2009: The Art in My Life

The world is over-run with top lists for the year. This being my own little world I figure I’ll make a list of the top ten things about 2009. Below, with no real sense of order, are highlights of my life in the arts and the art in my life.

Photography is a hobby of mind, and according to iPhoto I imported almost 1,000 pictures this year. I think the money saved in film development has now paid for that digital SLR.

This picture was taken last January from a boat off the coast of Puerto Vallarta. I love it for how it looks like a watercolor or something, but it’s a completely untouched photo. The guide had thrown bread crumbs in the water to attract the fish, and got more than we expected.

Another favorite picture of mine also came from a vacation. This shot was taken from the rooftop at Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours, in the old city portion of Montreal. Wings seem to be a theme this year.

When I made my list of highlights I knew I would want to include pictures, so I chose those two, although there are many other photos that excited me this year, including ones below. But it turns out that most of my highlights are theatre related.

Caroline, Or Change was the surprise of the Kushner fest. While all eyes were on his big-new-will-he-ever-finish-it Homo’s Guide, this wonderfully imaginative musical, with singing washing machines and solidly written characters stole people’s hearts, and lingered for days with me. I should probably add that to coincide with the Kushner fest at the Big G I finally got around to seeing HBO’s Angels In America and wondered why it took me so long to see that masterpiece.

Scream Blue Murmur is my absolute favorite Northern Irish performing poet group. Ok, perhaps the only group of poets I’ve seen perform. But let me just say that I love these people. They brought their piece Morning After the Summer of Love to the Fringe Festival this summer, and not surprisingly it was a huge hit. (Lovely piece about 1968 – love, war and civil rights. Powerfully current.) I first learned of them when they were here a couple years ago, and fell in love with their flowing words and images and energy and depth. This summer I fell in love again. I’d go to Ireland just to see them, and I think it would be awesome to be in some little village pub, listening to them and chatting them up over a pint after. Chatted with a couple of them briefly during the Fringe and I was like a Marcia Brady meeting Davey Jones.

The Syringa Tree at the Jungle was the best one-person show I think I have ever seen. No props, and virtually no set. Numerous characters from a single, amazingly talented actress. It was astounding. Kudos to director Joel Sass. As for the actress, well….I had to write Ms. Agnew a fan note.

I saw a production of The Skin of Our Teeth that I described as “…this whole play boils down to hope and optimism and the fight to not lose it or have it destroyed. If that’s not a theme for 2009, I don’t know what is.” I applaud Girl Friday Productions for taking on such a massive and complicated play.

And as for small, independent theatres go, I have to give kudos to Walking Shadow. I saw two of their shows, Squawk, and Some Girl(s) and both shows were incredibly impressive. These people are hard working, dedicated and smart—all of which I find very exciting. If they don’t burn out like so many theatre companies can easily do, they’re on their way to making a big name for themselves.

Earlier this year there was a gathering of actors who did a semi-staged reading of The Seagull. Not only was the reading very well done, and thoroughly enjoyable, but it represented so many of the things about theatre that excite me, and exemplifies the high quality of artists in Minneapolis. I recall saying that we need more of this kind of thing, and I hope we see more next year.

Romeo & Juliet at The Children’s Theatre Company was the first time I’d ever seen a promenade style production, and now I want all my Shakespeare to be staged this way. The audience stood, and moved, throughout the show which took place in a huge black box space, with a few set elements up on accessible platforms around the perimeter. The action moved throughout the crowd, directing audience members out of the way as needed. It was like we were all standing in the town’s center plaza, surrounded and part of the action—even the sword fight. And the performances were all incredibly strong and beautiful.

June of Arc, or more specifically Heather Stone’s performance blew me away with the strength and power of her work. It was a beautiful, riveting performance, and I was inspired by the detailed, focused work she did and how she so fully owned it. Some folks will be able to catch Sandbox’s reprisal of this show in January at the Guthrie, and I hope many people do. If Heather keeps up that kind of work, her life is going to change in 2010.

The William Williams Effect, with Balance Theatre Project, was virtually all of 2009 for me, and has a very prominent place on my theatrical resume. I felt almost arrogant telling some people before it opened that I thought it would be a “highlight of my so-called career” but that’s just what it’s become. The performances, the response—it was all more than I had wished for. I can’t even begin to describe the challenge and excitement and pride I have regarding this project. As a director there’s nothing so satisfying as watching a crowd in a packed theater sitting with rapt attention on a show. 

It was also thrilling to once again join forces with my long-time friend Nancy Ruyle in researching, writing and getting this show up on its feet. The whole thing, from start to finish, was a collaborative process, and much of it was organically created in rehearsals with the cast, too.

While I feel very fortunate to have had such a successful show, I feel even more fortunate to have such a great working relationship and friendship with Nancy, who can challenge me, keep me on track and, frankly, keep me balanced.

The trip didn’t end with closing night back in August, and this script has a new version that will be shared soon. So, thank you 2009 for being good to me.

Here’s to 2010.

Happy New Year.

