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The Moral of the Story

Last night I saw a performance of Castle of Perseverance, a medieval morality play that had been infused with pop songs and contemporary stylings. I left with a lot more questions about theatre than I did about the sake of Mankind’s Soul.

Castle of Perseverance is the earliest full length play we have in record. Morality plays became popular in the 15th century, and are fully allegorical plays that look at redemption through a religious catholic lens. We usually follow a symbol of man as he comes against forces of good and evil and has to struggle with his morality. Characters like Penance and Sloth and the Devil attempt to guide or sway our troubled man.

We no longer live in a puritanical society, so why, the question begs to be asked, do a medieval morality play? The ensemble was not devoutly religious. They do not believe all humanity is at risk of condemnation. Perhaps an opportunity to explore the earliest form of theatrical tradition? That seems like a strong starting point for me. So if someone wanted to take a look at the morality play as a touchstone in theatrical history, that seems like a viable route to explore.

This production went the next step further. They took this play and decided to translate the themes into their modern day counterparts, rife with pop songs to accompany it.

Which is where I became quite lost. The reach to appeal to my modern sensibilities left me thinking, okay what exactIy am supposed to take away? Man might not make it to heaven if he does bad things?

Society has always found ways to tell stories of morality. When we moved away from religious based plays about being condemned, the entertainment industry began to tell our morals in other forms. An article written in 1987 talks about how the Cosby Show and Family Ties have become our own contemporary form of a Morality play. Each week these characters come into conflict over how to make good decisions and lead your life as a good person, giving home audiences a vehicle to explore these moral stories.

There is definitely a place for exploring stories of morality in present day, however I feel we’ve reached a time when I desire a level of depth or complexity to the characters faced with these struggles. We know we are not all one note, and seeing real people who are flawed just as we all are, come out the other side of a bad situation a-okay is a far more rewarding way of dealing with decisions about right or wrong. Everyone looks back on after school specials and laughs at how in your face the morals were. The stories that we keep in our hearts, that guide our decisions throughout life, usually come from subtle and unexpected places. Places that challenge us to think beyond our current worldview.

So I’m watching these characters, dressed in corsets and high, high heels wondering why we need to see such blatant over exposure to these symbols. Sexy women are bad, long skirted women are good. Rock music is bad, rose petals are good. Surely we have moved past that. Right?

The audience is smart. We are smart and don’t need to have right and wrong spelled out. The words, the form of the morality play is there and needs no help to clarify. There was a missed opportunity here: to explore an old tradition for what it was, or to take an old tradition and find a new way to reach an audience. This play did neither and what was left was the explicit, nail of the head story telling methods of the 15th century under a veneer of “this story relates to you!” leaving a soggy taste of bad after school special in my mouth.

Morality plays were meant to reach the audience of their time. We are a different audience. I have left this show understanding that for me, I don’t think the morality is serving the people of today. I think we have to work harder and explode our notions of both theatrical conventionality and story telling form to express today’s high concepts of what is right and wrong.

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Keep Your Biases Out of My Textbook

“Keep your biases out of my textbook…”  This is literally a note I wrote while doing some homework recently.

I am currently taking a class on Theatre Management. We’re learning the ins and outs of what it takes to run a theatre company, which is perfect because this is partly what I’ll end up doing in my career as a theatre artist, at least to some extent. Our textbook is fat and full of information: Theatre Management: Producing and Managing the Performing Arts, by David M. Conte and Stephen Langley. It covers topics in non-profit and commercial theatre from marketing and advertising, to budgeting, to 501(c)(3) information and more. As useful and thorough as this book is, it’s also filled with opinions and biases, usually stated as fact.

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Matilda The Musical

Isn’t this in the nature of theatre and art, though? What’s true for someone in their definition of theatre is not always true for another. I certainly have a different notion of theatre than say, my parents, or even some of my classmates in Theatre Management. And this is great! We should be challenging each other’s notions of theatre.

However, since theatre is and can mean different things for different people, perhaps biases about it should be left out of a fact heavy textbook, or at least not disguised as fact. In the chapter on Presenters and Presenting Organizations, in discussing mix use and commercial facilities for presenting performance, it states, “Although one would not consider Cirque du Soleil legitimate theatre, it certainly has made an impact on the entertainment front in Las Vegas, with five different shows currently running” (Langley 192).

