Sunday, October 24, 2010

October in New Play Development

I participated in two different workshop/development processes for different theatres in October. Some thoughts:

The Buzz Festival at Theatre Passe Muraille

I ushered the Thursday performance of this festival, which is run three times a year, and presents two to four short pieces of work a night, accompanied by musical interludes. The pieces can be from 15 to 45 minutes, from work finished that afternoon as an idea of a play to a portion of a nearly polished longer play. The audience is given questionnaires, developed by the playwright, to gauge their response to relevant questions about the piece. Later, at the reception at the theatre bar, the audience is invited to mingle with the artists and talk.

There are many positive aspects to this kind of playwright-audience interaction. The traditional talkback, while generally useful, and almost always better than no feedback at all during development, is tricky. Unlike the safely anonymous question pad, it has the interesting quality of putting both artist and audience on the spot simultaneously. The audience feels pressured to ask questions and give verbal feedback, and the artist is required to listen and justify in a way that can often feel like a defense against an onslaught. To give an example, I attended a talkback approximately four years ago where the first question to the playwright (whose play had recently been shortlisted for the Pulitzer) was, "So tell me why your play is so good." There was no good reply to this pointlessly combative question, but it came dangerously close to setting the evening's tone. My favourite talkbacks always involve the dramaturg or moderator soliciting questions or comments on paper, vetting them, and asking the most interesting ones. However, this has the danger of shielding the playwright from difficult questions. Having the playwright ask questions, which are then responded to honestly but with a sense of polite remove because they are on paper, seems to solve all problems nicely. The reception chat is the best way to add the missing social interaction on top of these questions, because it lets people with strong responses or interests talk to the artists in a relaxed setting, where there is little pressure on either end and interaction is more comprised of mingling than awkwardness.

Other things I liked about the evening: it was nice to have a musician to provide both interludes for commenting as a palate-cleanser and to add a different art to the evening. The pianist included his own questionnaire, which was interesting to think about, even if the questions weren't particularly specific. This begs the question of whether an audience of diehard theatregoers is as effective at commenting on music as theatre. On the other hand, the idea behind audience commentary is to hope that audience members have a different range of experience with the subject, because a homogeneous sample doesn't lend itself well to determine results in any kind of survey. Theatre audiences are, admittedly, a bit of a self-selecting group, particularly audiences that go to readings and developmental presentations. However, ideally, the only thing all audience members have in common is that they enjoy theatre. There are all sorts of personal, experiential and cultural differences people bring to the table; otherwise, theatre reviews wouldn't diverge so drastically. So the audience experience with the music, or theatre, parts of the evening is all valid regardless of background.

However, there is one problem with this aspect of the festival. In my mind, the ideal talkback has two facets; audience response and dramaturgical analysis. A dramaturg will talk to the playwright and help determine germane questions, often ones the playwright might not think of, because the dramaturg is an outside reader of the script and can view it with some distance, according to their own reaction. After questions are answered, a dramaturg helps deal with the answers, figuring out how to interpret the response into constructive advice. It's nice to combine an audience reaction, which is often immediate and visceral, with the more measured response of a dramaturg. This is not to say that any individual audience member can't be as insightful as a production dramaturg (many are probably dramaturgs themselves), only that a dramaturg is closer to the process and is usually a useful extra critical eye. The Buzz Festival is missing this dramaturgical aspect, and I felt that some of the questions that were asked could have been refined, and there were others that needed to be asked that weren't. It's crucial that the playwright get to ask the questions that she or he wants answered; I just felt that a dramaturg-driven part of the process was missing. (I may be biased.)

I loved that the three pieces we saw that evening were clearly at different stages in development. It added interest to the evening and resulted in different kinds of questions being asked by each writer, from "where do you see this unfinished scene going?" for a very new scene that was the only written piece of the play so far, to "are you able to discern separate characters in this one-person show based on writing and staging clues?" and more deeply interpretive thematic questions based on a more finished piece.

Native Voices at the Autry

This past week, I acted as a reader for Native Voices at the Autry, an arts complex in Los Angeles. This play development program is a nurturing environment for Native American writers, which since 1999 has produced at least 80 workshops, play readings and fully produced plays starring Native American actors. I really enjoyed reading and commenting on the plays I received, and was thrilled to be issues a standing invitation to continue to read for them in future submission cycles. I can't talk about any of the plays specifically, but what a host of exciting voices, with all sorts of influences, from specific cultural references to what is more traditionally referred to as "the canon." It's an unfortunate thing that there aren't more Native American stories, both traditional and modern, enshrined in the American canon (most of the plays I read offered some degree of traditional/modern fusion). It's too bad that, within an art form that so often gives voice to the marginalized, we have groups that are still so underrepresented. I always wonder, when faced with a culturally-specific mandate, if writers feel pressured to focus on certain themes. (The group of plays I read were certainly nothing alike in topic or style.) In any case, I admire The Autry's commitment to Native writers, and I admire the thought-provoking and entertaining work that the writers produce. I can't wait to see what they choose to develop this year.

I hope to eventually post my thoughts on Nuit Blanche and The Clockmaker at Tarragon. The combination of my new job, and my first choir and handbell performances of the season coming up, are certainly keeping me busy!


