Wednesday, 30 November 2016

"A Feminist Hamilton"

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Wednesday, 9 November 2016

A Tale of Two Theatres

The nature of theatre is somewhat tricky. On one hand, theatre is ephemeral; it happens at a specific time in a specific place to a specific set of people who happen to be gathered there. This is why Lorca, when asked if he would publish his plays, asked, “Why?” To him, and to many, theatre is not simply a text to be done over and over again; but that, of course, is the other hand. The works of Shakespeare, of Molière, of Sophocles continue to be produced at prodigious rates. The general public tends to favor works they know or that have a known name attached to them. Which brings me to the purpose of this writing: Musical Theatre.

Musical theatre has, perhaps, always existed. The works of the Ancient Greeks and others had choruses or some other definite music component. Shakespeare used song in a number of his plays, mostly his comedies. In the early 1800s, no less a composer than Mendelssohn was responsible for an enduring scoring of Shakespeare's A Midummer Night's Dream, from which we received our now-traditional wedding recessional. But the musical format we've come to know and love is uniquely American, twentieth-century in origin, having melded from a variety of forms into the two-act triple-threat spectacle in existence today.

Certainly, a fair number of shows are performed once and fade away. But I would argue that, moreso than so-called “straight” theatre, pieces in the musical theatre repertoire are repeated over and over again, to the delight of audiences all over.

As a trained actor and theatre practitioner, I hold the ideal of Lorca's theatre close to my heart. Theatre is a moment, an experience; and, once over, that experience can't be bought back. The play changes the participants (actors and spectators both), and they move on from that moment to the next having been changed and never needing to go back except in their memory of it.

As a trained musician and theatre producer, however, I see the benefit of replaying the hits, so to speak. The opera and oratorio world (another type of enduring music theatre) has been doing this for centuries, since at least 1650. How many more Carmens can our planet sustain? Infinite! Likewise with Gyspys, with Cabarets, and with (for better or for worse) Catses.

As we all do, according to Whitman, I contain multitudes.

These two sensibilities do not have to be so much at odds with each other. What makes the different Gypsys and Cabarets and Catses stand out is their interpretation and reinterpretation. How might The Threepenny Opera (a great example of a piece that so delicately stradles the line between musical and straight theatre, though perhaps not Brecht's intent) affect an audience today? Where are the resonances now as opposed to fifty, sixty, seventy years ago? The Lysistrata of ancient times can still say something to the modern audience and will do so, if allowed, for centuries to come. Directors such as Grotowski and van Hove have proved that repetition is not above the serious artist. Theatre directors and producers simply have to be bold enough to see it through their more current lens and not through the lens of the past. Nothing has meaning without context.

All of that said, we may be at a crisis point if more new work of quality isn't inducted into the culture. Too much nostalgia fills the market and we become denziens of the past instead of the present and future. We are like Rose or Sally in some way or another, but they are not us. We need stories for our time to share with each other—and generations to come. That is why it's important to support the artists of our time in equal measure to, if not moreso than, those of the past. The theatre must be constantly evolving.

I am encouraged by the work of such artists as Lin-Manuel Miranda who seem to have a grasp on the Zeitgeist and can deliver quality content of depth and maturity. I hope that we, as a society, can find such artists and support them thoroughly enough to keep our culture alive, thriving well into the future.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Van Hove's View: Finding a Contemporary Theatre

I first heard of director Ivo van Hove from a New Yorker article by Rebecca Mead, published back in October of 2015. Painted as a carrier of the avant-garde theatre tradition, van Hove was presented to me as a re-interpreter, a visionary. Since reading that article, I have wanted nothing more than to experience van Hove's work first-hand; and so I found myself at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, confronted with his interpretation of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge.

I first encountered this less-popular Miller work in college, when my acting professor decided she had to see me embody the role of Eddie Carbone, the Brooklyn longshoreman and over-protective guardian of his niece, Catherine. We did a few scenes in class. I had the sense I wasn't quite right for Eddie, but I couldn't put my finger on it. I now realize that, perhaps, my professor's interpretation of the play may have been off.

