Friday, March 20, 2015

What? And Quit Show Business?

The thing that’s foremost on my mind this week is the 99-seat kerfuffle in Los Angeles. I’m sure many of my constant readers are aware of the situation, but for those who aren’t, here’s a precis (as best I understand it). Back in the ‘80s, a plan was implemented in Los Angeles theatres to allow members of Actor’s Equity to act in theatres with 99 seats or fewer at pay rates below Equity minimum. This usually amounted to token payments (in the low single or double figures) for rehearsals and performances. The most contentious part of this was that Equity had to be forced into the plan because of a court order.

Now, I’ll stipulate that, in a perfect world, anyone involved with a theatrical production – actors, designers, directors, technicians, stage managers, running crew, front-of-house staff – would be paid a living wage, but anyone in this business knows that we don’t live in a perfect world, do we?  If we get paid at all, it’s a token amount that pays for gas or BART or Muni fare. And that’s fine. There’s an old saying that you can make a killing in the theatre, but not a living; none of us does this to get rich. It’s all about – or should be about – the creative process and the chance to do interesting work.

When I started auditioning for shows in Los Angeles in the late ‘70s, it was (for the most part) not good. The scene was filled with shows that were intended mainly as showcases for people to get agents to do film and television. There was some quality work – at The Odyssey, The Matrix, South Coast Rep; some other places – but most was middling or bad or featured TV and movie stars who wanted to tread the boards, to mixed results. (The Charlton Heston/Deborah Kerr Long Day’s Journey was particularly gruesome, but Dana Elcar, Donald Moffat, Ralph Waite, and Bruce French did an unforgettable Godot; the second-best I’ve ever seen).

Didi, Gogo, Pozzo 
 
Heston as Tyrone. *Shudder*

After the waiver was implemented, LA theatre bloomed and entered, if not a golden age, then an explosion of creativity. Companies sprang up and thrived as actors, both known and unknown were able (to use a phrase I hate) to “practice their craft,” be creative, take artistic risks, and find their own level of success, unhampered by undue financial concerns.

For the last twenty-some years, this system must have stuck in Equity’s craw, and in recent months, they’ve announced plans to get rid of the waiver and ensure union actors are paid, at the very least, minimum wage. Now in theory, who could object to that? Actors should be able to make at least as much as the kid at McDonald’s who runs the drive-thru (a job that actually requires him or her to act being friendly for at least part of a shift), but doing that will drive up production costs to ruinous levels (I’ve read between 5,000% and 9,000%) that will drive a lot of companies out of business – ironically depriving the very actors whom the union wants to be paid for working. It seems Equity’s position is that actual work at small compensation is preferable to no work at minimum wage.

I was stunned to hear that there are 8,000 Equity members in the Los Angeles area. I don’t think there are 8,000 actors in the Bay Area, let along Equity members. (Of course, it seems like a good portion of the Equity actors working here live in New York … ) Now, obviously, not all of those union actors are working on stage, either fully paid or underpaid, but even if half of them were/are doing waiver shows, that half will soon be deprived of work, because the companies that have allowed them to do something with substance (or even something frivolous) won’t be there anymore.

As might be guessed, this proposal is causing large rifts in the LA theatre community, with plenty of actors – and plenty of them famous, if that makes any difference – pitted against their own union. (And let it be notes, the new plan has plenty of supporters.) While both sides are pretty adamant in their stances, Equity isn’t really playing fair, using phone banks to spread, if not misinformation, then incomplete information and deleting opposing comments from their Facebook and other web pages. And, on top of that, even though Equity members will be voting on whether to institute a new plan, it’s strictly advisory, and the union’s board will be free to dump the old plan and put in a new one. (And let me hasten to add, many of the people against the new plan acknowledge that the current one could stand some changes – just not the proposed one.)

Even Hal Holbrook is in favor of the waiver. (Hey, that rhymes.)

