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Photos: Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD)
Visitors to the Sidewalk Festival enjoy a µTopian Dinner with Hinterlands performers outside the Mobile Homestead.

Kristina and I were discussing the other day all the different kinds of yoga that are popping up. Suzanne’s friend Liz tried goat yoga. Kristina had heard of knitting yoga and laughter yoga.

Similarly, it seems like I’m constantly hearing about new ways of extending the boundaries of theater. In this story from Hyperallergic, sharing food with audiences in person and through Skype is the focus.

As Sarah Rose Sharp writes, artists are practiced “in finding ways to forge interpersonal connections through gesture, metaphor, and performance — or sometimes just by inviting people to dinner.

“ ‘Food is so interesting, because it evokes memory, and it’s a multi-sensory experience,’ said Liza Beilby, in an interview with Hyperallergic during preparations for one in a series of µTopian Dinners, staged by Detroit-based experimental theater ensemble The Hinterlands and co-produced with Poetic Societies, a performance lab fostering cross-cultural and poetic connections. …

“Since 2017, the group has been staging permutations of the µTopian Dinners as a subset of a larger work, The Enemy of My Enemy, a hybrid, digital-live performance project that simultaneously links performers and audiences in the US and so-called ‘enemy’ nations of China, Russia, and Iran. …

“The Hinterlands views the µTopian Dinner projects as a kind of a laboratory to investigate the cultural values that are reinforced through eating, meals, and cooking. [In August], µTopian Dinners took literally to the streets, as the ensemble presented a four-part performance and rotating series of events, during the homegrown and wildly popular Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts. …

“[The group] — as well as their foreign counterparts tuning in from Moscow, Bejing, and Tehran — operated out of the modular traveling unit from Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead, which is permanently housed at the [Museum of Contemporary Art], making one of the rare forays into the farther-flung Detroit neighborhoods for which it was expressly designed. …

“Artist and designer Yi Zhou, who runs a studio out of Beijing called Body Memory, met The Hinterlands during her 2016 residency at Popps Packing, and the ensemble has visited her twice over the last two years, touring with their previous show, The Radicalization Process, and other performances.

“ ‘In between the first year that we went and the second year that we went, she and a bunch of friends who are designers and architects started this group called TGIS,’ said Beilby. ‘It’s a Sunday brunch in this little courtyard at the studio of one of the members, and they invite people to come and have brunch, and then there’s a lecture, or talk, or conversation, which are themed.’ During the Sidewalk performance, Hinterlands Skyped into the beginning of the brunch taking place in Bejing. …

“ ‘It’s like translation, in a way. You’re trying to contextualize something for the people where you are, that’s meaningful, and then express something about the people here to another group. … It’s an interesting way to try to bridge two spaces or times or peoples, through sensory experiences that aren’t just talking.’ …

“One could call it a new medium, enabled by the tools of our increasingly interconnected world, or one might consider it the mission of any meal undertaken by people who begin as strangers, and perhaps leave with a better understanding of each other.”

More here.

Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead traveling unit at the Sidewalk Festival for the Performing Arts in Detroit.

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PUBLIC WORKS Musical Adaptation of William Shakespeare's
TWELFTH NIGHT

Conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub 
Music and Lyrics by Shaina Taub
Choreography by Lorin Latarro
Directed by Oskar Eustis and Kwame Kwei-Armah

Featuring Kim Blanck (Femal

Photo: Joan Marcus
From left, Daniel Hall, Lori Brown-Niang, Shaina Taub, and Shuler Hensley in “Twelfth Night” at the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park. Brown-Niang’s peignoir is usually “the first to go” on exceptionally hot nights when the feathers start shedding.

On this second day of fall in Massachusetts, the temperature was only 45 degrees at 6 a.m., when I wrote this. I felt very glad that 2018’s overpowering heat and humidity were past.

I can only imagine what it must have been like for outdoor actors under fierce stage lighting in summer 2018. At American Theatre, there’s a fun article about designing costumes for actors performing in all kinds of weather.

