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One thinks of Iran as repressive, and having watched the doomed 2009 revolution unfold on twitter, I believe it is. But Iranian theater people seem to be managing to squeeze in some fun.

I blogged before about the Tehran production in a taxi, here. Now Studio 360 has a story on what might be called extreme improvisation. I take that back. There’s a script. But the actor doesn’t get to see it in advance.

“Actors face stage fright all the time,” says Studio 360, a radio show. “But consider this scenario: you show up to perform a one-person show, and you’ve never seen the script. You don’t know what it’s about because you promised not to do any research. It’s your first performance, and the only one you’ll ever have. The theater’s artistic director hands you a fat manila envelope with a script. And go.

“Also, the audience will decide whether you drink a glass of water that appears to have been poisoned.

“This is the premise of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour. ‘I did not know what was in front of me inside that envelope,’ says actor Gwydion Suilebhan. ‘What if this script is going to require that I disrobe? Or insult my mother? Or be rude or self-debasing?’ …

“Soleimanpour pulls his strings from afar, because — although the play has been performed in Toronto, Berlin, San Francisco, Brisbane, Edinburgh, London, and now Washington, DC — he really is in a cage. He doesn’t have a passport and can’t leave Iran, so he has never seen his play performed. ‘Nassim has given up the kind of control that is customary for playwrights,’ says Suilebhan, of working with actors and directors to realize the play. ‘At the same time, because he has put all of these restrictions on how it is to be performed, he has seized certain kinds of control that playwrights normally do not have. So he is literally embodying the ideas of control and submission and manipulation that he’s baked into his script.’ ” More.

Photo of Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour found at the HuffingtonPost

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I started really paying attention to Iran (and to Twitter, tops for breaking news) on June 20, 2009, when the tragic, short-lived Green Revolution erupted, fueling unrealized hopes for a more democratic country.

Then I read Jason Elliot’s Mirrors of the Unseen (and blogged about it here) about his travels in Iran, and especially about the people he met and the architecture he admired. He came up with a theory about the architecture that related to the builders’ Islamic beliefs, a love of nature, and a concept of sacred proportions. (If you should see the Nova special on how Medieval architects used the Bible to decide on ideal Gothic cathedral measurements, you will get the idea.)

Elliot loved the people he met in Iran and bemoans the way the Western media depict them. In full agreement with Elliot is the British translator of ancient Persian poetry, Dick Davis, who was on PBS NewsHour last night.

But though the Iranian people may be like people anywhere, the government is not. Residents are frequently obliged to be cautious. Which is how theatrical productions in the privacy of a taxi have come about.

Haleh Anvari of the Guardian‘s Tehran Bureau has that story.

Unpermitted Whispers is a 35-minute play that takes place in one of Tehran’s ‘Rahi’ taxis, which traverse the city along fixed, often straight-line, routes. Rahis pick up passengers at major intersections and drop them off anywhere along their set route, making for a convenient method of getting around town and one cheaper than the minicabs available in every neighbourhood of the capital.

“In contrast to the minicabs, which provide door-to-door service, the Rahi system affords passengers much more anonymity, allowing for candid and uninhibited conversation. Tehranis frequently share stories that they have overheard in these communal cabs; for many, they serve as an extension of the private sphere in which Iranians feel safe to talk about issues of the day.

Unpermitted Whispers takes advantage of this unlikely superimposition of public and private to tell the story of three passengers, all women, who are picked up by a male driver at different points along his route. …

“The play’s first scene was performed entirely on the telephone, as we eavesdropped on a conversation of a kind with which many Iranian women are familiar: a young bride wants to go to the theatre with her university friends but needs an alibi as her traditional family and jealous husband will not approve.”

More here.

Update 2/5/14: Turns out NY City has a play in a cab. It’s called “Take Me Home” and is reviewed by Neil Genzlinger, here.

Photograph: Hanna Havarinasab
Unpermitted Whispers is a play by Azadeh Ganjeh performed in a taxi.

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112913-children-museumWhen you take your father’s mother (Farmor) and your mother’s father and mother (Morfar and Mormor) to the Children’s Museum, you start by showing them how the fluffy balls fly through tubes and out the top, and you show them the water room, where you have to wear a smock.

