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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Caroline, or Change (or keep it simple)

This past Friday night we jumped back in to the pool of Tony Kushner at the Guthrie. While the buzz around town last year about Kushner-fest was all about the world premiere of his new play, the buzz around town for the past month has been about his other show – Caroline, or Change. It’s a musical, or more accurately, an operetta, as there are no truly spoken words. I wasn’t expecting that (the operetta part) but it gives the whole show an imaginative and playful quality, almost as if it’s all in the head and mind of Caroline. Or, actually, possibly, Noah. (That could be argued, I guess.) It’s a quality in sharp contrast to the harsh realism of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide....

One of the most striking things about this piece is that after watching approximately nine hours of Kushner’s work over the past few weeks, this was an incredibly simplistic and straightforward plot. There weren’t multiple story lines and overly complicated relationships.

There was a black maid working in a Jewish home in the South at the time of the Kennedy assassination. And both families (the maid’s and her employer’s) were struggling with their own griefs and challenges and family dynamics.

But just like much of his other work this show has imaginitive elements like the fact that the moon, washing machine and dryer all sing! (They were awesome.) And, even more so, as he’s wont to do with his people, these are deeply rooted characters.

After the show, the more I thought about it, the more we discussed it all, the more I realized and the more I loved this show. This was a very moving piece of theatre with some truly shining performances. There’s overwhelming desire and despair, with a glimmer of hope peeking around the corners….I cared about all of them.

That’s something, by the way, that didn’t happen with that new play.

On a side note, even though the big G’s been open in its new space for….two years now? Somehow this was the first show I’ve seen on the thrust stage. Of course, it’s virtually identical to the original theater, with few exceptions. Nonetheless it was kind of eery to walk out to a completely different lobby – and a lobby that has no comparisons.

The Intelligent Homosexual may be smarter than me

A few other thoughts on this new work by Kushner occurred to me.

Tony Kushner’s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide… has a truly serious subject at its core. Suicide. Or rather, attempted. Still, it’s a tough subject. Particularly for anyone who has known someone to have tried such a thing. Or worse, succeeded.

This subject also contains a problem with the script, which is that as an audience member I’m not sure why this person would’ve attempted it. I mean, I can conjur up a reason, or even two perhaps. But they don’t feel compelling enough. They weren’t presented sharply enough to justify—if that’s the right word—such a thing. 

As someone who has had a family member commit suicide, I of course thought of that person, that circumstance and those relationships, all while watching the show at certain scenes. I don’t know if my personal knowledge actually colored the show for me one way or another, outside of one particular moment that struck me strongly. I think there’s just as good a chance I’d have had that same reaction had I never known someone to kill himself.

I digress. My point is that this was one of the issues we talked about on the way home that night. I walked away from the show thinking about how I really wanted the character who had attempted suicide to show me, give me, hint at a reason as to why—it occurs to me that so often with suicide, we don’t know the real reason why. We can assume. We can guess. We can deduce. But finding out why is something we may likely never truly know, and our only option is settle on that reason within our own selves in order to move on. 

Perhaps that truthism tells me that just because I wanted something from a character in this new play doesn’t mean I should get it. In fact, had I gotten it, it would’ve been a very different play and likely less interesting. When everything is handed to you in theatre, and nothing is left to mystery or wonder, it’s might no longer be theatre. Or it might no longer be good theatre. It might be a sermon or and academic lecture or a documentary or even journalism. But it may pull itself out of the art.

Yeah, I guess that Tony Kushner guy knows how to write a few things.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide

It’s only been about 10 hours since curtain call so my mind hasn’t quite yet figured out what Tony Kushner’s new play is really all about, but I know it deserves some thought and discussion. I’m not sure how to wrap my head around it all.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism And Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures is a long play. Yes, longer than its title. It’s also a work in progress, as made evident by the uneven production we saw last night and a script that repeats itself and stagnates as it traverses a muddy patch. There were moments when I felt like I was watching actors about half-way through a rehearsal process. None of it ever completely fell apart or became unpresentable, although there were actually a few time when I thought actors were wondering whose line it was. Those moments were followed by someone flicking a switch and the whole scene coming in to focus.

