How Do We Solve a Problem Like This?

I know that I typically never write about current events, with the obvious exception of the current events in my life, but I have to make an exception today, because last night NBC aired their live version of the Sound of Music and I’m irked.

First off, let’s be clear about a couple things:

  1. I am not a huge musical theatre fan but do have my favorites (modern), appreciate the genre and am quite familiar with the classics. (This is, of course, despite my theatre career likely being due to seeing Sandy Duncan in Peter Pan.)
  2. I have a fond memory of watching the Sound of Music film at a drive-in as a child.
  3. I didn’t watch the entire show last night. Do Re Me was as Fa as I could get before I asked to change the channel.

There were numerous issues with the production right from the start, but I’m always willing to give something a chance and not dismiss it early on. The production quality, from the beginning was questionable. I know it was live and people seemed perhaps (rightfully) nervous, but what was really off were the technical elements.

The sound was poor, echo-y and messy.

The camera work was uninspired.

The lighting was….virtually disastrous. I haven’t seen so many shadows across actors’ faces since student productions in classrooms back in college.

When the nuns were trying to “Solve a Problem Like Maria” all I kept thinking was how do we solve a problem of audio balance. The music was overwhelming their voices and the output was unbalanced.

Did they rehearse this? Was there a tech rehearsal?

And furthermore, the director didn’t seem to realize the difference needed in pace and energy between directing for the stage and the screen. NBC could’ve put some quick ads in those gaps.

Finally we meet Maria and she’s…..OK, I guess. I will say that Carrie Underwood has a lovely tone to her voice, and since we’re all thinking of Julie Andrews, I guess her tone can at times be comparable. And then….she acts.

Or tries to.

If there’s one thing I just cannot stand it’s bad acting. And this was some bad acting. Still, I hung in there.

Then there was the wonderful A Few of my Favorite Things number where all I could think was “Oh, look. Audra is trying to show Carrie how to sing a song in character within the context of the play.”

Audra McDonald was wonderful and Carrie Underwood looked like a complete amateur.

When the number was over my first thought was, “This needs an audience to applaud.” (Assuming they would.) Audra McDonald was terrific, but it felt like it needed that moment of applause to transition us back in to the scene. But that didn’t work. Off we went, right back to the weak, community-theatre acting on one-half of the stage.

Still, I hung in there. I wanted to meet the kids!

Unfortunately all I could notice when meeting the Captain, the house staff and the children was more about the directing, and even more about how Carrie Underwood’s acting was so poor, so amateurish it was painful. There was no timing, no layering, no subtlety. I think she was able to memorize her lines and figure out which word in the sentence should get the emphasis…..and that’s what bad high school actors do.

By the time they were into Do Re Me I couldn’t take any more. I knew what was coming and I didn’t care if the Nazis caught them this time.

We changed the channel.

Today I’m even more irked by some of the things I read online. There are people and articles trying to justify the whole thing, remind us how brave and risky it was for her and NBC to do this. How it was a callback to live musical productions on TV in the past.

Yes, it was risky, and I’m a nostalgic person by nature so I appreciated the idea. But it was also so poorly done and weak.

As an acting teacher taught me: If I’m bored, I’m going to want to open hard candy.

I was craving a Jolly Rancher and I don’t even like them.

And furthermore: There’s so much talent out there! I don’t understand why Carrie Underwood? Yes, I know – commercialism. Sell air time. I get it. But surely there was someone else with a recognizable face who could’ve pulled off that part?

But no. Carrie Underwood is a big country singing star, and she’s wholesome and it’s the holidays and this will be a wonderful event. And maybe that’s what irks me the most. Why didn’t some producer say they let’s do this both right AND sell air time? How ingenious that would’ve been. How innovative! How so much like TV producers in the past who put people like Julie Andrews, and other triple-threats on the tiny screen?

But not today. Sell the air time with some big name and who cares if it’s crap?

You know what? I care. I know we can do better. It’s too bad we didn’t.

Now, where’s my candy?

Looking over my shoulder

I probably shouldn’t compare years. It doesn’t seem fair. Some years are better than others for their own reasons, and one year can have great successes for me while others seem to have been nothing but wasted opportunities.

Odd numbered years seem to be important to me, more than even. This, of course, makes no sense either logically or in fact.

Good years = 1985, 1989, 1992, and 2009. (No, that’s not a 17 year dry stretch.) Bad years = 1985, 1999, 2008. See? No sense. But it’s generally how I feel.

