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Photo: Camilla Forte.
Nikkie Bauer sticks social distancing reminders for spectators onto the window of Chicago’s Reckless Records, where she performs her window play.

This story reminds me of being a kid. I had a passion for theater and many impractical ambitions. For instance, I was certain that if I put together a production of “Snow White and Rose Red” from the Brothers Grimm, my friends and I would be welcomed to perform it before a movie at the Lafayette Theatre. The grownups laughed.

In today’s article, frustrated theater people who persevered made surprising things happen.

Camilla Forte writes at American Theatre, “When the pandemic shut down live theatre in March of 2020, the ensemble members behind Chicago’s Stop Motion Plant were in the middle of producing a performance commissioned by Theatre Evolve. With the stages shut down and their play canceled, they found themselves having to pivot.

“As the world adapted to a new reality, the group began meeting virtually to discuss the possibility of producing and performing live theatre in a way that would keep both the performers and the audience safe. Eventually, inspired by Macy’s dioramas [and] Chicago performers who put on ‘porch concerts’ throughout the summer, the concept for Window Plays was born.

“Presented as a ‘walking tour with theatrical displays,’ and running Feb. 19-21, the performance was not a traditional narrative play, but rather a collection of six short individual vignettes performed within the storefronts of six separate businesses in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood.

In order to secure each storefront venue, members of Stop Motion Plant went door to door to explain the concept to shop owners.

“After receiving what they described as overwhelming support, the group landed on performing out of the Neo-Futurist Theater, Rattleback Records, Enjoy, Women and Children First, *Play, and Raygun.

“Each two- to five-minute play was acted out on a loop for an hour in its storefront window, allowing audience members to cycle between performances in a way that encouraged social distancing while making the experience accessible to a fairly large number of people. …

“Ensemble member Kevin Michael Wesson … drew on his puppetry background when determining the music and scale for his window play, Badvice. During his two-minute performance, Wesson asked audience members increasingly personal questions through the phone while pressing his hand against theirs through a pane of glass sanitized after every act. After the interaction concluded, he bestowed attendees with an envelope with three pieces of advice —two good and one bad — as a parting gift. …

“[Perry] Hunt placed a cardboard cutout of herself herself behind a screen and illuminated the cutout from behind. She then Facetimed her audience, convincing them the person they were speaking to on the phone was the person whose silhouette they could see in the window, only to reveal she was never actually there. …

“Although the performances were a revival of live theatre, the actors still had to grapple with the challenges of a virtual format throughout the six months it took them to put together the piece. …

“Despite the challenges this format presented, some ensemble members found the innovations born from working around these challenges refreshing. Hunt, for instance, found that working within a more limited format allowed her the freedom to think about theatre in more abstract ways, with this experience being something that will influence her work beyond the pandemic.

“ ‘I think it’s given me permission and space to think about more innovative ways that I can produce art,’ Hunt said. ‘This project has pushed me to be challenged and make challenging things.’ “

More at American Theatre, here.

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Photo: Philip Cutler
Zuni Maud, Bessie Maud, and Yosl Cutler on a 1931-1932 tour to the Soviet Union. Puppets are (L-R) Mahatma Gandhi, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, French Prime Minister Léon Blum, Wall Street, and Herbert Hoover.

Sometimes there things that we don’t think we can say that instead we put in the mouths of stuffed animals, pets, or puppets. In the early 20th Century, that’s what left-leaning Yiddish puppet masters found themselves doing more and more as international audiences lapped it up.

Eddy Portnoy writes at Smithsonian about Yosl Cutler and Zuni Maud, who “created a Yiddish puppet theater that fused traditional Jewish folklore, modern politics, and a searing satiric left-wing sensibility.

“Both immigrants from Eastern Europe, Cutler and Maud met in the New York offices of a Yiddish humor magazine called Der groyser kundes (‘The Great Prankster’), where both worked as cartoonists and writers of often surreal short stories. They became fast friends and opened a small studio on Union Square, where they sold artworks and painted furniture. Both were tangentially involved in theater set decoration; when Maurice Schwartz, the founder and director of the Yiddish Art Theater, asked the two to create puppets for a scene in a play he was staging at the end of 1924, they jumped at the chance.