Now, even though I’m a member of two unions (which will go unnamed) myself, not only am I in favor of keeping the waiver in Los Angeles, I wish we here had something similar; not because I don’t want actors to be paid, but because the talent pool available to a lot of directors and theatre companies in the Bay Area would rise dramatically (no pun intended). I haven’t been a member of the LA theatre community for over 20 years, but from what I read and hear about it, it’s vibrant, experimental, bold, and, most important, open. Even though theatre space has always been at a premium in the Bay Area – now (when it seems like any building in mid-Market is being replaced by skyscraping condo projects) more than ever – I’d have to think that a move that allowed actors to work in so many venues and with so any company that met the criteria would be a shot in the arm and kick start the golden age of theatre that San Francisco’s been on the verge of for the last 20 years. #pro99

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Moliere: Made to Order “Wile-U-Wait”



I’m directing again. I enjoy directing. I’m not bad at it and the results are almost always worth the time it all took. There are, of course, occasional exceptions to this, but Dirty Work at the Crossroads and Damn Yankees will go unmentioned in these pages. (Though I will give you a full debriefing if you get enough alcohol into me – though there’s not that much alcohol in the world …)

But I digress.

I’m directing, and this time, it’s a unique experience for me because I’m directing my own script. Now, let me clarify that. It’s my script, but it’s neither original nor wholly my own. It’s an adaptation of Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid, written in collaboration with, primarily, my long-suffering wife and, secondarily, the cast.

When I toured the theatre at the interview, I knew it was going to be a small-scale production. I could see I wasn’t going to be able to fly in chandeliers or helicopters, and my royalty budget was going to be minimal, so I started thinking of what I could do that would fit the budget and the space. That’s fine. In the last decade, I’ve become more of a minimalist, and do what I can to get by with metaphor and suggestion. I was given carte blanche on what script to select, and after some brief thought, I remembered how two of the funniest productions I’ve ever seen were of Invalid, and that it might be time for me to try some Moliere. And if I was going to do Moliere, well, why not do my own translation? I mean, there would be no royalties at all, so the script would say exactly what I’d want it to, and it could be fun. Regardless, it would push me out of a comfort zone and force my creativity into an unfamiliar direction.

 Pushed out of a comfort zone, or off a cliff?

Now, I know I’m not unique in this. Playwrights do it all the time – the proprietor here is a prime example. But there’s a lot to do. It’s not as complicated as acting in a show while directing it, but it’s no walk in the park. We’re three weeks into rehearsal (and I’m already on my third ingenue. Don’t ask …), and it’s a constant battle to watch staging, add business, and course correct while simultaneously wondering if something is phrased correctly, gets the point across, advances the plot, and sounds right. And, most importantly, there’s no writer to blame if any of those script factors are lacking.

One of the things I’ve wanted to do during this process was to give the actors a literal voice; to make sure that not only are their ideas implemented, but that my deathless dialogue feel organic to them. (I can’t really call it Moliere’s deathless dialogue because A) it’s not in 17th century French, B) it’s not in rhyming Alexandrines, and C) I’m pretty sure Moliere never included references to Monty Python, the Marx Brothers, or Taylor Swift.) That’s the beauty part; even though Moliere’s point was that all doctors are quacks and frauds, and that none of them are to be trusted (which is ironic, because this is the play in which he suffered a fatal seizure while performing), we’re able to take his basic characters and situations and make them do whatever we want. (And, of course, since Moliere himself was adapting commedia archetypes and making them say and do whatever he wanted, I feel no qualms about doing that to him.) In my case, it means ribbing both “natural” medicine and hard-core evangelicals, among other targets. Given the time, and a desire to stick to the basic structure of the play, I wasn’t able to take it as far as I wanted to, but I neither wanted to really insult people nor lose the lightness of the original. It’s a dumb comedy about a rich hypochondriac who gets fleeced by con men, and that’s the story I wanted to stay with. All the rest is layering and dressing.