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Bain and Friends

Bain Boehlke, the founder and artistic director of The Jungle was given the 2009 Distinguished Artist Award by the McKnight Foundation. This past week there was a celebratory dinner with him and his closest couple hundred friends gathering near downtown. I was fortunate enough to tag along, too.

The award is granted yearly, honoring a Minnesota artist whose work has inspired and influenced other artists and their own communities in significant ways. (It’s like a life-time achievement thing, but not really for a body of work.) Bain certainly more than qualifies. His roots are strongly planted in the state, both personally and artistically, and his influence is unquestioning. Not only was he instrumental in the development of the Children’s Theatre Company, his own Jungle Theatre is a top-rated company which has transformed its Lyn-Lake neighborhood and become a shining centerpiece with highly successful productions.

But that’s not what struck me about Monday’s dinner. That’s all the stuff I already knew, and had experienced. I’ve watched his theatre grow from its early days. No, what struck me was his friends, his connections, his emotion. Many stories were told of his early days and collaborations. A number of theatre artists “grew up” alongside him, and thus there were more than a few local icons in the room, and we were regaled with tales of Minneapolis’ early growth and development of theatres, and of the part Bain played in some of that.

Wendy Lehr was a huge hit as a key speaker, telling stories of their travels with a nomadic, young company in the 60s, and retelling some of Bain’s antics. She was funny and charming and sweet and entertaining. And she was so proud of her friend. They clearly have a tight bond that has lasted many, many years, and are dear friends.

What may have struck me most was Bain’s emotional gratitude. He’s an interesting fellow, this Boehlke guy. Always has an distinctive way of looking at things, and you’re never quite sure sometimes what he’s thinking or where’s he’s going, and he’s got a wicked and dry sense of humor. He told a few tales of growing up, loving dance and learning theatre. But it was when he spoke of the people he had worked beside, as young theatre artists, that was so endearing. To speak of Wendy Lehr’s or John Clark Donahue’s friendship and collaboration, or of George Sutton’s contribution to founding The Jungle….was a beautiful tribute to not only these long-lasting friendships, but to the collaborative and essential element of the process of creating theatre.

It was a very moving moment. A moving and beautiful moment. Listening to him closely, and waiting quietly with the room full of supporters and friends as he tried to find his voice when he was overcome, I was suddenly very happy for this talented and charming man. I was touched by his deep emotion. And I began thinking of the parallels in my own life. While I wouldn’t be so bold as to compare myself to him or his career, I felt sure that some day I too might be able to reflect back on decades’ worth of friendship and collaboration. I might be able to have a body of work in which to be proud. I might have a large room full of friends.

And I already know who my own Wendy Lehr will be.

Congratulations, Bain. On your award, your work and your abundance of friends.

A Delicate Watercolor on Stage

The other night I was treated to a night at a theater and we saw The Syringa Tree at The Jungle. This one woman show, about growing up in South Africa during apartheid, was….astounding.

Dear Sarah Agnew – How do you make it look so easy? How do you make it seem so seamless? How do you dig so deep down and anchor yourself in a character at the turn of a dime? Where did you find that sharp focus? Also, how do you portray 22 distinct characters in 90+ minutes without a stop, without a drink of water and without looking like a sweaty wet mop at your curtain call? I think I love you. Sincerely, your new fan.

Now, this is not to say she did it all alone. First off, there’s this wonderful and complicated script. Honestly, I have a few issues with some of the script, but their very minor. It certainly made me want to learn more about a topic that I feel woefully inadequate in discussing. I need to know more about the history. But the human toll – the hatred, the discrimination, the anger. It’s heart breaking. And then, hopeful.

Furthermore, there was the brilliant directing. Joel Sass has never been a slouch, and is one of the most creative people I know. Back in the day, when he was often producing his own work, his directing style and his shows were wickedly on the edge, with artfully exaggerated images and twisted elements. It was bold, brash and exciting. This too was exciting, but I described it as “very delicate” – to which he said that it was like a “watercolor.” Exactly.

A complicated, multi-layered story, presented with ease and beauty.

As the famous Frenchman sitting behind me yelled during curtain: “Bravo!”

Bravo, indeed.

I’m a Seagull. No, that’s not it.

The Seagull. It’s a classic play by Chekhov. Some people love Chekhov, some people don’t. For me, Chekhov was introduced to me by the head of the acting program at my school almost as a deity.

The top three guys: Shakespeare, Jesus Christ, and Anton Chekhov.  And not necessarily in that order.

I don’t bow down to Chekhov, because there are some story-lines of his that I find tedious. But those are always overshadowed by the brilliant complexities in his writing. More on that in a moment though.

Last night in Minneapolis a group of actors got together to do a reading of Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull. It was a big cast, full of very talented people, and there were going to be many friends who might want to sit and listen. So, instead of someone’s living room, they used the Jungle Theater stage, and emailed out invites and created a Facebook event and called it The Seagull Project. Some online article or blog referenced it as a bunch of theater nerds getting together. So true. Someone provided wine and beverages and snacks. Suddenly it’s a cocktail party.

