Wandering the Camino

Tennessee Williams is, as everyone knows, one of America’s greatest playwrights, and I can’t imagine anyone arguing otherwise. One of his lesser known, or at least lesser-produced, plays is Camino Real, an enigmatic, poetic, dreamscape that eludes most elements of plot, place, time and character relationships. Some say this piece is known mostly for its bad productions. (It ran a scant 60 performances on Broadway.)

courtesy Girl Friday Productions

When I first read this play I wondered how it could be staged, how someone could make it work for an audience. It’s a piece that relies on a strong director’s concept. William’s Glass Menagerie is known as a “dream play” but this one….this is a fretful, fever-induced, tossing-and-turning, disturbing dream-filled kind of night. It’s replete with varied and international characters (including several literary and social icons—Kilroy, Don Quixote, Casanova, as well as deathly street sweepers) and with bits of different romance languages and dialects thrown in and multiple sub-plots and themes, all taking place in an unidentified country. (Unidentified for Kilroy especially, who isn’t sure at all where he’s come ashore, and no one will tell him.)

My initial take on the script was that it was a piece which would be extremely difficult to produce and could be extremely risky for a producer. It’s complex. It may not be readily accessible to an audience. It might just be Wiliams’ most challenging play, requiring strong skills to wrangle it into a presentable vision. However, with the richness of the language and the delicious complexity of the people who inhabit this world, with the right talents it could provide a big pay off.

In other words, if you can make it work it could be amazing.

After all, art is hard. (Or at least the song says “art isn’t easy.”) If it were easy it wouldn’t be worth it.

Girl Friday Productions has taken on the daunting task of staging this work. This play is so different from Williams’ other works, and I suspect that the fact that I knew this going in allowed me to be open to simply experiencing the performance. Because I knew that the plot wasn’t linear and the characters were representative, I didn’t spend energy trying to figure out where we were, who was who or what those relationships were. And it’s not that I knew the answers to that so much as I thereby allowed myself to just listen and watch.

I let it roll over me.

I found the whole thing fascinating.

It helped, of course, that the director is a strong visionary, and I think it helped even more that he gathered an extraordinary cast of talented actors. Together they created a world that was intriguing and engaging (and frankly, kind of f***ed up) from beginning to end.

One big take away for me was a desire to learn more about Tennessee Williams’ personal life. Other than its clear theme of being lost, this play has prominent motifs of loneliness, betrayal, desperation and longing. There’s a real sadness that pervades these lives, albeit with brief poignant and touching moments of hope and connection.

It makes me think he wrote it from a sad and lonely place, and that this is (was) the way he felt the world worked when it came to satisfaction, whether that was satisfaction in love or satisfaction with one’s own self or one’s own accomplishments.

I could, of course, be completely off with that. I’ve heard he wrote it while holed up in some small Mexican or Central American town, where he got rather sick. Hence the fever dream quality. Still, it’s what I took away from this experience and whether that’s what Tennessee wanted or not, or even this director or cast, it’s what I got. The beautiful thing about art is in its subjectivity.

This show taught me once again that the power of theatre lies in the truth, earnestness and details of the work put up there by the directors, actors and designers. All done here with a ferocious manner by each member of the cast and team.

And such honesty creates intrigue, and such engagement creates a special night with strangers, in the dark, at a theater. It was a bizarre, fascinating and engaging walk down that road.

This rare opportunity continues through July 27 at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage.

A New Piece of Living Theatre

Over the past couple weeks I’ve done something that I realize I truly haven’t done for a long time. Along with five others I’ve been a part of creating, virtually from scratch, a short piece of theatre. We’ve taken an historic event, gathered raw materials from researching news articles and first person accounts, and without writing a fictitious line of our own built a 15-minute, dynamic, multi-faceted scene.

It’s ensemble built, and although we relied heavily on a structure and input proposed by a single member of the group—who was the person who brought us together—it’s probably some of the most team-oriented creation I’ve done since my days in an improv class. The members were open to hearing each other’s ideas for new things as well as criticism of one’s own, and the whole thing took on a sense of the old “yes, and…” attitude. We agreed on what we liked and what we didn’t, for the most part. And we listened to and respected each other’s contribution.