The revival on tour now, produced by Britain's Young Vic, begins with a Requiem, specifically the one by Gabriel Fauré. It's a recurring theme in the piece. To start a piece with a Requiem is to force the audience to ask the question, Who (or what) is dead? A View From the Bridge does not begin at a funeral; rather, in Ivo van Hove's version, it begins in what appears to be a sauna, with the lawyer Alfieri narrating over the image of two workers toweling off after a long shift. The homo-erotic nature of the image cannot be overlooked.

The conflicts of A View From the Bridge form a triangle. There is the discomfort of the potential for homosexuality in the mid-century. There is the problem of the over-protective father figure who may be too much in love with his ward. And, most resonant in the current socio-political environment, the various sides of the die that is illegal immigration.

It's been unavoidable lately, the topic of immigration. In the U.S., the battle cry has been clumsily raised by current Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, whose calls for building a wall, exclusion of people on religious grounds, and deportation of millions have rocked the lives of many around the world. A View From the Bridge humanizes all the players in that drama, forcing the audience to empathize with the struggles of the immigrants and those who protect them. According to Arthur Miller, the plot of the play is cribbed directly from a story told to him by a dockworker “who had known Eddie's prototype.” At the time the story was related to him, Miller says he decided not to write a play about it because it was complete already; there was nothing new to add. He thought better of it. Here was a story that needed telling.

In the author's preface to the Penguin edition, Miller notes that he was aware an austere staging was necessary for the play. At its debut, however, he felt that the creative team (himself included) was unable to deliver such a treatment, since none of them had the experience or training to do so. Ivo van Hove seems to have taken that football and run with it, so to speak, stripping the play down to its essence and forcing the audience to become the crowd that Miller thought was so vital to the initial London performance, staged by Peter Brook.

The set by van Hove's partner Jan Versweyveld is an opaque box as the audience filters in, like a magic trick waiting to be unleashed. Seating for the audience is provided on the stage on either side in addition to the usual seating in the house. When the Requiem begins, the box slowly ascends, revealing a space that somewhat resembles a boxing ring, complete, as we can now see, with ring-side seating. Joseph Melillo, the executive producer at BAM in New York, says in Rebecca Mead's article, “You really felt as though at any moment Eddie Carbone could come off that stage and grab your throat. It was, like, ‘Oh, my God, I am given license to be a witness to a murder. I am really going to see someone kill someone.’” The effect comes to full term when Eddie begins to teach Rodolfo how to box midway through the show. Ring side seats.

The box set reminds one of Schroedinger: With the box unopened, we cannot know the result of our experiment; with the box opened, we cannot help but affect the results, thereby rendering our experiment moot. The result is already known. Miller himself admits this. The audience's hope that things might turn out differently supplies the main tension of the play.

Time is also a character in van Hove's telling of this story; for, as Richard Schechner states in Between Theatre and Anthropology, Time and rhythm can be used in the same way as text, props, costumes, and the bodies of the performers and audience.” He is refering to ritualistic performance, but the same dictum could be applied to van Hove's View. Generally, the scenes are fast-paced, moving quickly from thesis to antithesis. As Mead says in her New Yorker article, “The production has a disquieting erotic intimacy and the hurtling pace of a thriller’s climax.” Everything slows down in the dinner scene, however, with the various actors sitting around the stage staring at each other. The scene set to a drum beat to give the feel of the clock ticking, the interminability of the awkward. The dance Schechner might be looking for exists in the silence between.

The drumming brings to mind Eastern theatre, particularly kabuki; A View From the Bridge fits the kabuki dictum that plays be about moral conflict in affairs of the heart. The actors in the ring play with bare feet (with the exception of the moment where Catherine is caught wearing heels to impress the newly-arrived Rodolfo). The use of specific repeated movements and gestures recalls the work of Jerzy Grotowski, whose Theatre Laboratory espoused the virtues of stripped-down storytelling in the theatre and blurring the lines between actor and spectator.

A particular moment that seems especially in the vein of Grotowski is when Catherine is trying to get Eddie to come to her wedding. She suddenly, out of anger or frustration, embraces him and beats his back repeatedly during her speech. The words are nearly irrelevant; it is the gesture which drives the play forward.

Other moments where time is manipulated include Marco's lifting of the chair to prove his strength against Eddie. As the chair is held aloft by Marco, the very bottom of one leg in his grasp, “Requiem æternam” blares in full intensity, the players frozen in their positions. The audience is given a complete opportunity to take in this picture and all its implications, a moment echoed at the very end of the play.

