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Posts Tagged ‘theater’

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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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Photo: David Bedard
An example of the resurgence of indigenous theater is
Our Voices Will Be Heard, directed by Larissa FastHorse. It was performed at Perseverance Theatre in 2016 in Alaska. 

Another way that culture gets shared, revitalized, and preserved is through theatrical performances. Alaska and Hawaii, in particular, are seeing a resurgence of indigenous theater.

As Frances Madeson writes at American Theatre, “The pace at which producers of Hawaiian and Alaskan Native theatres are creating original offerings specific to their lands and peoples and mounting them on their mainstages ranges somewhere in the giddy spectrum between prestissimo and full-tilt boogie.

“ ‘We’re experiencing a Native arts revival right now,’ said Alaska Native playwright Vera Starbard, whose autobiographical advocacy play Our Voices Will be Heard was performed in Juneau, Anchorage, Hoonah, and Fairbanks. …

“Part of the exhilaration comes as a result of resources to match the rhetoric of support for Native theatre arts. In 2016 Starbard was granted $205,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to sustain her while she creates three full-length Alaska Native plays over three years. …

“There is also an attitudinal shift by institutional gatekeepers toward inclusion of Native theatre artists, some of whom have been maintaining the vision for a very long time with minimal support.

“The first Hawaiian-language play presented at the Kennedy Theatre at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa was in February 2015, ‘in the theatre’s 51st season,’ said Tammy Haili’ōpua Baker, who wrote it. … She repeated for emphasis: ‘Half a century to get anything Hawaiian on that stage.’

“But now that the vessel’s been unstoppered, there’s a growing groundswell of audience demand for shows with Native-centric realities and expression.

“ ‘The success of Our Voices was completely community-driven,’ said Starbard. …

“Tlingit actor and playwright Frank Henry Kaash Katasse said he sees a category shift. ‘Indigenous stories are now seen as American stories.’ …

“Katasse teaches theatre in schools to Alaska Native kids, and encourages them to take acting seriously. ‘They didn’t even know this was a career option,’ he said.

“Indeed, to keep pace with demand, artistic directors Harry Wong III at Kumu Kahua Theatre and Eric Johnson at Honolulu Theatre for Youth (HTY) on Oahu, and Art Rotch of Perseverance Theatre in Juneau and Anchorage, are prioritizing both actor training and play development. …

“In Fairbanks, Alaska, [Allan Hayton, language revitalization program director at Doyon Foundation] pursues theatre as a vehicle for cultural and linguistic survival.

“ ‘We are restoring balance,’ Hayton said. ‘In indigenous tradition theatre is performed to achieve something for the people and balance for the world in the natural environment. Theatre is a healing art form in which we can address very serious and difficult issues safely, and offer a larger healing for society.’ …

“For Starbard, Alaska Native theatre artists literally standing on thousands of years of storytelling tradition have nothing to prove.

” ‘Our goal as Native artists and theatremakers is not to develop this “uncultured” audience so they can come in and understand what a Western theatre is like. I think that’s the attitude taken sometimes,’ she said, choosing her words with great care. ‘I’m proud of Native artists who are pushing back against this mindset. It’s not about how we can help our people adapt to the Western theatre, but how we can help Western theatre to be an even more dynamic and beautiful thing.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Paula Keller
Actor Luverne Seifert demonstrates techniques of Ten Thousand Things, which brings free, low-budget, high-quality theater to people who are not rich.

A new theater company trains actors to do high-quality, free performances for new, nontraditional audiences. Somehow I knew it would be based in Minneapolis, a hotbed of theatrical innovation in the late 1990s when I lived there.

Theresa J. Beckhusen reported the story at American Theatre.

” ‘If I was going to spend my life making theatre, I didn’t want to make art for rich people.’ This is how Michelle Hensley, artistic director of Ten Thousand Things (TTT), a theatre company in Minneapolis, kicked off a recent conference. …

“The gathering drew around 100 theatre makers from across the country to compare notes about working with the grass-roots theatrical model championed by Hensley’s company. Its motto could be fairly summed up as … art for not-rich people.

“For 30 years Ten Thousand Things has been touring productions to prisons, transitional housing, rehab centers, immigrant centers, shelters for survivors of domestic violence, and more — and all for free. …

“TTT productions are performed in the round, in whatever space their tour sites have available. … Actors mingle with audience members, interacting before, during, and after performances.

