Need to Ruminate

Today I witnessed a truly unique theatre piece. Original. Risky. Experimental.

There were things I liked, and things I liked…less. Including a moment or two that may have been weak.

There were things that I found fascinating.

There were things I didn’t understand.

There was a moment where I suddenly cried.

There was a moment I was suddenly inspired.

Perhaps in a day or two I could put it all in to words.

This. This is the reason I love the art of theatre.Image

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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!

Two Nights, Two Plays, Two Worlds

This week I saw two shows by two different companies whose work I admire. They couldn’t have been more different from each other, but both were thoroughly enjoyable. The contrast was striking.

Thursday night after the show, talking to a few of the cast and the producers I expressed how I thoroughly I enjoyed this naturalistic, realistic, down to earth story and people. The whole play took place over a cookout in someone’s back yard. If permits had allowed they’d have been able to actually turn that gas grill on and cook the food. (If permits had allowed and I were directing it that’s what I’d have done.) It was that kind of kitchen-sink realism.

I feel as if I don’t see that kind of stuff often enough. Watching the delicacy and detailed elements of the actors’ work was a real treat. I love nothing more than watching actors enliven their characters so thoroughly. At one point at the beginning of what would be a long story-telling monologue the actress blanked. You only knew because the pause was just a tad … too …. long … to be anything else. But she remained perfectly in character. There was no deer-in-headlights. The beauty was that her husband’s character was sitting right next to her and we knew that he knew the story she was about to tell, so that actor simply prompted her by starting the story himself, and allowed her to take over. They were like a married couple finishing each other’s thoughts, which they were. And it worked.

Later, when the actual climax of the play hit it was real, it wasn’t forced, it was genuine, and it took your breath away for the slightest of moments. Because it was so accessible and so complete. And the play didn’t end completely tidy and neat, wrapped up with answering every question. Like life, you couldn’t be sure about what would happen. And that’s ok. Sometimes neat isn’t interesting.

Twenty four hours later I was finishing up seeing another show, at the other end of the spectrum of realism (if it really is a linear spectrum) and again spoke to a cast member and producer and said how I had no idea what it was that I had just seen, but my mind was reeling. It was an original, company-created completely experimental piece, based on real people: essentially a one time successful writer who has become a shut-in (along with his sister, and they live like hoarders) struggles to continue writing or rather to stop the stories in his head. I’m not sure which. Possibly both.

There was nothing straightforward about this piece, and it’s stuck in my head since I left the theater Friday night. Nothing about this was realistic, even when it contained naturalistic acting styles at moments; it was pure absurdism, or more truly perhaps expressionism.

This was a company I’ve watched and admired several times before. They have a unique process for creating their scripts which are done virtually from scratch as an ensemble. There are pitfalls in this kind of work, the primary one being not able to get the story over to an audience or being able to draw them in emotionally. This time, for me, I was pulled in and fascinated by the people and story and where it was or wasn’t going. I may have left with many questions. And that’s ok.

There were many fascinating things visually, including little details like a dirty line on the wall going up the steps where clearly someone has spent years slowly traversing them with a hand on the wall for stability. With that simple design element I formed an image of someone before the character even appeared at the top of those steps. One of the true elements of expressionism was this group of characters who first appear in one scene and then became at the end of that scene these people who secretly inhabited the house and that the main character had to essentially keep under control, and from whom he had to protect his family or hide from his family.

I’m not sure which or if it matters.

So many things are sticking with me and I can’t even articulate it.

The one thing these two shows had in common was that moment of reality, that wasn’t forced, that seemed truly genuine which took your breath away. In this case it was shedding the layers of absurdity like some fog clearing for just a moment in Don’s mind long enough that he could see and respond to his sister—who may, in fact, be normal after all.

Or perhaps not.

Neat and tidy isn’t very interesting.

One side note: Sandbox is all about experimental, company-created theatre and it’s striking to me that they’ve produced this and previous shows at the Red Eye, a company which many years ago built its national reputation on experimental theatre. It’s as if a torch has been passed. Or, at least, shared.

Color me Green

Jealousy is neither pretty nor enviable. Yet, I’ll admit it: I’m jealous.

There. I said it. I’m jealous because I don’t have a show opening this week.

While this could be said of many weeks of the year, I’m only feeling it because I know of a few shows that are opening this week which seem very interesting and intriguing, and are from a few companies I’d like to work with. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the work. (And only feel jealous because I think it might be even more interesting to be in it.)