Billy McEntee wrote, “Across the country, as actors and audiences endure rain, heat, and bugs to present and partake of free professional performances of the Bard’s classics, one group of designers has a special challenge: costume designers. …

“ ‘Designing for outdoor environments is challenging yet fascinating,’ said Ying-Jung Chen, the costume designer for Independent Shakespeare Company’s ‘Titus Andronicus’ in Los Angeles. … ‘I’ve learned a lot through each outdoor experience about fabric technology and construction techniques.’ …

“It’s the dry heat that can prove most threatening. Evenings in the summer can stay above 80 degrees in Southern California; couple that with acrobatic performances, bushy wigs, and blaring stage lights, and actors are sure to sweat through even the thinnest of fabrics. …

“But heat invites more than just exhaustion and sweat; it’s also a magnet for bugs, something that Chen had to account for when creating stage blood for her costumes.

” ‘Blood is integral to Titus,’ Chen says. ‘My recipe was successful in past indoor productions. With a corn syrup base, it’s easy to wash out, edible, and realistic. But when doing outdoor performances, the sugar-based corn syrup attracts bugs. Fortunately, the theatre company has years of outdoor performance experience and provided a great recipe that’s washable, edible, and doesn’t allure insects.’ …

“Rain is no stranger to American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisc., though the threat of precipitation doesn’t change the creative process. As costume designer Robert Morgan succinctly puts it: ‘Design first, problem-solve later.’ He’s the costume designer for APT’s ‘As You Like It’ (running through Oct. 7). …

“ ‘Shoes are covered with non-slip dance rubber,’ he says. ‘But evening dew can make our outdoor stage slippery, so at APT we add sand to paint’ to give the stage’s surface extra traction.

“As in L.A., Morgan must also consider sweltering temperatures. This includes having freezer packs on hand for actors to wear beneath their costumes and crafting a ‘heat plan.’ which is ‘meant to accommodate the actors’ well-being on exceptionally hot, muggy nights and matinees under an unforgiving midsummer sun,’ Morgan said. …

“Oppressive heat and humidity are staples of New York summers as well. After a successful first run in 2016, Andrea Hood returned to design costumes for the Public Theater’s current Shakespeare in the Park production, ‘Twelfth Night,’ a Public Works musical adaptation with songs by Shaina Taub. …

“Hood plans not only the intricacies of [the] fabrics but also how costume pieces may adjust with unexpected precipitation. ‘Fuchsia feathers often come loose on [the character] Maria’s peignoir in “Twelfth Night,” ‘ she notes. ‘It isn’t the most practical costume for an outdoor space, so if it’s raining she would likely skip that change altogether. It’s the one piece that would probably not go onstage in the rain.’

“But a light drizzle doesn’t always signal a costume adjustment, or even a cancelled performance. In fact, its effect—combined with stellar acting, of course—can be as spellbinding as any theatrical flourish, more dazzling than any stage magic.

“ ‘Last year it was pouring for the first night of tech for “As You Like It,” ‘ Hood recalled. ‘The actors didn’t get into costume at all.’ Instead they wore street clothes, covered with plastic ponchos. ‘It was wonderful,’ she enthuses. ‘By midnight there were only five actors left running a number over and over again, still managing to smile. I loved being in the audience watching them—the rain didn’t even matter.’ ”

More at American Theatre, here.

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800px-savinien_de_cyrano_de_bergeracArt: Zacharie Heince (1611-1669)
The 19th Century Edmond Rostand comedy
Cyrano de Bergerac was recently performed in a New York prison that has unusual rehabilitation programs.

Sometimes when an article I want to share with you has its photos under lock and key, I look for alternative images on Google. It was interesting to see that modern renditions of the outsize nose on Cyrano de Bergerac are much more extreme than the one above. Today’s productions really go overboard trying to make the silver-tongued hero look as ugly as possible. A recent production in a prison also exaggerated the nose, which you can see if you click on the original article.

