Kultur Shock Squires Chop Suey Towards an End

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Tonight I landed in the dance pit in front of my old friend Gino, watching Kultur Shock lead a crowd of bouncing bodies into joyful revolt. If you haven’t heard their music or seen them play, they are an international Seattle-based band that slams together punk, metal, and traditional Balkan music often resulting in a gypsy mosh pit and a sense of nomadic catharsis. Whenever I see them, I feel sort of like a political refugee that has suddenly found myself among my people and it is somehow all of our birthdays on the same day and we must celebrate. And knock the dust from the ceiling with our jumping up and down. And sway and then bang together. The crowd is always filled with old people with greying hair and young men with rowdy pony tails and girls in hippie tank tops. And it does feel as though we are sharing in a joyful revolt. Which I needed tonight.

They played Chop Suey, which they often do, and most of the folks reading this probably know that Chop Suey will be going away in a small count of days. And I felt nostalgic tonight. I’ve been in Seattle since 2001 and for most of that time, I’ve been attending shows there. In grad school, my friend (and now reigning comic genius) Trish Nelson and I went to see Reggie Watts play with Maktub there on Halloween. She spent all day and over a hundred dollars creating a shower costume out of PVC pipe (inspired by Ralph Macchio’s getup in The Karate Kid) because she had a vision of bobbing around in the crowd anonymously. At one point, she dropped her wallet and took out an entire table full of cocktails reaching for it. I also attended Sun Tzu Sound’s first TRUSTs at Chop Suey. And saw a Blue Scholars show there that made my brain dance. One time I saw Saul Williams rhyme there and was so moved that I went home and wrote him a letter. As I got older, sometimes I would hide away on a Saturday night and go dance there by myself. When I was working on my rock musical RIDDLED, I’d go to Chop Suey to listen to soul music and try to discover how the character in that show moved when she closed her eyes. Unlike most venues in this city, I never felt strange going to Chop Suey by myself and it felt good to go back there tonight.

It’s been awhile since I’ve lived on Capitol Hill and a long time since I stepped out of the conversations protesting the development there, but tonight I had that familiar pang again. It will be such a shame when all the old, dirty places are gone.

Brutality in the Light: Civic Rep’s STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

When I read STREETCAR in college, I read the story in the warm glow of the idea that this play is indeed a classic. Beautifully wrought, complicated characters in extreme circumstances dancing through a canonical story. I was moved by Blanche’s fragility and taken aback by Stanley’s violence, but again, somehow it all happened in my mind in the warm glow of a paper lantern.

My professor talked about Blanche’s lantern. Her need to control the light and the environment and the people around her. We talked about her manipulation of circumstances and people and her “descent into madness.” We talked about her need for artifice – for furs and superior airs and soft light. We didn’t talk much about the ragged, inescapable impact of her traumas – of her  guilt and presumed culpability in her young husband’s suicide, of the deathwatch she stood over her family while nursing a mortal emotional wound to her own heart, of the sincerity of her love for poetry and great works. We didn’t talk about her excessive drinking and sex with strange men and insistent control of her circumstances as her only means of coping with a world that seemed to spin beyond her control and with increasing speed. We didn’t really talk about those things. And neither have most productions of the play I’ve seen (with the exception of Sheila Daniels’ production at Intiman in 2008). Nope. In fact, most productions of this play have us pretty relieved to see Blanche carted away in the end, at least in my experience. She’s an uppity, neurotic disruption to Stella and Stanley’s attempt to make steamy love and a happy home. I’ve seen actresses play Blanche crazy and, thanks to Marlon Brando’s sexy white tshirt, most actors play Stanley as a seething stallion of irresistible testosterone. I’ve mostly seen their sex played as a foregone conclusion because, sure she’s compromised, but what woman really wants to resist a hunk of man like that? And hasn’t she been flirting with him for the entire play? Hasn’t she sort of asked for it?

