Thursday, October 23, 2014

Actus Interruptus


I write this in a sort of gobsmacked state. As I type these words, I’m painfully aware that, under usual circumstances, I’m doing it at the same moment I would normally be finishing up a performance of “Slaughterhouse Five” at Custom Made Theatre Co. (we close on Sunday the 26th, so there are still tickets). Something happened tonight that’s never happened to me in 42 years of doing theatre: we had to cancel a performance in the middle of the show.

Now, I’ve had performances cancelled – even whole productions. (And don’t get me started on that incident …) I’ve had an actor die (quite literally) in the middle of a run. I’ve worked with actors who were drunk or deathly ill. I’ve performed while being deathly ill myself or even lacking a voice, but the show, as the cliché has it, has always gone on.

Until tonight.

Now, I’m not going to go into the exact circumstances. Not only do I not know exactly what happened, but it’s not my place to violate the medical privacy of the actor in question.

What I will say that, whatever happened occurred during a scene change and I was getting ready to come on, so all I saw was the aftermath and another cast member, Sam Tillis, who was the hero of the evening, taking charge in an extremely admirable way, calling for the show to be stopped and doing all he could to get a cell phone and call the paramedics – who arrived within a matter of minutes and really took charge.

Sam Tillis rocks

The stage manager came down from the booth, assessed the situation and made the announcement that, basically, there was nothing we could do and we were going to have to cancel the rest of the performance.

After a few minutes, the audience pretty much cleared out, even the friends and family who were there – and for whom I felt especially bad, if only because I know them. We got out of costume, and the cast kind of stood and sat around, trying not only to sort out our feelings, but also what we should do. There was, of course, nothing. The paramedics were taking excellent care of our friend (who has, in the meantime, Facebooked from the ER about how the morphine was working well, so that’s a relief), so there was nothing we could do in that regard. There was nothing to be done in regard to the show or the audience, and we were all sort of dealing with – well, not shock (because that’s far too strong a word), but the sudden unexpectedness of it all. As with anything unexpected, we were all left to deal with whatever the hell had just happened and why we weren’t doing the show we were supposed to be in the middle of.

My approximate reaction to the whole situation.

Even now, two hours later, and at a time when I’d normally be home, I’m still sort of gobsmacked. To tell the truth, I felt a little off at the beginning of the performance. We’d had our usual few days off, so I’m sure that was the reason. It was little things; nothing major, and probably stuff no one else would ever notice, but then one’s perception of one’s own performance is always different from everyone else’s, isn’t it?

Anyway, we’re probably due for some changes in the show Friday. I can’t imagine it’ll be business as usual, but it’ll doubtless be interesting.

“The Magic of Live Theatre,” indeed.

“Let’s go on with the show!”

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Penultimate Chapter



So, at the end of our last installment, I was about to propound some deep thoughts on directorial interpretation.

I went on and on about Joanne Akalaitis’s version of “Endgame,” which deviated enough from Mr. Beckett’s intentions that he sought to stop it in the courts. Failing there, he had a note included in the program:

Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn't fail to be disgusted by this.

That would seem to have put an end to it. The production got what I take to have been mixed reviews, and even if Mr. Beckett wasn’t satisfied, everyone did make a case for their position.

Samuel Beckett at 70, but don't think he couldn't have taken you.

Mr. Beckett died in 1989, but his estate has closely guarded productions of his work ever since – even ill-considered ones (some of which shall go unnamed, given my potential readership; discretion indeed being the better part of valor …). So it was a surprise to me to find that, in 2009, ART had once again attempted a production of “Endgame” – though by this time, neither Ms. Akalaitis nor Mr. Brustein were on the premises, and ART was committed to doing the play in exactly the way Mr. Beckett had intended. Director Marcus Stern explained, "We had to sign a contract with the estate that we'd stick absolutely to the letter of the script. We are literally coloring inside clearly drawn lines by Beckett." Leaving that “literally” aside, this is a point I’ll return to in a minute.

According to the Boston Globe:

It's not easy to pull off, says Stern, who at first thought the directions would be limiting. But instead he says he finds it deeply challenging and exhilarating.

"It's very labor intensive and really exhausting," he says. "The task is really hyper-focused, but it's also very interesting getting the mechanics down. Normally it would be frustrating, but there is a great faith he's such a great writer that it will pay off to strictly adhere to his description."

 Stern and his actors, "literally" coloring inside the lines.