 That whirring sound? Moliere, spinning in his grave

The thing this whole experience has pointed out to me is how back to basics it all is. It’s not quite “two planks and a passion,” but it’s not lavish. Jeebus knows that none of us do this for the money, but this is an extreme case of that. We’re taking a story and telling it in a fun and light manner. We don’t have much in the way of sets or costumes or props; we’re not skimping, but it’s not a show about the trappings. It’s a show about a company getting together, playing multiple parts, and entertaining an audience, and maybe giving them the slightest of messages to take home with them. 

Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush. Not in Moliere's original

It’s something I’d recommend to any director. Sure, it’s a privilege to work with big budgets and be able to get anything you want, but it’s truly bracing and challenging to have limited resources and make your creativity work rather than writing a check.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Taking Offense at Taking Offense




Two news stories jumped out at me this week. They’re similar in theme, but point toward a bigger issue, I think.

The first was the story that the Raleigh Little Theatre cancelled its production of the musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson because of fears that Native American groups in the area would be offended by the content. The show, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is an emo-rock musical by Michael Friedman, and Alex Timbers that tells the story of our seventh president, who came to power on a platform that was equal parts uncontrolled mob populism and Native American genocide, something the show not only presents, but revels in.

That depiction isn’t enough for the Raleigh Little Theatre, though. Apparently, the show was chosen without reading it, seeing or, or even listening to the cast album because the producers seem to be laboring under the impression that it glorifies both Jackson and his actions. I saw the show in New York and loved it, and have to say (as I said on my Facebook page) that anyone who was at all familiar with the show and didn’t come away thinking that Jackson was a genocidal yahoo either wasn’t paying attention or was too stupid to have an informed opinion. There was a bit of a debate in the thread, with some claiming that it was a responsible action by the theatre, in that it’s stupid and insensitive to deliberately offend portions of your audience. That stance reminds me of a quote from 1776, one of my favorite musicals: “This is a revolution, dammit! We’ve got to offend somebody!”

Now, two disclaimers here. One is, I’m not calling for setting out to deliberately offend people (though there’s something to be said for that – in some cases), and two, I’m an old white guy, so I’m speaking from a position of some sort of privilege; it’s easy for me to say. Okay. That’s out of the way.

The other night, I was listening to a 1967 interview with Dame Gladys Cooper. Cooper was born in 1888, and had a long and distinguished career as an actress and producer (something that I can’t imagine was easy for a woman in the 1920s and ’30s). At one point, she’s asked what she thinks of the then-current theatre; whether she likes plays that are in-your-face, more or less. She answers “no;” that she thinks the theatre should provide a nice story and not deal with social issues. Have I got a theatre for her! (Hint: It’s in North Carolina …)

Gladys Cooper in her youth.

While I don’t mind seeing “a nice story” myself, I also think that, if you’re not taking the chance of offending someone, you’re not doing it right. What has happened to us that we’re so terrified of – or even offended by – having our preconceptions and beliefs challenged? I read a rant on Facebook that took on the thugs who murdered the Charlie Hebdo staffers by saying that if their god was so weak that he would be offended by some stupid cartoons that he wasn’t worth worshipping – and certainly not killing for. In a much, much lesser sense, if your opinions and tenets are too weak to stand up to challenges, perhaps they, ironically, need radical rethinking and reexamination.

Quoted in the story was an op-ed by playwright Rhiana Yazzie of the New Native Theater,   who wrote "The truth is that Andrew Jackson was not a rockstar and his campaign against tribal people … is not a farcical backdrop to some emotive, brooding celebrity. Can you imagine a show wherein Hitler was portrayed as a justified, sexy rockstar?"

Actually, I can. Not only theatrically (The Producers), but in real life. Hitler was despicable and deserves to rot in hell, but anyone who denies that he was charismatic isn’t worth talking to. Anyone who, in less than ten years, is able to rise from failed artist to former corporal to jailbird to absolute ruler of one of history’s most powerful military machines is a “rockstar,” or, at least, the 1920s equivalent thereof. And why shouldn’t we be exposed to that viewpoint? Is any sane person going to be converted to Nazism by seeing it? I’d much rather get angry at a show and have it spark an extreme emotional reaction to it than have it wash over me and leave me feeling “meh.” I hate hate hated Cats more than I’ve ever hated anything in the theatre, but have to admit that it provoked me into analyzing that emotion and gauging why I was so provoked.

