Thursday, October 29, 2009

In The Spirit of the Season

1_2_148, originally uploaded by jrnyfanraleigh.


A New York Times article about prompters and learning lines.

Seems an actor at Hartford Stage may have been caught using the Peter Brady method of remembering lines. (To be honest though, it appears there is a more to the story than is being reported.)

But now the use of prompts has become a matter of inquiry for the Actors’ Equity union, which is investigating a recent dismissal by the Hartford Stage theater of an actor who peeked at bits of dialogue that he had taped inside his character’s hat for a difficult scene.


In the Hartford Stage incident, the fired actor, Matt Mulhern, 49, was appearing in Horton Foote’s “Orphans’ Home Cycle,” a series of three plays over nine hours. Mr. Mulhern said he never received any warning from Hartford Stage that his job might be in jeopardy; “Orphans” is a co-production with Signature Theater Company in New York, where it is transferring next month.

In an interview, Mr. Mulhern described the prompt in his hat as a “crutch” that he relied on because of script changes during rehearsals. He said he had been “emotionally devastated” by his Sept. 22 dismissal, the first of his 27-year career. He also acknowledged he had “ruffled feathers” among colleagues for a variety of other reasons after rehearsals began in July.

Michael Wilson, the artistic director of Hartford Stage and director of “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” declined to comment, saying the theater did not discuss employment issues. Maria Somma, a spokeswoman for Actors’ Equity, also declined to comment.

Hartford Stage has yet to give Equity a formal reason for firing Mr. Mulhern, according to the actor. Ms. Somma again would not comment on the matter.

“Actors being fired for this reason vary by the situation,” Harry Weintraub, general counsel of the League of Resident Theaters, which includes Hartford Stage, said in an interview. When asked if the production created hardships for actors because it spanned nine hours and included script changes, Mr. Weintraub said, “I wasn’t aware that Mr. Mulhern had nine hours of lines to learn.”

Friday, October 23, 2009

Can You Hear Me, Now?

Wall Street Journal article on miking actors in straight plays and using background tracks in musicals. (The end of the article contains some tracks for sound effects used in some Broadway plays.)

Many theatergoers have come to expect the miking effect. Microphones on stage allow actors to speak more naturally, emulating the more realistic performance style that audiences are used to from movies and television. Audiences also expect entertainment to be louder generally, after years of surround-sound in movie theaters. Sound designers say it's necessary to turn up the volume on actors as Broadway theaters themselves get louder, with automated lighting and set-moving equipment making a continual background noise. "There's very little true quiet in the theater anymore," says Tom Clark of Acme Sound Partners, which is designing the sound for "Bye Bye Birdie" and other shows this season.

Playwright David Mamet is known for refusing to use any mics at all in his plays. It may be a losing battle. At a recent performance of "Oleanna," his play about sexual harassment now on Broadway, an audience member complained at a "talk back" for theatergoers after the show. Dennis Sandman, a 56-year-old financial planner from East Brunswick, N.J., said he couldn't hear the play from the balcony. "The actors should've worn mics," he told the group. "It's important when you have one of these talkathons to hear it clearly."

I've been body-miked for straight plays in the past. The most interesting miking experience for me as an actor was performing in David Ive's Sure Thing. It was a very large theater that was selling pretty well out. At first I was a little skeptical. However, I found the mike allowed me to relax into what was probably a more nuanced comedic performance than I ever would have been able to achieve if I had to worry about reaching those near the back with my projection.

In that particular instance, I really felt the miking was a benefit for both me as a performer and for the audience. Although, during one performance, the battery pack that was under my sweater at my lower back began to slip. I could could feel it slowly coming loose as the skit continued. Fortunately, the play takes place in a coffee shop with the two characters sitting for most all of the action. However, at the end, our direction was to stand up for the last few lines. During the dialogue was able to manuever my upstage hand around to the battery pack. I held it in my hand and as we stood up I was able to quickly drop it into my pants pocket.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Don't Forget Private Epstein

David Edelstein makes some good points about Neil Simon, his popularity and his craft in a New York Magazine article.

Here he talks about how Simon's dialogue, full of kvetching and always containing throwaway one-liners, sometimes all but defeated his characters and the actors playing them.

Christopher Walken’s drill sergeant in the film of Biloxi Blues is a rare instance of an actor’s meeting Simon’s specifications and yet making the role his own. A trained stage actor, Walken keeps to the meter, but he’s Walken—he elongates words, steals beats from the end of one line and adds them to the next, and injects creepy little laughs at his own sadistic turns of phrase. The aforementioned Bella was Simon’s most compelling character (especially as played by Mercedes Ruehl in the stage and screen versions of Lost in Yonkers) precisely because her rhythms are all messed up, because there’s a disconnect between her thoughts and words that’s unprecedented in Simon’s work.