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L Zane Jones’ production at New City’s Shoebox Theater (playing now until Jan 25) asks different questions and offers us new slivers of light into the dark tragedy of Williams’ masterpiece. The staging is simple, elegant, evocative and accomplishes claustrophobia, as we watch these characters press into the corners of that long room, and up against the immoveable brick of the upstage wall. She establishes a world where domestic violence and wild lovemaking fold into one another, a world increasingly haunted by ghosts who will pour your drink and pull fabric over your head. Kelli Mohrbacher’s Stella is sensual and sweet and so clear, so devoted to the joyful folds of her relationship with David Nail’s funny, punchdrunk, lumbering Stanley. He isn’t Marlon Brando (THANK THE GODS), but is a regular guy with a helluva lot of charisma and a confidence that makes up for the fact that he’s not a movie star. I know Christopher Frizzelle gave him a knock in The Stranger here, but I really disagree. This Stanley is the kinda guy who girls like Stella fall for, and who bruises his way through life with sheer force and good jokes. And who is sick of getting kicked and has a formidable capacity for violence that outpaces his sense or shame. I like him when I meet him but, by the end of this play, I don’t forgive him. For his brutality with Blanche and sabotage of Mitch, for the way he muscles Stella. I don’t forgive him for needing to own everything in his house and then destroying everything he owns.

Of course, the last and very real reason you should go see this production while it lasts is Robin Jones in the role of Blanche. Rather than a pitiful descent into madness, Jones plays Blanche with nuance and humor while the demons circle in on her. She plays action, pushing up on the weight of hopelessness heaving down on her. And with Sam Read’s earnest Mitch, we see her find hope. So often that relationship is sent up as a manipulation, played as though Blanche is angling Mitch into marriage. But in this production, we see hope. Two lonely people who might actually be a perfect match, until Stanley destroys the prospects. And then we watch Robin Jones navigate  Blanche’s images and memories and paralyzing fears with such great specificity. We don’t see a “crazy woman.” We see a woman trying to make sense of an unbelievably cruel fate.

I learned so much about this play through this production. I often hear theatre artists talking about “breathing new life into classics” but that is a lot harder to do than to dream. Civic Rep does just that in this DESIRE. Go.

The Fifth of October

Today is my brother Frank’s birthday. He would have been thirty-five years old today.

My heart breaks. Without him, my heart breaks. It leaks a river of sorrow, salt and mucus and regret, to a melody of late-night lawnchairs against pavement patios, glowing in the inhale of our cigarettes, shivering under layers of sweatshirts and the smoky smell of old knit caps. My heart breaks and sends up photographs of my nieces like moths against the moon, delicate silhouettes already departing, ephemeral, growing up. A hundred moments my brother dreamt of; he slipped away before he could see them.

Or maybe he sees. I’d like to think so. I know he continues, that he’s gone on but not away, to a place with a brighter access to wisdom, deep philosophies, the kind of divine truths that he adored. I believe he’s moved closer to those planes where time and space and love are the same — the page and the book and the reader and what’s read. But I like to think that the imprint of who he was here continues to where he is now, and that he remains somehow connected to how we knew each other. That his Eternal recognizes and continues to love and share my Eternal. I fear that is, in the end, too convenient and perhaps too small to contain what he has gone on to. But hope is holy and faith is the most courageous of the spiritual strengths, I think, only after humility, perhaps. And I feel that too, humbled, in the wake of all that I’ve lost and everything I’ve been given. It is as though I have only been a receiver, ever, though I have fancied myself so many more things. But when I am humble, I know that I’ve been gifted my brothers, my family, my loves and also my capacity to love them. I’ve been gifted my heart and my mind and this aging body. I’ve been gifted some talent and a deep but selective empathy. And then, I’ve been gifted all these days to practice and cultivate these blessings and to make so many mistakes, the most brutal with the ones I love the most dear.

This is how this human life has been for me. Full of gifts and lessons and more love than it seems my heart can contain. And so it breaks. On days like today, my heart breaks wide open still.

 

Kaminskis. Seattle, Christmas 2007.

Kaminskis. Seattle, Christmas 2007.

The Listen of the Play: Backstage at ANGELS IN AMERICA

I always mourn not being able to watch, to see the beast grown, the vision realized. Especially a play like this one, Angels in America, when I spend the rehearsal process grappling with rich, difficult challenges among super-talented actors whom I gradually fall in love with. I am. In love. With these people and their strange and wonderful humors and the joyful tenacity and rigor they’ve practiced throughout this arduous process. I love them. I want to watch them. But I can’t.

I get to listen instead. Backstage, sitting quietly in the dark, still in the frenzy of crew and stagehands making the magic go. I wait for my cue. And I listen. To the play. The rhythm. The audience. It’s a profound unfolding, deceptively simple. The same words every night, but different laughs, new gasps, sometimes awkward silences from the audience. We learn them new every single night. We hear where the audience catches on and shatters the first laugh, and where they fidget and get bored or confused. Sometimes I can hear the audience lean in. It’s like eating my favorite dinner at the same restaurant every night, but always with a new date. Some dates are smarter than others. Some have intoxicating laughs. Some dates are frustrating. But they are all interesting and deliciously unique.