In about a half-dozen sessions, we discussed the story at great length, deliberated ideas big and small, threw together a list of elements, concepts and materials, put it up on its feet and began physicalizing the world of this story and then edited and shaped….and there it was. A new piece of living theatre.

What I can’t be sure of is whether it’s any good. We feel confident it’s at least compelling. Interesting. Engaging for an audience. We don’t expect the viewers to get every little detail or element. As someone smartly said in one early gathering, ultimately we’re not here to tell the whole story, we’re here to create a piece of theatre. An interpretation of a tale. A presentation that is enchanting, and makes the audience members want to know more.

The whole (short process, filled with quick choices) is not only a test of our skills, but is a testament to the ability (or shortcomings, perhaps) of each of us as theatre artists.

There are few people I’ve worked with long enough to think that I could possibly create something like this, so quickly, together. And the interesting thing here is that I’ve never worked with any of these people before. In fact, I think only one person in the group is familiar with any of my work, and that’s likely only a limited knowledge.

As part of Sandbox Theatre’s Summer Suitcase, a compilation of short pieces (for which all the set, costumes and props must fit inside a suitcase) this is a very short run, of a short piece. But it will be the third performance this year I’ve done with a new-to-me company, which helps to make this an exciting year. And even more, again this time, it’s with a company whose work I’ve admired and supported in the past, but had yet to work with and am happy to have the opportunity to do so.

This is some of the unique, experimental, putting-the-skills-I-have-to-work, kind of stuff I sometimes long for and rarely get an opportunity to do.

In a few days we’ll put it in front of an audience and see if it’s theatre.

Witness the Beauty of Live Theatre

On my first visit to Minneapolis as a real adult, on a weekend trip to visit my friend Allison and decide if I really wanted to come here, she took me to a show at a theatre company she was working for at the time. I’d heard of them before this trip because they’d received some national attention, but I’d never seen any of their work. The company was Theatre de la Jeune Lune and the show was Some People’s Kids performed at The Southern Theater.

Suddenly I couldn’t wait to be a part of theatre in Minneapolis. I loved it. There are images from that production which still float in my head over 20 years later. It was one of the most inventive, imaginative shows I’d seen and I was fascinated with these amazing performers.

Jump to 2011, and let’s skip the other amazing shows of theirs, my very brief stint working with them, their Tony award and their financial demise. The company has disbanded and moved on to other projects, or back to France. But now, suddenly, we have The MovingCompany, a new production company with two of the Luners, Dominique Serrand and Steve Epp, in a new piece back at the Southern Theater.

Their catch phrase: We Do Theater.

And damn, do they ever in Come Hell and High Water

With sadly serendipitous timing they’ve taken the real story of a 1927 Mississippi River flood, which displaced thousands and flooded farmlands and small towns when levees were released all to save the millions more in New Orleans (sound familiar) and turned it…..in to a beautifully staged tale.

Steve Epp has to be one of the most talented actors I’ve ever had the fortune to watch on stage. His work is finely detailed and deeply built. I felt I knew this man from him simply walking out on stage and looking at the audience. It was that fine tuned. And then as he began his story he transformed his character to himself at age 100 in a graceful move. In this he’s paired with Nathan Keepers who seems as if he were cut from the same cloth. Of course, they play the same character, and the way they do it is fascinating.

This show has some wonderful techniques. I truly love when typical object X magically, and most importantly simply, becomes something else entirely. There’s a moment where two people are traveling down the flooded river, lost for days. How do you put a flooded river and a boat on stage? A small pile of sandbags, a long board and actors balancing like a see-saw, gently swaying with the flow. Beautiful.

The whole ensemble of the piece, the staging and the techniques were immediately recognized by me as old school Jeune Lune, aka Dominique Serrand, the director. His power of imagination and ability to put that fascinating world out on stage is of a level only few people can obtain.

It made me long for the days of Some People’s Kids and Ballroom and Robinson Crusoe and Children of Paradise and….

This was brilliant story telling, inventive staging, deeply rooted characters and fine fine acting which reaffirmed for me the power of live theatre. Minneapolis is fortunate to still have these talented people making their home base in our city.

Where the Art is

I just happened upon a blog entry that was in response to an opinion piece published recently in the Huffington Post. I guess this article had made the rounds of the social networks last week, and I, despite my plethora of wasted hours in the TwitterFace* universe, somehow missed it.