Van Hove's work is not about creating some illusion of reality; rather, it is, as Tony Kushner says of him, to “make the audience confront the failure to create completely convincing illusions—and the power of the theatre is that failure to create convincing illusions. It is the creation of a double consciousness. Ivo’s impulse is to take that very seriously, and to ask the audience to collaborate in making this thing real.”

Likewise, van Hove is not beholden to the specifics of text. Indeed, his version of A View From the Bridge is cut down somewhat from the published version. It could be that van Hove has chosen to use Miller's original one-act version (I am unaware of how much it differs), but certainly the dialogue in the final scene has been diminished. The knife fight is replaced by what looks like a rugby huddle during a demonic rainstorm, as blood pours down on the company. A slow rendition of the “Libera me” movement of the requiem plays. We don't need to see the actual tragedy to know the tragedy has happened, is happening before our eyes.

Van Hove exclusively uses existing texts, usually classical works. “I discovered I could make much more personal work through the filter of a text by Shakespeare that was four hundred years old,” says van Hove. It is a preference that agrees with Grotowski, who said, “Even though we use classical texts, ours is a contemporary theatre in that it confronts our very roots with our current behavior and stereotypes, and in this way shows us our ‘today’ in perspective with ‘yesterday,’ and our ‘yesterday’ with ‘today.’”

“I want to make the most extreme, personal theatre, but for as big an audience as possible,” van Hove says about his work generally. “I am not the kind of theatre-maker who likes it for small audiences. I don’t do something to please, or to entertain. I don’t think theatre is there for entertainment, purely.”

A View From the Bridge highlights this approach. The audience gets its katharsis, that purging of emotion so vital to what theatre is, and it doesn't have to be over-produced. The audience need not be led from thesis to conclusion by the hand. As with all works that speak across generations, we are able to get something so meaningful and relevant where there may have been nothing before. Arthur Miller would certainly have approved.

Sources:
Grotowski, Jerzy. “The Theatre's New Testament.” Towards a Poor Theatre. 1968. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Mead, Rebecca. “Theatre Laid Bare.” The New Yorker, 26 October 2015.
Miller, Arthur. A View From the Bridge. 1955. New York: Penguin, 1977.
Schechner, Richard. Between Theatre and Anthropology. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania, 1985. 

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Holy Actors

Lately I have been studying up on Jerzy Grotowski, a Polish theatre practicioner who is known for advocating a particular style known as the Poor Theatre, and I came upon an interview he gave in 1964 titled “The Theatre's New Testament.” As someone interested in matters both theatrical and theological, you can imagine I was intrigued.

Historically, theatre and religion have always been linked. While there is evidence to suggest that a form of theatre might have been practiced by tribal peoples before recorded history, we know for sure that an organized theatre was established by the Ancient Greeks for the purpose of honoring their gods. (And, indeed, it is into this sort of a theatre that Paul's companions Gaius and Aristarchus are dragged by the mob after the silversmiths take issue with Christian teaching, in Acts 19.) Theatre transferred to the Christian church in the form of morality, miracle, and mystery plays (mystery plays were typically about the lives of the saints or biblical stories). Pageants are still done to this day.

Playwright and screenwriter David Mamet once said, “When you come into a theatre, you have to be willing to say, ‘We're all here to undergo a communion, to find out what is going on in this world.’” You might be tempted to say that theatre is for this life and church is for the next, but I would argue there is substantial cross-over; there are spiritual gifts in the theatre, and there are human lessons in the church.

Grotowski defines theatre as “what takes place between spectator and actor.” All the other elements of what we might normally associate with theatre (costumes, lights, sets, etc.) are, to him, superfluous; he defines the use of such elements as “rich theatre”—rich in tangible resources and, perhaps, nothing more. Thus he advocates a “poor theatre”—this simple relationship between the actor and the spectator; a basic communion. It's the Quaker form of theatre, so to speak. Henry David Thoreau's dictum “Simplify, simplify” comes to mind. Distilling theatre or religion down to its essentials makes its meaning stronger. We are forced to look at ourselves and each other in a new way.

The “holy actor” is a major component of Grotowski's Poor Theatre, and he states that the actor must be willing to perform a “self-sacrifice” in order to “eliminate any disturbing elements,” a sort of purging. The “holy spectator,” in turn, is invited to do the same: “The spectator understands, consciously or unconsciously, that such an act is an invitation to him to do the same thing, and this often arouses opposition or indignation, because our daily efforts are intended to hide the truth about ourselves not only from the world, but also ourselves.”