Then you run up and down the ramp to the second floor, up and down, up and down, and up and down some more, laughing and turning your head back to make sure they are all following at a lively pace.

Once you are sure they will behave themselves and not go wandering off when you have work to do, you can settle into the kitchen and concentrate on putting the cheese wedge in the pot and stirring and taking it out and putting it back in and putting the lid on top and taking it out again and putting in a potato and stirring and shaking a can of tomatoes upside down until every last bit is in the pot with the potato and stirring and putting the lid on. Then, you know, you may need to take the stacked dishes and lay them all about on the floor and then restack them and put them neatly on the shelf.

It’s a lot, and you need to be sure the grandparents are sitting still and paying attention so you don’t have to worry about them for a while.

kitchen-things-you-can-touch

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Hidden Faces of Courage, a “theater piece with music” created by Mary Driscoll in collaboration with formerly incarcerated women, is coming soon. I will write more after I have seen the production in November, but I need to alert you that if you want tickets, you might want to get them now as the performance space is rather small. Go to Fort Point Theatre Channel, here.

I met Mary in the playwriting class that I blogged about a few times. I didn’t continue with theater after the class, but Mary kept working at this play. She has a deep commitment to helping women who have been in prison, having worked with them for years at her nonprofit, OWLL (On With Living and Learning Inc.).

Mary writes: “The voices of previously incarcerated women are notably absent in the artistic world—a world that can engage a broader community in reform and foster greater understanding between the individual and diverse audiences. Sometimes in unexpected ways.”

Read more about her show at Broadway World, Boston, here.

Hidden Faces of Courage is directed by Tasia A. Jones, with music by Allyssa Jones, and runs November 8-10, 15-17,  at The Boiler Room, 50 Melcher Street, Fort Point, Boston.

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The Concord Players brought a one-hour version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” to the lawn of the library yesterday.

The Prospero was perhaps too young, considering that “The Tempest” is an aging Shakespeare’s valedictory, and there was some awkward overacting, but gee whiz, they had to shout to be heard outdoors. So, good for them to work so hard to give the public free theater in summer!

Several sea nymphs doubled as ushers and were lovely to behold.

concord-library-lawn-show

The-Tempest-sea-nymph

prospero-miranda-umbrella

jay-newlon-ariel-tempest

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I moved from Rochester, New York, more than 30 years ago, so it was only when I went back for a visit that I got to see the storied collections of Margaret Woodbury Strong in a museum built to house them.

When one recovers from the enormity of her obsession, one feels deeply grateful for all the toys and dolls of one’s childhood so beautifully preserved.

The offerings and outreach of the museum have grown like topsy in 30 years. And today another new partnership was announced.

“The great minds of the toy industry will be honored alongside their famous creations when the Toy Industry Hall of Fame combines with the National Toy Hall of Fame under a partnership announced Tuesday.

“The 5,000-square-foot National Toy Hall of Fame gallery at the Strong museum in Rochester will undergo $4 million in renovations, with the goal of opening the combined hall in the fall of 2015.

“The Toy Industry Hall of Fame, whose inductees have included Milton Bradley, Frederick August Otto Schwarz, Walt Disney and George Lucas, has been without a physical presence for about eight years following the closure of the International Toy Center in New York City.

“Leaders of both halls have been talking for some time about combining the two as a way to raise their visibility and exposure and to promote their educational missions. …

” ‘The Strong is an ideal home for this homage to both the toys that have influenced generations of children and the innovative minds that brought them to life,’ Carter Keithley, president of the Toy Industry Association, said at a news conference at the Strong museum, where items like alphabet blocks, roller skates, the Frisbee, Lincoln Logs and the stick occupy places of honor.”

Read more at Yahoo, here. Click “like” if you believe in toys.

Photo: The Strong Museum
“The Strong’s founder, Margaret Woodbury Strong, had a particular interest in dolls and amassed one of the largest collections in the world. The National Museum of Play® at The Strong continues to refine and develop her collection, making it increasingly comprehensive and inclusive. It now includes more than 12,000 dolls and 2,800 paper dolls.”