“Puppets weren’t a common form of entertainment in Jewish culture. … But in the mid-1920s, puppetry had become hot in American theater. … Schwartz, who had his finger on the pulse of New York’s theater world, saw an opportunity to put puppets in his production of the Yiddish classic Di kishefmakherin (‘The Sorceress’). It would be the first time puppets would speak Yiddish on a Yiddish theater stage.

“But it never happened. … Schwartz decided that the puppets Cutler and Maud had created were too small to see from the house, so he cut the scene. The two would-be puppeteers took their creations home. As a joke, they began taking the puppets with them to the literary cafés they frequented and performed shtick for their friends. Someone suggested they start a Yiddish puppet theater. …

“At the end of 1925, Cutler and Maud set up shop in a space in the Lower East Side in what had previously been a children’s clothing factory. They briefly hired an artist by the name of Jack Tworkov, who had been trained in the art of puppet making by Bufano. During shows, they would set fabric cutting tables and simple wooden benches in front of the stage for the audience: a somewhat ramshackle production with a proletarian feel. Initially performing comic scenes and a modernized version of the traditional Jewish Purim shpil (holiday play), which included a variety of characters from the Lower East Side, they quickly garnered good reviews in New York’s Yiddish newspapers.

“Under the moniker Modicut, a combination of their last names, word spread, and their shows began to sell out. Adding to their repertoire, they included comic playlets, often including parodies of popular Yiddish theater songs. …

“In addition to lauding Modicut’s plays, reviewers noted how finely their puppets were constructed. Although they were caricatures and grotesques, their costumes were deemed authentic, from the silk robes and prayer shawls of Jewish traditional figures to the work clothes worn by Lower East Side laborers. Some of their puppets included unique, culturally relevant innovations, such as the rotating thumb or wagging thumb of a sermonizing rabbi, or the wiggling ears of their emcee. The first time Yiddish-speaking audiences saw homegrown characters on a puppet stage, their reaction was one of sheer joy. …

“They went on tour in 1928, bringing their Yiddish puppets up and down the Eastern seaboard, to parts of the Midwest, and even to Cuba. As they wrote and performed new skits, they became more politicized, actively engaging with and satirizing the news of the day. …

“They traveled to Europe, playing in England, France, and Belgium before heading to Poland, the largest center of Yiddish culture. In Warsaw, they played 200 sold-out shows, followed by 75 sold-out shows in Vilna. Reviews in the Yiddish press were effusive, and journalists were amazed that two ‘Americans’ could present something that was so authentically Jewish. …

“On the back of their European success, Modicut was invited to perform in the Soviet Union during 1931 and 1932. They prepared by writing skits addressing themes such as the oppression of the working class, and featuring sweatshops, corrupt bosses, exploitation, imperialism, the depression, and war. All of this proved popular to audiences in the USSR. …

“They worked together until 1933, when a fight of unknown origins caused them to split up the act. … In May 1935, Cutler went on the road, allegedly to California in hopes of making a full-length Yiddish puppet film, performing in Jewish communities along the way. It was on the road to Denver that Cutler and his puppets met their demise [in a car crash]. …

“Maud was devastated by Cutler’s death. Having worked together so intensely and successfully, he felt awful on account of their earlier falling out. He nonetheless continued to produce art and work in puppetry for the remaining twenty years of his life. Notably, he worked with puppeteer Nat Norbert Buchholz, who later taught the craft to Shari Lewis, who debuted her famed Lamb Chop puppet on Captain Kangaroo in 1956.”

“Cap’n Aroo,” as a kid I know used to say! Though not as insightful as the later children’s TV star Fred Rogers (who also used puppets to speak for him), he nevertheless entertained kids for 29 years. So here’s to puppets on Captain Kangaroo!

Read more about the Yiddish puppeteers at Smithsonian, here.

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Photo: Jeremy O. Harris
When, to his surprise, this playwright earned a windfall, he knew he had to share.

When I was 12, I was a playwright. I’d had a terrific gig as an actor in community theater at age 10 and just fell in love with the whole scene. At 12, I rounded up cousins to perform my play about a talking snowman outdoors for parents. We save things in our family. Not long ago one cousin sent me her tattered, penciled script.