Jesse Wegman wrote about the show at the New York Times, “Cyrano de Bergerac will be eligible for parole in 2022. For the time being, he is a vision in Gallic effrontery, pinballing around the stage in the gymnasium at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, N.Y.

“The production of Edmond Rostand’s canonical 19th-century comedy, which enjoyed a well-attended two-day run early [in June], was the work of Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a 20-year-old organization that operates in prisons across New York State. The program introduces inmates to theater, dance, writing and other creative arts in the hope of teaching them life skills and improving their chances at success upon release. …

“When [inmates] proposed ‘Cyrano de Bergerac,’ the show’s director, Charlie Scatamacchia, was skeptical. ‘I thought, yeah, that’s not gonna happen,’ he said. ‘It’s got multiple scene changes, costume changes. It’s got sword fighting. I doubted my ability to direct them, and their ability to pick up these skills in the time we had. I’ve never been happier to be proved so wrong.’

“Behind the title character’s plastered-on proboscis and feathered chapeau is Rodney Spivey-Jones, a 35-year-old from Syracuse. Mr. Spivey-Jones, who had never acted before, first auditioned for the role of Le Bret, the play’s narrator. But Mr. Scatamacchia quickly realized that he was a good fit to play the lead — one of the most verbose roles in theater.

“Mr. Spivey-Jones is no stranger to addressing a crowd — he helped form an inmate debate team at another prison that beat a team from Harvard in 2015. Still, he had not given any thought to playing Cyrano and didn’t understand how big the role was until he kept getting called back to read for it. …

“When the show went up, Mr. Spivey-Jones realized that he had memorized not only his own lines but every other character’s as well — a handy trick when a castmate ran into trouble, and he could provide a cue on the spot. …

“A bigger obstacle than memorization, it turned out, was getting swords inside the prison. Corrections officials nixed various materials, like a hard plastic foil. … The cast of 13 men took the setbacks in stride, as people in prison learn to do with most things. Along with a professional actress, Kate Kenney, who played the role of Cyrano’s love interest, Roxane, the crew worked every week through the winter and spring to get the show into shape. …

“The program, which has about 400 alumni who were released from prison, is popular among both inmates and New York’s prison administrators, who have seen its philosophy pay off. Studies of prison-arts programs around the country, including R.T.A., have found that their participants are better behaved than other inmates, earned educational degrees earlier and in some cases are less likely to wind up back behind bars after release.”

It would be wrong to minimize the crimes these guys have committed or the pain they have caused their victims, but if there’s a way for offenders to become engaged with the world in more positive ways, that’s a good thing in my book.

And I love that play.

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: Gil Sans
These folks started a theater with no money and filled a gap in neighbors’ lives. “If you build it, they will come.”

A recent article at Arts Professional shows that money isn’t the only tool for getting things done. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Anthony Briggs writes about what happened after he agreed to join Peter Tate in implementing a dream of creating truly relevant theater in London.

“When Peter asked me to join him as Co-Artistic Director of The Playground Theatre in May last year, I had been looking for a new challenge. [The] Playground’s previous life as a developmental space intrigued me, and Peter and I shared a vision of bold, imaginative and highly theatrical new work, developed with the local community in Latimer Road.

“Within a few weeks of us joining forces, the fire swept through the nearby Grenfell Tower. The events of that night had a huge impact on our vision for the theatre and our role in the local community. It was immediately apparent that what was needed was a place where people could share stories and grieve, and also hope and aspire for a better future for our area.

“North Kensington is a postcode of extremes with huge wealth sitting next to appalling poverty. It also includes probably the broadest ethnic mix of people in the UK. Finding a way to appeal to all our residents would be a challenge.

“When we first walked around the space there were only wall lights, so the first thing was to raise the money to kit the venue out and turn it into something fully functioning. … At the same time as raising funds and getting the theatre up and running, we faced the challenge of raising awareness and attracting an audience. …

“Doing anything for the first time can be an anxious experience, so we do all we can to make people feel welcome. We regularly post on local social media boards and leaflet along Portobello Road. Slowly the word is getting out.

