their phone numbers carefully, and even the names of the editors are less than obvious.  You need to find the name.  You have to find the number.  And often, the publicly listed number won’t lead you to your goal.  After a year and a half of doing publicity, I’m still finally finding ways to contact some of the most elusive of the reviewers.  In one case, I had to call a California office, ask for a random employee, pretend I had made a mistake and meant to call someone else in New York, then offhandedly ask for the number—and thus I got the number the New York office had refused to give.

Funny thing is, once I actually reach the reviewer/editor, all I really need to do is make sure they get the press release.  In that way, I am less than a salesperson than a publicist.  In rare cases, I have seen a publicist truly push a show.  But alone, I don’t feel comfortable about pushing myself.  So I depend on the press release to do the talking for me.  Which, with Andorids, it did.

Simultaneously, Tom Berger, my assistant at the time, went for the blogs and the indie theater review sites, which don’t have quite as big a firewall.  But still, they required time and effort

How did it turn out?  For Androids, very well.  We got major papers in, we had a lot of blog reviews, and we sold out.  For Pangs of the Messiah, it was less exciting—but we still got some major publications to see the show: The New York Times, Time Out and Backstage  all dropped by.

In fact, it's gone well enough that I have thought about hiring myself out as a publicist, at times.  After wall, all these contacts I've gathered over the years are worth something...

And for Lathe of Heaven—well, we’ll see.  We’ve had some promises of reviewers, big and small.  But you never know till you get close.  Fingers crossed.

And for future projects?  I don't know.  There's still the time factor, I don't even know how I manage the time.  Someday, I may revert to having a publicist again.  But for now, I'll see how it goes.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Tao of Adaptation

            What is the essence of The Lathe of Heaven?  This is my third stage adaptation of a science fiction novel, and I have adapted and translated numerous other works (I connect the two, in my own work, for all of my translations have been adaptations of sorts as well).  My first question is always what is the essence, and my second is, how do I convey that essence theatrically?

            I tend to think that the essence lies in the ideas that behind the content—not surprising, as I run a Theater of Ideas.  Obviously, Taoism is a major influence on Lathe, the title is based on a (somewhat mistranslated) Chuang Tzu quote, and in the novel Le Guin punctuated the chapters with other quotes from Taoist sources.  Buy beyond mere quotation, the ideas of balance, of nature, of inaction versus action, of the value of uncertainty—these are all Taoist ideas.

            So I knew I wanted to drop those ideas in, with a minimum of exposition and a maximum of emotional content.  Music seemed the obvious medium.  The poetic, elliptical nature of Lao Tzu’s writing seemed very much to lend itself to the style of art music that our composer, Henry Akona, often enjoys writing.  So I used Le Guin’s translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching as a major inspiration for the lyrics. And stillness while in motion—what better way to convey that than a static set, put in motion by video images?

            Music and video also answered a practical matter, the complex question of how to portray a dream onstage.  I wanted a set that was a canvas, on which dreams could be painted by video, and music that evoked dream logic and implied a connection to something beyond itself.

            I was particularly drawn by the idea of uncertainty, especially in a work like Lathe that references one of my favorite topics, neurology.  I have been reading a lot about our irrational, neurological imperative towards certainty (I particularly recommend Robert Burton’s On Being Certain).  As Haber says in the play, “The brain craves certainty,” and indeed we are drawn to those who seem to possess it.  How long would a political candidates last if, when asked for a cure for the economy, they simply shrugged their shoulders and said: “I don’t know.  I don’t fully understand money, and I certainly don’t know for sure what to do about a recession.  I don’t think anyone does, and only fools pretend to.”

            And yet, what true, justifiable certainty do we possess on any topic?  Is the answer then to struggle for understanding, or simply to realize that some of the most important questions we have don’t have any knowable answers?

            The belief in our own ability to understand and solve these unsolvable questions has led humanity down many paths, one of the more extreme being failed utopianism.  It is those with the greatest convictions who often can do the most harm.

            That, at least, was my initial connection into this work, and when I found that, all else flowed. The word “flowed “of course evokes water, one of the symbols used often in Lathe and in Taoism. And indeed, when I am connected to a work, it can sometimes feel like a I rafting through a river of words, not exacting guiding the raft but learning how the river moves and how best to look elegant while keeping my balance.