Theater people are often very generous. Most are not celebrities and don’t make good money. The playwright in today’s story did have a successful show on Broadway, but the bulk of his money came from sidelines. When he saw how much it was, he decided to help theater people who were struggling.

As Michael Paulson reports at the New York Times, “Jeremy O. Harris is a playwright, a performer, and a provocateur. And now, he’s a philanthropist.

“The 31-year-old author of Slave Play, which is nominated for 12 Tony Awards, emerged during the pandemic not only as a vocal advocate for the beleaguered theater industry, but also as someone determined to model generosity.

“After years in which he earned very little making theater — he said his total commissions over four years amounted to about $22,000 — this year he made nearly $1 million, primarily from collaborations with the fashion industry and an HBO deal. (Fashion and television pay better than Broadway.)

So in the months since the virus shuttered theaters across America, Harris has:

“He has also used his bully pulpit to champion theater. He sent a letter to President-elect Biden, urging him to revive the Federal Theater Project, and then used an appearance on ‘Late Night with Seth Meyers’ to push that show’s host to rally support for the idea.

“In a telephone interview, Harris explained why in dire times he believes everyone should be committed to ‘protecting, uplifting and sharing,’ adding: ‘Some might call it philanthropy, but I call it upkeep or maintenance.’ These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How would you describe the kinds of artists or works you’re looking to support?

“I want to make sure that we have a really fertile artistic landscape when we return to the theaters. And I think it’s been pretty evident that I’m really excited about work that’s challenging, that’s scary, that probably wouldn’t get support otherwise. …

“Even before the tumult of this year, you’ve had an interest in highlighting Black theater artists.

“It was so exciting to see myself in Tennessee Williams, in Beckett and Caryl Churchill. But there came a point where I was like, ‘Wait, have Black people never done anything like this?’ And when I discovered that not only had they, but so many had done it to wild acclaim, and yet no one I talked to remembered that acclaim or knew those people, I knew that something had to be done about this cultural amnesia. …

“The $50,000 commissions are above the norm for playwrights. How did you arrive at that amount?

“I wanted to give someone a living wage in New York. I wanted someone to feel excited about spending a year and a half, maybe two, working on one play, and not feeling compelled to work in a coffee shop.”

More at the New York Times, here

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Photo: Peter J. Thompson/National Post/File
The Royal George Theatre in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Canada, is home to the annual George Bernard Shaw Festival. The National Post reported in July, “Shaw’s are among the only actors, musicians, and theatre workers in the world who still have jobs.”

When Suzanne was a toddler and John about 6, we made the pilgrimage from our home near Rochester, New York, to the famed Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Curiously, although it’s a June event, I think of the festival every year in December when I hang Christmas tree ornaments that I bought in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The main focus of the festival is the oeuvre of playwright George Bernard Shaw, but there are other offerings. We took turns babysitting, and I went to see the British concert comedienne Anna Russell (1911-2006), always hilarious.

But I digress. Today’s post is about the Shaw Festival, but not about the performances.

Calum Marsh writes at Canada’s National Post, “About three-and-a-half years ago, Tim Jennings, the executive director and CEO of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, decided to undertake some risk analysis alongside his CFO. He looked at potential problem areas, and at concerns that might arise throughout the course of an ordinary season of theatre, and came to a shrewd conclusion: The festival should take out an insurance policy against the threat of a pandemic.

“The policy covered the interruption of planned performances by communicable disease. As a consequence of that remarkable foresight, the Shaw Festival has been able to do the basically impossible …

In an industry that has been universally devastated, the festival has kept its more than 500 employees on the payroll full-time.

“Almost everyone in the field of arts and entertainment has been out of work since the beginning of the lockdown, when live performances became a logistical impossibility. But thanks to the coverage, Shaw’s are among the only actors, musicians, and theatre workers in the world who still have jobs. …

“Given how few people were prepared for such an incredible turn of events — and how many businesses, including major corporations, failed to anticipate such a contingency — the Shaw’s insurance policy doesn’t look merely fortuitous. It looks downright prophetic. Jennings insists he is no Nostradamus. He was simply planning ahead.