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Theatre Passe Muraille review: Hard Times

Adapting a Charles Dickens novel to the stage is often a Herculean task, even if one isn't attempting to musicalize it. The last Dickens adaptation I was able to see in Toronto was the Chichester Festival Theatre's 2008 production of David Edgar's adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, which was more than six hours long, having been cut down significantly from its original nine-hour incarnation. Even then, there were gaps and nuances that could not be covered, because Dickens' novels are so full of character and incident. So to fit all of Dickens' Hard Times into a two-hour production is no mean feat; especially to do it with puppets.

Dickens and puppets seem to be a match made in heaven, and here is why: Dickens' stories are rich and full of life, but so many of his characters are archetypes, caricatures - in a good way, for thematic emphasis and stakes-raising conflict between good and evil. It's made obvious in Dickens' gleeful names; surnames like Gradgrind, McChoakumchild, Cheeryble, Skimpole, and Dedlock abound in his work, leaving no doubt as to the essence of the named character's being. Puppets and masks are fantastic ways of emphasizing and playing with particular character traits, as features can be exaggerated and frozen effectively. Theatre Passe Muraille's production, adapted and directed by Chris Earle, a collaboration between night kitchen and Puppetmongers (brother and sister David and Anne Powell, in this production joined by Anand Rajaram), features some wonderfully inventive ways of storytelling.

Dickens' novel tells the tale of the harsh life in industrial Coketown, where children are taught to learn and lead an emotionless life based solely on facts by professor Gradgrind, and a utilitarian model reigns that results in letting people starve to death as long as it isn't too high a percentage of the population. Gradgrind's daughter Louisa is ruined by the former "ideal," sacrificing love and happiness for a marriage that is essentially a business transaction, while mill worker Stephen Blackpool is ruined by the latter when the workers begin to speak of unionizing. Central to the ruining of all things is mill owner Josiah Bounderby, a boorish, self-proclaimed "self-made" man "devoid of all sentiment."

In the midst of all this misery, the puppet design is lovely, both the small puppets and the half-masks. The faces are extremely expressive in a way that is half arts-and-crafts and half Terry Gilliam, and many puppets hide small surprises. The transfer of many characters from puppet to mask and back again is handled gracefully and in a way that generally makes sense. Even the construction of the masks sometimes provide character commentary. Mr. Harthouse, a rakish character who claims to have no convictions and whose languid manner suggests little inner life, holds his face on like a monocle where other characters wear them fluidly. This suggests, appropriately, that Mr. Harthouse is a mask wearing a mask, essentially empty.

The set, which fits neatly into the tiny Backspace, is beautifully grim, with a highlight being the small models of houses and factories that sits above the middle of the playing space. Thin fabric smoke rises from the houses so that the entire model sky becomes covered with the merging trails. This set piece is effective both in visual appeal and in social commentary. Much like the Nicholas Nickleby production, the most exciting theatrical moments here occur when the atmosphere of a large-ranging novel is suggested by simple effects. In this vein, shadow puppetry is a major plus, showing all kinds of swirling backgrounds and character treats, including sudden changes of size and facial expression. It is also a fine way to capture the faceless Coketown mob. The inventiveness in staging is quite nice, with actors appearing from all quadrants, a circus tent suddenly created out of a sheet, and a scene being shown with a curtain half-drawn, so that the players are hidden from the shoulders up and the audience can only guess at the hinted-at audacious facial expressions and gluttony.

The only props that distract are stacks of books the children "study" which are obviously non-period, like an organic chemistry textbook and a book on psychology (and another on Sigmund Freud himself). Hard Times was published in 1854, and Freud wasn't even born until 1856. The stacks are a cute idea, but the modernity is jarring in a way that is never repeated.

The thematic denseness evoked by the visual landscape is the production's greatest gift. It hints at more beneath the surface of the adaptation; with the time constraints, what we can get is only a taste of the novel's scope. There is so much to be said that certain character arcs get a bit lost in the shuffle, despite the punishing number and speed of words the puppetmongers pack into the adaptation. Punishing, that is, not to the audience, but to the actors.

Though I viewed the production in only its second preview, there was clearly some more practice required. The three actors face a punishingly dense, quickly-spoken text, and slip-ups, tongue-tripping and short pauses to remember lines were myriad, particularly by the Powells; Rajaram handled himself admirably and proved amusing as blustering Mr. Bounderby, heartrending as tempest-tost worker Stephen Blackpool, and intriguing as the effete Harthouse. This kind of thing happens in live theatre and is usually not a problem, but in scenes bordering on eight characters where timing and picked up cues are of the essence, (the final scene of the first act, the climactic courtroom scene), gaps and pauses completely undermine the tension that the production is attempting to build, and the dramatic effect is lost. Sometimes tech is also an issue. If the Powells can bring the level of their words up to the fluidity of their visuals, the production would really blossom and become more than an old curiosity shop of visual delight.

Hard Times is at Theatre Passe Muraille until October 16th.


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tapestry: Opera Briefs 10

Last night, I volunteered for the first time at a Tapestry New Opera event. I'm not going to act like this is a huge discovery, because the company has been presenting work for longer than I've been alive, but for me the discovery certainly was a welcome one.

I first saw a Tapestry-style show at the Toronto Fringe Festival a couple of years ago. (Ed. note - It was actually not a Tapestry show, but was created by alumni of the Tapestry LibLab in Tapestry style) It was a piece after my heart, because it was site-specific (and perhaps equally after an artist's heart, it was in a pub). I was delighted by the short vignettes of opera, all accessible and mostly quite witty pieces focusing on situations as mundane as two friends meeting for Friday drinks, or as dramatic as two lovers discovering they were completely incompatible due to a tragic Leafs vs. Habs hockey alliance. It was eye-opening to me that opera could be so relaxed, could be something that wasn't capital-O Opera. And then I left the city for New York again, as my friend proceeded to volunteer for them for the next two years. And now I'm coming along.