There’s one such scene that really stuck out to me. An aunt and niece are having a conversation in the attic. The aunt sits on the floor, the niece is pacing, the scene goes along fine, and then….the niece stops where she is, kneeling on the floor at this point, and the whole thing becomes…paced…and less nuanced, mined, explored. Suddenly it feels like good actors who are off book and still working out the ways of the scene. No one moves from their place. No one acts with her whole body. And even though they’re discussing a tragic thing that will likely happen the next day, revealing something horrible—it all feels a bit emotionally detached. This must be the newer material. Perhaps some of the stuff that actors were holding pages in their hands for previews.

Then suddenly, it all comes to life again, clips along, emotionally and purposefully charged.

There are a few brilliant scenes where the entire family, and I mean all 8 or 9 people on stage at once, are fighting. I thought this sounded perfectly normal—it’s how my family fights. There were 2 or 3 or 4 arguments happening at once, all talking over each other. But after about 5 or 6 or 7 or…minutes, it all starts to be a bit much. (This needs some shaping, Mr. Playwright and Mr. Director. I mean, it’s effective but only if the audience’s attention is drawn to the right thing at the right moment, to make it effective. And only if this technique isn’t overused.)

Being mired down in the mud is what this play does at times. Later there’s a long, repetitive scene between the father and daughter…it’s well done, but it really goes nowhere, doesn’t teach us anything new, doesn’t move the story along, doesn’t reveal anything…..However, it does bring us to one of the best and most riveting moments and lines that the play offers. For me, it was one of those moments where I realized I just audibly gasped in my response to the beauty and truth and honesty expressed.

Then I immediately thought: “Wow, that whole long drawn out scene just to get to that.” and pondered if it was worth it. I decided it may have been, but I think there’s a shorter path there that would cause less audience squirming.

This deserves more thought. The play and my experience of it. I almost want to see it again. I can’t possibly regurgitate and process it all at once.

It’s epic in its scope, and excruciating in its ideological and philosophical theorization and expression.

Yes, that too.

More Tony

Jumping in with both feet into the Kushner pool.

We continued on tonight with two more chapters of HBO’s Angels. What an amazing cast. And beautifully written scenes. We’ve only the last episode to watch, and I don’t want it to end.

We were talking afterwards about the style of dialogue, and speech. It’s not exactly naturalistic, at least at times. It has a slight, heightened, theatricality to it. I mean, no one really talks the way that Belize sometimes does, do they? But I kind of wish I knew someone who did. I love the line about the….

….cracker who wrote the Star Spangled Banner and made the word free so high no one could reach it…..

Why would someone pull out a line like that? In a conversation like that? Who has that kind of turn of phrase so readily available?

But I think it’s awesome.

I want to hang out with Belize.

Tony’s Angels

I need to make a new resolution. I need to see more movies. This isn’t news, but I was reminded again this evening, because I have just finished watching HBO’s version of Angels In America. Finally. That only puts me about….what? Five or six years behind schedule? Turns out it’s a pretty good film, with a damn fine cast. It also didn’t feel like the three or so hours it ran.

I watched it in part as preparation for experiencing some of the Kushner “festival” at the Guthrie. It seems as if everyone who has seen its current production of Caroline, or Change has thoroughly recommended it, saying how amazing it is. I’ll catch that when I can. Later this month I already have tickets to see Kushner’s world premiere: The Homosexual’s Guide to…. to something or other. I understand the title is about as long as the show. Apparently, like Angels, it runs just a bit over three hours.

Three hours?!

I mean, come on. The Guthrie is a brand new theater, and even still, it’s not so comfortable that I want to sit in those seats for three hours. It’s one thing to be in my own living room. With a stocked refrigerator and a remote control. It’s another to be squeezed in crowded theater, usually behind someone who finds it necessary to discuss the show during the show, rather than at intermission like they should.

Wow. That sounds crabbier than it should. Sorry.

But I’ll go anyway, because I suspect it’s going to be good. Probably very good . I suspect it’ll be better than the last world premiere that theater did. (Ugh.)

So the questions will be:

Does it need to be that long?

Will it not feel that long?

Kushner’s done it before. Maybe he can do it again.