Listening to Part One: Millennium Approaches has become a distinct practice, mostly because I don’t come onstage until well in to the second act, after most of the exposition has unfolded and the rhythm of the play has found its cadence. And then I only have a handful of lines to establish my character and jump on to the evening’s train at its own speed. It is really challenging for me. Some actors have better instincts maybe, or more confidence, and can enter and land in the play without much prep. I’m not like that. I’ve learned to listen.

Once I tried to step off a slow-moving trolley. I didn’t compensate for how fast we were traveling and, even slow, I missed my step and almost rolled under the wheels. That is how I feel when I try to jump into the play, like I might roll under its wheels and get crushed by the momentum.

Not tonight though. Tonight we are groping our way through our first preview of Part Two, and we are all here, backstage, vacillating between frenzy and stillness. Listening.

In the Air: The Actor’s Contribution and the Return of Repertory

In the last few weeks, I’ve encountered several arguments for the return of repertory acting companies in the regional theater system (namely, Howlround’s Repertory is the Answer by Brian Bell and On Artists Making a Living and Artistic Directors who could Make a Difference but Don’t by Diane Ragsdale in Arts Journal) .

These articles caught my eye because I’ve been reflecting on my last decade of hobbling together a day-job and an acting career. The repertory model has always seemed like a mirage of the ‘good ole days,’ a shangri-la of yesteryear. The idea seems idyllic not because of the financial stability or job security, that is actually the least reason for me personally. Rather, a company seems like it would be wonderful because I covet artistic homes, places where I can work and play with other performers and artists and build vocabularies, debate ideas, participate in a conversation. Become a better artist.

We work in the medium of humanity, us actors. We do not grow in a vacuum.

Both these articles cite Mike Daisey’s excellent piece of performance/interrogation, How Theatre Failed America, where he deconstructs, blow by blow, the events and mechanisms that made the regional theater actor’s job among the loneliest on the planet. I specifically remember the section where he spoke about the demands of a ‘successful’ regional acting career, moving from show to show, from city to city, with little sense of home, no bandwidth to grow or maintain meaningful relationships, not even with a pet. These sacrifices rang out to me; Daisey articulates these facts like swift blows, knocking down any romanticized ideas one might have about the glamorous life of a stage actor. It resonated for me because that is not the life I’ve chosen or pursued; rather, I’ve carefully maintained a sweet day-job teaching 20 hours a week at an arts college and have turned down more acting work than I’ve accepted in the last five years. I choose carefully, cautious not to take acting “jobs” that will lack camaraderie, challenge or heart. Something inside of me has gone a little numb every time I’ve shown up for some filler, flip rehearsal process, where everyone runs home or to the gym after the day is done and the deeper self is not called upon. I’d rather teach, honest, open and with passion, than take an acting job for the money.

Before I was working as a freelance actor/part-time professor, I founded and ran an ensemble theater company with ten of my closest friends for five years. That is where I learned how good it can get, when everyone is 100% committed and bringing more than talent and experience, bringing love and relentless imagination to a project. Ultimately, running this company was unsustainable for any of us, and though the company still exists and thrives (washingtonensemble.org), there is a regular turn-over of artists/staff every few years. It doesn’t pay. And you can’t pay rent with love, no matter how rich it feels.

Recently I have been feeling an impulse to return to artistic leadership. The time I’ve clocked as a professional actor inhabiting great scripts, complex characters, visceral worlds has filled me up and demanded enormous courage and stamina. In the end, though, I want to make a bigger contribution to the conversation. Actors are expert, specialized, amazing hired-hands. But they’re jobbed-in and though there are exceptions, actors generally don’t get to choose, curate or discern the plays we produce and the conversations we develop in the American Theatre. We contribute in other ways, breathing life into the ideas, holding down the frontline of the fight. Perhaps, if we had a network of acting companies directly associated with the regional theaters in their cities, actors could take a more active role in what gets made. This possibility alone makes the Repertory Company Argument pertinent. How can we make the artists who inhabit these scripts bigger players in selecting and developing them?

I think sometimes folks are scared that actors are self-serving. Looking for a role for themselves rather than taking in and debating the bigger picture of a play. In my experience, that is true of a lot of actors. But not the great ones. Most actors who are fiercely intelligent and sharply skilled possess a well of passion for the power of this form. They are experts at playing action and showcasing their skills, but they’re actually more voracious for a great play with a big idea.