The show, entitled "Opera Briefs," is an evening of bite-sized opera; a series of approximately five-minute-long pieces developed in a ten-day "LibLab" unit that pairs lyricists with composers in 48-hour bursts, and adds dramaturgs and performers to the mix. I was so pleased to see that a workshop like this exists consistently in Toronto. If there is something I feel Toronto lacks right now, it is the kind of BMI Musical Theatre Workshop that matches up musical theatre book writers, lyricists and composers in New York. It's possible that we have one and I just don't know about it, but the ability to meet and try out different writing partners in forms that often require more than one creative power makes such good sense to me. Advertising on Craigslist can really only go so far; a time-sensitive creative square dance is really appealing. In any case, here we have one for contemporary opera, and that's terrific.

I have always been more enamoured by musical theatre than opera. There, I said it. Part of the reason is, obviously, the cleverness and beauty of musical theatre are generally packaged in a more accessible form. When you make opera contemporary, the lines between it and musical theatre blur, particularly if your school of musical theatre is decidedly the Sondheim school. In many cases, Sondheim is considered closer to opera than standard music theatre. So, how does contemporary opera (or operetta for the comic pieces, which are closer to English comic opera than, say, French risque/grotesque operetta) distinguish itself from musical theatre?

Musical theatre runs the gamut of musical style, and yes, one of these is classical. Musical theatre grew out of opera, but now the two art forms exist simultaneously and, at this point, influence each other. Mostly, there is a stylistic vocal difference in that opera has a narrower definition; opera's classically trained singers sing more than they speak, with more recitative, and sing classical music without the musical theatre belt, tone, or characterization. On the other hand, Tapestry's evening closed with a marriage between opera and country music, interweaving the stories of two men (Keith Klassen and Peter MacGillivray) mourning their drinking buddy (they've broken into the pub after-hours with the corpse) and the you-done-me-wrong vocals of the "jukebox" country singer (Carla Huhtanen) in "Country Song" by librettist David Brock and composer Gareth Williams.

Tapestry recognizes that there is some degree of malleability and ambiguity in opera, and lines can be crossed, and that's okay and even exciting. It occasionally skirts the edge of musical theatre, but never loses its contemporary classical edge. Tapestry embraces the recognizable operatic form without heavy restrictions, and that's why it's so likable. Of course, it's also likable because it's willing to have a lot of fun; it features five-minute operas on subjects such as a Prime Ministerial Arctic photo-op gone wrong, as the ice floe floats away towards Russia and starts melting and the PM fends off the advances of a large male seal. ("Harper's Floe," by librettist Charles Hayter and composer Norbert Palej.) The "dominion at all costs" satire is pointed, obvious but hilarious, and both PM (Klassen) and seal (Huhtanen) sing beautifully amidst the hysteria.

It's not all fun and games, however. Some pieces are fascinating five-minute meditations on life, and some are achingly sad. A female doctor (Kimberly Barber, with male nurse McGillivray, in a nice subversion of gender stereotypes), agonizes about having to remove the cancerous eye from the face of the man she loves ("Enucleation," by Hayter and composer Anna Höstman). Auschwitz (Barber), in the body of a woman, muses about whether she should be restored as a historically important site or left to crumble away ("Restoration," by librettist Michael Pollard and composer WIlliams). A homeless young woman (Huhtanen) and an important businessman (Klassen) share a tiny moment on the street that unfolds into a meaningful connection ("Where You Live," by Pollard and composer Iman Habibi).

The performers are all first-rate. Baritone Klassen is wildly charismatic with a wicked twinkle in his eye during the comedic scenes. Soprano Huhtanen has an effortless-sounding buoyancy in her soaring vocal lines, and makes a terrifically funny seal. Baritone McGillivray sings with deep power and is slightly under-used, but he gets his chance in the spotlight as a man contemplating his last moments of life under an avalanche. Mezzo Kimberly Barber has a lovely voice and a clear train of thought behind her words; her line of argument is natural and easy to follow.

The music is challenging but accessible, and the ideas in the libretti are thought-provoking, each the germ of a possibly-longer piece but a complete scene in their own. Possibly the most arresting piece in topic and voice is "The Waterfall," by librettist Maja Ardal and composer Palej. Running away from people who wish them dead, Kimberly Barber's Woman needs to choose between her husband and her baby. Palej arranges a chorus of singing waterfalls that beg to take the child in a manner that is both calming and chilling. Palej and Ardal capture the power of water in all its beauty and destruction, and it's absolutely haunting.

Tapestry's goal lies in "using opera to tell the stories that need to be told," and its greatest strength lies in the stories and ideas it presents. The new pieces only fail when they diverge from story, instead focusing on treating contemporary opera as a novelty or joke. Hotel Lobby (Ardal and Williams) is a promising take on Noel Coward's Private Lives, but would clearly benefit from more time and space; hearing characters curse each other out operatically in contemporary language is funny but the joke feels a bit cheap. The closing moment of emotional connection saves the piece. Ashes, by Hayter and Habibi, goes the other direction and gives the weight of an overwrought five-hour opera to its five-minute vignette, an adaptation of a moment in Hamlet. It's a little too heavy for its time and space, and it feels like it's trying to be old-fashioned opera in contemporary opera's clothing. It seemed almost like satire, but the intent was serious. These missteps are few and far between, however, and after all, this is a learning experience for everyone involved.