2012 was a fine year.

So before moving on to the (odd) 2013 future, I’m pondering just a few highlights of the art in and around my life for the past year:

  • One day out of the blue I was contacted by a local theatre looking for other theatres and/or performers to produce a late night show during the run of their own play. My schedule allowed for it, or so I figured, and I was suddenly producing, adapting and directing a play, to go up in mere weeks. Four classic tales, unrelated and yet thematic, with a talented (and hard working!) ensemble were worked staged and presented. We called it And Things in the Walls and it came together beautifully. It was exhausting.
  • In the midst of that chaos, I squeezed in the best theatre experience once can have: Pillsbury House Theatre’s Chicago Avenue Project. Take a group of young, eager, energetic neighborhood kids, help them write their own plays, and bring in directors and actors and produce it for their families, friends and neighbors to see. This is the third time I’ve directed for this program, and it warms the inside of my sometimes jaded heart. We should never lose the playful imagination we used so easily when we were 8 years old. I think those kids teach us more than we teach them.
  • It was great to spend time as a real hired actor on multiple occasions and projects this year, but one stood out. Last spring I shot an anti-bullying video where I played a guy getting more than picked on at his work place. The piece was used by a national anti-bullying project, about which CNN did a story that included the video. My Facebook feed lit up and I had a voice message asking if I realized I was on the home page of CNN. (I later learned portions of it were aired as part of their broadcast story too.) It was a powerful video that garnered many, many comments for months from everyone I knew. At first I was just glad to get a gig, shooting a little video for a day. But it’s nice when art (acting) and work (paid gig!) combine to make an impact. It’s on YouTube, but you can see it on their site here.
  • I’m always taking pictures.

    Crashing waves in Puerto Vallarta

    In 2012 both my cameras were stolen, although thankfully one was returned. And when I upgraded my cell phone to to the latest and greatest, the camera was a serious downgrade. (Thank goodness for Instagram, huh?) Still, I took this picture, one of my favorites, in one of my favorite places.

  • As always, I saw a lot of theatre. Some good, some…not so good. The Fringe Festival is always a mixed bag, but this year’s crop gave me two great inspirations. Make that three if you count the stuff I really didn’t like and would never want to emulate. But it’s always great acting that makes me most excited, as I wrote about back in May in what was likely my favorite production I saw in 2012: Compleat Female Stage Beauty.
  • And when it comes to pop culture meets drama: I fell in love with Downton Abbey. Well written, impeccably performed, beautiful to look at and compelling story lines. I mean, come on! Maggie Smith alone...”What is a ‘week-end’? Indeed.

That’s what’s over my shoulder back there, where I also was able to line up two productions to fill what’s in front me, thus getting me through the winter and well into spring, working with companies and people new to my resume. Not bad, 2012!

So far it’s looking like a lucky ’13.

The Glee Inspiration

The other night while watching an episode of Glee I found that I was being surprisingly inspired. I was a bit caught off guard by that.

I don’t want to do musical theatre or music videos, but I do want incorporate the fun and unexpected mash-ups, visually, in the ways that they do music mash-ups. Blending of images, actions and sounds that are each their own being, yet supported and enhanced by the company which they keep.

There’s an obvious theatricality to it, and it isn’t anything new, and could easily border on an a big cheese factor, but that show uses it well, and often very well.

It’s been a long time since I found a tv show artistically inspiring. That’s either refreshing or I need a reality check.

I am not a Klingon

“We wanted to put together a show that people outside the theatre world could appreciate, but we also wanted to put together a show that fit with our mission of producing translated works.” (source)

That was an explanation, at least in part, for the creation of A Klingon Christmas Carol. Essentially the telling of the classic Charles Dickens tale set in a Klingon world. You know…the Star Trek characters? Or, excuse me, perhaps I should say “species.”?

If that’s not enough, it’s actually performed in Klingon.

Oh, yes. With English subtitles for those in the audience who needed it.

I guess when I question why do something like this, I expect the only real answer to be “why not?” And that may need to suffice, because beyond that I can’t think of a reason.

I also question the thought behind the quote at the top, however. It makes it sound as if most all of the shows produced by Commedia Beauregard are intended to please only people within the “theatre world” which seems like a rather limiting scope, when I know from their other productions over several years that does not, in fact, seem to be the case. (I’m assuming that people “inside the theatre world” would mean those who work in the field, which is made up of people who mostly watch stage shows a bit differently than a general theatre-going public.) It seems to me that doing works that the general theatre-going public would appreciate would be a given, not a lofty goal. And while I guess it could be argued that this is indeed a translated work, it involves a completely fictionalized language. (!)