“Everyone has an opinion about what we should be doing and that can be tiring. But to be a community theatre you have to be part of that community and that means engaging in constant conversation, even if it isn’t what you want to hear. We are dedicated to reflecting the diversity of our community through the diversity of our programming. …

“We have established good relationships with a nearby secondary school, Kensington Aldridge Academy, which is on a temporary site while its main building is being repaired following the Grenfell Fire. … Another partner is Grief Encounter, a child bereavement charity that has been active in our area following the fire.”

Read more here about how this new group is making theater that is relevant to people’s lives and thereby filling a gap.

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Photo: Craig Schwartz
Tom Hanks as Falstaff in the recent Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles production of Henry IV — the actor’s “Los Angeles stage debut.” Hanks went off the script when a medical emergency in the audience interrupted the show.

One always wonders if an actor known for subtlety in close-ups can make the shift to the grand gesture on the big stage. It’s such a different kind of acting, and I have sometimes been disappointed (e.g. the otherwise brilliant Liv Ullmann, the amazing-on-screen Sally Hawkins). But Tom Hanks, apparently, rose to the occasion in his recent performance as Falstaff at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles presentation of Henry IV. He channeled Falstaff so well, in fact, he was able to ad-lib in an emergency.

As Tara Bitran  reported at Variety in June, “A few scenes into Wednesday night’s performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV’ Tom Hanks had to go off script. …

“ ‘An audience member became dehydrated and had to be taken out,’ Heath Harper, Hanks’ theatrical dialect coach, told Variety. …

“One of the crew members with medical training assisted the audience member until they regained consciousness and the paramedics arrived. The medics performed tests on the guest in the crossover under the seats. Because this is the actor crossover as well, the show could not restart.

“ ‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ Harper said. “It credits the work we’ve done and Tom’s commitment to the character that he was able to just jump on the stage and improv as Falstaff like that. The audience absolutely ate it up.’ …

“Hanks addressed the ‘scurvy rogues who stood up from their seats’ to leave during the 20 minute pause, describing their departures as an ‘insult to all actors and to Shakespeare himself.’

“The video also shows Hanks-as-Falstaff warn: ‘Get back here or find this sword and many a dagger placed neatly in the tires of your carriage’ to laughs from the still-seated audience members.

“Hanks then returned back to center stage, inviting audience members to ‘come sit here, and I shall give thee a haircut,’ he offered. …

“Once Hanks and the production team received word that the audience member had recovered, ‘the show went on and the crowd was completely behind us to the end, giving us standing ovations all around,’ Harper said. … ‘All in all, I think it was a fantastic true-to-Shakespearean moment in LA,’ Harper said. ‘The crowd definitely got their money’s worth.’ ”

I love seeing this kind of thing happen. In fact, I still remembering seeing René Auberjonois do something similar in Alice in Wonderland when he wasn’t more than 14, presaging the brilliant career he would later have. And there’s a funny scene in Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, in which the actors are supposed to pretend that someone backstage got sick and that they are all discussing it chaotically downstage. I loved the line of the actor at the Antrim Players in Suffern: “It must have been the chocolate matzohs.”

Theater can be such a good training for life: Something always goes wrong.

More at Variety, here.

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Photo: Thomas Jefferson University Photo Services
Medical professionals develop their empathetic side at a 2017 Netter Symposium in Philadelphia.

I’m back to writing the usual posts that link to interesting articles. This one is especially appropriate, given my recent experience as a hospital visitor. The article is about techniques for “teaching” empathy to medical people, but I have to say I think every worker in that hospital was born empathetic. From the security personnel and cleaners to the brain surgeon and night nurses, it was amazing to experience how kind everyone was, and I wonder if it’s just the culture of that hospital.

Be that as it may, there are initiatives everywhere to help medical professionals develop their empathy “gene.” An article at a “platform for theatremakers” called HowlRound is about using drama for that purpose.