I have always been more enamoured of musical theatre than opera, but Tapestry is going a long way to change my mind. With the triple threat of relevance, beauty, and wit in their arsenal, perhaps it's time to shelve images of hats with horns and viking shields, and settle in to watch an opera about missing the bus. I know I'll certainly be volunteering again, because I don't want to miss anything this vital company has to offer.


Monday, August 23, 2010

The "Art" of the Critic

“Those who can’t do, teach.”

Replace “teach” with “criticize,” and you already have a fairly good idea of what a large segment of the artistic population thinks about critics. One of the more common jobs out there for a dramaturg is that of a theatre critic, though the crumbling newspaper industry is making even this much more difficult. Criticism has been maligned as a non-art that concerns artists. However, while not all critics are artists, and it is impossible to equate a daily review with an indelible theatrical event, good criticism is a very specific type of art. The critic’s responsibility is to be an artist who cannot make art for art’s sake; the art of the review is one of utility. Its craft lies in circumnavigating its restraints, and they are legion.

The first dangerous constraint is that the review cannot truly be for the people it affects most: those involved in the production. A critic is as much an artist as a dramaturg (this can be read either way, depending on one’s opinion), but the critic cannot be the dramaturg of the production he or she reviews. This is tacitly acknowledged by the taboo on reviewing a show in previews. Only once a show is out of the stage where it can be adjusted, are the reviewers allowed to write about it. If the ideas of the critic could truly matter to a show’s development, the system would allow for two reviews; one early, than an adjustment period, than a final verdict. As this is a pipe dream, it is hard to see a review as anything but a judgment for the public, and for the ages. Unfortunately, these two required judgments conflict.

As a lover of both theatre and intelligent discourse, a critic does not want to issue a simple diagnosis – but as the public’s guide, the job’s perimeters narrow into the more basic consumer’s choice. The public cannot, save an expensive and self-defeating walkout, spend thirty percent of three hours watching a play in response to a review that is one-third positive. Nor can a theatergoer necessarily pay for sixty percent of a ticket to see a show receiving moderate but guarded acclaim. Going to the theatre is a yes-or-no proposition, and therefore responding to the task of theatre guide invites the yes-or-no mentality. It is up to each critic to determine to what degree to fight this mentality. An ideal review would not only contain a critic’s personal feedback, but enough engaging information about the experience so that a reader could figure out if he or she would enjoy it. How to achieve this in 500 words?

Word count, perhaps more than anything else, is the thoughtful newspaper critic’s bête noire. This is much more of an issue in the current newspaper industry than, say, on the Internet, though the Internet did spawn the concept of “TL; DR.” Distilling criticism into a restricted frame is a challenge: even if the critic is forced to paint in miniature, there is still a responsibility to be creative and insightful, witty and wise. If painting in miniature requires a more studied, careful brushstroke than a larger canvas, small reviews need more carefully chosen words than in-depth reviews. This is, of course, romanticizing one’s limitations. Miniaturists did not choose their craft because of a canvas shortage.

Newspaper reviews are not only getting shorter, but they are generally created under extreme pressure, presenting a fundamental dichotomy. Playwrights often have months or even years to develop what winds up on stage, and a critic needs to have an immediate response. The imbalance is staggering, and no wonder artists complain. The newspaper medium demands quick content, and speed is a large part of the art. However, the critic’s other function as an historical preservationist makes the disparity of time spent on production and review even more contentious.

Other than perhaps in video, the production is “immortalized” mainly in evaluation; a published script preserves the playwright’s contribution, not the production. It seems dreadfully unfair to have 500 words written in twelve hours permanently impose a lens on history, no matter how inconsequential. The production is ephemeral; it is the reviews that dog one forever. The review is created for the public, but it is the artistic community that may value and remember it historically: how to walk this tightrope of intent?

Director Anne Bogart, at the 1992 Critics and Criticism conference, mentioned the concept of artist as empty vessel, referring to the powerful the feeling of being “spoken through.” However, she later admitted that an artist contradicts the concept of being this kind of transmitter, by bringing their personal prejudices, experiences, and influences to the art they create. Bogart calls these human influences “tragic,” but this sort of tragedy is hard to comprehend. Why would an artist wish to divorce his or her “development as a human being” from the “development as an artist”? The critic is much like the artist in this case: for all his or her intellectual development (to parallel an artist’s artistic development), full of these very human influences.

While intellectually the critic may see that a piece of theatre should work, it is impossible to divorce the personal response, and nor should it be possible if theatre hopes to effect an emotional reaction. The theatre, to the best of our knowledge, is created for humans, by humans, and this is a spiritual conduit that should remain open. Shortly after Bogart’s comments, Ross Wetzsteon, Village Voice editor and founder of the OBIE Awards, spoke of the danger of taking a journalist’s judgment as objective gospel, rather than subjective opinion. While the artist can consider him or herself an empty vessel, the critic must not espouse this same theory of divine inspiration, unless we are using “divine” to refer to a particularly good one-liner. On the other hand, Bogart mentions art as being created in a state of imbalance (which of course leaves the artist more vulnerable to criticism) while the critic is under pressure to be as rational as possible.