One of them that looks rather promising is from Sandbox, a tough and tumble, create-a-new-show-from-the-ground-up, gritty and experimental company that likes to explore myriad methods of storytelling and shapes of a dramatic arc.

The ensemble, including some newcomers with talent to spare (and with at least one previous collaborator in a new role) has taken on the tale of a couple of real-life, historic eccentric brothers. Eccentric and historic.

Oh! How I love twisted reality from days gone by.

I’ve seen a few pics and video, their trailer, an interview with one of the assistant directors, footage from their rehearsal/creation process and am feeling very curious about how it all comes together. There’s something about the originality of the work, and certainly the whole process—the organic, company created piece—that I find alluring.

It’s risky. It could turn out to be meh. It could turn out to be unintelligible.

Art’s not supposed to be easy.

I suspect it’s going to be magical.

Magical, twisted reality in an original theatre piece. How could I not be jealous?

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.

Experimental Theatre Makes a Pact with the Devil

Finally went to see a show last night. I know—”finally” seems like an odd choice, since I see dozens of shows a year, but somehow the fates got together and decided that one thing or another would keep from sitting in a dark room with a bunch of strangers for several weeks. So – Finally! A little art. A little theatre. Perhaps a cocktail or two before at a nice meal.

Well, that latter part didn’t happen.

What did happen is that I caught a new, original, company created work at Sandbox Theatre called .faust. Over the past few years Sandbox has created a name for itself for its highly stylized, visually stunning original pieces. Their work is not created in the usual sense, in that they don’t employ the standard, modern working relationship between actors and director and playwright. It’s collaborative across the board, and the script and staging are all developed through an intense rehearsal process.

While working this way is not necessarily unique, as there have been many companies who have worked this way, particularly here in the Twin Cities, it creates a unique piece different from so many other shows. There was beautiful imagery with the sets, costumes, staging. There were puppets and cothurni (of sorts) and crashing walls and cliffs that people fell off. The sense of ensemble was incredibly strong—you’d think that some of these actors had been working together for years and perhaps had a shared training experience. There was so much about the piece that felt organic, so many actors in perfect rhythm with the others. Of course, there were a few times when it wasn’t that, which only made these slightly not-quite-what-they-were-going-for moments that much more noticeable. Truthfully, though, I’m being picky to even identify that.

One thing about the show last night that we discussed afterward was having .faust as a title. As you can guess the play was a retelling of the story of Faust, the man who makes a deal with the devil. I wasn’t sure why the dot. Before the show is cast there’s a concept of some kind and a title. But my understanding is that the majority of the script is company created in rehearsals. A title with dot in it made me think that it was going to be some modern-day retelling, something involving the interwebs or something (there wasn’t any of that,) and that in the process of developing the play it wandered away from that. Or, perhaps, the dot was intended as a delineation because three people played Faust?

I’m not sure why the dot.

The thing I came away with though, the important thing, is that this kind of theatre is needed. Original, company created works are needed to keep the theatre world healthy and vibrant, interesting and intriguing, and moving forward. I applaud them for their tenacity and gumption. On a side note – the fact that they were using Red Eye’s space is oh, so appropriate. I love walking in to that space, knowing the experimental theatre history created by those people, in that building, and seeing a new company years later picking up the task in that same playground. (or Sandbox, I guess.)

This work, though, comes with its own pitfalls, many of which Sandbox has seemed to avoid thus far. The biggest one would be creating a beautiful and poignant and touching and magical world in their own world. It’s very easy for group think to take over and blind people to the outside eye. It’s the outside eye, that director’s eye, that can play an important part. (Or so Thespus thought.) And if that gets lost in the process then the beauty and artistry will only be such to those who made it and not to anyone else.

Like Faust, they could be seeking something that they can never have.

I don’t really think this happened with this production, except, perhaps, in one small element. It took me some time to recognize it, but I realized I wasn’t emotionally drawn in to this show and I think it’s because the show was so intellectual. It was all very heady. I didn’t feel as if I connected with anyone. Maybe that was intentional. I don’t know. And it’s possible that the people involved all saw and felt it all so clearly that they assumed that would come across to the audience members. And, at least for me, it didn’t.

This is their biggest pitfall ahead of them. I’m fairly certain though, given the ingenuity, drive and energy of the people running this thing that they’ll find a way to keep going and not fall in that trap. If they’re smart and talented enough to create some of the stuff I’ve seen already, then they will. I certainly hope they do.