And, for those who believe, those daily efforts might be to hide the truth from God. Such people can get really good at painting themselves in saintly colors to impress God, only to realize God already knows the truth about them better than they do. They—we—are human. They—we—have faults. Mistakes happen. Grotowski goes on: “We try to escape the truth about ourselves, whereas here [in the theatre] we are invited to stop and take a closer look. We are afraid of being changed into pillars of salt if we turn around, like Lot's wife.”

Grotowski seems to have a pretty good handle on his religion, despite claiming to be an unbeliever. “Just as only a great sinner can become a saint according to the theologians..., in the same way the actor's wretchedness can be transformed into a kind of holiness.” Who can become a holy actor? We are all capable of it, inasmuch as we can own up to who we are.

So, who are the holy actors in a church? I suppose they would be the leaders, such as the pastor, elders, any who have taken it upon themselves to shepherd the flock in some way. And the holy spectator, the one hoping to be transformed in some way, is the congregant, the walk-in off the street. We can be both, too; actors go see shows. Grotowski says, “We are concerned with the spectator who has genuine spiritual needs and who really wishes, through confrontation with the performance, to analyse himself.” He promotes a life-long learning that engages not only the mind, but the spirit as well. And shouldn't churches want that, too?

I do think we should all strive to be “holy actors” in some way. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The road is not easy, but the rewards are beyond our imagination—whether we are Christian or not.

“The Theatre's New Testament” translated by Jörgen Andersen and Judy Barba.

Monday, 18 January 2016

A Civil Rights Remembrance

My grandfather is a retired Presbyterian minister, a Navy man who served in Korea, and he has worked throughout his life on bridging the gaps, real or imagined, between different people. What follows is a remembrance he wrote from his time serving a church in Newark, N.J., during the riots there. On this day we remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was so instrumental in pushing us towards greater equality—a push, perhaps, we still need today.

EVENTS—NEWARK, NEW JERSEY, 1962-69
By Rev. Harold W. Story, 2010; ed. by KFS

National Guardsmen in Newark, 1967.
As a young pastor in Newark, I was trying to work for an inclusive, integrated church and society while racial tensions increased in that city and across America. Our church, Memorial West, had a few black members. I tried to bring more black persons into the congregation. Our church sponsored both pre-school and senior citizen programs, thus hoping to integrate them as well.

I attended a rally that sought to bring inter-racial harmony. I was impressed by a white woman who was blind (and thus color-blind toward other persons). She spoke to encourage each of us to strive for inter-racial respect and cooperation. This was difficult as there was so much bias and bigotry in our nation.

My approach was to make contact, as a white person, with many black persons. I did so by attending black churches like the Metropolitan Baptist Church and a nearby storefront church. The storefront church leader was a bishop who called me his brother. We were both members of the Greater Newark Council of Churches. I was honored for my outreach to the community of Newark, working with neighborhood groups of black citizens to improve their community. I worked to bring programs for youth, such as the usually rural/suburban 4-H Club, into the city. I focused on a group of children who lived in an apartment building across the street from our church.

One day I parked my car in the church lot and went to enter the back door. On the door I read words written with chalk, “Please don’t lock me out!” This reminded me that we do keep others who are unlike ourselves from enjoying things we do. Some days I let the kids use our basketball court and the bowling alleys in the church. I was asked, “Who will be captain of the basketball team?”—to which I asked, “Who is the leader of your gang?” They pointed to one guy and I said, “Then he is your captain.”

The kids were called “latchkey kids”, kids who had no parents at home sometimes and were on their own. This was bad for them—such as one girl who was raped. The gang asked me to go with them to visit her in the hospital.

I reached the mothers of the kids in the apartment house by the church and called a meeting of the mothers with the landlord as there were many problems in the apartments, things needed fixing. The landlord was the political chairman of the Housing Committee in Newark—who was a slum lord.

In such a way I could cooperate with the mothers, and did so as they became workers in a thrift shop near the apartment building, in a storefront I had obtained for them to rent. They were involved in the pre-school program, one of the first ones in Newark, along with the senior citizen program, established and funded in the “War on Poverty.” Mayor Addonizio, who had an older mother, told me he was glad we started a program for older people.