Bogart exposed a fundamental difference between artist and critic when she espoused her tenet that the play must be larger than the artist. For the critic, this is not entirely the case. Of course, the critic cannot consider him or herself larger than the play (effect on public perception or purchases aside), but while to the artist, the play looms larger than anything at that moment, the critic (ideally) must consider it as not only a work in its own right but as a speck on the horizon of cultural, intellectual, emotional canon; what critic John Simon calls “being in tune with history.”

In the end, despite the agonizing artistic process and the constraints of market forces and the desire for critical approval, while responsibility towards the public is ideal, the artist is really only responsible for his or her integrity. The critic has a responsibility to the artist, to the public, and to a small part of historical record, though many do not necessarily behave that way. Similarly, in Bogart’s view, the artwork changes the artist, but the play and its subsequent review does not necessarily have to change the reviewer past the basic condition of having or having not seen it. No wonder artists and critics clash, with their very different ways of looking at these tiny universes. The artist uses a microscope to look at the vast sky, while the critic employs a telescope lens with microscopic scrutiny.

Writing a review is in no way harder or more important than the piece itself; without art, art criticism would clearly not exist. But a thoughtful piece of arts writing can play off the initial work, generating ideas and questions. As Bogart postulates that a writer’s art happens with the pen, a director’s in rehearsal, and an actor’s on stage in front of an audience, the real art happens when the act of absorption culminates in the act of transmission; when the postulating stops and the “doing” begins. So, while some will never agree that the art of the review is just that, perhaps eventually they will call it a respectable craft.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Phoenician Women Part One: Introduction to the Process

When I was asked to be the dramaturg on the Columbia MFA actors’ thesis production of Euripides’ Phoenician Women, directed by Columbia alumna Karin Coonrod, I was very excited, and approached the project with several goals in mind. First of all, I wanted a chance to do in-depth research. One of the most rewarding facets of dramaturgy is that it develops and utilizes research skills, as each new project often requires both quick and thorough acquisition of knowledge, particularly in the case of historical drama. I was initially unfamiliar with this play, and similarly unfamiliar with the Phoenician civilization, so I was looking forward to the opportunity to learn about both. However, being able to amass information wasn’t the only important task. Being a good dramaturg involves becoming not only an expert but also an effective teacher on any number of subjects. This project was important to me for both the research and teaching opportunities it provided, as a somewhat obscure and quirky classic involving a civilization likely outside the knowledge base of most students. The rehearsal timeline was generous and the cast size large, so I was confident we would really be able to delve into the play in a rewarding way.

On the other hand, a challenge that I often face as a dramaturg is knowing when to extricate myself from research and focus on practical matters. Just streamlining all the information I could gather into a manageable actor packet would be difficult enough. This play would prove an educational balancing act between my desire to be cerebral and my desire to put out a watchable and engaging play. One of the frustrating things about being a dramaturg is the difficulty of communicating the research behind the play, because, aside from a short program note, you can’t present most of the analysis and information to the audience, so much as let it inform the production. The ideal, then, is ferreting out what research is necessary for the actors and production, and to translate that research into aspects of the play; costume, gesture, character, even word inflection.

Phoenician Women was an especially intriguing choice because it tells an extremely well-known story, is written by an extremely well-known playwright, and yet is an almost unknown work, and certainly produced extremely rarely. (This is likely because twists, molds, and fractures the story in bizarre and shocking ways, but that's a subject for another post.) It was a fantastic opportunity to have such freedom in presenting a Greek tragedy, without the weight of layers of recent past productions. There was almost no production history in recent years – Professor Helene Foley of the Barnard Classics Department mentioned that she had seen one of little note in New York many years ago, but that was all – and so I saw no need to go digging up obscure production histories; that meant there were no seminal productions staring us in the face, and this was extremely liberating. It meant that the play would be fresh and new to almost anyone who saw it; an unknown quantity from one of the Western World’s most famous writers. It was a tremendous opportunity. We saw in this a chance to exercise our own aesthetic on the play, but in a very simple way. There was no great need to put a new “stamp” on it, because the play is relatively fresh; we wanted to be simple, clean, exciting, and focus on telling a good story.

I was interested in learning from the process of creating the production. It was vital to me that I got in as close to the ground floor as possible in order to use dramaturgy to tie each piece of the project together, making sure all creative elements of a production were on the same page of continuity and ensuring that one specific vision - that makes sense - was presented. It is important for me, as an early-career dramaturg, to identify and define what functions make a dramaturg indispensable, for only by being indispensable, and producing results that convince ourselves and others of that same conclusion, can we help ensure that the job continues to exist.

The last thing to mention about the process is that, while this was my thesis, first and foremost it was the actors’ thesis. I was responsible for the thesis of seventeen other people, which meant that I specifically was interested in how I could be most useful to the actors and how to make the process a positive and rewarding learning experience for them. This made it essential for me to be in the rehearsal room as much as I could.

The most rewarding thing about a thesis production, and really any production, is the constant exchange of knowledge and experience. Not only were the actors busy trying to imbue a difficult text with passion and humour, but they would also be particularly crucial in helping me to better understand the best way to use the process of creating the play, because actors epitomize practicality in the theatre. It was the actors who were responsible for bringing the research down to earth and incorporating it into the production. Because the actors were responsible for this transmission, it was particularly important as a learning experience to see what information they could make use of, and what was extraneous. Arguably, more information is always better, but not to the point where it overwhelms. The actors were prime candidates for this conversation because of the combination of academic background and acting training each one of them brought to the table; everyone had experience with personal dramaturgy. They were extremely eager to learn about the world of the play, and most had familiarity with the main myths the play deals with, so it made more of an impact when we discussed how Euripides fractures the basic story.