You wonder why I hated it?

Now, speaking of being provoked, the other story of the week was the Academy Award nominations. Let me state my disinterest in the Oscars. Oh, I’ll watch them and liveblog them and disparage them, but don’t really care who wins or loses. (It took me a good 15 seconds to remember what movie won last year, and I’ll be damned if I remember what won in 2013.) It’s like any list of “the best” movies or plays or books – or anything, really. They’re all well and good, and if they coincide with my current feelings, that’s fine. But there’s no way that I’ll ever agree with Sight and Sound’s naming of Vertigo as the Greatest Movie Ever, especially when I don’t even think it’s even Alfred Hitchcock’s best film. (For the record, I think that’s North by Northwest – and that’s not even my favorite; that’s Shadow of a Doubt. Or maybe Foreign Correspondent … )

But there are plenty of people who think that the lack of nominees for the World’s Most Expensive Bowling Trophy who are either female or of color is a crime equivalent to anything Hitler ever committed. Another disclaimer. I, too, think the Academy should do all it can to encourage promotion and recognition of underrepresented groups. I just don’t think that it’s worth getting upset about.

My friend Steve Stoliar (whose memoir of his years as Groucho Marx’s secretary, Raised Eyebrows, is must reading for anyone even remotely interested in the Marx Brothers) summed up his own reaction on Facebook. I reprint his post with his kind permission:

If the members of the MP Academy got together and, amongst themselves, said, "Who DON'T we want to be nominated?" and then discussed it in a big room and then decided - in unison - who to keep OUT of the nominations - especially for some petty reason - THAT is a snub. But when each member marks a ballot in secrecy, based on his/her opinion - informed, intelligent, or otherwise - of who deserves a vote - always a subjective thing; there's no such thing as a film, actor, song, book, painting that everybody loves or everybody hates - THAT is not a snub. It is - wait for it - democracy in action, like it or not. When there are more Best Picture nominees allowed than for any other category, it is statistically impossible to have each Best Picture director also nominated in the Best Director category. The lack of inclusion does not mean that director did a shitty job or "the movie must've directed itself" (that tired, meaningless cliche), or that the Academy conspired to keep their names off the list. It means the others got more votes than they did, so they didn't make the cut. You can rail about not enough women, not enough blacks, not enough black women, etc. etc. etc. and you can see it as some shameful snubbing conspiracy that must stop THIS VERY MINUTE, but that is the simple truth. Whether you choose to extrapolate something more sinister from it is your choice.

Steve’s book. Free plug!

We all have choices about what to be offended by or where to see conspiracies. But I think it behooves us to remember that our tastes are not definitive; they work for us, and that’s that. For everything we find offensive or repulsive or delightful or mediocre, there is someone whose reaction is exactly the opposite.

Art is neither a democracy nor a dictatorship (it might be a plutocracy, but that’s another matter … ). Art is art, and we need to be exposed to all of it, the pleasant and the unpleasant, in order to grow, even in directions we might never have expected. I dislike few plays more than Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, but because I exposed myself to it. I found David Cromer’s production of it touching. I never would have thought an indie-rock approach to a section of Tolstoi’s War and Peace would be anything but intolerable, but Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 remains one of the great experiences of my theatergoing life. I hated every minute of The Lily’s Revenge, but forced myself to stay in order to make sure I was giving it a fair shake, as well as wanting to determine what it was about it that made me hate it so much. (Short answer: everything.) Similarly, I think it would benefit the protestors to actually see Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson as much as it would benefit the stodgy and self-important members of the motion picture academy to expand beyond their usual suspects. The worst that could happen would be that their artistic outlooks expand.

Friday, December 19, 2014

There Is No First Amendment in Pyongyang



The subject du jour is censorship.

Readers with long memories (and enduring patience) may remember my series from the spring concerning my production of “The Farnsworth Invention” that inspired a group to protest the show.