‘People keep telling me it was genius,’ Jennings says, reflecting on this extraordinary stroke of luck. ‘It wasn’t actually genius. It wasn’t about this pandemic at all — it was about communicable disease.’

“In his time working in theatre Jennings has seen a minor stomach bug waylay productions on countless occasions. Shaw employs a rotating repertory ensemble; if one of his actors got the flu, ten of them could, and that might stall a show. ‘We took it out for the whole season, thinking that if six actors got ill and we had to shut down for two weeks, we might lose two million bucks,’ he explains. ‘But the policy also very clearly covered a pandemic. That was really a useful piece of good fortune.’

“No insurance policy is perfect, of course, and the Shaw Festival, Jennings points out, is ‘still running into money issues, as one would expect.’ But it is nevertheless the only organization of its kind to have managed to keep so many people employed and working when the actual work they do isn’t feasible.

“The festival has also taken advantage of the CEWS [Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy] to offset the cost of paying its people — including the many actors and musicians who aren’t technically eligible, as independent contractors, thanks to another canny move. ‘Our actors rehearsed on Zoom from March through May, waiting to get back on stage,’ he says. ‘When it became clear that it wasn’t going to happen, we pivoted.’

“Jennings terminated their contracts, instead hiring them on as employees, under the title Education and Community Outreach Specialists.

“[They] made calls to donors, taught choreography to students over Zoom, and performed for the ill in hospice. ‘I was able to rehire all of the artists, actors, and musicians, plus about ten more. All of these artists are able to get back to work.’ ”

Such a nice story! Read more here.

Hat tip: ArtsJournal.com

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Photo: Dmitry Kostyukov for the New York Times.
The cast of “Cabaret Under the Balconies,” kept away from their theater by Covid-19, performs at a safe distance for nursing home residents in France.

What hath Zoom wrought? Despite its glitches, Zoom has solved a lot of problems in the coronavirus era and has even introduced new ideas for future activities. Yesterday, for example, one brother and I watched another brother give a lecture on immunology research to a conference — a thing we could never before have imagined doing. Although we hardly understood a word, we both found the experience of watching our kid brother explain obscure transformations of molecules — and gracefully answer all sorts of technical questions — completely delightful.

In today’s story, a theater group in France tapped Zoom to conduct remote rehearsals before performing in front of a live audience.

Laura Cappelle reports at the New York Times, “When circumstances close theaters’ doors, you can count on some performers to find a window to open. Last week in [a] city in eastern France, the residents and staff of a nursing home watched from a safe distance — some from windows and balconies — as five actors appeared in the building’s courtyard in front of a makeshift red curtain. ‘It feels like it’s been such a long time,’ they sang, in a cover of Joe Dassin’s wistful chanson ‘Salut.’ ‘Far from home, I’ve been thinking about you.’

“ ‘Cabaret Under the Balconies’ [was] the first professional theater performance in France since lockdown was imposed on March 17. …

“The relief of the cast was palpable as they performed at the facility, the Ehpad Bois de Menuse. … The 45-minute show was designed to respect social distancing among the cast members as well as between them and the audience, Bréban explained in an introduction.

“Except for one real-life couple, who were allowed to kiss, none of the performers touched. … Bréban, who also performed in the show, capitalized on the actors’ individual strengths, from Antonin Maurel’s clownish energy to Cléo Sénia’s burlesque background.

“Their approach appeared to resonate with the audience, limited to 40 people. (The show was performed twice so that most of the 90 residents could see it.) Many of them were in wheelchairs, yet could be seen nodding or tapping their feet to the beat. In the courtyard, one woman got up, swung her arms and danced with a masked worker from the home. Another teared up as Léa Lopez, a young performer with a lush voice, sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’

“Valérie Gonthier, a nursing assistant who stayed by the woman’s side as she cried, said in an interview afterward that music often stirred up emotions for residents who experienced memory loss. The Ehpad has a choir, but French nursing homes don’t typically have the funds to bring in professional performances; Gonthier couldn’t remember anything like last week’s show in the 26 years she has been with the institution. …

“Nicolas Royer, the theater’s director since January, said he disagreed with many French arts administrators who had interpreted government regulations to mean that performances were impossible. He didn’t furlough any employees, instead asking the costume department to make surgical-style masks, welcoming doctors from a nearby hospital in the theater’s guest apartments and hosting training sessions for city workers dealing with the crisis.