The actors and I developed a symbiotic relationship of synthesis. I would present information, they would absorb and incorporate it into their performance, and then, watching said performance, I could, as a surrogate audience member, see how much of the knowledge and analysis was coming through in the performance. If seemingly necessary information was not coming through, this was a sign that either I was not communicating it or its importance properly, or that the actors had decided it was actually not relevant to the stage picture. Both of these possibilities were valid, and it was up to me to figure out whether to try communicating the information again, or to let it go.

Finally, I was very excited about this project in part because we were going to be fashioning our own script from other translations of the play. While this was by no means as extensive a project as creating our own translation, sampling other translations instead of using just one was a great way to shape our vision of the play and its themes.

The only element of the project that was less than ideal for my current goals was that it was not fully original; a version of it had already been done at A.R.T. There were definitely changes to be made, but some ideas of direction were somewhat set at this point (though Karin as a director was always willing to let the actors explore from the starting point of her vision). This was, however going to present other exciting challenges to work through; that is, taking a work that had in essence been workshopped and holding a critical eye to the product that had resulted. I needed to make sure that I could bring new research and ideas to the table, while respecting the previous production, and I needed to make sure that both the new and old choices were dramaturgically sound – and dramaturgically sound in relation to each other.

More on Phoenician Women to come!


(Photos: Bari Robinson as the First Theban Soldier and Kelly McCrann as Jocasta/Cast of Phoenician Women; photo credit Ilana Lucas)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Summerworks Review: The Saddest Girl In The World

In Cassie Beacham’s The Saddest Girl In The World, standoffish, depressed El (Noa May Dorn) lives with her mother, unable to hold down a job or venture outside due to a tragic car accident years ago that killed her father and sent her through the windshield. Her apocalypse-preoccupied mother, Rita (Cathy Gordon), unable to understand her child’s neuroses, snaps and demands rent money, possibly to pay for the gas masks and canned goods she keeps stored in the closet. Enter two young room-renters, one handsome, one shy, writers of ludicrously unsuccessful screenplays. El decides that the oldest profession doesn’t require opening her front door and proceeds to con the boys into exchanging money for sex.

The problem with The Saddest Girl In The World is that watching the play and reading the play’s synopsis are very similar experiences. It feels as if the synopsis was written before the play, and then the events were briefly sketched out to match, with an “and then THIS happened” quality to them. The play aspires to be a sort of psychosexual, Dangerous Liaisons-type game, but we’re mostly left wondering how two starving artists can come up with $500 in sex money.

The play comes alive in dreamscape scenes between El and the deer who plunged through the windshield of her family’s car. These manage to be surreal, sad, and very funny, thanks to a stuffed deer and some nice voice work by Justin Bott, who also effectively plays Bently, the sweeter, more naïve of the two roommates. In a different dreamscape, Rita’s silent horrors of violent gas-masked men have eye-catching and genuinely unsettling elements, but as a whole are somewhat heavy-handed, particularly coming after a precious, self-consciously theatrical silent opening (full disclosure: this style choice by director Melissa Major is simply a personal pet peeve).

The characters, though mostly difficult to warm to, have intriguing quirks that raise them above cliché, and El’s tragic reveal is nicely detailed. There is some humour found in the notion of learning Irish and some truly (intentionally) terrible screenplay writing. There are some early timing issues, but otherwise the actors acquit themselves well.

The Saddest Girl In The World is a lofty titular claim to make, skirting the line between hyperbole and irony. Unfortunately, the nuance just isn’t there to make the claim for either.


Friday, August 13, 2010

Summerworks Review: Ride The Cyclone

Creating a supernaturally scary atmosphere on stage is difficult, particularly on a low budget in a small theatre, where the actors are not only clearly flesh and blood, but almost within reach. A friend of mine recently discussed his idea for a play, the climax of which would snap sudden focus on a monstrous visage. The reason the play was on the back burner was that he wasn’t sure how to make the monster scary instead of funny, creepy instead of ludicrously rubber-masked. It’s a difficult proposition, because the stage puts everything on display. But when it can manage to unsettle properly (Conor McPherson’s Shining City comes to mind), it can be electrifying.

Atomic Vaudeville‘s Ride The Cyclone manages to be fearsome and funny, eerie and irreverent. It’s the story of six high school students, all school choir members, from the imaginary, failing small town of Uranium, Saskatchewan (named for its chief export from more successful days) who tell their stories, hopes, and dreams to us in song. They tell their stories on the spirit world’s carnival grounds, because they’ve all died falling from the Cyclone roller coaster when it malfunctioned. It’s sort of like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, if all the children participating in the bee had been killed in a terrible spelling accident.

Ride The Cyclone’s omniscient narrator is the Amazing Karnak, a fortune-telling machine abandoned because its less-than-family-friendly main skill proved to be predicting the place and time of the client’s death. Before his power cord is severed by a rat named Virgil, Karnak is using his final minutes of life to bring the children back to life for one last performance. (The rat, eyes glowing red, plays bass.)

