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Photo: The Toronto Star
A Canadian theater critic interviewed actors who give 10-minute dramatic performances in people’s cars.

More than five years ago, I wrote about actors creating theater in taxis in Iran and linked to a separate article on taxi performances in New York (check out the post). So that’s just to say there is no new thing under the sun.

Still, people think up creative ideas for their own reasons and don’t necessarily know about similar efforts anywhere else. In today’s example, providing entertainment in cars was devised as a way to bring theater to Toronto suburbs where there are large Asian populations that seldom brave the downtown scene.

Karen Fricker wrote at the Toronto Star about picking up a series of actors in her car who put on 10-minute plays for her as a demonstration.

“[I] picked up three actors who directed me around streets previously unknown to me in downtown Markham and its environs, and who each made me believe in ten short minutes that their situations were really happening.

“I did this as a test driver for fu-GEN Theatre Company’s wildly ambitious show Fearless, which involves micro-performances for individual spectators in their own cars, and a web app which lets the show work, as artistic director David Yee describes it, like ‘Uber in reverse.’

“Fu-GEN is a Toronto-based company dedicated to reflecting Asian-Canadian experiences. This show ‘began as outreach, as a way to engage with the large Asian Canadian community who live in Markham, Richmond Hill, North York, etc., who we know exist, but don’t make it downtown to see our work,’ says Yee. …

“The goal of the project is to give Markhamites something new and curated for them … “Fu-GEN commissioned [writers] to author short scripts that address the themes of fear and fearlessness, and at the same time found a developer, Shawn Li, ‘who works at Microsoft during the day, then builds us a weird little theatre-in-cars app in his off hours,’ says Yee.

“From my user perspective I found the show streamlined and easy to navigate. In order to participate, you need to have a car you are insured to operate. You book online, choosing between a series of timed slots, and are given a link to an online app you can use from a browser on your phone (you don’t have to download anything).

“When the app goes live, photos of the 20 performers appear on a live map along with the titles and authors of their shows and a one-sentence description of the content. Once you confirm your choice of performer, the app guides you to their location — and you know it’s them because they’re wearing a bright yellow backpack (and they know it’s you because you’ve uploaded a photo to your online profile). The performer disappears from the live map during the ride and reappears once you’ve dropped them off. You then start over by clicking on another performer photo. …

“Yee says that safety was one of the core tenets of the project. ‘Every aspect of this experience, from the ground up, has been built with both audience and performer safety in mind. … How eerie is it for a stranger to greet you by your name? It can be comforting or it can be unsettling; all that potential is alive in just having that information at hand. The writers had the choice to use that for whatever purpose is useful to them.’ ”

For me, this experience sounds like fun, but I am also not afraid to go downtown for a show. I really wonder if people who are afraid of something that simple and distancing would pick up a stranger for an in-your-face performance.Would you try it?

More here.

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Photo: Dezeen magazine
Note the Nebraska storefront lowering itself to become a movie theater.

I don’t know much about Nebraska other than that some friends who grew up there said that New England’s trees and mountains made them feel too closed in, but now I have a reason to think about going there. That’s because I just love the idea behind a new cinema and would like to see how it works.

Sebastian Jordahn writes at Dezeen magazine, “Artist Matthew Mazzotta says the success of The Storefront Theater, which won him Architecture Project of the Year at the inaugural Dezeen Awards, comes down to the way the local community has made use of it.

“The Storefront Theater is a retractable theatre disguised as a shop. It was built to re-invigorate the main street in the town of Lyons, Nebraska, and create a community space for its residents.

“Mazzotta told Dezeen that local community has embraced the structure, using it for a variety of activities. …

“Using two hydraulic cylinders, a false storefront folds over the sidewalk of Lyons’ Main Street and rolls out seating for 100 people. A rollable screen can then be paired with the structure in order to create a public theatre.

” ‘Basically it’s a facade that bends down over main street, bleachers come out, a screen comes in and turns main street into a movie theatre,’ Mazzotta said. … ‘They’ve had events that are anti-bullying, they’ve had movies and concerts. Recently I went to one where a very prominent Egyptian musician came and played. …

” ‘Once I learned that one of the buildings downtown was just a storefront, it had no building behind it, [that’s] when we started taking that as the site.’ …

“The architect’s motivation was to reinvigorate Lyons Main Street, which according to Mazzotta has seen a decline in community life due to economic pressures and globalisation.

