Saturday, November 7, 2009

Judicial Theatre Review of "The Overwhelming" at the Art Fuse

Bill Marx, Editor of The Art Fuse, is conducting a new experiment, the "judicial arts review." To quote Marx:

As coverage of the arts in the conventional, mainstream media wanes, critical discussion of the arts online has settled into two extremes: there’s the corporate dream of an omnipotent “Google” reviewer for all and the chaos of opinions fired off in individual blogs of varying quality and intellectual integrity.

My aim with the Judicial Review, of which there will be one a month in the coming year, is to fashion a mid-way between these two unsatisfying polarities — to create a flexible place where professionals and non-professionals, artists and amateurs can exchange views and judgments about the arts. This will serve as a model for a civil conversational setting that will invite independent discussion as well as encourage participation in the arts.
To this end, he has assembled a panel including myself, playwright Peter-Adrian Cohen, and Timothy Longman, Director of the New African Studies Center at Boston University, to review Company One's production of J.T. Rogers' play about the Rwandan genocide, The Overwhelming.

Brother Blue 1921-2009

On November Third, Brother Blue (Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill) left the land of the living. He took the title of "storyteller" but could be, and often was, described as a shaman, griot, or performance artist avant la lettre. He was a powerful presence in the Boston area as well as internationally for decades, telling stories to children, teenagers, and adults, as well as serving as a friend and mentor to countless artists.

Brother Blue loved King Lear and often described Shakespeare as the "greatest bluesman the world had ever known."

I had the joy of many encounters with him and his wife and constant companion, Ruth Edmonds Hill, a historian, folklorist, and his documentarian and manager. Last time was this past June at a reading by former U.S. Poet Laureate, Rita Dove, at the Harvard Bookstore. Despite such luminaries in the room as Dove, Henry Louis Gates, and Kevin Young, in the hour or so that followed the reading, Blue held court in his own unique manner, so when he draped his arm over my shoulder I felt like a prince.

Often times, I would encounter him holding court in the café section in the front of the Harvest Co-op in Central Square, and and I soon found that to anyone who knew him, "I was talking to Brother Blue" was an acceptable excuse for tardiness. One day, he told me that he was tired of so many of so much of the traditional mime repertoire that had since become cliché and demanded of me, instead, to "show me the sun having trouble getting up in the morning."

I did not want to refuse, and I could not, and right there in the café, I performed what could only be termed 'the first draft" of what would become my mime piece, "O, Mister Sun, Don't You Fall Asleep On Me." That was the sort of influence Blue could have on people.

I have looked about for any written accounts of my encounters with Blue and found an entry from my 2005 blog about one of my stints with Bread and Puppet:

Brother Blue and Ruth Hill arrive early to the evening’s show. Blue is one of the great American storytellers, and the elder statesman of Boston’s bohemia. Ruth is his wife of many decades, documentation, manager, and less flamboyant partner, dressed in a richly textured patchwork of blues, greens, and purples, she has a rye and dry sense of humor, that stands out in contrast to Blue’s exuberance. Blue praises Peter as "one of the world's greatest" Peter laughs and announces his willingness to accept “the Brother Blue Nobel Prize.”

After the show, Brother Blue confides in myself and Mary Curtin, the producer of the Cambridge run, a Bread & Puppet “geezer” and saxophonist with the Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band that he regards Peter as "Beyond Genius” that his uniqueness is such that the world will not have another like him soon. That when Peter is gone there will be no more Bread & Puppet.
Blue easily could have been describing himself: his uniqueness was such that the world will not have another like him soon.

Other tributes of note:

Laura Packer's announcement on the MassMouth blog.

Warren Senders' Brother Blue is Immortal on the Daily Kos.

Obituary WBUR's Online Edition

Obituary in The Boston Globe

Notes on Class

I've been following Professor Matthew Isaac Cohen's blog about his course on Bread and Puppet Theatre at Royal Halloway, University of London, with interest in part because my essay "Breaking with Bread and Puppet" which is both a narrative of my decision to stop working with the troupe as well as a critique of the imagery that prompted my decision (for which I've gained a small amount of notoriety.) The main focus of the course to have the students investigate the theatrical techniques most closely associated with Bread and Puppet. Despite any political falling-out with B&P founder, Peter Schumann, I strongly endorse theatre-makers drawing upon these techniques. In fact, despite the fact that Total War is primarily written in a naturalistic style, I do incorporate many of these techniques I learned as well.

This past week, Cohen's class was assigned to use what they were learning to parody the political and racial stances of the far-right, and arguably, neo-Nazi, British National Party. One group of students was assigned the instruction:

Using a ringmaster, explore the idea that the BNP deny the Holocaust.
Which I found particularly ironic since the argument of "Breaking with Bread and Puppet" was that Peter Schumann had deliberately misrepresented the history of the Warsaw Ghetto, and by extension, the Holocaust, in order to misrepresent the West Bank Barrier Wall, and was thus engaged in what can be termed "soft-core" Holocaust Denial.