I logged onto the New York article to suggest another of Simon's compelling characters. Private Arnold Epstein in Biloxi Blues.

Private Epstein is certainly as compelling, if not more so than Bella. In fact, he contains so many wonderful and enigmatic contradictions and displays such a mysterious wisdom in his actions that he almost seems like an interloper from somewhere outside the Simon universe. (On loan from another play, so to speak.)

The masterstroke of providing Eugene Jerome, (the protagonist) with the benevolent, yet harsh twin in Arnold, gives the play a few moments of transcendence that I am not sure Mr. Simon ever matched, before or after. (Except, as Mr. Edelstein points out, in Lost in Yonkers.)

To Private Jerome, Epstein is familiar and alien; an ally and a liability; academic and earthly, scolding and reassuring.

When I went to comment, I saw that Barry Miller, the person who originated the role of Arnold Epstein on Broadway had left a comment on Mr. Edelstein's article.

I wrote a little about Simon's career and craft over a year ago.

The Shrew Can So Sew...

Carl Rossi looks at Actors Shakespeare Project's Taming of the Shrew.

Everything pivots on Kate’s character. She is not a career-woman with a life of her own; she is the elder daughter in her father’s house, resentful (and scared?) from being hounded into marrying so that her beloved sister Bianca may pay court to her own suitors --- Kate may spit and hiss at her father’s entreaties, but she also clings to him since her power, paradoxically, comes from remaining his little girl. Rather than storming up and down the halls, all day, Kate runs her widowed father’s household; thus, she knows how to cook and sew and could “dwindle into a wife” should she set her mind and heart to it (why not, at auditions, ask actresses auditioning for Kate if they can sew?). (Also: does Kate know how to read and write?) Kate’s sharp tongue stems from intelligence, not an overflowing spleen --- as a Boomer would say, Kate tells it like it is regarding men and marriage (and her arguments are sound), but her words have long fallen upon deaf male ears --- the more the men dismiss her as a shrew, the louder Kate shouts to be heard (and, remember, Kate is a virgin: she will not give up her maidenhead to just any fellow) --- thus she is in full roar when Petruchio comes to call.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Black Playwrights - Tour Guides of the Theatrical Landscape

99 Seats talks a little about taking the temperature of the state of black theater in the United States. In an earlier post, he lamented how any discussion of this topic seems to immediately be perceived as complaining or a radical call to arms.

Here he tries to tell of his own experiences:

My story is this: I'm an extremely assimilated black playwright. I live in a world of many races, all living together. In theatre circles, I'm often the only black person in any given room, and more often than not, the only black man under 50. When I write, I think in terms of multiracial casting and productions, but often, find that my plays wind up being all or mostly white actors. I don't write plays about "the minority experience" or where a given character's race is important (often), but I do think about it when I write. I used to try to specify races, even when it didn't come up in the play, but then that only lead to the question of "well, why do you need a black/Asian/Latino actor for that role?" So I started trying to do it in casting, casting "blind" for the first reading in the hopes that the impression would be made. I know it's not always the case, but I tried.

I write what I know and, yeah, my plays do wind up being about upper-middle class problems. But I'm eager to show that black people have upper middle-class problems. That when races mix on stage, the minority one doesn't need to be a servant or employee to justify why they're there. But I've found that doesn't jibe with the space provided to black playwrights: tour guide. It seems to me that the expectation on me is that, as the Black Playwright, it's my job to bring some foreign experience into a white theater in a safe, easy to handle way. If I'm just writing love stories or whatever, they can get that from a white playwright.

On Pinter's Impotency

Thomad Garvey reviews the Nora production of The Caretaker and finds the menace missing; but after seeing several recent Pinter's, which have also failed to deliver the chills, he is hesitant to blame the productions.

But how to restore Pinter's former potency? Ah, there's the rub; the decline of "monoculture" may have dealt a greater blow to the absurdists and existentialists than it has to the bourgeoisie (which, in case you haven't noticed, is flourishing). And so far, at least, no one has managed to crack the carapace of self-satisfaction one senses in our Gen-Y "glibertarians" - they're not shivering in some Beckettian wasteland, struggling with the bleak truths of the absurdists; they are, instead, snug as bugs in their respective digital rugs. And the idea of using absurdity to attack their own assumptions strikes most them as, well, simply absurd; indeed, their strategy of simultaneous disconnection from, yet accommodation to, the social and political world may make them all-but-impervious to theatre as a mode of communal critique.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Generations Collide

Dame Judi Dench thinks young actors aren't paying enough attention to the older generations:

"Probably the majority of young actors want to make a big impression in television or film straight away,” she told the Cheltenham Literature Festival

"I wish that young people now — and it’s not very fashionable — learnt a bit about our fantastic heritage of theatre and the people who’ve gone before, learnt a bit about the history of the theatre, because it’s phenomenal. It is nowhere better in the world than here.”

Dame Judi, who appeared with her left hand in a bandage and a large plaster on the thumb of her right hand, added: “We have such a huge history of the most extraordinary performances and productions and directors and actors and designers, everything that I wish wasn’t forgotten.

“It is not forgotten by a lot of people but it is forgotten by most young people coming up."

Meanwhile, younger director Rupert Goold, (of the Patrick Stewart Macbeth fame,)thinks that too much defernce is already given to that genereation:

Britain's most sought-after stage director Rupert Goold, 39, hit back at Dame Judi's comments, rounding on staid, middle-aged audiences and critics. Goold, known for his bold production of Oliver!, said her views threatened to “strangle” innovation.

He said young actors and directors were already forced to limit their ideas because “most of the audience is middle-aged, the critics are middle-aged” and it feels like “you are seeking to win the approval of your parents all the time”.


He insisted that modern actors were in many ways more professional and spent less time getting drunk than previous generations.

He said: “They are less deferential in a good way than I gather was the case 40 years ago.” They are also in physically better shape and more technically proficient than previous generations, he added.

Benedict Nightengale at the Times Online thinks they both have a point:

The director is hugely gifted, but he’s surely guilty of Year Zero, clean-slate thinking.

For him, freshness is too often about imposing his own clever-clever ideas on plays, not in discerning and fulfilling an author’s aims and intentions. And that’s not a generational problem, as Goold must have discovered when members of his own cast rebelled against his reinterpretation of King Lear, with the result that it was a bit more Shakespearean when it moved from Liverpool to London.

On the other hand, he’s right to defend younger actors from any inference that they’re less able than their predecessors. He’s equally right to add that they’re more physically adroit than, say, many members of the Gielgud generation. One can only judge the quality of actors from their performances on stage and my own recent experiences tell me that the future of acting and therefore of the British theatre is very bright indeed.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sarah Ruhl Tries to Answer Her Critics

Boston Globe has a profile of Sarah Ruhl in advance of the Lyric Stage production of Dead Man's Cell Phone:

Despite Ruhl’s success, she is not without her detractors. Some critics have accused her of an over-reliance on whimsical and idiosyncratic details that can come across as cloying. Others charge that her writing lacks reason and psychological depth. Ruhl shrugs off these criticisms with a frustrated but spirited defense.

“I do think psychological realism is a crock, because it makes emotions so rational. It’s not realism. I think it’s just a form,’’ says Ruhl, whose husband and sister are, ironically, psychiatrists. “Theater, from Shakespeare to the Greeks, has always been about irrationality, in some profound way. So I think to make it all linear and make it all causal is kind of weird. The rational unearthing of neuroses isn’t enough.’’

Well, then.

Ian Thal's Total War

Fellow blogger Ian Thal will have a reading of his play Total War tomorrow at 8PM.

This is a revision after Ian had another reading. You can read more about it on his blog. He is very open about the process feedback and decisions he has made.

Friday, October 09, 2009

"The eye was open! ... And I grew furious to gaze upon it."

"I resolved to open a little -- a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it -- you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily -- until at length a single dim ray like the thread of the spider shot out from the crevice and fell upon the vulture eye.

It was open, wide, wide open, and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness -- all a dull blue with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones, but I could see nothing else of the old man's face or person, for I had directed the ray as if by instinct precisely upon the damned spot. "

That's me performing as the famous narrator of Poe's Tell-Tale Tale Heart.

I tell ghost stories every October up in Salem, MA during Chilling Tales, which is produced by Salem Theatre Company.

The three other tales in the evening are Poe's Manuscript Found in a Bottle, (told that story two years ago,) and Hawthorne's Wives of the Dead.

The shows run on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. More information here. I am one of four different performers who tell the story in rotation throughout the month.

(NOTE: If you would like to see me perform, you can send me an e-mail and I will let you know the nights/times I am on.)

Arts Criticism - When It's Free, Does It Matter to People?

Leonard Jacobs counters Norman Lebrecht's notion that "the public does not, on the whole value unsolicited opinion."

Lebrecht uses the example of the culture pages of free newspapers - like the Metro, but Leonard brings up an excellent point:

I would counter — and this argument can be found amongst the comments at the bottom of Lebrecht’s post — that paid content, in the form of a newspaper, magazine or even a website, imparts no more value to readers than free content.


Let's consider the matter from a New York theater viewpoint. It was well more than 10 years ago that The Village Voice went free. Michael Feingold, whom I consider the gold standard in American theater criticism, has proven himself capable of stirring public debate when he wishes to. In terms of “box-office activity,” well, that’s another matter: it’s unclear whether any arts journalist anywhere, regardless of how eloquent their yea or nay words are, can influence consumer spending on culture.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

90 Minutes

Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune doesn't believe there is really any standard for the length of a play, but he muses on how many plays seem to be clocking in at that hour and a half length.

He talks about the recent premiere of Craig Wright's play, Mistakes Were Made. Apparently, Jones saw the need for some cuts that would, in fact, bring the work down to that 90 minute area:

"Mistakes Were Made" is headed to the Hartford Stage in Connecticut later this year, and I don't doubt for a moment that Wright will make those cuts. He is part of a school of American writers -- Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet and Rick Cleveland are others -- who work on one-hour HBO dramas and other top-tier TV shows. Prodded by the executives who sign their paychecks, these writers become obsessed with never boring their audience or outstaying their welcome. (In fact, I once heard the sage Cleveland tell a group of grad students that if their play were even remotely conceptual or thematic, 90 minutes was their maximum length. Period.)

I see the wisdom of that -- David Harrower's "Blackbird," the big hit of the Chicago summer, was around 90 minutes, and I heard nobody arguing it should have been longer. The tension would have dissipated. Then again, "August: Osage County" (headed back here early next year) needed every minute of its 3 hours and 15 minutes. I think audiences like marathon shows and respect their substance and demands. That's why many Chicagoans head to Stratford, Ontario, (where Gary Griffin's brilliant "West Side Story" still plays) and see six shows in three days. I do that a lot. It focuses the mind.

Mistakes Were Made will be opening at Hartford Stage at the end of October.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Navigating Culture on the Net Surfboard

Seth Godin on High, Low, Tech and Analog Culture (His post has a graph.)

Our Culture (high and popular) is usually created by people who are happy with the systems the world has given them. Magazine editors don't spend a lot of time wishing for better technology. Opera singers focus more on their singing than on microphone technologies. Novelists proudly use typewriters.

Sure, there are exceptions like Les Paul (who developed the electric guitar) and Mitch Miller (who invented reverb) but these exceptions prove the rule: often, culture is invented by people who are too busy to seek out new technology.


If you take a look at this chart, you can see the danger anyone who introduces new technology faces. While you'll attract Les Paul and the 37Signals guys, you're more likely to attract spammers, scammers, opportunity seekers and others that will bring our culture down as easily as they'll bring it up.

Thoughts on The Caretaker

Here in Boston, you can catch Harold Pinter's The Caretaker at the Central Square Theater.

Across the Atlantic, Jonathan Pryce is returning to that play after 40 years. He is playing the role of Davies, a vagabond tramp. Here, he talks to the Guardian about the experience:

Pryce first appeared in The Caretaker at the National in 1981, playing Mick, the dangerous young hustler. "It's one of those plays you graduate through in the course of your life," Pryce says. "Back then I was a young buck and Warren Mitchell played the tramp. I've always wanted to find out what was going on in Davies's head – though with Pinter, the more you delve into it, the less you know. I don't think Davies has any idea what he thinks any more. Everything he tells you about himself is potentially a lie – which makes it incredibly difficult to learn."

Monday, October 05, 2009

Street Theatre Attempts to Stem Illegal Immigration

The Independent reports that the Australian Government is trying to stop a wave of refugee immigration by engaging the advertising firm of Saatchi and Saatchi:

The Government's focus on disrupting illegal immigrants has shifted to Sri Lanka, with Saatchi & Saatchi working on ways to try to halt people smuggling.

It will take the message to the streets of Sri Lanka, using local actors and other methods to deter thousands from undertaking the dangerous passage to Australia.

There are 250,000 displaced people in northern Sri Lanka alone following the deadly civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the Government.

Saatchi & Saatchi's Ronald Peiris, the creative genius behind the anti-immigration message, said the campaign would use "street drama" to take its message directly to the people.

Actors will play people smugglers - and warn locals their efforts to escape from Sri Lanka will end in disappointment.

Boston Theatre News

The Boston Globe previews Punch Drunks sit-specific show Sleep No More.

This is a show you move through. The creators of “Sleep No More’’ - Punchdrunk artistic director Felix Barrett, co-director/choreographer Maxine Doyle, and executive director Colin Marsh - have transformed the Old Lincoln School in Brookline into a sprawling, labyrinthine set that audience members roam. You choose where to go and when. Perhaps you’ll follow a shadowy form that rushes past you on the stairs to the basement, or the sound of a party on the floor above. You might decide to trail one performer for an hour, or set off to find the three witches you glimpsed earlier. Take one whiff of the spoiled food in the Macduffs’ dining room, and you may run the other way. Go ahead and open the cupboards. Rifle through drawers. Find yourself completely alone in a room with an actor whispering in your ear.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Fences at the Huntington Overcomes August Wilson's Second Act Problems

You really can't go wrong if you check out Fences during its last two weeks. I don't have much time, but I thought I would post a few thoughts on the production and on August Wilson.

I only just caught the play last night, and maybe it was for the best. Reviews, such as Thom Garvey's, and word of mouth from friends indicated that the lead actor, John Beasley, was very unsteady during the opening few performances.

Though I saw a few tell-tale signs of these earlier criticisms in Mr. Beasley's performance, I can happily report that his Troy Maxson is a rich and complex portrayal. Beasley comfortably inhabits the softening bulk of a hard man who has been tornadoed through the technological, political, societal and familial upheavals of the first half of the twentieth century. As he stands looking out on the approaching second half, he is, (to steal a phrase from the Hub Review,) a mass of contradictions.

Troy preaches the value of knowing and working within your limitations in society, yet he stands up to the establishment to become the first black sanitation driver in the city. He endlessly sings the praises of his wife, while he almost openly philanders. He is, as are many of Wilson's characters, endlessy fascinating.

August Wilson's immense talents helped him concentrate and focus the implacable social winds that buffeted African-Americans into the even more complex interpersonal relationships of their own families and communities. And, further, in his great arias, he would attempt to chart the challenging inner landscapes of his protagonists. By working on these three levels of conflict and antagonism, Wilson was able set up a charged poetic universe into which he could launch myriad ideas and dynamically cycle them through laments, dirges, jokes and sermons.

However, Wilson's interest, (or maybe even infatuation,) with these ideas often created enormously successful first acts that seemed to lose dramatic force in the second. Early on, ghostly spectres of future confrontations are raised, but when the key moments arrive later, the playwright's seeming obsession with elaborate dialogue gets the better of the situation. For instance, the compressed air of the moment when Troy Maxson reveals an embarassing secret to his wife leaks out quickly as we listen to speeches from both parties. Also, in dealing with the increasingly threatening confrontations between son and father, Wilson dutifully tacks on a bit of physical struggle to the end of overlong verbal duels, but it seems as if he doesn't realize that the urgency has long seeped away. Sometimes these shortcomings are blamed on the actors or the direction. Sometimes this is unfair.

The same goes for his overly long codas that he attaches to some of his dramas. Fences is no exception to this. I wish I could report that the audience and I sat rapt with attention in the closing monologues, but, as I have found on other encounters with Wilson's work, indiglo fireflies start to infest the theater and the slight rustling of coats ran through the seats like a wave. And this is an audience that rose to its feet to applaud the performers. (And it wasn't one of those obligatory standing ovations, this was a deserved appreciation.)

Even in exceptionally good productions, such as Fences at the Huntington, the lasting impression of Wilson's work can sometimes be of a play that finishes in the lead, but just makes it over the line before it expires under its own weight.

Wilson was thinker, and this, combined with his enviable talents with language, makes him succeed where a lesser dramatist would most likely fail. The universes he created combined uniquely with the colorful voices of his characters, and this allowed him to keep believably generating new conflicts and ideas well into the proceedings, bouying things enough to compensate for his disinterest in honing traditional dramatic elements and structure.

I am open to the idea that Wilson's aesthetic intentions resulted in a deliberate diffusion of potent conflict and climax. (Eugene O'Neill's Long Days Journey into Night would be an example of this.) However, the more I see and read his work, the more I find evidence that he wantedthe dramatic power of these moments, but couldn't discipline himself to shape them adequately.

But maybe these are just quibbles with the satisfying theatrical experience Wilson's work delivers.

Fences is at the Huntington Theatre Company through October 11th.