From Cirque du Soleil's Amaluna

From Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna

I read this and paused. Hmm. Alright, I see where you’re coming from. Cirque du Soleil is just entertainment, right? Not theatre. Fair. Is it not theatre because not all of their shows tell a story in a linear narrative? Or because it tours and plays in casinos? Or because of the sheer hugeness of the performances themselves?

Now, while Cirque du Soleil is definitely not the place to go if you’re looking for optimum creative license in your work, I wouldn’t flat out illegitimize it. When it comes to this type of big, money-making entertainment, it’s merely a matter of taste. I would absolutely equate the entertainment vs. theatre value of Cirque to that of a number of Broadway musicals. Take any mega-musical for instance, Wicked, The Lion King, Spider-man… while I am not particularly drawn to this type of theatre, I think most people would still categorize these performances as such.

How do these giant crowd pleasers differ from a Cirque show, exactly? In the big Broadway shows, there is singing, dancing, acting, elaborate design… and in Cirque just the same, plus impressive feats of human ability. Really, these two are not so different at all. I would just as soon call the big Broadway shows illegitimate theatre as I would Cirque du Soleil. And personally, if I am going to spend money go see either of these, I’d choose Cirque. But that’s just one person’s opinion.

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Cirque du Soileil’s Quidam

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Stories Untold (or so we Thought)

One of the most aggravating excuses that exists in theatre is that certain stories (whether that be about women, gay, disabled, minorites etc) are not told because there are not enough bodies of work being produced by those groups of people nor are there enough people to tell those stories. These are outrights lies that somehow got spread in the theatre community. For some reason people are under the impression that there are audiences who are not interested in learning and watching these stories unfold. This is another untrue sentiment.

Over the course of this year I have been exploring and searching for plays written by, and about those voices not typically heard on the vast but narrow broadway stages. More specifically I have been exploring Native American voices in the United States and how culture clashes with our modern era. I myself have Seminole and Cherokee heritage and quite honestly do not know enough about my native ancestry. Over the past year I have been researching not only my family tree and my families heritage but that of other Native American tribes and educating myself on the culture as a whole. In my research I have learned the many beautiful stories, traditions, customs of a people who are so diverse they cannot possible be forced together as one.

In the article “The Current State of Native Theatre” Randy Reinholz discusses not only the need for more Native American stories throughout the United States but the importance for people who identify as Native American to hear their stories told. Reinholz now in the rehearsal process for Off the Rails, a story of Native American boarding schools and it’s implications on society. The play is it’s on twist on Shakespeares Measure for Measure through a Native American lense. Reinholz goes on to discuss Native Voices and it’s mission of spreading the stories of written by and about Native American people. For a people who were forced into boarding schools by whites in the 1800s to rid them of their cultural heritage a rediscovering of who as a people they were and who they are now is extremely important for all American’s to hear. The genocide of the Native American people is a wound that as the United States we are still tentative to address.

“When power is allowed to run amok, the oppressed will do whatever they must to survive it. In the photos from the boarding schools, I see an attempt at cultural genocide. People stripped of their traditional dress. People stripped of their language. Their drums are taken away, literally and metaphorically. But we know the powers of the day did not ultimately win. Native Americans survived and that’s why we tell the story. That’s why Native Voices exists.”

Native Voices of Autry is the only Equity house committed to sharing Native American stories by using Native American actors. The company was created in 1994 with the sole purpose of gathering support and interest in Native American life.

“When Native Voices began in 1994, a handful of published plays by Native Americans were available to theatre artists, producers, scholars, and patrons. Now hundreds of Native plays exist. The growth in the field has led to a deep talent pool of Native actors and experienced Native theatre artists across the United States. Yet there’s still more to do. More grassroots support is needed, more collaboration with tribal communities, arts organizations, and universities.”

By creating a space in which native American artists can get together to produce work it has encouraged and supported more stories being told and more actors, playwrights, directors etc. I would love to see a production by Native Voices and see how I meet the stories that are told. I also have a strong desire to hear more of these stories told not only here in Boston but in every city in the United States. Yes, there are certain regions in America where there may be a larger population of Native people but that does not mean these stories do not need to be told in every city. Here on the east coast we also have a rich native population and we as theatre artists should be seeking out material and sharing these stories.

Professionals who claim not to be able to find Indians in theatre or in their cities are displaying grand ignorance, not proclaiming “the state of affairs” within the American Theatre. Today there are more experienced, informed Native American theatre artists working in the US and Canada than ever before. They are writing and acting and informing scripts written by others. We are creative, passionate, and dedicated to our craft and stories, yet agile enough to tell any story. Google “Native American theatre” and you’ll get more than 32,000 results

I believe it is our job as theatre artists to give voices to those that are not often heard. To tell stories that give new perspective, and to make unknown voices known.