In my view, the BNP provides too easy a target, now if they were assigned to parody the controversy around the attempted boycotts of Israeli academics by the British University and College Union, that would have been edgy.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Nobody Sucks... Except That Guy

Last week, Don Hall, Chicago-based actor, director, theatre-observer, and activist (and well-known enough in the theatrical blogosphere that I trust someone will correct me if I left anything out) has been posting a series on the audition process on his blog An Angry White Guy in Chicago. Having recently been in the position of casting actors for Total War, and like Hall, not being "institutionalized (meaning I didn't go to college to learn how to do this work)" I found myself nodding in agreement with much of what Hall and some of his other readers had to say:

2. Take some time and find out what the director is looking for - I'm happier than shit to tell you what we're up to and what you can do to get "the edge."

[...] I know within about fifteen seconds whether or not I can use you in my show - a good director knows in advance what he's looking for to some degree - and the only reason I let you get through that 2-minute monologue that somehow manages to be five minutes long is because you came all this way, there's no reason to be unnecessarily rude.

The bottom line is:

This means if you don't get called back, it isn't because you suck.

So if you did audition for the reading of Total War and didn't get the part: that's right: you didn't suck; you just weren't right for the role; you might have been right for a completely different role. In fact, since this was a staged reading, and I conducted my audtions in an informal, unorthodox manner, in a neighborhood coffeehouse (I simply didn't have the budget to rent out a space for auditions, though to be fair, I interviewed for my teaching gig with OpenAir Circus in the very same coffeehouse, and the informality seemed to encourage actors to volunteer their personal interest in the project) I might have liked you personally, even if I decided not to cast you.

* * *

As with every rule of social interaction (such as theatre-making) there is always a statistical outlier: in this case, it was someone who, despite having some talent, proceded to so alienate me during the audition that I would not even consider adjusting my sought-for preferences to accomodate his strengths. It all began when I received the following (yes, multiple) emails (Note that the name has been withheld for obvious reasons):

My voice has been described as deep, resonant, beautiful, and hilarious. I have been practicing for five years now and am able to express a wide range of personalities.


I feel that I would be perfect for the role of Duane McCormack. [...M]y writing has recieved significant praise from my honors professors so the role will come quite naturally to me.

Duane McCormack is a fictitious character, so the actor isn't actually expected to do any writing associated with the play. So while I appreciate that an actor might want to draw upon some aspect of their own life in order to relate to a character or to the themes of the play, this struck me as odd. Nonetheless, I sent a .pdf of the script along with a list of pages where Duane appears, concluding that this would be sufficient for the actor to judge for himself if the character is right for him and if so, provide hints as to how to approach the role.

So, in between meeting other actors at my table (which I rent by ordering espresso and bread pudding) our friend whose "voice has been described as deep, resonant, beautiful, and hilarious" shows up for his audition. His voice is indeed resonant and he has movie-star looks. Then he explains his interpretation into the character:

"Duane is a journalist; he's a truth-seeker."

This struck me as an odd misreading, so I suggested that "He is a student journalist but he's more defined by the attempt to keep his head above water while the comrades to which he's tethered are sinking than by any quest for truth."

The actor ignored my suggestion and read it his way. Not having a lot of actors auditioning for the role, I tried to consider if his interpretation added something I had not seen before (which had already occurred during the first staged reading.)

None of this would have been worth commenting upon until he started exhibiting the oddest behaviors. While I was flipping through the pages of my script to find the next bit of dialogue I wanted to hear him read, he put on his sunglasses, presented his profile and asked me if I saw his resemblance to Tom Cruise and Ashton Kutcher.

As I was conducting this audition in the oddest of places we were interupted when a young woman who had been a friend of a former roommate of mine, dropped by to say hello and asked about my cat. After the brief exchange of pleasantries and my explanation that I was conducting auditions, there was no exchange of email addresses, phone numbers, no words or gestures implying a hoped for future communication, which apparently the the actor missed, he slyly smiled and purred:

"A possible interest?"

He then launched into what must have been a rehearsed speech about how he was going to make my play great because he was going places, which, leaving aside the pathological narcissism, was simply insulting to the talents of the actors who had already volunteered to work on this project.

So, leaving aside his unsuitability for the role, I simply did not want to put my actors in a position of having to work with this guy.

So I sent the standard, diplomatic response:

It was a pleasure meeting you, but alas, I can't offer you the role of Duane. Thank you very much for taking the time to read with me.

To which he responded unexpectedly:

Hi Ian, (This is good, just read it)
Too bad, your production will suffer as a result of this unfathomably ignorant decision. Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha. Can you see that put to rhythm? I can, because I much more gifted than you will ever be in your life. Again, I offer my condolences to your woefully inadequate conclusion.
Yours Truly,
The Great And Noble
[Name withheld]

In the end, I found Matthew Zahnzinger, who besides nailing the role, had the added bonus of already being in rehearsal with Mikey DiLoreto on the Factory Theatre's production of Kid Simple, and that's always a nice coincidence.