“The productions are spare: no lavish costumes, no fancy sets, no lights. Hensley puts a premium on story and language. …

“Many conference attendees shared stories … One incarcerated woman in particular was moved by a wedding scene in The Tempest because she’d missed all the weddings in her family. [Another told] how audience members drove from Tijuana to San Diego just to see a bilingual Twelfth Night. …

“Playwright Kira Obolensky led a session on choosing material that would work in the intimate settings pioneered by TTT. She began by posing a question … : What story would you tell if everyone was in the audience? … ‘I don’t think a lot of American playwrights and directors ask themselves this question.’ …

“Brad Delzer reported that he recently began employing TTT’s model with True North Theatre, his new theatre company in Carlisle, Pa. Sensing an opportunity to bring theatre to places that don’t typically see it, and to connect with the strong military community in the Carlisle area, Dezler toured Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad to a soup kitchen, a men’s shelter, and the town’s Army Heritage Center, before holding two public performances. …

“He had been generally apprehensive about the whole thing, but had particularly fretted about how a six-minute list of wars from the last few centuries would go over. ‘It played really well, he said, noting the power that came from the moment. ‘It surprised us.’ ”

There’s more at American Theatre, here, where you can see how different TTT groups manage to fund free performances.

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Photo: True Story Theater
An Arlington, Mass., theater troupe performs the stories of ordinary people.

Recently, John told me about an unusual improvisational theater group that will perform your story. Called True Story Theater, it is affiliated with the worldwide Playback Theatre movement, which seeks to right wrongs experienced by minorities and marginalized groups by putting their actual words into plays to build understanding.

From the website: “True Story Theater is a nonprofit theater company that offers 50-75 improvisational performances and workshops a year for community groups, businesses, and individuals mostly in the greater Boston area. We work with hospitals, universities, corporations, religious communities, with teen leaders, cancer survivors, activists, philanthropists, business leaders …

“Our mission is to build empathy and respect in community through honoring all of our true stories.

“In performances, volunteers from the audience are helped to share what’s important in their lives. On the spot, actors then portray the heart of what they heard using music, movement, and dialogue. From this simple interaction, people laugh, cry, share fresh insights, and bond. … True Story Theater offers audiences fresh perspectives, deeper connections, and a renewed appreciation for our common humanity.”

The troupe says it employs many dramatic styles but is especially indebted to the technique of Playback Theatre, which “was founded in 1975 by Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas in New Paltz, NY. …

“Globally, Playback is often used to reach disenfranchised people and to build understanding where conflict had driven people apart. A few examples:

“Southern India: Groups of Dalit people have used Playback Theatre to assert their rights. Western Australia: Playback has helped landowners and Aboriginal people find common ground. Burundi: Hutu and Tutsi actors work together in a Playback troupe in a country healing civil war.”

Watch samples from performances here.

True Story Theater is also available to draw people out at weddings and other such events.

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Photo: Richard Anderson
After running Center Stage in Baltimore for seven years, Kwame Kwei-Armah returns to England to serve as the new artistic director of the Young Vic.

The London theater world learned recently that the Young Vic‘s new artistic director would be the man behind seven strong years at Baltimore’s Center Stage. He is not native to Baltimore but England, where he has been an actor, a director, and a playwright — a versatility that is expected to serve him well at the Young Vic.

In September, Georgia Snow wrote at The Stage, “Kwame Kwei-Armah is set to be announced as the new artistic director of the Young Vic. …

“Kwei-Armah is understood to have been linked to other artistic director jobs in the UK recently. His recent productions as a director have included One Night in Miami… at the Donmar Warehouse, and a musical about the life of Bob Marley, which he also wrote and which ran at Birmingham Repertory Theatre earlier this year.

“He is currently in rehearsals for an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea, also at the Donmar Warehouse, which he directs. …

“His plays have included Bitter Herb, and Elmina’s Kitchen, which ran at the National Theatre in 2003 and was nominated for an Olivier Award. …

“In an interview with The Stage last year, Kwei-Armah also said he thought black representation in the UK has not come as far as the US, and that Brexit has resulted in Britain taking ‘a step backwards into a world of xenophobia.’ ”

Michael Billington at The Guardian adds, “It is significant that Kwei-Armah, born Ian Roberts in London, changed his name when he was 19 after tracing his family history through the slave trade back to its ancestral origins in Ghana. He became interested in the past through watching the TV series Roots and much of his work has been about the search for identity. It was certainly a theme in his first big hit as a playwright, Elmina’s Kitchen, which was seen at the National in 2003 and later became one of the first plays by a black British playwright to make it to the West End.”

More at The Stage, here, and at The Guardian, here.

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