Much to everyone’s relief – especially mine – I’m not going to rehash l’affaire Farnsworth. If you’re so inspired, click over on the right there, and you can relive the boycotting thrills.

What I am going to do is use it a springboard to talk about censorship in regards to this whole “Interview” thing. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, pick up a goddamn newspaper.

While no one would ever accuse entertainment executives of being brave or even acting for any but the most venal reasons, this thing manages to plumb new depths of cravenness. I’ve said before that I don’t believe actors do brave things in a performance. They do remarkable things – but “brave?” No. Soldiers are brave. Cops are brave (when they’re not shooting unarmed civilians). Firefighters? Brave. Actors who simulate emotions? Nope. They can be funny or moving or powerful or dull, but I don’t think they’re brave. That said, they’re Congressional Medal of Honor winners compared to the theatre owners and studio executives who shit the bed at the thought of unknown hackers making vague threats against unspecified audiences. I had no idea that North Korea had such a sophisticated intelligence and military structure that it could infiltrate – with weapons – each of the thousands of theatres that were scheduled to screen the movie. If they’re that effective, can’t we hire these guys to take on ISIS?

 North Korea's finest?

Now, anyone who knows me knows I loathe Seth Rogen. Every one of his movies strikes me as the product of people who smoked way too much dope – to the point where they think a Seth Rogen movie is funny. While “The Interview” really didn’t need any help disappearing – from the reports of the few critics who saw it, it would have vanished on its own within a matter of weeks – the enforced prohibition of it is the first step on a very steep slope away from art or any kind of creative expression. What’s next? If a white-supremacist group threatens screenings of “Selma,” will that be banned? If anti-Semitic groups want to prevent a Holocaust movie from being shown, will the studios cave?

We’ve already seen numerous cases of productions of plays like “Corpus Christi” or “The Laramie Project” cancelled because certain groups – usually right-wing, usually Christianist, usually demanding that their own rights be obeyed by everyone while trampling everyone else’s – were offended by their content. And look at the recent protests over the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of John Adams and Alice Goodman’s “The Death of Klinghoffer.” How dare anyone even suggest that Palestinians have been oppressed by the Israelis? (For that matter, try doing a production of “My Name is Rachel Corrie;” a play that’s such a hot button that Wikipedia has a section of “Confirmed Performances.”) And I’ve mentioned more than once how a 1967 production of Michael McClure’s “The Beard” was raided nightly at my alma mater of Cal State Fullerton because of its on-stage simulation of a blow job.

In this continuum, the people who protested my production of “Farnsworth” were amateurs. Yes, they preferred we not do the show because they felt – with some justification – that the script doesn’t give credit to Philo Farnsworth and his invention of television. But their objections ended at picketing and the handing out of informational sheets; an activity we were happy to help them with.

For me, the idea that someone would want to protest and shut down a show is one of the compelling reasons to do it. I might disagree or despise a play, but I’ll damned if I’d call for it to be banned. (I might personally boycott it, but I wouldn’t prevent others from trying to see it.)

It’s like in my bookselling days. Anyone here remember “The Satanic Verses?” (Since this happened more than five minutes ago, I’ll explain it.) Back in 1988, Salman Rushdie wrote the book, and certain Islamic fundamentalists were so offended by the mere idea of it that they threatened Rushdie with death. The American publisher grew terrified at the prospect of issuing it and cancelled it. Of course, that just made everyone want to own it (much as they want to see “The Interview” now). Eventually, an anonymous consortium of publishers put the book out. It was scheduled, and my bookstore – like probably every bookstore (this is way pre-Amazon, remember) – had dozens of orders for it. When it finally came out, I spent many days calling people to tell them it was in and available for purchase. One call was to woman with an Arabic-sounding name. I told the deep-voiced man with a middle eastern accent who answered the phone that the copy of “The Satanic Verses” she’d ordered was in. There was a pause, then an ominous “Oh, she did … ?” I have no idea if she ever came in to get it. But is that what we’ve come to, though? An anonymous voice sounds mildly threatening, and we’re supposed to cower under the bed? Fuck that noise.