I realize that some people, perhaps even linguists, might take issue with that statement. I stand by it until sociologists recognize the Klingon culture.

I’m not a Trekkie. Or a Trekker. Or whatever it is I would be if I were a fan who could name more than Captain Kirk, Jean Luc Picard and Scottie. Ok, if I think about it I can name one or two more, but you see my point. I don’t think I’m the audience for this…classic tale.

The guy behind us, who was panting with excitement and laughter at every Ferengi, Vulcan and..I don’t know, Ferby* reference may have had to leave the building discreetly covering his lap. He’s the audience for this. As were those in Star Trek costumes. And the cast members who did the Klingon salute or whatever it was at the curtain call.

Not me.

Before I completely dismiss it I should point out it’s found its audience. Opening night was almost completely sold out, and the crowd was very enthusiastic. It’s been revived for the past several years, and has now expanded from St. Paul to Chicago. Clearly there’s an interest for it.

I may not get those hours back, but it was a fascinating evening nonetheless, and I’m always a fan of risk-taking.


* Yes, I know ferbies don’t come from Star Trek.

This Fresh Air is a bit sour tasting

A couple weeks ago I was driving in my car and listening to NPR. I tend to listen to it a lot in the car, which probably means I should up my donation. Then again, I don’t drive too much.

Terry Gross was on Fresh Air, a program I often catch and usually enjoy. But this time was different. She was interviewing Jon Hamm, star of Mad Men.

First of all she could barely contain her excitement over him, as clearly the close quarters of the radio studio meant they were practically touching. There was a junior high quality to the lilt in her voice. I wondered how much he noticed it. I wanted him to have a personal assistant or manager close by to intervene if she suddenly chose to reach out and kiss him or stroke his dark locks or something. And what all made it worse were two things about the actual interview.

First of all, she wouldn’t shut up. She’d ask a question or bring up a topic and then expound on what she thought the answer was or what something meant. For a while it seemed like she didn’t want to hear what he had to say at all, and in fact she could’ve simply written an opinion piece. Early on she did about 90% of the talking. He’d finally throw in his answer, and I seem to recall that at least once he answered very differently than she had (for him.)

At this point I was wondering who this interviewer was, as she seemed so unprofessional, so unpolished and a bit amateurish. It was only at the end of the interview that it was announced that it was Ms. Gross.

But before learning that there were the inane questions we had to endure, which was the second thing about the interview that struck me. At one point they’re talking about Don Draper reaching a low, perhaps the lowest point of his ability to handle the partying. And she’s talking about it like it was shocking and difficult to witness.

“…everybody who has thought of Don Draper as this, you know…um, handsome guy and everything, we’re seeing the consequences of all of Don Draper’s actions play out, and I just wonder what it was like for you to shoot that scene?”

I’m sorry, what? That sounds like “But he’s so pretty, how can he throw up or be all dirty or down and out.” And really, what was it like? As if the actor would be emotionally overwrought at seeing the downfall of his character, or something? I didn’t get this question. I mean, the character’s on a journey and being challenged by all sorts of things. I would think it would be exciting to play such a part, and she sounded as if this downfall were such a burden. The real question was “Ms. Gross, what was it like to watch your hero become a puking drunk?”

For God’s sake, it’s called acting.

I digress. Being the pro he is, Hamm replied with something along the lines of it being an “exciting and cathartic and sad and wonderful scene to film.” I bet it was.

And then there was the exchange about his auditioning for the part.

Gross: “When you were doing the audition you had to portray a Don Draper confidence but because you hadn’t landed a really big role before, you were probably, as many actors are, insecure at the time of the audition. You were still a waiter weren’t you?”

Hamm: “oh yeah”

Gross: “Yeah, so, um, you probably didn’t have quite the confidence that you had to convey. Or, or, maybe you did, but I’m wondering how confidence came in to play during the audition.”

Hamm: “Well, you have to…um…as any actor you have to, and this is successful, unsuccessful, working, non-working…you have to portray a sense of confidence, and if you have to manufacture it, if you have to fake it, if you have to drum it up from somewhere in your subconscious…You have to do it. Uh, so, I was…and I had worked as an actor, and was on a television show and had a lot of experience, so I wasn’t coming in fresh off the turnip truck, so to speak. But auditioning is a terrifying process. And it’s a really, uh…uh, soul-crushing process sometimes….”