” ‘This project came about through investigation with the people. They told me how downtown was the centre of the community life and how that has been destroyed over time by globalisation that has pulled all these businesses away,’ Mazzotta said. …

” ‘Architecture has an enormous power over how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to each other. I think architecture is expanding beyond the envelope and I think it starts to think about who feels welcome in these spaces,’ he added.

“Mazotta’s theatre was also named for Rebirth Project of the Year at the inaugural Dezeen Awards ceremony last year.”

More here.

Video: Dezeen
Note the tractor pulling in the movie screen.

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Photo: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre
Two French photographers spent years capturing the new uses of old movie theaters, like this one. Now a gym, the building was once famed as the Alhambra Theater of San Francisco.

Sometimes spectacular old buildings simply cannot be returned to their original purpose. Times change. But as I learned from pictures by two French photographers, many people value the old movie theaters and are giving them new life.

Michael Hardy writes at Wired, “Between the 1920s and the 1950s, Hollywood studios built thousands of ornate movie palaces in cities across the United States. Warner Bros., Paramount, RKO, MGM, and others competed to build the biggest and gaudiest cinematic cathedrals to showcase their big-budget blockbusters. In this vertically integrated era of filmmaking, when the major studios tightly controlled the production, distribution, and exhibition of movies, these palaces served as the showrooms in which they displayed their wares. Seating thousands of spectators, the theaters were decorated in a fanciful array of styles, including art deco, art nouveau, and ancient Egyptian.

“In 1948 the US Supreme Court found that such vertical integration violated the Sherman Antitrust Act and ordered the biggest movie studios to divest themselves of their theater chains. The decision spelled the end for the era of the movie palace, as the studios were forced to sell or close their theater holdings. Television and suburbanization — the grand old theaters were mostly located in downtown areas — provided the coup de grâce.

“One of the grandest of the old palaces was Detroit’s United Artists Theatre, a 2,000-seat, Spanish Gothic–style venue that showed movies from 1928 until the 1970s. French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre stumbled across the abandoned theater in 2005 while working on a series about the effects of deindustrialization on the city.

“Stunned by the building’s fading grandeur, Marchand and Meffre began traveling the country, seeking out other abandoned theaters to photograph.

‘The amount of fantasy and detail are amazing in some of the theaters,’ Meffre says. ‘I don’t think we have anything comparable in Europe except for our cathedrals.’ …

“After discovering some tastefully repurposed palaces, such as Brooklyn’s cavernous Paramount Theater—now used as a gymnasium by Long Island University—they expanded the scope of their project. Not all renovations were so sensitive. Marchand and Meffre shot palaces that have been transformed into grocery stores, office buildings, even school bus depots. …

“Because the palaces are so expensive to tear down, many have survived more or less intact, a process the photographer calls ‘preservation by neglect.’ ”

Funny. Here’s to life-saving neglect!

More at Wired, here.

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Photo: All Nippon Airways
In addition to the male Kabuki performers, there’s an onnagata (man in female role) in the in-flight safety video of a Japanese airline.

After seeing one too many airline safety videos about how to buckle a seat belt, passengers tend to tune out. That is, unless the video is really entertaining. Consider this safety video using Kabuki dancers. I know that would make me pay attention.

Andrew Bender wrote about it at Forbes. “Let’s call it like it is: those airline safety presentations have always felt a little like a kabuki dance, no? Now Japan’s largest airline, All Nippon Airways, has taken that literally, with actual kabuki performers in its newest in-flight safety video. I, for one, can’t stop watching it. …

“Supervised by a kabuki performer, the four-minute-plus production opens with an ANA flight attendant wearing a red-and-white striped kabuki mask, before the striped curtain behind her (in the traditional kabuki colors of black, deep-green and the orange-red the Japanese call persimmon) slides to reveal an airplane cabin set.

“Kabuki actors stow their elegantly lacquered bamboo boxes in the overhead bins and under the seats (not in the aisles, thank you), fasten seat belts over their elaborate kimono and dutifully turn off electronic devices displaying scenes from classic ukiyo-e woodblock prints on their screens. The same style is used to show how high heels, in this case chunky wooden geta sandals, can tear the evacuation slide.

“In another section, an actor wearing an oversized wig and robe and fearsome makeup tries on the oxygen mask, and a child in the classic pure white face makeup demonstrates the ‘brace for impact’ position. And it’s quite a sight to see an onnagata (male performer in a female role, a longstanding kabuki tradition) perform the life vest demonstration.