(* I doubt I just made up this word, but I like it.)

It seems Mr. Kaiser is of the opinion that there isn’t enough good art being produced these days, and longs for the time when creators like Merce Cunningham and Tennessee Williams were filling our theaters, studios and halls. He feels the fine arts haven’t kept up, and that the development of new and innovative works is only found in the newer mediums, tv, film, etc. He goes on to conclude:

But the institutional nature of our arts ecology, a relatively recent phenomenon, means that groups of people are now more responsible for arts making than the individual. Boards, managers and producing consortia are overly-involved.

As Chavisory points out, Mr. Kaiser’s point goes astray, from artist to arts organizations being the reason for shortcoming.

Mr. Kaiser’s points are valid, or at least his facts seems accurate. It often does seem that many a board member or arts manager, or financial manager even, are at the center of deciding what gets produced or how. Sometimes an institution takes a risk, but only when it can be balanced by something else that can pay the bills. Look at the season of any 6-, 7- or 8-figure budgeted theatre company and if you see something new, daring or possibly “not for everyone” it likely has a counterpart or two that will more than make up for the lack of warm seats.

But really, I’m with Chavisory on this one. I know there’s new and creative and edgy and real art being performed. I can name half a dozen things off the top of my head that are appearing on stages in Minneapolis this week, or dozens this year. All with the inventiveness to be a potential Williams or an Ailey. But if you’re spending your days at the Kennedy Center and living amongst that ilk, if you’re looking to commercial theaters for your inspiration….well, you’re not going to see it often enough. Mr. Kaiser ought to consider going to the out-of-the-way, shoe-string budgeted productions where the work is more about the work, the results, the art, the story, the connection to an audience….rather than balancing the budget.

It’s no surprise Mr. Kaiser doesn’t know of the art that’s out there.

And if he did, perhaps he could help re-develop that commercially viable, yet artistically veined, performance world for which he longs, and help any of the brilliant playwrights, directors or choreographers reach a larger audience.

Mr. Kaiser may be his own solution.

Sanity Scratching

I think I’ve once again proven to myself that any creative outlet I have, no matter what form, helps keep me sane.

And happy.

But mostly sane.

This is a picture of the way the sky looked this morning as I headed out to work. (I certainly don’t want to even think about the ol’ day job, but it’s been a bear lately.) This morning there was this strange sunrise, where there were clear streaks of pink in the west, and this pink and purple and golden streaks in the east. It was really odd, and had a weird feeling. (This picture is completely untouched.)

So I snapped a picture. It was unexpected and beautiful. It made me think about the uniqueness of life, and the changeability. I knew those colors would be gone very soon, never to return. It made me think about living in the moment, in the here and now, and taking control of what’s happening. It made think about enjoying what’s in front of me and making the best of whatever that is at the moment. It made me realize life can be unexpected and surreal. Yesterday the sky didn’t have streaks of yellow or pink like this, but why today?

All this from a sunrise.

It also reminded me of the projects I have percolating. In some strange way, it made me think that anything’s possible with them.

Odd perhaps, but that’s how I felt.

Tonight I made some last minute changes to a script for a short (short) video, that we’re shooting tomorrow. Over the next week I’ll edit and tweak it in to something. I have an image of what it is. Whether I can pull that off or not is yet to be seen.

This coming week is the Fringe drawing, so I’ll know whether it’s time to buckle down and start on that project or not. That puts me a bit on edge, mostly due to pressure I’ll put on myself if we get in.

Tonight I chose this picture for my photo project. It seemed appropriate. And timely.

The itch is getting scratched. Slowly.

And ain’t that a helluva sky?