And again, it’s called “acting.”

I wonder how insecure and unconfident Terry Gross was before she ever was heard on a national radio show. I bet she was a down right wall-flower. And now she’s a confident radio professional with all the answers, and all the opinions to make her sound….conceited.

If she had moved on to questions about “How do you learn all those lines?” or “How do you keep from remaining in character at the end of a day?” I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised. Thankfully she didn’t. Nonetheless, I was more than surprised at the quality of the questions, and put off by both her star struck ga-ga and her enjoyment of hearing herself talk.

That’s probably a bit harsh and overly critical. I guess I just expect a level of quality from NPR higher than something like Access Hollywood or ET.

Don’t even get me started on the parasitic, ambulance-chancing, high drama of Entertainment Tonight? Did you see how their cameras chased down Catherine Zeta-Jones while the voice over talked about how distraught she was and how she wanted to be alone?


Playing it straight

I’ve been enjoying the debate and discussions over Ramin Setoodeh’s article about Sean Hayes, Promises, Promises and gay actors playing straight characters. His whole premise seems to come down to a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It’s shallow and ridiculous, and it’s another example of a reviewer not reviewing what he saw but reviewing whether or not what he saw was what he expected.

But I don’t want to rehash the logic, or lack thereof, of his article. Instead I just want to share two thoughts I’ve had about this whole debate. Setoodeh’s idea of how our personal knowledge of an actor’s life can’t help but inform and impact a performance has some truth to it, but only if one looks for it. Typically, that kind of behind the scenes information will not impact a response to a performance, and generally is only a titillating side story along the lines of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, husband and wife in real life, playing George and Martha in Virginia Woolf.

Ok..not the best comparison, but perhaps you get the idea.

Truthfully though, many gay actors play straight characters, very successfully and without question. Probably more often than many people realize. As many people have said, it’s called acting and it requires a bit of conviction. And what about the opposite? I’ve seen many straight actors play gay characters on stage, with complete believability regarding their love interest along with some great chemistry with that other, sometimes straight, actor. In fact, I’ll admit that I once directed an actor who I was concerned was “too straight” for the gay character I’d cast him as. I was wrong. And his “straightness” didn’t impede his performance, or hinder him from doing the work,  and didn’t lessen anyone’s enjoyment of it. Because he was acting.

Why Setoodeh can’t understand this, or can’t recognize his own flawed logic, is beyond me.

And finally, what about two gay actors, of opposite sexes, playing a flirtatious scene? I wonder if Setoodeh caught this week’s episode of Glee, and what he thought of Neil Patrick Harris and Jane Lynch’s scene where their arguing turned to lust? It was campy and funny and a bit over the top (which is what the show does) but did the fact that they’re both gay make it unbelievable or not work in some way? No. Because they were two actors committing to the moment and the part and character.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about this whole incident is that a reputable publication like Newsweek would publish such an unsophisticated, poor piece. And by doing so they reinforced the shallowness of today’s pop culture and helped raise the importance of such unimportant things like whether or not an actor is gay.

2010 Resolutions…or What I’ve told myself

Generally I haven’t been one to make resolutions for the past several years. I used to. I’d tell myself I was going to do any number of things, generally things of such ilk as maintaining better health, finding a better job or landing a gig at a certain place.

Resolutions don’t work for me. Eventually I quit smoking but it had nothing to do with the new year, and I know enough to realize that while timing may be important in landing a job, it too isn’t dependent on the turning of the calendar.

That said, I’ve realized I have silently made some resolutions, and might as well come out with them. In no particular order:

  1. See more movies at the theater. I saw two movies in the past month at the theater. That’s twice as many as I think I saw the previous year. I should catch up with the rest of the world.
  2. Get a Netflix account. This idea keeps coming up and I just never sign up, and while I know I wouldn’t use it constantly, I’d use it a lot. I could see all those movies I don’t see at the theater and know what people are talking about.
  3. Go to the art museums in my hometown. Minneapolis Institute of Art is a great museum, and I should take advantage of strolling through its galleries.
  4. See live music. I used to, occasionally, when I was….younger. But still, there’s a vibrant music scene in Minneapolis that I haven’t been catching.
  5. Take a class. I’ve been itching to take an audition or acting class. I think it would be refreshing, and give me a good jumpstart to finding new audition material, too.

I’m stopping there….otherwise this may become a list of where I fell short in 2010 by not meeting my resolutions.