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At the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, a group of children are learning the joy of theater.

Tammy La Gorce writes in the NY Times that the playhouse now has a class for children with disabilities.

“The class is a logical next step for Paper Mill, which last year began offering a series of sensory-friendly presentations for children with autism in its ‘Theater for Everyone’ programming. Sensory-friendly shows are scripted to be more literal, with innuendo kept to a minimum, and the theater’s lighting and volume are adjusted to help audience members feel more comfortable.

“This year, in a partnership with VSA New Jersey, a nonprofit organization that provides arts programming for children and adults with disabilities, Paper Mill joined the ranks of theaters welcoming such children who have an interest in learning to perform.

“Parents of children with developmental disabilities ‘are seeing the benefits of arts education,’ said Lisa Cooney, 46, director of education for Paper Mill. ‘And they’re a lot more proactive than they used to be.’

“Those who run the programs find them rewarding as well. The children ‘give so much to us,’ said Mickey McNany, the director of Paper Mill’s Theater School, after the recent class. In it, her 10-year-old granddaughter, Mary McNany, who has Down syndrome, identified Mozart as the composer of ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik,’ performed an improvised roller-skating scene and used sign language, as well as her voice, to sing a song.” Read more.

Below, Marnie McNany takes part with her children Finn and Mary.
Photograph: Aaron Houston for the New York Times

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Twenty years ago I helped out on what local people jokingly refer to as the Concord Passion Play: Little Women. It’s performed every 10 years by the Concord Players because (a) author Louisa May Alcott lived at Orchard House in Concord and (b) she was a founder of the theater group that became the Concord Players.

Kate Clarke is directing the show this year, and she just got some great publicity in the Boston Globe.

“ ‘Preparing to direct the play, I started to do some research and was fascinated to discover just how meaningful the book is to so many people,’ Clarke said.

“ ‘Even the rock star Patti Smith wrote in her recent memoir that “Little Women” was what made her feel as a young high school student that she could be an artist. It motivated her to go to New York and become a performer. I started thinking, “Good Lord, Jo March is everywhere! Why do people find her so compelling?”

“ ‘That’s the question I’ve been tackling with this group of actors. Yes, it’s about the Civil War era, and the societal restrictions that females were under at that time. But the fact that the book’s popularity has endured reflects what compelling characters these young women were.

“ ‘This story is so uniquely Concord and yet reaches far beyond the boundaries of Concord, just as it is a story about the 1860s that also brings up a lot of contemporary issues,’ Clarke said.” Read more.

Here’s photo by Jon Chase for the Boston Globe. Pat Kane, an incredible costume designer, is in the middle. (I don’t think she remembers, but the first time she worked for the Concord Players was when I sought her help on a one-act I directed, Stoppard’s After Magritte.)

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I’ve blogged about Mary Driscoll and OWLL, the nonprofit she set up to help ex-offenders break vicious cycles. Soon she will launch her play Generational Legacy, about what happens to children when mothers are imprisoned. People who had experienced prison helped her write it.

Because I am very interested in this and other ways that people use the arts to help prisoners turn their lives around, an article about using Dante and Shakespeare in a women’s prison caught my eye.

Joel Brown writes in the February 24 Boston Globe,

“Lynda Gardner, Saundra Duncan, and Deborah Ranger will give a reading of a new play at a Harvard University conference next week. A different kind of alma mater qualifies them for this appearance: York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Conn., a high-security state facility for female offenders.

“While behind bars at York, all three joined theater workshops with Wesleyan University professor Ron Jenkins and students from his Activism and Outreach Through Theater course. They got to know Shakespeare and Dante, and it changed their lives.

“ ‘I spent my first six months [in York] trying to figure out ways to kill myself, and the next four and a half years trying to see how much more I can live,’ says Gardner. …

“Saundra Duncan said, ‘When I looked at Dante and saw how he was in exile . . . I saw a lot of that situation in [myself].’ ”

I especially liked this comment on the Inferno: “I’ve been in a lot of the circles of hell … It really isn’t about hell; it is about hope. Climbing out of those circles.’’