I remember some actor – I think it was George C. Scott, so I'll give him the credit – talking about how ridiculous it was to give awards in the arts. Not only is it impossible to compare performances in varied plays and movies (I mean, who gave a better performance? Kathy Bates in “’Night, Mother,” Groucho Marx in “A Night at the Opera,” or Robert Preston in “The Music Man?”) He felt the only real way to judge actors was to have everyone play Hamlet and then decide who was best. And even then, it would be purely subjective; there’s no empirical way to say that a performance is good, bad, or indifferent; it’s all up to the observer. We’ve all seen performances that others raved about and left us shrugging and saying “What the hell was that?”

Try to tell me this isn't the equivalent of Gielgud in "Hamlet" and you'll get an earful.
 
So, to get back to Mr. Stern’s comment, we have to color inside the creator’s lines. Not only is it what’s required legally, it’s also the only basis by which we can determine how closely a production comes to the writer’s intentions. Yeah, you might think “South Pacific” would make more sense if it were set on Mars, or that “The Farnsworth Invention” (remember that one? From all those days ago?) would be better with a different ending, but it’s not your decision to make. It’d be like walking into someone’s house and saying “those walls would look better if they were bright green” and painting them on your own volition. You might be right, but it’s not up to you. You might think my new shirt would look better if the sleeves were cut off, but if you try to do it, I’m probably gonna get pissed off and punch you.

So what’s the solution? Well, three come immediately to mind, but we'll discuss those next time. (I know, I know ...)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

"It Looks Like (Pause) A Small Controversy. Bad Luck to It!"

I ended our last meeting with a question from the estimable Eric L. of Oregon:

“How do you think this incident compares to the Beckett's objection and legal action against Akalaitis's production of ‘Endgame?’”

I’m glad Eric asked me the question, since I’d forgotten that particular incident.
Musing it over (thinking isn’t good enough, of course), I have a few thoughts and observations.

In 1984, Ms. Akalaitis was hired to direct a production of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” for the American Repertory Theater in Boston. In spite of Mr. Beckett’s well-known insistence on his plays being done exactly as he had written them, Ms. Akalaitis determined that the play not only needed to be moved from its creator’s stark setting (“Bare interior. Grey light. Left and right back, high up, two small windows, curtains drawn. Front left, touching each other, covered with an old sheet, two ashbins”) to what the New York Times described as “an abandoned subway station, layered with trash as well as a derelict train,” she also added an overture and underscoring by minimalist composer Philip Glass (coincidentally, her ex-husband) that was, to quote the Times again, “peripheral but supportive, a fierce scraping, like the sound - to extend the underground imagery - of a subway car careening off the track at high speed.” Hardly the post-apocalyptic wasteland Beckett describes.

 ART's "Endgame."

It’s unclear from my research whether Mr. Beckett was asked in advance if the changes were permissible or learned about them by reading ART’s publicity -- the Times, in the review linked to above, summarizes the production as “Nuclear Metaphor ENDGAME,” so the cat may have been out of the garbage can well in advance – but, regardless, when he found out what Ms. Akalaitis intended to do, Mr. Beckett hit the metaphorical can lid and filed suit to stop the production. A settlement was ultimately reached, and a statement from the playwright was inserted into the program:

Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn't fail to be disgusted by this

As the author intended.

Beckett also objected to black actors being cast in two of the play’s four roles, which caused Robert Brustein, the then-artistic director of ART to bemoan the playwright’s apparent racism:

I was really astonished. Beckett was a playwright who we revered. We were shocked. We had black actors in the cast playing the parts of Ham and Nagg, and we were most upset about his objection to that.

Was Beckett a racist? Who knows? Given Beckett’s boycotting of apartheid-era South Africa and his concern for human rights, the charges are doubtful. Critic Thomas Garvey of the Hub Review defends him, noting:

Beckett always disapproved of productions of his plays that "mixed" the races (or the genders in ways not specifically described), because he felt that power relations between the races and genders were not a part of the artistic material he was trying to present, and so he wanted to leave them out entirely, as he felt they would inevitably draw attention in performance from his central concerns. He was happy, however, to see all-black productions of his plays - or all-female productions of single-sex scripts like “Waiting for Godot.

"Waiting for Godot" in New Orleans -- heaven only 
knows what Beckett would have made of this one.
  
(At this point, I’ll just note the cross-gender casting in Alchemist’s “Oleanna.”)

It should also be noted that Mr. Garvey didn’t have much use for Ms. Akalaitis’s production, saying that she’d “pasted her usual dim downtown appliqué onto ‘Endgame’ - she dopily literalized its sense of apocalypse by setting it in a bombed-out subway station  … it proved to be bombastic and, well, stupid).”