Hope I don't get in trouble for promoting this


For the last word, I surprisingly turn to the E! Network. In their report on George Clooney’s reaction to the boycott, they had this to say: 

“The A-list actor … explains why the studio opted to scrap the Seth Rogen and James Franco flick while also discussing the lack of support from others in industry and urging everyone to see the bigger picture at hand—which is, mainly, that we’re now allowing North Korea to dictate what we watch.

“‘Here, we’re talking about an actual country deciding what content we’re going to have. This affects not just movies, this affects every part of business that we have. That’s the truth. What happens if a newsroom decides to go with a story, and a country or an individual or corporation decides they don’t like it. Forget the hacking part of it,’ Clooney says.

“’You have someone threaten to blow up buildings and all of a sudden, everybody has to bow down. Sony didn’t pull the movie because they were scared. They pulled the movie because all the theaters said they were not going to run it. And they said they were not going to run it because they talked to their lawyers and those lawyers said, if somebody dies in one of these, then you’re going to be responsible.’

“He continues, ‘This is a silly comedy, but the truth is, what it now says about us is a whole lot. We have a responsibility to stand up against this. That’s not just Sony, but all of us, including my good friends in the press who have the responsibility to be asking themselves, what was important, what was the important story to be covering here. The hacking is terrible because of the damage they did to all those people. Their medical records, that is a horrible thing, their Social Security numbers. Then, to turn around and threaten to blow people up and kill people, and just by that threat alone we change what we do for a living, that’s the actual definition of terrorism.’”

I know I don’t want anyone telling me what I can and cannot see, read, or perform. Neither should you. And if Dear Leader doesn’t like it, the little fat toad can climb a stepladder and bite me.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Artsville, USA



The wife and I recently returned from a trip to Ashland. Now, this does certainly not make us unique. I’d venture to say that a good portion of my constant readers (especially those in the Bay Area) have been there, and more than once. This trip was either my third or fifth (depending on how you count). I’ve seen shows there only three times, but auditioned there twice. (It obviously didn’t take – yet. I’m determined to go back, though.) It’s odd that I’ve been there only a few times. I went to grad school in Eugene, only a couple of hours north. I just never made the effort to see anything.

There was no particular reason for this; I mean, I had no enmity against them. In fact, I had great respect for what they do, even (years and years and years ago – before some of you were even born, I’ll wager) sending them a copy of my translation of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters (getting a very encouraging letter from Jerry Turner, the then-Artistic Director).

My experiences at Ashland have been hit-and-miss. A pretty good Hamlet (with a very good central performance), one of the worst Sea Gulls I’ve ever seen (which makes me kind of glad, in retrospect, that nothing ever came of my own translation. Remind me to talk about my theories about Chekhov sometime.) On this trip, though, we were four-for-four. We saw a very good and touching production of Water by the Spoonful, a fast-paced, lively – and actually funny – Comedy of Errors, the great Jack Willis giving a towering performance as Lyndon Johnson in The Great Society, and – the whole reason for going – a damn-near-perfect production of The Cocoanuts.

 Here; watch for yourself

Anyone who knows me will know how much I love the Marx Brothers. The book I’ve read the most is Joe Adamson’s Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo. It’s probably the definitive book on the brothers and their work. In previous installments (if not on the Theatre Pub blog, then certainly on my own blog), I’ve discussed how, prior to the current era of video on demand, moviegoers couldn’t count on ever seeing a film more than once. If it was in the theatre, you went out and saw it. If it was on TV, you made the time to sit and watch; you couldn’t even record it. Many of us combed through the TV Guide (which was essential reading) to check the movie listings and see if anything really good was going to be on. (And if it was, it was almost always at 3:00 in the morning.)