“In April, Royer got a call from Bréban, an experienced actress and emerging director who was going stir crazy in her Paris home: She told Royer she was down for anything he dreamed up. …

“The cast of ‘Cabaret Under the Balconies’ rehearsed over Zoom for seven days and, after the relaxing of lockdown in France in May, met in Chalon-sur-Saône for one week of in-person rehearsals — with strict rules. Bréban booked cast members with no health conditions. Daily temperature checks and frequent use of sanitizing gel were mandated, and everyone was offered a coronavirus test.

“By far the most onerous directive for the performers was to maintain a distance from one another of roughly one meter at all times. … ‘We were confident that we were within labor regulations, with an audience that was already confined and highly protected,’ Royer said. …

“The last time I went to the theater, two and a half months ago, Isabelle Huppert headlined Ivo van Hove’s staging of ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ For all the star appeal of that night at the Théâtre de l’Odéon, ‘Cabaret Under the Balconies’ was the more memorable event — a sincere attempt to go back to basics, in the right place, at the right time.”

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: Tiny Theatre
Rachel Burttram Powers and Brendan Powers, actors married to each other, created a theater in their closet for these self-distancing times.

Sandra’s dear departed mother had the best recipe for boredom: Go clean out a closet. Sandra cleaned out a lot of closets as a kid, and now as an adult, she is never bored because she knows how to find something more interesting to do.

When I was a kid, I was one to play in the closet rather than clean it and had many tea parties with Carole, accompanied by flashlights, cinnamon toast, and dolls.

Today’s story is about two actors, married and stuck at home in the pandemic, who did both: They cleaned out a closet and then played in it.

Sarah Tietje-Mietz reports at American Theatre, “The stage lights glow like dozens of small stars while the countdown to curtain plays over the intercom. … The actors come together, separated by mere inches, so close that their knees bump and their shoulders touch, so close that they have to lean back to even look at each other.

“The stage is a 4-by-4 closet, lit by a string of Christmas lights. … The audience is all online. Welcome to Tiny_Theatre.

‘I think there’s a need for humans to connect, maybe more than ever,’ said actor and Tiny_Theatre co-founder Rachel Burttram Powers. ‘Toni Morrison says that it’s the artist’s job to create in a time of crisis, you know? We created this out of necessity.’

“Tiny_Theatre is the passion project of Rachel and her husband/co-founder, Brendan Powers, as a response to the shuttering of all theatres in the wake of COVID-19. The couple perform from the guest room of their Fort Myers, Fla., home three times a week — Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays — on Facebook Live. …

“Rachel and Brendan have established a network of playwrights to tap into for their newest project. Some writers have even reached out directly with suggestions of work. Rights for the plays have all been granted gratis to the couple. …

“In early March, Rachel and Brendan were in the final dress rehearsal for Florida Rep’s production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2. The theatre closed its door the next day. Though the couple’s turn as Nora and Torvald was recorded and streamed online, the two found themselves suddenly faced with an abundance of time and artistic energy.

“ ‘We were sort of in that mindset as performers,’ Rachel said. ‘We were ready to go eight shows a week. Suddenly it was like a needle pulled off the record.’

“Added Brendan, ‘A couple days in, once we knew we were canceling the show, I could see Rachel — I can tell when she’s thinking of something.’ …

“Back to Rachel: ‘I started cleaning out a back closet because I thought, “What would happen if you made a theatre at home?” We knew everyone was self-isolating. We both have a passion for new plays, and we have a lot of playwright friends who are very well established, and I just thought, “Let me just send an email to see if people would be game to play with us.” ‘ …

“There is evident respect in the way they communicate, not just as a married couple but as professionals in their field. Playwright Arlene Hutton acknowledges this interplay as creating an environment akin to a mini-repertory company in Tiny_Theatre. Hutton was already familiar with the couple, having worked with Brendan when he starred in her work, Running, and seen Rachel in Florida Rep’s production of Audrey Cefaly’s Alabaster. … ‘They’re not trying to make it more than it is, you know?’ …