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From the Blog Moderator: Check out the entire HowlRound series on Native Theatre HERE, or on Twitter at #InsteadOfRedface.

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Going it Alone

when I was 13 I saw my first one woman show  and remember  being completely transfixed by this woman’s performance. She told a story (her story) about being a Palestinian American woman and although her experience was so different from mine, I remember feeling deeply affected by her story solely because it was one woman, in a black box alone. The power that solo performance has is endless. As I have grown up to be an avid theatre connoisseur and theatre artist I have seen all types of solo theatrical performances. When solo performances work they are deeply moving, and went they don’t they can be hours of boring torture. In the article “Doing it Alone and In The Dark” the writer and performance artist Scott Slavin discusses the many trials and tribulations of doing it all alone. The article focused mainly on good tips and ideas for artists to consider when they are trying to produce their own solo performance. In my own experience of watching solo theatre they have been deeply personal stories that the artist themselves have devised while Slavin expresses an idea that

 

“ It doesn’t have to be about you. This is sort of the most important one. Far too often solo artists think they need to make work about themselves—you don’t.”

 

This particularly sparked my interest. Some of my favorite performances that I have done have been play characters that have been so different from myself. I was under this assumption that all solo performances operated in a way that they were all self-written personal stories. Yes, they can be but the performance medium of “solo performance” does not need to limit the stories that the artist tells. Slavin lists off several ideas such as checking your ego at the door, letting yourself fail, and being brave to get on stage and tell your truth. All the same tips that apply to ensemble work or doing cast productions apply to solo performing. And in reality, a solo performance is not always a solo performance. You are speaking to characters you are speaking to the audience and although the work must be completed alone, it’s comforting to know that you are never really alone. Because of the intimate nature of a one person show it is fueled by the actors relationship to the audience and their responses while the performance is going on. Solo performances often thrive off of audience outbursts. This can be scary at times but Slavin encourages aspiring theatre makers to push the envelop when it comes to developing their own solo performances.

 

“Don’t make autobiographical work if it’s been comfortable/beige/nothing eventful has happened. Your incredibly important show about your Furby collection will be rubbish. Live a little before you ask us to pay money and/or attention.”

 

Solo performances need to push the buttons of the audience. Make them laugh, cry, scream all in the course of an hour. By getting under the skin of the audience you force them to engage with your show. the momemt you give the audience a black out, a long transition, or you leave the stage, you give the audience permission to check out and leave your story. It is much easier to keep an audience’s attention if you refuse to let them off the hook.

Lastly, Slavin’s most important idea that I found in this article was the idea of purpose, and what is the purpose of a one person show. Connection. You tell a story (whether it be your story or someone else’s) it’s worth knowing.

- See more at: http://howlround.com/doing-it-alone-and-in-the-dark#sthash.kFE0DBz8.dpuf

 

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Disability in Theater

So I have always kind of vaguely been aware of the fact that people with disabilities are hugely underrepresented in the theater. Like, duh. How many productions of have you seen where the lead actor is actually in a wheelchair because he can’t use his legs? If you said zero, we would have said the same answer. And the more I think about it, the more it bothers me that I didn’t think about it. I was even in a play with someone who has a physical disability and I didn’t think about it (like how unaware of my own privilege can I be, right?). The only reason I’m writing about it now is because I was doing research on John Belluso and felt like I needed to think and reflect on the topic some more (you know, to make up for about two decades of ignoring the lack of representation of people with disabilities in the theater world)

My freshman year of college I was in a production of Hedda Gabler and the woman who played Hedda was born without a right hand. At first I was a little taken aback. I remember allowing myself to glimpse at the end of her arm, where her wrist tapered off. I remembering wondering how she did certain things. I would watch her scroll on her computer with her not-a-hand, thinking oh whelp, I guess that solves the first question. But I never asked her about her disability. It seemed rude. I was embarrassed… I am still embarrassed. So eventually that part of her faded into the background. I don’t think I even thought about it as a disability. I just stopped thinking about it altogether. She was a great actress. I would watch her act, interact with her on stage, going to cast bondings with her, and so what originally seemed strange almost became invisible. Quite honestly, I don’t know what is worse–focusing intently on a disability or ignoring it completely. Obviously neither is ideal. I can’t imagine it is fun to have someone ogling at a part of your body, especially if that part of your body does not look like “the norm.” But at the same time, no one wants a piece of them ignored or forgotten about. Looking back, I wish I had had a dialogue with her about her disability and about the way that others interact with her. Yet, I would not have known how to have that conversation, and I still do not know how to have that conversation.