            I hope I will manage to look elegant.  Though I would be thankful if, at least, I can keep my balance.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Ursula Le Guin, Kickstarter, and The Lathe of Heaven

One of my favorite peculiar benefits of working in theater is that I have had the opportunity to work with artists I have admired from afar.  Ursula K. Le Guin is an author I admired even as a child, for I began reading her Earthsea trilogy (it was but a trilogy then...) at the age of nine.  Little did I imagine at the time that one day I would be adapting one of her books for the stage (we present The Lathe of Heaven in June at 3LD), corresponding with her, and flying out to Portland to meet her so that she might, graciously, help on our kickstarter campaign.

This is especially kind of her, knowing, as I do, that she hates the whole idea of kickstarter.

For me, it was a wonderful excuse to meet her in person, to visit her home, and to interview her.  The interview was for the kickstarter video, but of course it gave the opportunity to have a structured conversation about The Lathe of Heaven and her work as an author.  I have to say, I was in no way disappointed.  My only regret is that the kickstarter video allows only a small part of the interview to be shown.  She was charming, good-humored, and sharp in her responses, much as I would have expected.

Her house was cozy, complete with cat and her husband Charles, who was equally welcoming.  Afterwards, we had lunch and visited the Japanese Gardens, along with another guest who was adapting The Left Hand of Darkness for a small two-person production in Japan.

And my nine-year old self has to stop and marvel, as we strolled past the waterfall, the flowers, and the sculptures, that here I was, not only spending some time with the author of the Earthsea books, but discussing my plans for our production.

Anyway, the kickstarter campaign is up and running, and we have entered rehearsals!  More updates from the front soon.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Truth, Fiction, Theater, and Journalism

I am angry with Mike Daisey.

I am not angry that he lied in his show.  I am saddened by that, saddened both for him and for the integrity of his worthy cause, the working conditions of the workers in China. I am saddened that his shows, for me, will now no longer have any power, for Daisey’s artistic work depended on that sense that you were hearing a personal, true account, told artfully.

What I am angry about is that, in an effort to save himself, he threw theater under the bus.

When caught in his lies, Daisey’s defense was, what I do is not journalism, it is theater.  His implication is that theater has different standards for truth, even when it purports to be factual.  That it is OK to lie onstage, even when you are telling the audience what you are speaking is the truth.

Ira Glass brought Daisey back on his show in order to remedy the breach of trust between This American Life and the NPR audience, brought about by their failure to fact check.  Daisey, apparently, has no similar compunctions.  He is willing to implicate all of us who sometimes try to tell the truth onstage, the factual truth, in his lie.

I understand, of course.  I have lied.  I have lied when telling a story, not even deliberately, but because it’s quicker and easier, and hey, it’s close enough.  I have struggled to tell documentary fact onstage, and I have been forced at times to resort to fiction.

In a writing class, I recently gave my students an exercise.  Take down a conversation verbatim, I said, and we will perform it like a play.  They did.  Afterwards, I quizzed them—who had actually written down what was said word for word, and who had fudged and filled in—to make the dialogue flow, or to make it funnier, or to cover up an embarrassing moment, or just because it was actually hard to remember and note the exact words.

Every single one of them had fudged.  Every single one of them had lied.

(..and here, am I lying?  One or two claimed to have told the truth, but reading the dialogue, I didn’t believe them…so was what I just wrote a fudge or a lie?)

I have also been interviewed and written about in a number of different papers, including, on several occasions, The New York Times.   I have to say, not once was the article written exactly factual.  Sometimes the journalist has tried and failed, fact checking but still missing some important details.  Sometimes the journalist hasn’t even tried.  And often, the journalist has wanted to tell a story of his or her own, and skewed the facts to fit into that story.

Is it conscious?  Is it deliberate?  Probably not.  But it is consistent.

Right now, I am General Managing a play called The Soap Myth, a play dealing the question of fact and fiction.  In it, historians reject a certain possible truth about a detail of the Holocaust events, because they feel that even the slightest doubt give deniers power.  When we all went to the Museum of Jewish Heritage downtown, one of the curators was asked, when a journalist writes about what you do, do they ever get it right?

No.  Not once, I was told.

So the truth is elusive.  The truth is hard to define.  And sometimes, even with the best of intention, one lies.

And then there are other times, when one makes the conscious decision to lie.  And rationalizes it.  And tell oneself it is the truth, not because it is the truth, but because it feels like the truth.  Because even if the facts don’t fit, they should fit.  So, it’s not actually lying, is it?

It is.

It’s also very human.  I am not angry at Mike Daisey for being human.  I am angry that his rationalizations will injure the whole field of documentary fiction.

Those denials, those rationalizations, are also very human I realize.  I am holding Mike Daisey to a high standard, perhaps an unfair one.  A higher standard than most of the journalists I have encountered.  That is not despite the fact that he works in theater.  It is because of it.