“On March 21, Tiny_Theatre debuted with scenes from Cefaly’s Maytag Virgin. This inaugural performance was also the couple’s first Facebook Live experience. (Brendan did not even have a Facebook account at the time.) Their setup was a smartphone, a broken tripod, and a paint stirrer, all literally held together with duct tape. …

“The technical system has since been upgraded, which they credit to the community that has bloomed around Tiny_Theatre. Friends, family, followers, and even strangers have sent gift cards (resulting in a new iPad) as well as printer paper and toner (for printing and notating scripts). …

“There’s a goofiness and levity to these two, a palpable happiness for the work they are doing. Silliness aside, the two have dedicated years to honing their craft onstage. In such close proximity, their acting is distilled to their voices, the acuity in their facial expressions, the gentle placement of a hand, through which they transport their viewers beyond the confines of their closet.

“ ‘That’s been tricky,’ Brendan said of the lack of mobility. ‘As we read a scene — you’re an actor, you start to feel it, and then you get put in that situation where you can’t storytell physically or only very, very minimally.’ …

“It was this challenge that attracted Nathan Christopher, who found out about Tiny_Theatre through the Playwright Submission Binge online community and became enamored with the project after just one viewing. The Powerses accepted Christopher’s submission of his recent play A Man Walks Into a Bar, performing it on April 6, as well as Clairvoyant, which came from an open call they put out that asked writers to create short works inspired by a single photo they provided as a prompt.”

Read more here.

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Photo: Slung Low
The Slung Low theater group sorting out food parcels at their headquarters in Leeds, England.

Many companies and nonprofits around the world have been stepping up to meet new needs during the lockdown. This story is about an innovative UK theater delivering food to the hungry.

Ian Youngs reports at the BBC, “When you’re suddenly tasked with co-ordinating emergency food parcel deliveries to vulnerable local people during a pandemic, the ability to think creatively comes in useful. As artistic director of one of the UK’s most innovative theatre companies, Alan Lane is used to coming up with imaginative solutions.

“But they normally involve finding ways to stage epic community theatre shows, not making sure hundreds of people have the food and medicines they need in a lockdown.

” ‘Today we find ourselves with a Transit van full of crisps,’ he says on the phone from Leeds. … Yesterday we didn’t have any vegetables. And tomorrow we’re not going to have any eggs. So constantly I’m on the phone doing deals.

‘The other day, I swapped a load of tote bags that I got from the university for some face masks, which I split in half and swapped the other half for a lot of cream. …

“Six weeks ago, Lane and his company Slung Low were asked by Leeds City Council to co-ordinate the community response in Holbeck and Beeston, meaning any requests for help from the 10,000 households in the area have been passed to them.

“They are mainly from people needing food, but prescriptions need dropping off too, and they are often asked to just phone lonely people for a chat.

“Lane is in charge of around 90 volunteers, including some from the region’s other arts organisations — from Opera North and Yorkshire Sculpture Park to theatre company Red Ladder. …

“Managing them is not the only new role Lane has taken on during the pandemic. When not scrounging and delivering food, he has become a game show host, and a very entertaining one at that — appearing online every fortnight from Slung Low’s HQ to keep locals’ spirits up. …

“On top of that, he has launched an open-air art gallery, posting residents’ lockdown pictures on lampposts. And Slung Low has just made a short film — shot before coronavirus rewrote Lane’s job description — which went online on Friday.

” ‘We didn’t know this at the time, but having a short film to release at the moment is much better than having a play,’ he says.

“Except — he will be taking an enforced break from all that frenetic activity for a while. [A Covid-19 test] came back negative, but he has symptoms so is isolating and recovering. Others have stepped in to ensure Slung Low’s work goes on. …

“The connection with the local community is what sets Slung Low apart from other theatre companies and means it can adapt to doing things like delivering food during a crisis, Lane says.

“Other venues have been busy putting their shows online and continuing their education and outreach activities digitally, but Lane thinks they could be doing more with their facilities.