Now, with all of this in mind, two things occur to me – but, since I’m 600+ words into this – and am beginning to enjoy my reputation for taking forever to get to the damn point – I’m going to deal with them next time.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Topic That Wouldn't Die



It’s the damnedest thing.

I don’t know what it is about this line of inquiry, but this series of posts has garnered more clicks – and even Facebook shares – than anything else I’ve written. As far as I can tell, though, this will be the last entry for now on the topic. (We’ll see what happens in about 800 words when I realize I still have more to say and don’t want to strain your patience.)

Let me deal with the Arthur Miller reference I made in the last colyum. I need to preface that, though, with some background on Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre. 

If I won't link to it, I should at least show it.

Looking at their website, it seems like they’re a company dedicated to screwing around with other people’s creations while relentlessly patting themselves on the back for doing so. Consider this blurb for “Miss Julie:” “August Strindberg’s masterpiece has been hovering in the wings at Belvoir for a while now, waiting for the right people: Leticia Cáceres and Brendan Cowell both know how to combine tender and brutal to devastating effect. Simon Stone joins them with a rewrite of the play in the fashion of his The Wild Duck.” Note the “his” there, which refers to Mr. Stone, and not either the late Mr. Strindberg or the late Mr. Ibsen. Pretty much every description of the plays they produce refers to an “adaptation” of this or “a contemporary version” of that. Not content to adhere to the intentions of the playwright, they’ve decided that their only responsibility is to themselves. 

Mind you, I'm not saying this would be Ibsen's opinion of Stone, but ...

In 2012, Mr. Stone decided to produce Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” – or, at least, some of it. According to Terry Teachout’s report:

Not only did he cut the play's epilogue, but he altered the manner in which Willy Loman, Arthur Miller's protagonist, meets his death. In the original play, Willy dies in a car crash that may or may not have been intentional; in Mr. Stone's staging, he commits suicide by gassing himself. On top of that, Belvoir neglected to inform ICM Partners, the agency that represents Mr. Miller's estate and licenses his plays for production around the world, that Mr. Stone was altering the script.

Since rewriting dead playwrights seems to be Stone’s stock in trade, I can see why he didn’t feel the author’s representatives were worth notifying. I’m actually surprised he was did something as boring, traditional, and mundane as casting a male actor as Willy. They’re currently doing “Hedda Gabler” (a play that’s dismal enough) with a male actor playing Hedda. Because A) it’s supposed to make a statement about gender roles and B) apparently there aren’t any women in Sydney who are capable of playing the part. 

Hedda Gabler, ladies and gents.

Mr. Stone’s defense of his bastardized presentation of Miller’s play was “"Until recently we accepted the Broadway or West End way of treating their classics, now we are bringing to them an Australian sensibility and technique. The world is responding." Since the “Australian sensibility and technique” seems to involve violating copyright and ignoring a writer’s intentions, it’s no wonder the world is “responding” mainly by refusing him the rights to do anything. A look at their current season shows rewrites of “Oedipus” (two of them!), “The Inspector General” (“inspired by Nikolai Gogol” – who only wrote the goddamn thing), “Nora,” (“after ‘A Doll’s House’ by Henrik Ibsen”), “A Christmas Carol” (“after Charles Dickens”) and “Cinderella.” They’re also doing “The Glass Menagerie,” but I’d imagine the rights-holders are keeping a close watch on them.

This kind of conduct goes to the heart of how the Facebook discussion about the Mamet case went. The opinions ranged from the conviction that the writer owns his or her words and has every right to determine how they’re presented to an audience, to a belief that since plays are more intangible things than physical, they should the property of any director or actor who wanted to do anything they wanted with them. One poster tried to make his case by saying that if I bought a shirt, he was free to do whatever he wanted with it: cut off the sleeves, dye it, or whatever. Never mind that he’s not buying that particular shirt; he’s borrowing it from someone who probably won’t appreciate the alterations.

"Here's your shirt back -- or at least all the pieces."
 
I think I’ve made it pretty clear which camp I fall into (the former, in case there was any doubt), but I can almost see the point of the latter – IF (and it’s a big “if”) they’ve talked to the creator of the work they want to tag with their graffiti. In my experience, most writers are willing to at least listen to a director or producer who has an innovative idea on how to recreate their work. They may not agree to the changes, but they’ll listen. But if they say no; that’s it. If you want to innovate, create your own work and do with it what you will.

We Get Letters:

Eric L. writes: “How do you think this incident compares to the Beckett's objection and legal action against Akalaitis's production of Endgame?”

Thanks for asking, Eric. As expected, though, I’ve reached my daily limit and will return to this topic next time.