Stratford 2014

Life in the Theatre, Plays I've Seen

I’ve gotten a little behind in posting, so I have a bit of catching up to do!

A little over a week ago, my friend Anne and I made our annual trip up to the Stratford Theatre Festival in Canada. This marked our twelfth year making the pilgrimage for great food, shopping, and of course, theatre. We look forward to this trip every year as a wonderful escape from the “real world” and a chance to re-focus our minds on ourselves, our careers, or whatever else in our life needs attention. Fall is the perfect time for it; to me, autumn always feels like a new beginning.

So, we ate amazing meals, shopped more than we should have, talked for hours in the car, and saw some thought-provoking and exciting theatre.

The first night, we saw Antony & Cleopatra, and disappointingly, we saw an understudy for Enobarbus. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem; we’ve seen understudies perform at Stratford before, and usually they turn in wonderful performances. Typically, they know the role and have had put-in rehearsals, and are prepared for the task. Unfortunately, the poor Enobarbus understudy that we saw didn’t seem to know his lines, which was both surprising and disorienting — for us in the audience as well as the other actors. I felt that the whole show missed the mark in its level of urgency and passion, but it’s hard to know whether that was the production itself, or whether it was just an “off” night due poor Enobarbus’ significant line problems. The performance did, however, give me a lot to think about, and made me want to re-visit the Antony & Cleopatra script.

The second night was significantly better. We saw Colm Feore’s King Lear, and it was, in a word, astonishing. Feore’s performance was both strong and frail; infuriating and heartbreaking. While the night definitely belonged to him, the storytelling was clearer in this production than any other I’ve seen largely thanks to the treatment of the two older sisters. Most productions that I’ve seen paint Goneril and Regan as evil from the start, insincere and conniving in their pronouncement of love for their father, and scheming to their last breaths. However, in this production, I believed their words of love in the first scene; if they were over-exaggerated, it was because they were simply humoring their father, but not with insincerity. Later, I believed Goneril’s genuine astonishment at her father’s behavior, and the behavior of his men, in her home. Later still, in that terribly sad scene in which Regan and Goneril go back and forth, reducing the number of Lear’s train they will welcome into their homes, I actually heard their argument: “What need you five and twenty, or ten or five, / to follow in a house where twice so many / Have a command to tend you?” They can’t understand why he needs his men (who are prone to “epicurism and lust”), when their servants can provide everything he could possibly need.

Further, I also understood strongly that Goneril and Regan were not only acting for themselves, but were beholden to their husbands in an age where women did not hold significant power of their own. Their fealty to their husbands echoed Cordelia’s initial argument: “Why have my sisters husbands if they say / they love you all? Haply, when I shall wed / That lord whose hand my plight shall carry / Half my love with him, half my care and duty.”

Now, none of this is to say that Goneril and Regan were blameless — not in the least. Even as I recognized their point of view, I still felt for Lear, and the women were absolutely complicit in the atrocities that transpired. But allowing them a true character arc, instead of treating them as villainesses from the start, made the story a much more powerful family drama, and ultimately a much sadder tragedy. This production changed how I view the play, which is a rare thing to happen to me with Shakespeare plays.

This trip is one of my favorite traditions, and this was another great year. ‘Til next year, Stratford.

Too much of a good thing?

Life in the Theatre

Yesterday I read this article in my daily You’ve Cott Mail e-newsletter. Rob Weinert-Kendt’s article/speech is about the Los Angeles theatre scene:

“Too often, truth be told, L.A. theatre’s awesome diversity feels like utter incoherence; its creative fertility can feel like rampant self-indulgence; its stunning resilience sometimes looks more like the sheer Sisyphean persistence of folks who feel they’ve got to keep putting on show after show after show or their doors will close because the dues money or the rent will stop coming in. To put it brutally, week in week out, I’ve begun to feel in my gut that there are just too many goddamn plays in Los Angeles. And that rather than creating a vibrant marketplace of theatrical artistry, or offering that many more exciting consumer options for the region’s eager theatregoers, the sheer glut of productions on Los Angeles area stages creates a kind of white noise, a traffic jam through which established theatre companies of quality must navigate to compete for audiences, reviews, editorial attention, grants, and awards. … For too many L.A. theatres, the 99-Seat Plan’s cheap labor and its built-in freedom to fail provide an incentive to keep failing, and when they do succeed, its economics prevent them from building on that success.”

Weinert-Kendt is referring to L.A.’s 99-Seat Plan specifically, which provides for small theatres to hire Equity actors for extremely little pay. In this regard, it’s hard to compare the situation to any other city, since the 99-Seat Plan is unique to L.A.

However, I read his speech and felt a little pang of recognition. There’s something relatable to the question of whether there is too much theatre being produced in the Chicago theatre scene. With over 200 theatre companies in Chicago, even great shows can get drowned out in the “white noise” of Chicago theatre. Similarly, because of the very low financial cost of many productions (the “freedom to fail”), and the even lower potential financial gain, “failure” can lose its power to weed out the unworthy shows/companies, while “success” for most people never actually facilitates a living wage in theatre. (Of course, who decides which shows or companies would be truly “worthy” or “unworthy” is an obviously fraught question.)