” ‘There are a lot of vans currently sat in the car parks of arts organisations because they couldn’t quite work out the insurance to get them doing food bank work,’ he says. … ‘We spend a lot of time talking about what we’re for at Slung Low. What we’re for is not putting on a show for people to pay for tickets.

” ‘[Putting on a show is] something we do quite a bit, and something that we can be quite good at on a good day. But it’s not what we’re for. And therefore, when you can’t do that, it doesn’t mean we stop.’ ” More at the BBC, here.

Although people in the arts may not be uniquely compassionate, they’re often among the first to demonstrate sensitivity to the needs of others. Still, gold stars for a city council that thought of asking for the theater’s help!

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Humorous online show from Philadelphia: Thursdays at 6 pm, here.

Many of us have been bingeing on the new online offerings for education, entertainment, or simply communicating.

But not everyone has time to check things out. In the beginning, I was sending lots of online links meant for kids. But as John pointed out, two working parents teaching themselves to home-school might not have the bandwidth even to click and see if the links were actually cool.

They are definitely busy. I’ve been busy, but I do have time to try links for my own entertainment and to pass along a few to friends.

As I mentioned yesterday, a took an online seminar on TikTok. It was presented by First Draft, an organization that offers resources for journalists and has a focus on spotting and countering fake news. The webinar was way above my level, but it got me interested in learning more about TikTok. I do like social media.

Meanwhile, in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, theater-going is pretty much shut down. But I saw a very good 20-minute play by David Mamet and his actress wife Rebecca Pidgeon at the Great Barrington Public Theater site “Bear Tales: Six Feet Together,” here. The play is about the famed, hard-drinking journalist Dorothy Kilgallen (1913-1965) and promotes a theory about the Lindbergh baby that was completely new to me. For more of Great Barrington Public Theater’s “Bear Tales,” click here.

I moonlighted for many years as a theater reviewer, and I reviewed the Boston Theater Marathon for New York-based TheaterMania.com a number of times. So I was interested to see how scores of 10-minute Theater Marathon plays would be handled in the pandemic. Turns out, the Boston Playwrights Theater decided to Zoom one new play at a time. What is nice is that you can enjoy extra features after watching the play: discussions among the playwright, the actors, the director, and more. Each person is, of course, at home. Catch new plays at noon until May 18, here.

Nancy Greenaway, the poet I know from New Shoreham, alerted me to an online reading organized by Connecticut’s Arts Café Mystic and scheduled for the last day of National Poetry Month. I watched that, too.

There was a lot of variety, and it was kind of fun to see what indoor or outdoor home settings the readers had chosen for a backdrop. Some people read classic favorites from the canon, some read their own poems. I got a kick out of a poem by Stephen Dobyns about an old man who heard his dog suggesting fun things to do that they once used to do. The suggestions seemed to dead-end. Finally the dog suggested that they go back in the house and make a big sandwich. We leave the old man looking in the fridge “for answers.”

Dobyns has been a college professor and a mystery writer as well as a poet. I heard him once in person and got the message that he really didn’t like to mix his poetry side with his novel-writing side, but I sure did love his entertaining Charlie Bradshaw/ Saratoga detective series.

You can listen to the poetry reading here. Click on “In This Together.”

For entertainment on Thursdays at 6 pm, you might like “I Put on Pants for This,” by Philadephia-based comedy troupe 1812 productions. My husband and I found plenty of laughs in the episode about comedians Mae West, Sophie Tucker, and Moms Mabley. Go here here to access the 1812 productions.

For those who like Sondheim’s music — and many people do — there’s a YouTube tribute from an astonishing number of stars, including Sutton Foster, Josh Groban, Jake Gyllenhaal, Patti LuPone, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Audra McDonald, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Randy Rainbow, Meryl Streep, and Raúl Esparza.

The video is more than two hours, though. I watched it in chunks, here. It’s also a fundraiser for ASTEP (Artists Striving to End Poverty).

I’ll wrap up today by mentioning an amazing collection of 175,336 photographs you can access for free at the Library of Congress, here. It’s from the period of the Great Depression (Dorothea Lange, anyone?) and is labeled “Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information.” It’s a beautiful reminder that when artists are out of work, a certain kind of government will pay them to document hard times.