Book and lyric writer Jacob Richmond’s Uranium is the kind of all-Canadian “little town” that rapidly setting sunshine sketches are made of; it’s a black hole that offers little other than the prospect of future mall employment, and its worldliness extends to a song being inspired by “African folk songs, specifically The Lion King”. The children have means and plans for escape, whether literal or merely mental. Ocean (Rielle Braid), a typical Type A overachiever with the twist of a Jewish Marxist father and Randian Catholic mother, meant to debate her way out of town. Noel (Kholby Wardell), the only gay student in town, dreams of leaving Uranium’s obnoxious political correctness with a passionately self-destructive existence as the heroine of a tragic French film. Ricky (Elliott Loren) is the hero of his own space opera. Misha (Carey Wass), rage-filled rapping Ukranian émigré, softens when he imagines marriage to his online girlfriend. Constance (Kelly Hudson) is the only Uranium “lifer,” and her quest to come to terms with this is equally heartbreaking and heartwarming. The characters are gradually filled out, always steering just clear of stereotype.

Karnak the puppet and his booth are superbly designed and handled; his rumbling, room-filling voice both chilling and sad. His character, alongside skilled set, lighting and sound design that come together to create the atmosphere of a sinister, dilapidated carnival, are two big reasons why the show can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up (kudos to designers Hank Pine, James Insell, and Sarah Yaffe). The other reason is the mystery sixth teen, Sarah Jane Pelzer’s Jane Doe, who the accident left headless and unidentified. With only a combination of pale make-up, full-eye black contact lenses, and a nearly impenetrable air of detachment and sorrow, Pelzer’s arresting presence haunts the show, attempting to discover her identity. The progression of the other characters’ attitudes, from creeped out to compassionate, proves uplifting.

Richmond and composer Brooke Maxwell serve up a rollicking pastiche of musical genres. Sure, there’s that gospel number that all offbeat musicals since Urinetown seem to need, but there’s also a stylish Ukranian wedding song, and an epic sci-fi journey that could be a Rocky Horror bonus track (in a good way). There are some lovely voices to go along with the music, Braid and Wardell in particular.

The book and lyrics are clever, funny, and occasionally sweet. However, irreverence and irony occasionally threaten to overwhelm the proceedings, as if the creators are afraid to let the audience truly feel for the characters, so we’re made to laugh with instead of possibly laugh at. Most of the time, this works, but it’s a matter of degree. While lyrics such as “I thought life was a jawbreaker, you just suck, suck, and suck some more” are jokey, they are clever, age-appropriate, and lead to a heartfelt character moment. As that moment happens, however, we are immediately jerked away from it by some nonsense about a cartoon bear, accompanied by a cast member suddenly dressed as a bear. The incongruity is momentarily funny, but costs more than it adds. We won’t take away your irony cred if you let your emotional guard down for a second, I promise. When these aching moments about lost dreams and ruined potential are left to unfold, the show really hits its mark. Luckily for us, it hits this mark often, and we come to care about every single character.

It’s remarkable how a show mired in death manages to be so lively and life-affirming. Even purgatory can’t keep these kids down.


Friday, August 6, 2010

Production Stories: Boris Godunov, Part One

(Photo Credit: Laura Pedrick, The New York Times)

“Useless, he’s useless,” the woman next to me snapped, audibly. My blood boiled. We were sitting in the Berlind rehearsal room watching the cast of Boris Godunov’s first stumble-through, and this particular VIP seemed displeased. Because she couldn’t hear Dimitri loudly during his first “aside,” she concluded that he wasn’t acting hard enough and had already dismissed the actor. I’m not sure if it was just the horrid, slushy day outside, or if she changed her mind during the rest of the show, as the Pretender went on to work like crazy for the next two and a half hours. But in that moment, as angry as I was at the woman’s response and snap judgment, I realized that this was how theatre happens; this was how the show was going to work. The people sitting in the chairs next to me hadn’t sat around a table for weeks, dissecting the play, line by line, footnote by footnote. They hadn’t done hours and hours of background work, nor should they have. What they saw in the moment, like with any play, was all they were going to see, and we had to present it to them so that some degree of the work behind the script would come across. The task of the actors, director and dramaturg is always to communicate more information in less time than is humanly possible, and that weight settled around my shoulders. But part of the benefit of having a team of hundreds, and such a qualified team, is that it propagates an incredible wealth and amount of just this communication. At the end of the performances, I can only say that I believe we succeeded beyond what we had dreamed.

Boris Godunov can be categorically described as the most exciting and important show I have ever worked on. It featured the work of over 100 students and several professors, bringing together the music, dance, theatre, Slavic, and architecture programs (and students from an incredibly diverse range of majors). It is the type of show, with full orchestra, chorus, ballet company, and over 20 actors (each playing multiple roles) that can only now be achieved by a large university, or research institution willing to invest a great deal of money which would certainly be lost on a moment of pure academic achievement, and theatrical ecstasy. (To be fair, the show was the hottest ticket in town after The New York Times got wind of it, but that many people could only be pulled together for three days' worth of performances.)

But I'm really getting ahead of myself here. Why was Boris such an exciting prospect? Because it was the theatrical equivalent of buried treasure. In 1825, Alexander Pushkin wrote a bitingly satirical and sinister play based on the life and fall of turn-of-the-17th-century Tsar Boris Godunov, and Dimitri "the Pretender" who claimed to be the exiled (and thought dead) heir to the throne, and waged a campaign against him. The play was published in 1931 but not even approved by the censor for production for another forty years. More than a century after the play's publishing, director Vsevolod Meyerhold, famous for his Constructivist sets and theory of biomechanics, planned an expansive production. He commissioned Sergei Prokofiev to compose the music. This collaboration of three eras of Russian history was not to see the footlights of day, however, because Stalinist forces suppressed the "subversive" show, and, soon after, world end Meyerhold's career and life.