Because I hate to miss a party (and always need to hone my schmoozing skills), and because, frankly, this was an amazing group of actors to get together, I was excited to attend. The turn out was fair, maybe 50 or 60 people. There were a number of faces I knew, others I recognized, and some were strangers. The whole thing was very casual. So casual, in fact, that the door was locked and people had to take turns noticing and letting folks in. Drinks were set out and you simply grabbed a glass and poured yourself some wine! People chit-chatted around the lobby, keeping an eye out for who was there, who had just arrived, who to talk to. (“Oh, please, let me be able to talk to someone I know – Oh! Look! Someone I like!”)

I make it sound taut or something. It wasn’t. It was friendly and exciting. After all, it’s not the typical thing. It was just like some theatre folk have done with friends at home on a weekend, getting together to read a script out loud, but larger. More public.

Per typical cocktail party climate the reading inevitably started late. No one really cared, though, as we were all having a lovely time. “So, what are you working on?”

But then came the reading. This Tom Stoppard fella, he seems to know a thing or two about stringing together some dialogue. It’s probably some of the smoothest Chekhov lines I’ve heard or read. No awkward or overly written phrasing, and yet wonderful turns of phrase.  

And the actors – well, please. They were as good as we all expected! First off, the fact that it was essentially a cold-read, at least in terms of scene partners, it went really, really well. There had been no rehearsal or chance to read things through once or twice to get the rhythms or play off each other, yet the whole thing bounced along superbly. Secondly, as some people know and others are always surprised to learn, Chekhov wrote comedies. And this was funny as hell

And perhaps more than anything it reminded me again of why I love Chekhov. These deeply stubborn, passionate characters, often with odd histories or quirks. I mean, how can a man like Constantine not break your heart – to hear the things he has to hear from others, to be so denied the love he willingly offers, to be treated as he is by his own mother and the woman he loves? It’s a character that could easily be bratty or pompous even, but when read with truth, he’s tragic. Somehow, with out really staging it, and without any direction or rehearsal, but with smart actors and a very well written script, the whole storyline of Medvenko loves Masha who loves Constantine who loves Nina who loves Trigorin who loves…well, too many — was all made perfectly clear, and even more importantly, perfectly accessible and moving to an audience.

This kind of organic, get-together is just the thing our theatre community needs more of. As long as it remains organic and doesn’t become organized and structured, it can be like the lives in the Seagull and like the lives of seagulls, taking us places we didn’t know we would end up.

Crime and Punishment and Lazarus

Last night we went and saw Crime and Punishment at the Jungle Theater. I’ve never read the novel. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read any of those Russian epic tomes, so I didn’t know any more about what the story was to be than what I had read in a pre-press articles or reviews.

Side note: Reviews are only important to a point, as it really boils down to one person’s opinion. I wouldn’t even consider this posting a review, but nonetheless, thought I’d mention this little caveat.

The story is rather…depressing and deep. The crime is an unsolved (for the moment murder) and the punishment is not a jail term but rather the punishment of living with the guilt, and what it does to the man. It’s a kind of descent into madness. The script itself has nicely dissolved what I’m sure is a long novel into a clean, neat 90 minute piece, made for three actors. (I can’t imagine what it took for the writers to do this.) Throughout the play the story of Lazarus keeps coming up, and the man is asked if he believes the story or believes in God. He claims he does, although always in a questioning manner. There’s a strong, and not surprising, existentialist element. This is something I really liked because it worked, because it made sense, and because in the end it was the thread that lead us over the dramatic arch of the play.

The three actors are no schmoes either. The lead actor, the crime/punishment man, never leaves the stage for the entire show. (Having been an actor in such a show I can say that alone is a feat.) And he works his heart out as we see him slip deeper and deeper in to his guilt. The other two actors each play multiple roles, slipping in and out of the space and in and out of their characters with brilliant ease.

The playing space, which never changes but by reference to being different locales, primarily represents the man’s home. The design (done by the director) is the deconstruction of a small wooden shack, with a big opening upstage (which characters float in from), and a door one side, with a window on the other. There was nothing obvious about it, but it gave me the feeling of looking at a skull – as if it were the mind of the main character.

Overall it was a good evening. The show was gorgeous, the acting (most of it) was top-notch, the direction was clean and inventive. The only problem I had was stuck somewhere in between all of that. It wasn’t the writing (although it may have been) and it wasn’t the directing (although that certainly had a hand in it) and it wasn’t just the acting (although there’s certainly some room to blame there.) The problem was that for an hour and a half we watched a depressed man get more depressed…

no…no, that’s not it. The problem wasn’t that we watched a depressed man get more depressed, but rather that after a certain point, I didn’t care about him. I wasn’t empathetic towards that man. Juxtaposed with this, I found myself rather empathetic towards almost everyone else – the victim who was mean and nasty, the other victim who was sweet and simple, the mother of the man, the whore he loved, the whore’s father, the investigator…..I cared about everyone else, but the man I was supposed to. Or, so it seems. While it may be inherent in the writing, it’s something the director should’ve seen, but for me I think it really does boil down to the actor. He’s a good actor, but this may have been beyond his reach.

In the end the production’s shortcomings were minor, but like Lazarus, it may be a few more days before its fate, for me, is decided.