10 Things about 2010

  1. I completed my full-length play, which lives in limbo waiting for its knight on a white horse of a production.
  2. I work-shopped and staged a challenging script with a committed and fun group of actors. Ari Hoptman is the funniest man I know and almost made me piss my pants in rehearsal. fyi – The script was a drama.

    self-portrait, silhouette on rocks, north shore, fall 2010

  3. I jumped in to the fray of commercial and industrial work (again) and met and worked with awesome people.
  4. I dipped my toe in the pond of Twin Cities independent film, and had some of the most fun acting experiences I’ve had in a long time while shooting a film. I look forward to seeing the results this coming Spring.
  5. I started reading more blogs, finding new ways to write, just for kicks and exercise.
  6. I exercised my creativity while helping design our remodel and construction project, and I now have a comfortable, cozy home. (Side note: in 2011 I need to find that right piece of art to hang over the new fireplace.)
  7. I witnessed a number of spectacular productions, including Unspeakable Things at Sandbox (extremely creative,) The Homecoming at Gremlin (extremely polished acting and directing,) two Minnesota Fringe Festival production: Standing Long Jump (a beautiful new script) and Missing (a beautiful real, one-person show,) and saw some astonishing work in the Tony Award winning August: Osage County.
  8. I took part again in one of the best theatre experiences possible, with Chicago Avenue Project.
  9. I enjoyed my photography hobby, taking over a thousand pictures throughout the year and shared a few here.
  10. I failed to expand my horizons, having only completed 1 of the 5 items I listed on that 2010 Resolutions…or What I’ve told myself back in January. The only thing I accomplished was #2 which didn’t even get me out of the house. Maybe I’ll blame it on having spent so much time, energy and money on making the new house this year. Yeah, that’s it.
Happy New Year!

Closer to Being an Artist

Yesterday I was skimming through Culturebot’s site and read a quick interview with an artist. I had never heard of him and didn’t recognize his face, but I like those quick 5-question kind of interviews, so it caught my eye. Typical questions, short answers. I’m always interested to hear about what any kind of artist says when posed with questions about art v. real life issues, and with a question such as, “What do you do to make a living?” It’s something so few of us talk about.

I know hundreds of theatre artists in town and elsewhere, and I’d say that for over 80% of them I really don’t know what they do to pay the bills. And I can count on one hand, maybe two, the number who pay their bills through their art. I know that when I’m asked this question I’m often reluctant to answer, partially because I don’t find it very interesting and it’s so far removed from any creative outlet possible. Retail work, as horrible as I think that would be, might be closer to interesting and creative. On the other hand, it also depends on who’s doing the asking—they may be someone who I’d really only prefer to think of me as a theatre artist. [Although if I’m being honest I don’t think that makes much of a difference. It’s just an image I might be trying to put out there at that point.]

After the artist being interviewed (Michael Krumenacker) explained he’s done carpentry work for several years (which I think is really cool, btw) he was asked the typical follow-up question of whether he ever had to choose between his art and making a living. It was his answer that’s had me thinking for the past 24 hours:

“I used to get pissed about having to work 5 days a week at a job (with no benefits) and then come home tired and try to get some work done, but at some point a few years back I had this sudden realization that I was always working on my ‘art’, whether I was actually in my studio or hanging drywall or cooking dinner. It also hit me at the same time that I was always experiencing ‘art’ whether I was in a gallery, museum or looking at a street, a house, some trees, a mountain, a pile of garbage, whatever. This has triggered a move away from art in a way and closer to being an artist.”

I find it interesting because for most of the past seventeen years or so I’ve thought of myself primarily as an actor (and occasional director) but that’s expanded over the past couple years, and I’ve spent much of this year writing (and will do more.) This also means a good portion of my work this year has not taken place in a rehearsal room or on stage – so in some ways it didn’t feel like typical work. But, this year, because of the volume of creative challenge I’ve taken on, and because it neither killed me nor completely failed, and in fact was rather successful, I’ve felt more like a theatre artist than at points in the past.

I don’t know if what I just wrote makes any sense to anyone else.

So, in that regard, I’d like to hear more from him on this concept. Maybe he’s on to something. What’s disappointing is that the interview ends there. [I know…I just said I like the quick 5-question interview format.] I want to know more about this idea and just what he means.

Does he mean that in the past he only felt like an artist when he was actually creating something, and that during dry spells in between (presuming those exist for him) he didn’t? Is this all tied in to the concept that we’re only as valid as our work is valuable? (Kind of like you’re only as good as the last thing you did, except cutting a bit deeper.) Is this Michael guy expressing a concept that he’s found himself move into a higher self-awareness (if you will) of being an artist rather than aspiring to become an artist or perhaps rather than “a guy who does sculptures”?

Is an artist someone who, without working at doing such a thing, is always incorporating, exploring, defining and redefining art that surrounds us on a daily basis? Perhaps.