And then, for 70 years, nothing happened, until Professor Simon Morrison, who has had access to Prokofiev's notes and writing, uncovered a great deal of information relating to the production, and decided to bring it to life. The score was completed, Meyerhold's notes were carefully consulted, and the world premiere production of Meyerhold's Boris Godunov opened on April 12, 2007, to much notice in both American and Russian press.

There is a lot to tell about this show's process, and this is just an introduction. There will be notes on biomechanics rehearsals, the giddiness of getting my research photographed for the Times, and the like in future posts. Right now, I'd like to close with what for me personally offered the greatest moment of artistic synergy, a sense that we were doing something right.

We had a fantastic set (see photo above) designed by grad students and professors in the School of Architecture. What I liked the most about the set was that it managed to convey both a sense of the austere and a sense of the playful. The austerity hit first, because of the large expanses covered by little or nothing, the sharp red lines of the tall scaffolding, the cold industrial steel-gray of the furniture. But the playfulness quietly seeped out in many ways. First and foremost were the bungees, the most distinctive feature of the production’s design. On one hand, the forest of bungees presented a forest of bars that could be pushed and pushed, but would eventually snap back with equal force to the pushing. This symbolically presented the idea of the oppression and hemming-in of the Russian people, particularly the peasants and lower-class, and the concept of a violent retaliation towards rebellion. On the other hand, bungees are made to be flexible, and to bounce!

It was my job to come up with image research for the production, but by this point the set had already been designed. So imagine my surprise when I uncovered this picture, looking for images for the lobby display:

This was a picture of the original Bubus the Teacher (dir. Meyerhold, 1925) set. The picture featured what looked like a stage festooned with vertical sticks of bamboo, creating a sort of combination jail and forest: just like we were trying to create with our forest/jail of bungee cords. It was definitely a sibling to the set that would be gracing our stage, that had been dreamed up by director Tim Vasen and the architecture students. The synergy? Looking at the photo, a surprised Tim told me that he had never seen this photo, nor any image of this set, and to his knowledge neither had the students. Yet together, they had envisioned a modern response to it.

This became the moment that I really started to have confidence in what we were doing; we had a sort of working kinship with Meyerhold without even realizing it. It wasn't a big moment; just a photo in a sea of researched images. But to a dramaturg, it was almost as magical as the final, magnificent production.


Monday, August 2, 2010

Welcome to Rhymes With Dramaturg!

Hello World Out There:

This is Ilana Lucas, or Casual Fairylane if you're into anagrams. I'm a recent MFA graduate of Columbia University, with a degree in Dramaturgy and Script Development. Before my three-year stint in Manhattan, I did time in New Jersey, getting my AB in English and Theatre at Princeton University. Now I've moved back to my hometown of Toronto, and am looking forward to blogging about the arts and theatre scene here.

Dramaturgs spend most of our time explaining to people what we do. It comes with the territory. Mention you're an actor, a costume designer, even a director, and people will nod knowingly; or at least will recognize that they should have some idea of what you do. Dramaturgs are met with confusion, sometimes suspicion, and even the disapproving red line of most spellcheckers. Possibly because the word is harsh and Germanic. And nothing rhymes with it, save an exclamation following a wretched piece of theatre: "Drama: Blergh!"

(Full disclosure: I am firmly in the camp that believes that the word is dramaturg, not dramaturge. The position in its current form and label began as an idea in Germany, immortalized by Gotthold Lessing in The Hamburg Dramaturgy. Dramaturge, rather, is the French word for playwright. Which I am, but that's another capacity entirely. Dramaturg vs. Dramaturge is often hotly debated among the few people who care, but hey, even The New York Times is starting to come around and see it my way.)

No, the real reason that nobody understands what a dramaturg is that the position is so malleable. Sometimes we don't even know what we do. A dramaturg is a theatrical jack-of-all-trades, something different to every theatre and every production, and one essential skill is to figure out how you are needed and can be most useful. Dramaturgs work to develop scripts of new plays with new and seasoned playwrights. They host workshops and talkbacks. They are the research point person on plays historical and new, and the person who tentatively mentions that it might not be a good idea to set Heartbreak House in Space. They write program notes, spearhead educational programs, create lobby displays. They market, commission, produce, plan seasons, artistic-direct, sometimes even direct. Perhaps most importantly, they are there to foster conversation and create links; the axons and dendrites between neurons. Dramaturgs connect directors and playwrights, plays and actors, actors and directors, and everyone and everything with the audiences that are the vital last step in the theatrical process. My mission here is to connect the reader with theatre, and, I hope, with the dramaturg.

This blog, ideally, will become a series of meditations on theatre, the current scene, reviews, and stories about my nascent dramaturgical career: reminiscences and new projects. I welcome suggestions and comments.

I firmly believe that theatre can still be exciting, relevant, and like nothing else we experience. It should be part of our lives, and reflect on who we are. After all, as one of my favourite authors wrote, in the final line of his final novel: "This is the Great Theatre of Life. Admission is free, but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good night." (Robertson Davies)