“Kabuki theater traces its roots to 1603, the early Edo Period, and is on the UNESCO list of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. Among its unique features are stunning costumes, stylized dialogue and poses (immortalized in ukiyoe woodblock prints, kind of like iconic modern-day movie posters; see 1:38 in the video), a revolving stage and musicians who sit onstage and animate the action with music and narration. Many of the leading performers have family lineage in kabuki going back more than a dozen generations.

“At various times the safety video shows another feature of kabuki, on-stage assistants covered head to toe like ninjas. Called kurogo, they’re typically dressed in black implying that they’re not visible onstage, but in this video they’re instead in ANA’s signature blue and white. …

“ANA’s safety video debuted late last year and went worldwide on flights this January. As a bonus, a behind-the-scenes video of the production plays during deplaning.”

More at Forbes.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A Wan Smolbag Theatre youth show. The Pacific islander drama company is celebrating its 30th year.

Any troupe that corners the market for theatrical productions in a particular geographical area might understandably be inclined to rest on its laurels. Not the one in this Pacific archipelago. It provides many services besides entertainment and even manages to stay humble.

Nick Awde writes at the Stage, “Wan Smolbag Theatre takes its name from ‘one small bag’ in Bislama, the South Pacific nation’s lingua franca. ‘It stems from our idea in the beginning to show that theatre could be made from what you could carry in a small suitcase,’ says artistic director Peter Walker. And for a nation spread across 70 islands, that’s a handy ethic.

“ ‘Obviously, we have to choose between being an “in-out, do a show” kind of group or working with individual communities and islands in a more detailed way over a longer period,’ adds Walker. And so the latter course was duly chosen.

“Walker, who did an East 15 postgraduate course in 1981, started the company in 1989 with partner Jo Dorras. Now, 30 years on, it is the South Pacific’s only full-time theatre group in which all the actors are Pacific Islanders. …

Based in the capital and largest town Port Vila, Wan Smolbag is also the biggest local NGO in Vanuatu. It employs more than 100 people, 40 of whom work in theatre and film, and runs other services, such as clinics, a nutrition centre and youth centres with a thriving hip hop scene. Theatre led to film-making in the mid-1990s, which brought a Pacific-wide audience. …

“For its 30th-anniversary season, Wan Smolbag is producing a play with 60 volunteer actors with some of the main group, all set in the main Port Vila market. Also participating is UK director Laurie Sansom, artistic director of Northern Broadsides, who has already made two visits to run workshops. …

“Meanwhile, there are plans for visits from New Zealand’s the Musical Island Boys and Australia’s Djuki Mala.

“How does training work? ‘Basically by doing. Over the years we’ve had occasional workshops with people from overseas in different performance styles … but the whole year is spent acting in plays from January to July and film from August to November – the dry season,’ says Walker.

“ ‘Some actors have been with the group for more than 20 years and as there are no other professional groups most are loath to leave. … We do take on new actors every three or four years. In recent years they have come through the youth centre drama club, which does a production every year, usually featuring 30 or so young people not in school who perform it for schools around Port Vila.

“ ‘There was no theatre of this kind when we started in 1989. There was an expat amdram group that did musicals or dramatisations of Fawlty Towers episodes, and local church youth groups would put on skits with the devil having all the best lines. To be honest, I’ve never thought of us as anything but a community theatre group who over time have become more professional and skilled.’ ”

More at the Stage, here. And if you are still on Facebook, you can keep up to date at the troupe’s page, here.

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Photo: Omari Daniel
Bees at the Lyric Hammersmith Theater in West London.

The arts are always struggling for funds, so it’s lucky that artistic people are by definition creative. In this story, some creative theater people thought up a way to help the environment while simultaneously raising a little cash for their work. It’s all part of a theater’s broad sustainability plan.

Sian Alexander writes, “As a leading producing theatre and the largest creative hub in west London, the Lyric Hammersmith welcomes around 200,000 people a year to its building, including 30,000 young people at classes and activities. We have nine Young Lyric partners based here, three resident companies, 50 permanent staff and over 500 freelancers each year – all under one roof.

“Our roof is also now a symbol of our long-standing commitment to environmental sustainability. As well as our public roof terrace, a green oasis in the heart of an urban environment, we have a green sedum roof — covered in plants — installed in 2015 during our last major capital redevelopment.