“As theatre folk know well, sometimes the most meaningful creations are borne out of the fruit of circumstance. To wit, the Lantern Theater Company in Center City, Philadelphia, happens to be located around the corner from the Sidney Kimmel Medical College (SKMC) of Thomas Jefferson University. In 2012, Charles McMahon, artistic director of the Lantern, and Dr. Salvatore Mangione, pulmonologist and director of physical diagnosis and history of medicine at SKMC, started discussing a way to make the most of that physical proximity — and potentially change the course of modern medicine while they were at it.

“Together, along with artistic colleagues Craig Getting and Kittson O’Neill, they developed a curriculum for what became the Empathy Project. [Mangione] and the team believed that ‘in addition to preventing burnout, and giving [students] more comfort with empathy and ambiguity, it might give them a different brain and help them become a better physician.’ …

“Part of the program focuses on playwriting. This section asks students to not only learn the technical tools of dramatic storytelling, but also to make a personal investment in the work they are creating. It helps break students out of their comfort zones by encouraging them to write about a truth that goes unsaid in their community. …

“Many of the project’s exercises have roots in Meisner work, including improv technique to facilitate open listening and taking stock of one’s ‘baseline self.’ This combination of listening and self-awareness supplies the building blocks of empathy, asking students to consider themselves and each other with perhaps more generosity and less competitiveness. …

“Plays written by students for the Empathy Project have dealt with wide-ranging topics such as immigrant experience, class issues, what it feels like to be a Muslim in America, the recent death of a parent, ethics of patient privacy, and doctors confronting cadavers. O’Neill avows she has learned more about the Muslim American experience in her class at Jefferson than she has anywhere else in her life.

“Getting believes some of the most fundamental questions playwrights ask during their writing process can easily be applied to doctors working with patients. These include: What are the given circumstances of this person? Who is supporting them or not supporting them? How do you get your audience to feel the emotions you want them to feel? How do you structure the telling of information that is at the right pace and is clear? As a result, students taking part in the Empathy Project reported seeing their patients in the hospital the way a playwright would see them.”

More here.

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Photo: BBC
An aerial performer rehearses on stage at Shakespeare’s Rose, a pop-up theater in York, England.

You’ve heard of pop-up libraries, pop-up gift stores, and pop-up restaurants. Now here comes a pop-up Shakespeare theater in York, England.

Ian Youngs writes at the BBC, “Shakespeare’s Rose, which [opened in April] and has cost £3m, is Europe’s first ‘pop-up’ Shakespearean theatre. …

“The temporary theatre has been built in a car park in 28 days to a circular design, similar to those erected on Bankside in Shakespeare’s day.

“It will stage four of his plays with a cast including [TV actor] Alexander Vlahos, who will play Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, and Catesby in Richard III.

“As well as the audience members standing in the centre, a further 660 will watch from seats on three levels around the edge.

“Shakespeare and his contemporaries would recognise the design and ‘tricks’ like trapdoors and flying, which have hardly changed over the past 400 years, according to [producer James] Cundall.

” ‘They’d find everything they had in their theatre — they just probably wouldn’t recognise [Layher] scaffolding,’ he says. ‘Each length [of scaffolding] is probably about the same size as a standard oak beam, so that’s how Shakespeare’s oak became German scaffolding. …

“There was an actual Rose theatre in London in the Bard’s time, which was recreated for the 1999 film Shakespeare in Love. …

“Professor Judith Buchanan of the University of York, who has advised on the pop-up theatre, said: ‘Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre is not a historical reconstruction of the early modern Rose playhouse on Bankside, nor of any other early modern playhouse. It is an approximate and suggestive architectural allusion to the idea of the early modern playhouse.’

“The creators of the York theatre will hope that their venue doesn’t replicate some other aspects of the original Rose — which had to be closed occasionally due to riots or the plague, and which had one cast member who killed the other in a duel.”

Read more at the BBC, here, and at the Independent, here.

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