At any rate, I’m coming to a place in my career where I want to be a bigger part of the conversation. I am lucky enough to be working on beautiful and seemingly blessed productions of Angels in America: Parts I & II right now and in Millennium Approaches, I wait backstage and listen to Roy Cohn try to convince Joe to go to Washington. At least find out what you’re capable of, he tells him.

As despicable as that character is, he has some salient moments in these plays. That’s one of them. I want to find out what I’m truly capable of – as an artist and as a citizen. And it feels like that sort of big, visionary work is happening in leadership and administration. So I am turning my sights in that direction in hopes of conversation, challenge and, if I’m really lucky, an artistic home nestled into a strong community, where we find out, collectively, what we are capable of.

Beautiful Women Slipping on Banana Peels: The Heroism of Actresses

Let’s begin by acknowledging that all actors, especially stage actors, are brave. It takes guts as well as vanity to unpack your heart in front of a live audience.

Cate Blanchett devouring Hedda Gabler.

Cate Blanchett devouring Hedda Gabler.

But within that courageous profession, there are those who stand out as particularly fearless. They’re the tightrope walkers, the performers who straddle voids without nets or harnesses, who make you hold your breath in terror and release it in an ecstasy of relief.

Of course with actors, it takes more than guts to command our admiration. In the theater, feats of derring-do don’t count for much without a big emotional payoff or a lightning flash of insight. When an actor goes out on a limb, you need to feel that you’ve been taken there as well and allowed to glimpse a gasp-worthy view you might never otherwise have seen.

This is the beginning of Ben Brantley’s gorgeous response to Cate Blanchett’s work in Uncle Vanya in the 2012 Lincoln Center Festival, her Hedda Gabler in 2006 and then her Blanche DuBois in 2009. In this review, Brantley summons his great skill to articulate what we see masterful women like Blanchett and Redgrave do on the stage. A word for it is humanity. Another is tragedy. Another is courage.

Every day for the last four weeks, I’ve walked into a rehearsal room to grapple with Tony Kushner’s extraordinary epic, Angels in America: Parts I & II. It has felt like wrestling with an angel and, despite the toil and failure, even gripping onto this play makes me feel like I am in contact with a blessed thing. And through the course of seven hours traffic upon the stage, I get to slip on a few banana peels and have a lightning flash of insight or two. It feels wonderful. To grapple. To fail. To be part of this great work and in the company of the brave actresses that have gone before.

Ellen McLaughlin as The Angel in Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA.

Ellen McLaughlin as The Angel in Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA.

McLaughlin and I have happened upon similar gestures, absolutely unwittingly. It makes me feel like I am unearthing the truth in this script.
McLaughlin and I have happened upon similar gestures, absolutely unwittingly. It makes me feel like I am unearthing the truth in this script.

 

The Chicago Home Theater Festival: Challenging Theater from the People in Your Neighborhood

This sounds terrific, and like something Seattle could appreciate as we gaze upon the relentless development of our neighborhoods.

Community Building with the Chicago Home Theater Festival by Dani Snyder-Young via howlround.com

The Chicago Home Theater Festival, now in its second year, creates participatory performance events in private homes with the goal of crossing borders, creating opportunities for artists to get paid work outside of institutions, and engendering dialogue around issues of community, identity, and the segregated nature of Chicago’s neighborhoods. Co-producer Irina Zadov explains, “We’ve been organizing [the festival] with a real focus on moving audiences to address some of the issues of segregation and the ways in which the arts like so many other things tend to perpetuate these inequalities…

It ran May 1-25 in twenty one sites across the city of Chicago. Produced by Irina Zadov, Blake Russell, and Laley Lippard, the festival is part of the International Home Theater Festival, founded five years ago by Philip Huang in Berkeley, and featured the work of 200 artists. Each event is hosted by an individual or family (using an expansive definition of “family”) who works with the producers to curate an evening of work responsive to their physical home and particular neighborhood. Evenings begin with a guided tour from the closest train stop, contextualizing the performance event for audience members who are new to the neighborhood, many include food and/or drink, and all include post-performance discussions. These events are intentionally polyvocal, bringing together people who might not otherwise find themselves in the same room… “

Really, at its my truest core, this is what I want theater to ALWAYS do. Collect us and cause connection, perhaps provoke, definitely entertain, but bring us together in a way we might not otherwise find ourselves.

Something Special is Brewing in Roanoke: Three Days with the Hollins MFAs

 

The guest responders (aka "peripatetic ajudicators") for the 2014 Hollins University New Play Festival. Photo by Chad Runyon.

The guest responders (aka “peripatetic ajudicators”) for the 2014 Hollins University New Play Festival. Photo by Chad Runyon.

The first time I folded into the Hollins Playwrights Lab was in 2009 when I traveled down to Roanoke to do a reading of Elizabeth Heffron’s salty and hilarious one-woman play Bo-Nita. This past weekend, I traveled back to that tiny, vibrant city cradled inside of the Blue Ridge Mountains to be a Guest Responder at the annual Hollins New Play Festival along with a host of savvy, articulate artist/educators including Gwydion Suilebhan, Mark Charney, Shannon Robert, Neil David Seibel, and almost two dozen more. We were gathered by Program Director Todd Ristau, who has built an ambitious, lively community of playwrights and artists in that tiny valley and is churning out some masterful works by the MFA playwrights in summer residence there.

Over three days, we saw/heard/experienced ten new plays written, directed and performed by Hollins graduate students with cameos by local Roanoke talent. The quality bell curve leaned toward excellent as we witnessed a diversity of writers’ voices grapple with the complexities of cancer, ptsd, mortality and, of course, love.

Ever anxious despite my efforts to be cool, I found myself nervous on the first day of this festival, at a new place surrounded by impressive strangers with a strong but slippery sense of purpose, but we all folded into the work and play of this three-day event with ease. A few hours in I remembered that I’ve been attending Theater Camp for almost thirty years. I know how to do this: show up to a new place, crack smiles, make jokes, sip beverages through straws and walk in big groups until we filter down into duos and trios according to preference and convenience. Talk art. Debate ideas. Articulate observations and probe intention. Laugh. Take the work seriously and myself lightly. Offer what I had to share – my point of view.

And the weekend felt so fruitful, not only as all of the guests leaned into serve the individual plays and promising playwrights, but as we mingled among ourselves. How refreshing to meet an expert set designer from New Orleans with a penchant for mojitos and a cunning visual sense, and a fellow teacher who grapples with integrating the Viewpoints into realism on stage and has devised his own strategies for teaching personalization to young actors, and to sit down with Bob Moss, the founder of Playwrights Horizons and a personal hero of mine, to discuss the subtleties of good casting and the merits of regional theater. I left this experience feeling inspired and useful and I hope it isn’t too long before I am back in Roanoke, in the midst of this community of ambitious playwrights and committed artists. It always feels so good to find another home.

From A to B to Beyond, Innovating Indie Screenwriting from Jennine Larouette

I have been toiling over a feature-length screenplay for over a year, having declared it finished twice. It is not finished and has some deep grooves and fissures that seem to suck up all the good-idea-filler I pour into them. I am leaning into another edit and happened upon this article while I was not writing, On Finding New Screenplay Structures for Independent Films by Jennine Lanouette. A friend sent it some time ago and it’s a meaty, informative and ultimately really inspiring argument for learning the rules and then bending them to create a more beautiful outcome. Highlights below:

The Heirarchy of Character, Action and Theme by Jennine Lanouette

The Heirarchy of Character, Action and Theme by Jennine Lanouette

“There’s no avoiding Three-Act Structure. It is the One-Point Perspective of screenwriting. Just as in drawing, you have two points on a horizon line and then a third vanishing point to create a sense of space, in filmed drama, you have a beginning, middle and end to orient the viewer in time… 


However, within that three-part structure, there are infinite possibilities for what can be achieved. This is the Advanced Screenwriting class, where a healthy respect for the model handed down to us by centuries of dramatic innovators is combined with an acknowledgement that artistic evolution depends on continually seeking new ways to apply the old models. Hollywood used to be open to cultivating, or perhaps simply tolerating, such ambitious endeavors. But, considering that today’s Hollywood has sunk into a comic-book-franchise/based-on-a-true-story rut at the expense of original adult drama, I would like to suggest that the evolution of the art form is now the sole responsibility of independent filmmakers…

…for me, story structure starts to get really interesting when you find that there is also a theme with its own A-to-B progression. The place at which we arrive at the end of the theme story is a new understanding of human nature, society or the world. To find this progression in a film, you want to ask the questions, “What is the nature of the world we are in at the beginning of the story?” and, “What is the nature of this world at the end?”

Conscious thought has its place in tweaking and refining. But, most often, the deeper elements of a story come from an unconscious, intuitive place of pure imagination, sometimes to the point where not even the writer is entirely conscious of all the layers in their script.”

Lanouette writes regularly on her website, screentakes.com.

RIP Lady Stritch