Read more.

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Today I went to the last performance of Red, a drama about Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko at the SpeakEasy Stage. It starred the inimitable Thomas Derrah with a young actor who was new to me, Karl Baker Olson.

It’s always interesting to read reviews of shows that touch different creative realms. For example, an opera critic who reviews Porgy and Bess might have a different take from a theater critic.

In the case of Red, theater critics were full of praise, but an art critic I read found the story thin.

Not being either kind of critic, at least not at the moment, I thought it moving, well acted, and well directed. The set by Cristina Todesco and featuring Rothko’s studio was amazing, dim, with the chapel-like quality Rothko found necessary for communing with a painting and seeing it vibrate.

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We went downtown to have lunch at the Whitney Museum with friends and to take in the Real/Surreal exhibit.

Favorite artists like Charles Sheeler, Mardsen Hartley, and Grant Wood were featured. I liked the eerie emptiness of Edward Hopper’s “Seventh Avenue” and the anxious denizens of George Tooker’s subway world.

Sounds unnerving, but in surfacing the alienation, I think the artists make one feel the possibility of getting a grip on it.

Afterward, we walked up Madison, stopping at a gallery in the Carlyle Hotel that was showing Magritte works, some for sale.

I have always liked Magritte, with his bowler-hatted men blocked by giant green apples and his nighttime streets overarched by daytime skies. And I especially like him because once in a workshop, I directed a Tom Stoppard one-act play inspired by him, After Magritte. It was the best fun!

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I love stories like this one in today’s NY Times, “Out of the Spotlight, Until the Met Needed a Tenor.”

Jim Dwyer writes in his About New York column, “Until a few weeks ago, Jay Hunter Morris had spent much of his early 40s in the invisible universe of the backup opera singer, a life that included selling Rollerblades in Central Park and passing out towels at gyms.

“Then he got The Call.

“ ‘We were in a rehearsal room, doing the understudy rehearsal,’ Mr. Morris said.

“Waiting for him was Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. Mr. Gelb needed a tenor, and fast, to take on what people in opera say is one of the most demanding roles ever written: Siegfried, the hero of the third part of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle, a five-and-a-half-hour production. The role had eaten up two tenors before opening night, with the second falling ill with less than two weeks to go. …

“ ‘Mr. Gelb looked me in the eye and said, “Can you do this?” ‘ Mr. Morris recalled. ‘I said, “Yes, I can.” ‘ He nodded … “O.K., I’m going to give you a chance.” ‘ ”

A star was born.

P.S. Got any young stars graduating from the middle school musical to, say, community theater? Consider a gift like this one from Suzanne’s company, Luna & Stella.

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I spent four months reading MobyDick in 2010, and I must say that for me there was way too much information about different kinds of ropes, how to cut up a whale, and the categories of seagoing creatures. I could not figure out why people I admire read MobyDick over and over.

So, avast! There is now a way for people like me to grasp the essence of Herman Melville’s classic. It’s a one-man show performed by the Irish actor Conor Lovett, who — along with his wife and director, Judy Hegarty Lovett — adapted the book’s highlights.

ArtsEmerson presented this wonder in Boston recently, and I’m in awe.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the actor in his Ishmael role has the stunned, wounded look of Tommy Smothers (remember the insecure brother in the 1970s comedy duo?), Conor is heartbreaking. His facial expressions and body language before he speaks Melville’s famous opening, “Call me Ishmael,” convey a haunted man, one who, like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, has witnessed mysteries beyond human understanding and feels condemned to tell the story to anyone who will listen. His look says, Why was I spared? Why did I choose this voyage? Why did I listen to the prophetic mad sailor Elijah on a wintry Nantucket dock and still choose to sail on the cursed Pequod?

The production is full of dark musings, the roars of a crazed Captain Ahab, and the savagely raging elements of air, water, and fire. But at the outset, stage time is lovingly devoted to the humorous side of Ishmael searching for New Bedford lodgings, having to bunk with the “harponeer” Queeqeg, and learning to recognize the interior decency behind the mask of the “cannibal.”