* * *

There were problems between police and black persons, such as one man who came to me at the church. He said he was accused of pushing drugs but said he was not doing that. Police came to arrest him at his home. I looked out the window and saw a policeman plant drugs in the garbage can outside his house. They arrested the man for drug possession. I had to plead for his innocence in the case.

I always tried to put myself in the place of these persons of another race—to sense what they felt with some kind of empathy.

At times I was the only white person in attendance at events, such as when I was honored by being seated at the head table at a Father Divine free food dinner. Father Divine was a black who claimed “I am God”—when most blacks wanted to say “I am a man!” or “I am a woman!” or “I am a human being as you are!” or “I am entitled to the same rights and privileges that you are!”

Thus the Civil Rights cause was alive in America. In Newark, as across the nation, there was a great social unrest. In one ward of Newark a rally was held to form a protest organization opposing blacks from entering their area. They were vigilantes policing their neighborhoods. At the rally I heard and witnessed hatred against black persons. Emotions ran high in that crowd.

The racial fighting turned to violence. One incident ignited the fires, when a black man was shot and killed by a Newark police officer. This erupted into looting and shooting. Downtown stores were stripped of merchandise. White versus black. Fires were set. In the housing projects there were snipers. The battle was on.

National Guards were called in to Newark to patrol the streets. On South Orange Avenue there was a black Muslim Mosque which was shot up because it was claimed there were arms and ammunition—which there were not. I had eaten at a restaurant owned and run by Muslims—and was treated with courtesy, given the anti-white attitudes that prevailed.

Members of the Greater Newark Council of Churches—clergy—were asked to take to the streets to help maintain order and bring hope for peace to the citizens. I joined in that. As I walked, across the street I saw my friend, the black bishop of the storefront church. We waved to each other. He said, “Hello, my brother,” to which I answered, “Hello, my brother.”

Groups were formed—some with radical motives—to bring inter-racial cooperation and social change. One such group included Tom Hayden, a social activist. (He was married to actress Jane Fonda.) I heard that there was a meeting of them in two bars, blacks in one and whites in another. A mulatto guy ran between them letting each group know what the other was doing. I guess they chose him because he was a racial mix—black and white.

And, too, there was talk of the churches being invaded during worship services by protestors blaming the churches for not reaching and helping the community. We were made more aware of the need for our personal part.

* * *

In retrospect, I grew up in a town where there were few black persons, and I had little idea of what discrimination they faced. I got along okay with the black kids—especially one whose first name was Harold also, like my name. I had a lot to learn about what was really happening between the races here in America.

When I was a sailor in the U.S. Navy stationed down in the South, at Jacksonville, Florida, I was on a bus going back to the base. I sat on the back seat of the bus next to a black man, also a sailor. The bus driver said I should move forward on the bus—before he would move the bus. I said, “This man is a sailor in the U.S. Navy, serving in the military as I am.” He moved the bus.

I recall a black woman, Rosa Parks, did move forward in a bus down South. Such were the peaceful protest demonstrations done by just one person. More demonstrations led to changes such as school integration, sit-ins at restaurants and other public places which were designated for “Whites Only” or “Blacks Only.” Attitudes such as “white is right” and “blacks get back” had to be changed.

* * *

The call went out from the Southern Leadership Conference, headed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, to work for social change and cooperation between races. I recall visiting a black woman in Newark. She had just two pictures on her wall: one of Dr. Martin Luther King, the other one of John F. Kennedy. She said, “They are my hope.”

The Greater Newark Council of Churches called us to go to Alabama to join Dr. King in the March to Montgomery, to be a peaceful demonstration. When we got off the airplane at Selma, Alabama, we were met with protests. The newspapers called us “Communists” who had come south to stir up trouble. We were not there to make trouble, but to overcome it. We sang, “We shall overcome … someday we shall overcome.” And I was not a Communist. In fact, I was with Navy at Inchon during the Korean War—fighting against the Communists!

We marched along the way from Selma to Montgomery. There we heard the rousing speech by Dr. King advocating peaceful change in society for the good of all races of people. Later, I was to go with great crowds of people gathered on the Washington Mall to hear Dr. King speak again. Soon after, Dr. King was shot and killed—but his dream lives on to become reality.

What character will you portray in this play of life?