“Last year we teamed up with the local business improvement district, HammersmithLondon, to install three beehives on the roof, now home to 180,000 Buckfast honey bees. They seem to be happy here, and this summer we enjoyed a substantial honey harvest. We sell the honey in our café and at local markets, where it is a great conversation starter about our efforts to go green. …

“Bees have a critical role in food production, as around a third of the food we consume relies on pollination. The bees also help our green roof mature through pollination, and help improve air quality and biodiversity in the local area. …

“We strive to ensure our green values run through all elements of our business. For example, our building has air-source heat pumps and predominantly LED lighting; we send zero waste to landfill, working with First Mile and Scenery Salvage; our energy supply is 100% renewable electricity and green, frack-free gas; our finance and administration teams run on a paperless system; and all new staff and creative teams are given a reusable water bottle on their first day. …

“We are introducing a vegetarian and vegan specials menu in our bar and grill, visiting allotments and trying alternative foods. We are also running a stall at the local food market to engage the public on food packaging, as well as addressing food waste.”

More at Arts Professional, here.

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Photo: Roger Mastroianni
Audiences in depressed regions nationwide identify with characters who lose their jobs in Lynn Nottage’s award-winning play
Sweat.

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater in New York City, has done a service to struggling communities around the country where his Mobile Unit has performed a play about factory closings.

Although I myself usually like a little something upbeat at the end of a play, I totally get the relief and catharsis of a bleak story that replicates an audience member’s bleak situation. Being heard, being recognized, can be the beginning of moving forward.

Elizabeth Pochoda explains how the show that did one tour of the country and hopes to get funding for more is helping people move beyond the devastation of communitywide job loss.

“Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, may be best known for commissioning Angels in America,” Pochoda writes, “but his most radical move is a recent one: sending the theater’s Mobile Unit on its recent five-state, 18-city tour through the heartland to perform Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Sweat, a traditional theater piece about race and class in Reading, Pennsylvania, as a metal-tubing plant closes and lives are fractured. Most of the action takes place in a local bar as friends experience the loss of every certainty that work bestows, including that of friendship. …

“The Mobile Unit has done far more than drop in for an evening of theater. Along with community organizations, public libraries, Rotary clubs, humanities councils, and whoever else is interested, it has encouraged lectures, discussion groups, story circles, and art pieces in the weeks before and after staging a free performance of Sweat. …

“I met [Chiara Klein, the Mobile Unit’s national project leader,] in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where Sweat played at the local headquarters of the United Auto Workers, the once-powerful union that ruled the city until American Motors and Daimler-Chrysler closed all but one of their plants in 1988, putting 5,300 people out of work and blighting the cityscape for years to come.

“The union-hall venue might seem too obvious for a play about a city where labor is flat on its back, but Sweat has also played to receptive crowds in Minnesota towns with no history of manufacturing and in places as tiny as Hayward, Wisconsin, a town in the rural north where 150 people, both tribal and non-tribal, were as receptive as the audience in Erie, Pennsylvania. That doesn’t surprise Lynn Nottage, who has visited five of the tour cities; people who feel invisible and unheard, she tells me, whether they are black, white, old, young, rural or urban recognize themselves in her play….

“By performing in high-school gyms, a Masonic temple, a cafeteria, and a food pantry — places that don’t announce the evening as an exclusionary arts event, the Public’s Mobile unit has attracted the people it wants to reach.

“Some 200 of them entered the union hall on October 16 and not all of them were white and over 50. A number of older African Americans and some young people of both races were there as well. The Mobile Unit frames the evening to create an atmosphere of mutual regard and goodwill deliberately at odds with that in the play. …

“There is a stage here, but the players will not use it. Instead, they will perform in a small space hemmed in by our chairs. It works well for the barroom scenes where friendships are frayed and no one has anywhere to turn. We are in on the action. …

“At the play’s end, its uneasy note of hope fades away and the audience is given time to reflect by filling out a questionnaire asking them their ZIP Code, ethnicity, gender, emotional response to the play, its relevance to their community, and even what media outlets they turn to for news. … This interlude may be responsible for the candor of the ensuing conversation led by Klein. …

“An African-American woman described it this way: ‘It’s a feeling of being overpowered. A job goes away, a family has to find its way in a new place; then the drugs.’ A 21-year-old white man said he saw himself in the characters and cried that he too had no future. Several people responded to the decibel level of anger in the play and saw it as emblematic of how quickly everything now turns to shouting.”

Read the article at the Nation, here. The play itself is grim, but with the release of emotions some in the audience may feel strengthened in their efforts to build a future on top of the ruins.

 

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