Looking at this in a larger scope, there are some issues that come up. For instance, when is it appropriate to cast an actor with a physical disability? In some senses it would be nice to say “do it all the time!” but if I cast an actor with a disability in a role that is written as an able bodied part, am I erasing the disability? On the flip side, it feels confining to only cast actors with disabilities as characters who share that disability. First of all, there are not enough parts. Second of all, isn’t part of the point of acting putting on a new persona? Playing someone who has a different experience? If actors with physical disabilities are confined to roles with disabilities, we do them disservice. It is as if we are saying that they are only good enough to do one thing, and that is not the case. So what is the theater community supposed to do here? Obviously we should be telling more stories that share a wider breadth of experience, but beyond that I am at a loss. I need to do some more research on this. This is clearly a subject I know little about. Maybe I’ll do a follow-up piece considering this question after I have learned more about the subject of disability in theater.

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The Space Case

One of the things artists struggle with is to find a place to do their work. Somewhere they can create and rehearse and dream. Real estate, especially in large cities is difficult to find and expensive when you do. You need money to rent a space, you need a space to create things that will bring you money. It’s the chicken and the egg all over the place.

As someone who is graduating soon I am truly coming to appreciate the ‘free’ spaces that are provided for me at my university. We have these rooms that, when not in class, are open to us to run around to our hearts content. When I leave and have the desire to create works with my peers, I don’t know how I’m going to find a place to put it up other than my (most likely tiny) living room. Which in all honesty, is a fine place to make theatre. However, when you have a town of living room art, it seems to me that something could be done about this.

I spent a semester at the Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford Connecticut and on my return people asked me what the O’Neill was like and I responded with “it is the theatrical home I never knew I had.” Built into the institution is a nurturing boarding house of sorts for artists who need a place to get away and work. All during my semester people would show up in our dining hall working on writing their next play, or directing their next show, even coming to just move and work on their teaching strategies. I think this model is extremely useful for cultivating a sanctuary for artists. I hope that other theaters and theatrical institutions take a page from this book and keep a room or a space open to housing or renting (cheaply) to other artists. I know that should I ever feel at a loss with my art I can return to the O’Neill and be welcomed with open, eager arms. Everyone is struggling. Everyone is passionate. The theatre world is small but powerful. I think it is our duty as artist to foster other artists.

More than artists helping artists, I believe we need society to step up and value arts as an integral part to who we are as humans. I believe that it is the duty of our government to foster the growth of arts in this country. We need more government-funded property that is dedicated to cultivating the growth of young artists. In the summer there are parks but in the winter, where are the free open spaces that can be made readily accessible for a group of artists to get together and work? Just as local little leagues can rent out the baseball diamond in the park, a dance troop should have a place they can reserve for a couple of hours  to move. A space in a town or a city, that is funded by the government, just enough to keep it running, that welcomes those who wish to create. A place that can feel like an escape and a destination all in one.

Maybe this will take many years but I definitely feel it is not out of our ability to make free, creative spaces begin to pop up around the country. What a beautiful sight that would be.

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The PLAY After Tomorrow (It’s Wicked Cold)

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It’s a tough time to be doing theatre in Boston right now.

Let’s face it, it’s a tough time to be doing anything in Boston right now.

WCVB news calculates that it’s snowed 96.3 inches this season (in an article posted two days ago, and it snowed again yesterday, and today, so I’m simply dying to know where we’re at now…). By my count, we’ve had two official “blizzards,” two driving bans, and at least three days with city-wide cancelled MBTA service. Assuming no major disasters happen tomorrow, this will have been the first full week of classes Boston University has had this semester – though still not without a “snow day,” as both campuses were closed Sunday due to the latest blizzard.