Take Me to the World: Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration

 

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Photo: NTV
Led by a grandmother, an amateur theater group in Turkey is raising awareness about climate change and the lives of rural women.

Wherever you live, whatever age you are, you have the power to do something valuable for the world. A grandmother in rural Turkey understood that from an early age and is making her voice heard.

The BBC garnered this story from NTV, the Turkish television news channel.

Dilay Yalcin and Krassi Twigg reported, “A 62-year-old grandmother from rural Turkey who rose to national fame with her all-women village theatre group is now set to stage a play raising awareness about climate change.

“Ummiye Kocak from the village of Arslankoy in the Mediterranean province of Mersin recently began rehearsals for her new play ‘Mother, the Sky is Pierced!’

“She told Anadolu news agency that she wanted ‘people to realise just how serious it is.’

The climate crisis is ‘not only our problem, it is the world’s problem,’ she says. ‘I am shouting as loud as I can — this world is ours, we need to take good care of it!’

“Ummiye Kocak has written plays for many years, always aiming to change perceptions. Her previous works have tackled issues from poverty and domestic violence to Alzheimer’s Disease. … In 2013 she won an award at a New York festival with a film focusing on the difficulties of women’s lives in a Turkish village. …

“Ummiye Kocak grew up in a conservative rural area, and only got primary education ‘by chance — as each family was required to send one girl to school.

“But she says her father was open-minded enough to take all his children to the cinema at a time when no other dad in the village would, sparking her love of drama.

“She says that when she first arrived in the village of Arslankoy as a young bride, she noticed that women there had to do all the work — in the fields as well as in the house. She thought that wasn’t right and told herself: ‘Ummiye, you have to make the voices of these women heard!’

“Her village doesn’t have a stage, so she gathers her performers under a walnut tree in her garden for rehearsals while they do their domestic chores. …

“People in other parts of the country want a piece of the action, issuing invitations on social media for the group to perform locally.

“One woman in Istanbul wrote: ‘I’m proud and honoured on behalf of all women every time I see you, Aunt Ummiye. … I hope all women lead their lives knowing they have this power like you do.’ ”

More at the BBC, here.

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Photo: CNN
A group of service dogs attend a performance of
Billy Elliot: The Musical as part of their training.

Service dogs must learn to go everywhere with their person and be unobtrusive in settings like concert halls and theaters. That’s why trainers are getting creative about giving dogs practice. One place they get performance-attendance training is at the Stratford, Ontario, Festival, where Sandra and Pat’s great niece has been performing the last two summer to great acclaim.

Scottie Andrew explains about the dog training at CNN. “When the cast of a Canadian production of ‘Billy Elliot: The Musical’ took their final bow after a recent show, the audience didn’t make a single sound — not even a woof.

“A polite crowd of about a dozen future service dogs attended an August performance at Ontario’s Stratford Festival as part of their training. While a silent curtain call might disappoint actors, the dogs’ spellbound stillness is a great sign for their future handlers.

“The event was part of a two-year training program by K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dogs, head trainer Laura MacKenzie told CNN. The future service dogs have toured zoos, subways and crowded fairs to acclimate them to the unfamiliar lights and sounds, rapid movements and bustling crowds they might encounter with their handler, she said.

“At the theater, the dogs are expected to sit under the seat or curl up at their handlers’ feet while their humans enjoy the show, she said.

“They stayed calm and quiet throughout the performance, but a few curious pups peeked their furry heads over the seats to catch a few minutes of the show, she said.

“Ann Swerdfager of the Stratford Festival told CNN that many of the theater’s patrons bring their service dogs to performances, so the company was ‘thrilled’ to host the dogs for training. The non-profit theater company hosts ‘relaxed performances’ designed for audiences sensitive to light, sound and noise — a perfect training ground for service-dog hopefuls.” More here.

Such a well-behaved audience! Nine-yeat-old Sadie Markowitz, recognized as the new Emily Post, would approve. She’s received attention on social media lately with dictums like “never sing along.” It’s just as well that my grandchildren didn’t read that advice before they went to the Lion King in October. They would not have been able to follow it.

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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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