That the novel is deep is clearer to me now. I’m still pondering Ahab’s speech about whaleness being merely the “mask” that MobyDick wears. When the devout first mate Starbuck says it’s wrong to seek revenge against a whale that is merely a dumb beast — a creature of God — Ahab counters that beneath the mask is an infinitely malevolent force that must be conquered at all costs. We never feel sure what this force is supposed to be. Satan? Then why do the natural elements seem to take the side of the whale? I’m still wondering why we never learn if the whale dies or lives to wreak havoc another day.

But at last I see why people admire this book. Read more here.

P.S. The play is part of Imagine Ireland, “a year of Irish arts in America.” Check it out.

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We had already bought tickets for the new version of Porgy and Bess at the American Repertory Theater when Stephen Sondheim weighed in with an angry letter to the NY Times. He had not seen the show, but he apparently resented the tone of an article’s quotes from A.R.T. He may have thought director Diane Paulus and writer Suzan-Lori Parks were implying that they were better than the show’s original creators.

After the opening, Ben Brantley of the NY Times raved about Audra McDonald’s Bess while giving a mostly lukewarm review to everything else. Meanwhile, the student D.J. at Emerson College’s radio station kept reading promos for the show and pronouncing Porgy as “Porjy.” (He will always be Porjy to me now).

By the time our matinee rolled around, the day was almost too beautiful to be in a dark theater for three hours, and our initial anticipation had been reduced to mild curiosity.

So I’m happy to say we really liked A.R.T.’s Porgy — pretty much everything about it.

I admit that I am not intimate with the whole score and therefore was not always able to tell when new material had been inserted. (One line, about saving to send the baby to college, did come across with a loud, anachronistic clunk — but now a blog reader tells me it was in the original!) But the beauty of the songs, the dancing, the characters making the best of no-options, the love story! I cried pretty much the whole way through. And I’m still singing.

The only other Porgy and Bess I’d seen was directed by Bobby McFerrin in Minneapolis. It was long and kind of confusing, but I accepted that that’s the way opera often is. The A.R.T. may have presented a rejiggered story that was not true to the original, but it was a story that I could follow.

As I said to my husband on the way out, “Well, it worked for me.”

He said, “Sondheim should rethink his position.”

P.S. Audra McDonald was breathtaking.

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I wrote before about a program using the arts to help people in prisons get beyond the prisoner mindset. Here’s a similar story.

Michelle “Bankston, who has short, blond hair and a muscular build, has spent almost 20 years behind bars. She was incarcerated first at a medium-security facility here in Alabama, and then at a private prison in Louisiana (to relieve overcrowding, Alabama sends some inmates out of state), and finally here, at the Montgomery Women’s Facility, a sun-soused cluster of buildings on the outskirts of the capital city.

” ‘A while back I decided that I could either spend decades in the bunks, watching TV or playing cards,’ Bankston says, ‘or I could get out here and take the opportunity to write poetry and draw.’

“That she’s been given this opportunity to do her art is testament to the work of Kyes Stevens, an avuncular and outspoken educator, poet, and Alabama native. Since 2002, Ms. Stevens has headed The Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project (APAEP), which offers literature and art classes in a range of prisons across the state. The program is funded by Auburn University and an array of grants. The teaching staff consists of five Auburn-based instructors and a rotating cast of teaching fellows from the graduate creative-writing program at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Classes run for 14 weeks and are rigorously structured, like college courses, demanding a full commitment from students.”

Read the article in the Christian Science Monitor.

On a related note, I met a woman in my playwriting class who founded a nonprofit called On With Living and Learning, Inc. Mary Driscoll lives in the Fort Point Channel area of Boston and works with people who have been through the prison system. She uses theater to generate the catharsis that can result from their telling their stories and also to help them develop “job skills for the 21st century.” Read about her here. A script that Mary was working on in my playwriting class is now going to be made into an opera, with all sorts of helpers, like the Harvard-trained opera composer, the cabaret singer, and the reggae performer.

I can’t help thinking that when these creative people use their talents to help others, they are getting something special in return.

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