My friend Brendan (@rantmo on Twitter) argues that the speech is not applicable to Chicago at all, since the theatre scenes in each city are so different from one another. He makes a reasonable point. He further argues that so much of the work created in Chicago is so good that it would be difficult to justify cutting back the amount of theatre in this town; thus, it’s hard to say that there is “too much” theatre in Chicago. I agree with him on this point, too; I think that the quality of a majority of the theatre in Chicago is exceptional. Of course, that only makes it more disheartening when great plays draw tiny audiences, begging the question again whether there is simply too much of it.

The speech presents a somewhat cynical view of the L.A. theatre scene, and I hate to project that onto my own community. There is so much that I love about creating theatre in Chicago, not least of which is, in fact, the sheer amount of theatre in this town — because it engenders a strong community of artists and a wealth of creative opportunities. I also love that Chicago is friendly to artists who seek to create their own work, something from which I have certainly benefitted.

Ultimately, I’m more intrigued by the question than by posing a definitive answer. If anything, I’m part of the “problem” since I myself have no intention to stop creating theatre anytime soon, and I wouldn’t want my friends to stop, either. But since Weinert-Kendt’s post definitely made me think, I’m sharing it here. Chicago theatre folks, how do you respond to it?

Naps, Glorious Naps

Life in the Theatre

Naps, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Not my naps, although I love a good afternoon catnap as much as the next girl. No, I’m talking about when my baby naps. It is a truly, TRULY glorious thing to tiptoe out of her room in the middle of the day, with her blissfully sucking her fingers and dreaming about toys or boobs or whatever else she dreams about in the crib behind me.

Little Miss R was born on Halloween, 2013, so she is now nine and a half months old. The focus of this blog is about living and working in the theatre, not about adventures in parenting; but the truth is that those two worlds significantly intersect in my life right now. R has accompanied me to production meetings, technical rehearsals, and Shakespeare in the park performances. She has played patiently with her toys while I typed away on the computer, and sometimes not-so-patiently, too. We make it work.

Since she was born, she has had a tenacious aversion to naps. What can I say, she’s stubborn like her mother. Many days only yielded one twenty minute nap; the days she took even one real, full-length nap were days of celebration, and anomalies at that. Like happening upon a unicorn, or a nap-leaf-clover. So it is with not a little exuberance that I can say we seem to be hitting our stride in the nap department, finally. Two naps per day! On a schedule! Usually 90 minutes apiece!

But what does this have to do with theatre? In my case, a lot.

There will always be too much work and not enough time, and as stubborn as I am, I’ve been pushing through and getting the work done — at least the most critical work. But inserting an additional two or three hours back into my day is going to make a HUGE difference, both to how I approach those most critical items, and to my ability to tackle everything else. I can finally catch up on reading that stack of plays (many of them meaty Shakespeare scripts) awaiting my attention. I can better focus my critical and creative thinking skills on preparing future directing projects. I can more effectively update websites, manage social media campaigns, and do the multitude of other non-creative tasks that support my theatre work.

Of course, R woke up while I was writing this post and has been playing on the floor (pretty patiently, I might add) while I wrap things up. Right now I have to go stop her from eating my shoes.

Until her next nap, my friends.

Director’s Nightmare

Life in the Theatre

Most of us are familiar with the Actor’s Nightmare: that horrible dream in which you are going onstage for a play that you have never rehearsed (and immortalized in a play by Christopher Durang).

Last night I woke up at 2 AM from a goofy variation of that dream that I’m calling the Director’s Nightmare. It was final dress rehearsal for a show (I don’t know what) at some theatre (I don’t know where) with a huge cast (I don’t know who, except for two specific actors). At the beginning of the dream, I had the sinking realization that we had not worked, drilled, or polished any of the physical staging – not the blocking, nor choreography (there were dance numbers), nor stage combat.

I gave a pep talk to the actors. “I know we haven’t drilled everything like we should have. I suppose that’s partly my fault and I’m sorry. But we still have tonight, so let’s do as much as we can. Let’s get to work.” Then, as we broke to get ready to begin, an actress (who is actually in my current production of Much Ado) came up to me and asked if she could go get a sandwich.

Then we drilled the opening number, a huge piece of choreography with actors paired up to dance together. My two leads, playing a bride and a groom, couldn’t get the timing of a lift right, and were conspicuously off beat from the rest of the cast. The groom, by the way, was being played by a fight designer that I’ve worked with a lot, which I noted was odd. We drilled it over and over and they weren’t getting it and we were running out of time to rehearse and it was only the first number out of this whole big show that we had to work on.

Also, in a nice throwback to the early-90s, in order to keep running the dance I had to keep rewinding the music track on a boombox and pressing play, over and over again. Come to think of it, why was I doing that? There was no crew, no stage management, just me and the actors.

Anyway, then I woke up. And thankfully I laughed instead of cried. Ah, life in the theatre!

Blog, Resurrected. Part 2.

Life in the Theatre

So my previous post would have been better titled Blog, Interrupted, since my daughter woke up from her nap about a minute after I started writing.

Nevertheless: blog resurrected, now with a shiny new layout.

I’ll write about creating theatre, seeing theatre, and balancing theatre with the rest of life. I’ll also post updates about my own theatre projects as they unfold, links to articles/websites/news that I find interesting, and anything else that I feel like sharing. Allons-y!

Blog, Resurrected.

Life in the Theatre

So, I’ve been away for awhile.

In my defense, I was doing important things: directing plays, getting a new theatre company off the ground, having a baby. Time-consuming, energy-sucking, life-altering kinds of things.

Speaking of, I hear the baby waking up from her nap. So, pontificating about the intersection of life and theatre will have to wait.

But, I think I’m back. I hope.