I’m a born Masshole and have lived here all my life, so I’m typically not one to particularly remark about the winter. It snows. It’s cold. Walking around is gross. Commonwealth Ave is a wind tunnel. All of this is business as usual. But this winter… is not. Let me tell you, if by some chance you aren’t reading this from Boston and experiencing it for yourself – it really is that bad. The snow is relentless, it just keeps coming, and it’s pretty much ruined public transit as we know it. Entire branches of the T have been shut down, or were just utterly unreliable, for days. The tracks of the Green B line still aren’t visible under inches of snow. It appears that the parking ban in Boston has just been lifted, because today for the first time I saw cars along Commonwealth Ave – hedged against mountainous snow banks that leave at least six feet between you and the sidewalk. There might by some miracle be a shoveled corridor allowing you to get off the street, but most likely you’ll be walking alongside the traffic to the end of the nearest block. Talk about scary. And the TRAFFIC. Holy God. It’s like rush hour from morning til night. Which means the buses are off schedule, and calling a cab or an Uber (assuming the driver can get to you) won’t get you anywhere any faster. The  bitter cold (20 mph winds today brought the real-feel temperature to -4 degrees…) means that walking instead is borderline dangerous, not to mention extremely difficult given the slush, ice, and possibility of unshoveled sidewalks. Wow, I hated writing that. The point is, even if you want to try, it’s extremely difficult to get anywhere in Boston right now. And our local economy is feeling it.

Businesses, especially small businesses, are suffering. The Boston Globe reported that “the drop-off in consumer spending, missed days at work, and transportation delays caused by the string of winter storms have already cost Massachusetts more than $1 billion in lost business activity.” A particular blow was dealt last weekend as a blizzard rolled in on Valentine’s Day, a holiday which it has been estimated represents a half-billion dollars for Massachusetts retailers and restaurants in related sales. Governor Baker has been repeatedly urging citizens to frequent their local businesses, and even attempted to help recover lost Valentine’s revenue by declaring this week “Valentine’s Week” – a time for customers to take the night out they might have skipped last Saturday. Several restaurants have continued their Valentine’s dinner specials throughout the week, such as the vegan/vegetarian restaurant Veggie Galaxy (Cambridge), in hopes of drawing in some of the lost crowds –

Did last weekend’s snow put a damper on your Valentine’s Day plans?
Here at Veggie Galaxy we had to cancel our Pre-Valentine’s Day dinner with the Boston Vegetarian Society, we lost one day of the special weekend since the T wasn’t running, and in general it just wasn’t as busy and festive as Valentine’s Day usually is around here because of the weather.
Gov. Baker has proclaimed this week “Valentine’s Week” in the Commonwealth of MA  to give everyone another chance to have a good Valentine’s Day, and we’re on board with that!
Our Kitchen will be offering, starting tonight, some of the special “finer diner” dishes we had planned for the BVS dinner, as our Blue Plate, our Seitan Cutlet Special and as a special fancy Appetizer. There will also be special desserts available this week.

(Veggie Galaxy Facebook page)

And our local theatre companies are no exception. The Huntington Theatre Company has cancelled two performances so far due to snow, including the opening performance and after-party of The Second Girl (the event was rescheduled for the following evening). I can’t speak to the revenue that theatres across the city have lost, but can imagine that it is very substantial. It’s just too difficult to get around right now. I myself was planning on seeing Uncle Jack tonight at BU’s Studio 210 (presented by the Boston Center for American Performance). Luckily there is a BU shuttle service to Huntington Ave, otherwise I would need to take at least two, if not three buses to get there. I waited in the bitter, bitter cold for over ten minutes and finally got on the shuttle, but the traffic was so unusually terrible that I missed the curtain time. It was too frigid to do anything else but head back home, which meant waiting in more icy negative degree weather for another delayed bus. Honestly, I’ve never experienced that level of cold. I truly wished I had just stayed home.

So what can we do? Not much, except try to collectively get through this winter. One BU College of Fine Arts student has taken it upon herself to try to ease the frustrations of MBTA passengers with a bit of humor. I don’t think theatre needs to be doing that. But the good news is, there’s a lot of great work happening right now. Second Girl has been getting exceptional reviews, and so has Uncle Jack. I’ve also been hearing plenty of buzz about Bridge Repertory Theatre of Boston’s Sixty Miles to Silver Lake

Though I returned home after my failed theatre-going endeavor freezing, bitter, and swearing to never leave the house again, I know I will. I have plans to see shows on both Friday and Saturday of this weekend. Though getting there will more than likely be an awful experience, I have hope that the play and opera I’ll be seeing will make it worthwhile. Life doesn’t stop when winter brings its worst, and I guess art doesn’t either. (At least, not yet.) And thank goodness for that!

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