There are six and a half great Marx Brothers movies: the five they made for Paramount (The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup), and at MGM the first one (A Night at the Opera) and some of the second one (A Day at the Races). None of the other six are worthless (though The Big Store comes close), but, in Adamson’s words, “they were never in anything as wonderful as they were.” By the early ‘70s, I’d probably seen all of them with two exceptions: Animal Crackers (which was unavailable for legal reasons) and The Cocoanuts. In checking the TV Guide, though, I saw that, after years of waiting, it was finally going to be on. But, as scheduling would have it, it was going to be on in the middle of the afternoon on a school day.

I have no memory of how I did it, but I somehow persuaded my mother to let me come home from school to watch it. I enjoyed the hell out of it (still do), and carry that memory fondly.

By all accounts, the Marxes may have been just about the biggest stars on Broadway in the days when that was the epitome of show business. With a couple of movie-star exceptions (Chaplin and Pickford), you really couldn’t get much bigger. The thing about the brothers was that every performance was apparently barely-controlled chaos and unique from any other: one night Harpo arrived late, forgot to underdress for a quick change and ended up naked on stage; songwriter Harry Ruby marched on stage one night to demand that he be given the bathrobe he’d been promised as a birthday present; ad libs outnumbered actual lines (one night, playwright George S Kaufman was standing backstage and told the person he was talking to “Quiet. I think I just heard one of my original lines”). There was no telling exactly what would happen, but whatever it was would undoubtedly be hysterically funny.

 "We're four of the Three Musketeers ... "


The script for both The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers have been available for decades (I own them both), but it’s incredibly rare when someone does them – especially the former (most of Irving Berlin’s score was actually lost until the Ashland production). So when I saw they were doing Animal Crackers in Ashland, I figured I had to see it – and I ended up having one of the best evenings I’ve ever spent in the theatre. It was exactly what I wanted: full of chaos, spontaneity, ad libs, and inspired insanity. It was the next best thing to seeing the actual brothers on stage. And, on top of that, when it was announced that they’d be doing The Cocoanuts this season; well, there was no damn way I was going to miss it.

Because of my commitments to Slaughterhouse Five, we were unable to head north until the end of October. Looking at the schedule, I saw that that would be the last week of the run – and the season – so I decided we had to see the final performance, figuring that, if any performance would go off the rails (in the best way), it’d be this one. It indeed did; it was just one of those performances where I had a big stupid grin on my face for nearly three hours, just drinking in the brilliance of the writing and performances. It was one of those rare times when I went into a show with the highest of expectations and hopes, and not only where they met, but everything went to 11.

"The skies will all be blue/When my dream comes true" -- and it did!

The thing I most came away with from that weekend, though, was getting a sense of Ashland. It was the first extended period I’d spent in the town, and I could really see how it’s all focused on the festival (for good reason, but still …). Everything downtown seems to have some relation to what’s going on at the theatres; that the people in town have seen the productions and can talk about them intelligently; that the stores are doing more than selling books and tchotchkes that have a “Ye Olde” vibe. There’s a real sense of pride as to what the Festival means – and does – that I’ve never felt in another city, not even Stratford-Upon-Avon. It’s a real theatre-based town and economy that made me want to work there and become part of that experience.

 Downtown Ashland

It’s something I can’t imagine in another town or city. Theatre is either a minor or nonexistent part of most peoples’ lives in the Bay Area. The people I work with don’t go (they barely go to movies, let alone live non-musical performances), and certainly wouldn’t recognize names like Sarah Ruhl or Theresa Rebeck, let alone Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams. (Hell, they barely know movies or television shows that are more than five years old.)

Now, I hasten to add, I don’t think these people are stupid or poorly educated – at least, in areas that don’t relate to the arts. It’s just that so many of our communities ignore the arts – performing and visual – that to say they ignore them is a vast minimization. They don’t know them in the way they don’t know what the best bakery in Montevideo is; it just doesn’t exist for them. That’s what was so exhilarating about being in Ashland. There was a sense that not only is everyone aware of, and pulling for, what’s happening with the Festival; it’s that it matters to them.

And realizing that was simultaneously frustrating, sad – and inspiring.