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Photo: Kolya Kuprich
Outlawed Belarus Free Theatre has been successfully performing
A School for Fools and other plays despite the pandemic. It took some ingenuity, but they have plenty of that.

What kind of theater could handle a pandemic better than one that is of necessity always underground? If you’re fighting an authoritarian regime, you will continually find ways it doesn’t know about for getting your work out into the world — or you’ll go to prison.

Verity Healey writes at HowlRound,* “If any theatre company is going to feel at home during COVID-19 and the challenges the pandemic has brought to theatres worldwide, it is going to be Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), an outlawed company based in Belarus and the UK (its artistic directors Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, in fear of their lives, had to seek asylum in Britain in 2011).

In Belarus, where dictator President Lukashenko faces national elections in August — and is busy arresting citizens attending opposition rallies — the BFT ensemble is banned from performing and from registering as a theatre company because it produces democracy-promoting plays and global campaigns advancing human rights.

“Working out of a small garage in a secret location in Minsk, the country’s capital city, BFT is ineligible to apply for national funding, and ensemble members, continuing to perform illegally and underground, face the very real and constant threat of being arrested by the KGB. …

“On top of this, Lukashenko is a COVID-19 denier and has advised his citizens to drive tractors, go to the sauna, and drink vodka to prevent infection. Whilst he has not imposed a lockdown, he is using the virus as an excuse to ban protests of any kind (prescient in the run-up to the elections) and arrest anyone who raises a voice in opposition. This means that, in Minsk, BFT, in tandem with their colleagues in the UK, have voluntarily gone into self-isolation to protect themselves and their families whilst creating work from their living quarters — turning their homes, quite literally, into performance spaces.

“ ‘I get to spend twenty-four hours a day with the people I love, otherwise the lockdown is no different for me,’ says Khalezin.

“It will not come as a surprise then that, since late February, the company has premiered two full-length plays, facilitated and broadcast several online fairy tales with renowned artists such as Stephen Fry, Juliet Stevenson, Will Attenborough, and Sam West for their campaign #LoveOverVirus, and made all of their previous shows accessible for free on YouTube. …

“It’s their latest show, though, A School for Fools (ASFF), which is streaming live online, that has recently made the headlines. Adapted from Sasha Sokolov’s 1960s phantasmagoric modernist novel of the same name … the story charts the experiences of a young boy living with a dual personality disorder attending an oppressive school, a kind of place that used to exist in Eastern Europe (and still does in Kazakhstan). …

“Starring twelve of BFT’s ensemble members, all living in Minsk, in twelve locations (the actors’ mostly small Soviet-style [flats]), and with sixteen different camera setups hosted by Zoom, it is a feat of technical wizardry imagined by [director Pavel] Haradnitski’s artistic vision and Sveta Sugako’s broadcasting direction. …

“Haradnitski calls the need to do ASFF ‘a desire to act, because even in two months, actors can lose their skills.’ Previous conversations had with Haradnitski, Sugako, and Nadia Brodskaya, the producer for ASFF, have also revealed to me that for everyone in the ensemble BFT is a way of life, 24/7. …

“ASFF is not just an ideological road map out of the pandemic — i.e., using technology and social media platforms in new ways to bring live drama to people at home via laptops and devices. It is also a way of doing theatre that, as Khalezin says, we may have to return to more and more if the world faces other pandemics. …

“Zoom is not custom-made to handle large-scale live performances—it was invented purely for business meetings and conferences and it lacks the interfaces custom-made platforms might have (there are ones being developed especially for BFT, but they were not ready in time for the pandemic). ..

“One of Sugako’s and Haradnitski’s main difficulties, for example, was working out how to let the actors know what marks to hit, especially when it was required for actors to make it look like they were physically interacting with each other. In the end, Sugako had to use a webcam, pointed at her Zoom host interface, which allowed her to share her screen with the actors so they could see they were in the right place to make it look like they were connecting across frames.

“The other issue is Zoom’s propensity to kick people off the platform if their internet connection drops — which anyone who has ever been to Belarus will know is a common occurrence. And to make things more complicated, Sugako had to line up the sixteen devices — laptops, phones — in a particular order for actors to hit their cues. If they get out of sync, the whole show is scrambled.” Read how they handled that difficulty and others at Howlround,* here.

By the way, John has been to Belarus. Maybe he will confirm that the internet connections often get dropped.

* The staff of HowlRound Theatre Commons at Emerson College wish to respectfully acknowledge that our offices are situated on land stolen from its original holders, the Massachuset and Wampanoag people. We wish to pay our respects to their people past, present, and future.

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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: Good Chance Theatre
A group that was founded to dramatize the plight of refugees in Calais, France, is now performing internationally.

Theater can often bring out the empathetic and compassionate side of audience members and lead to positive change in the world. As Amelia Parenteau writes at American Theatre, a play called The Jungle that grew around a refugee camp in Calais, France, may be helping viewers to see asylum seekers as people like themselves — and motivating them to take action.

“Good Chance Theatre was started by two Brits, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, when, in 2015, they passed through Calais, France, on their way to Germany and they saw the makeshift refugee camp that had formed there.

“Many theatremakers might feel the need to share the refugees’ story with the world, but first Murphy and Robertson wanted folks in the camp to have ‘a platform to express themselves,’ explained Dina Mousawi, Good Chance’s creative producer.

“So they decided to construct a theatre there in the shape of a geodesic dome, which has since become Good Chance’s signature pop-up venue; they spent seven months there in total.

“Vincent Mangado, a Théâtre du Soleil company member who joined their effort, described that first dome as a place ‘where everything could be spoken, a place of peace, a nerve center of the jungle, where you can share stories or throw a party, not just a theatre.’

“Upon returning to the U.K., