Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Five Theatre Books for the Beach

As theatre people we tend to spend a good part of our lives inside, trying to find ways to keep the light from invading.

Right now, the summer is here and the sun is shining. On weekend days at the Boston Center for the Arts, (a complex that contains numerous stages and rehearsal spaces,) you can see actors and stage managers sitting out on the benches near the patio seating of restaurants like The Beehive. There they linger, talking to each other until the last moments before the matinee call times.

With enough SPF though, the beach can be a welcome retreat for the alabaster-skinned theatre practicioner. Below, I have some suggestions for your theatrical summer reading.

Arthur Miller by Christopher Bigsby

A very authoritative biography of one of America's leading cultural figures.

Christopher Bigsby chooses to focus on Miller's early artistic period up through the truly disastrous marriage to Marilyn Monroe.

At the outset, Bigsby claims that this is not only Miller's story,
but also the story of the country. The playwright's personal history, as told by the biographer, tracks closely with America's development through the great Depression to World War II, the Cold War and into the dawn of the 1960's.

Bigsby had unprecedented access to Miller's early drafts
and unpublished works. He also had access to the subject himself. Although this type of license can cause a biography to tilt over closer to hagiography at times, in this case it allows Bigsby to find some inconsistencies. And it also provides for some occasionally interesting side journeys into the realm of memory itself.

The Necessity of Theater; The Art of Watching and Being Watched by Paul Woodruff

Using a kind of Socratic method, Philosophy professor Paul Woodruff constructs a definition of theatre and then sets out to test it from several different angles.

The one sentence definition he presents:

"Theatre is the art by which human beings make human action worth watching, in a measured time and space."

The ensuing examination takes us from college sports stadiums to how Brecht's theories triumphed in spite of himself. This is philosophy and so it reads much more methodically, and with less colorful examples than books written by such critics as Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein and even Brooks Atkinson. And it does not have the urgency of Brecht or Artaud's rallying cries. However, by giving equal time to both sides of the sacred space, ("watchers and the watched",) Woodruff opens up some new avenues into exploring theater's continued relevance and survival.

His emphasis on the art of WATCHING is unexpected, welcome, and refreshing. While we often focus our attention, and rightly so, on what is being practiced on stage, we rarely examine, beyond declining attendances and the graying of hair, what is happening on the other side of the lights.

How Good is David Mamet Anyway? by John Heilpern

John Heilpern, long-time critic for the The New York Observer,
published this intriguingly titled collection of essays and selected reviews in 2000. Heilpern is a fine writer. He takes strong stands, sure, but he does it without the excessive vitriol of, say, John Simon's more acid notices.

Being a Brit in the U.S. he provides a unique lens through which to examine the Anglophilia that American theatergoers and theatre artists seem to have for London imports. The following is from an essay comparing and contrasting American and British theatre:

"The English are never quite who or what they seem. They are a nation of actors in disguise.

The higher lunacies of a John Cleese are like a like a safety valve releasing the
English from the pressures of habitual restraint. They are innately understated. 'A bit of a setback last night' means the roof fell in. Traditional reserve, diffidence, insularity, go to the core of the national identitiy. Outwardly unemotional, the English are easily embarassed; the rules and riddles of the class system are their containment, irony their greatest defense and smoke screen. The ironist deflects and disguises what he really feels, as if hiding behind an actor's mask.
The British need their theater like oxygen or a fix to loosen up, to understand who they really are behind their masks."

Letters from Backstage, The Adventures of a Touring Stage Actor by Michael Kostroff

You may know Michael Kostroff as Attorney Maurice Levy on HBO's The Wire. But did you also know that Mr. Kostroff was a
full-fledged member of the regional touring units for The Producers and Les Miserables?

Well, he was, and, best of all, he immortalized his experiences through electronic dispatches sent to friends and family. Letters from
Backstage is a witty, fast and interesting look at what life is like on a national tour - from finding comfort in chain restaurants like P.F. Chang's to the physically exhausting rehearsals and warm-up routines. And there are plenty of neat peeks behind the curtain at the complicated staging of a big broadway show:

"At the 'five minutes' call, dressed in their robes, the chorus girls go to the stage to rehearse the Glass Pass - a moment in the 'I Wanna Be a Producer' number where they have to pass champagne glasses to each other down the line without looking. Apparently, this move is easy to mess up. I think it is ironic that, in a show where we have people flipping, jumping on trampolines, climbing over furniture, doing Russian splits in midair, operating life-sized puppets, riding motorcycles, and dancing on pointe wearing foam rubber military tanks, the Glass Pass has emerged as the one thing that MUST be reviewed each night before curtain."

And there sadness as well. The tour's first Carmen Ghia is replaced, and Kostroff observes simply: "It was sad and strange. There was no good bye. He was just gone one day."

Shakespeare by Mark Van Doren

I would feel as if I was shirking my responsibility if I didn't include a book about the Bard.

The New York Review of Books publishes this excellent collection of essays on Shakespeare's plays and poems. Mark Van Doren was a professor at Columbia University and set down his thoughts based on his years of teaching.

It is assumed that the reader will have at least a passing familiarity with the individual plays, but the prose and style is not too academic, (Van Doren was also a poet.) The essays are enjoyable and informative, even though you may find yourself disagreeing with the professor at times. But if you love Shakespeare, consider the experience of reading this volume to be like having a conversation with a friend who loves him, too.

Here is Van Doren on Richard II:

"Richard is Shakespeare's finest poet thus far, and in spite of everything he is a touching person. He is not a great man, nor is the play in consequence a considerable tragedy. But as a performer on the lyre Richard has no match among Shakespeare's many people. And as a dramatizer of himself he will be tutor to a long posterity, though none of his pupils - Hamlet is the best known - wil be exactly like him."

Those are a couple of in-print books that could be nice to read with the surf in the background.

Enjoy the summer!

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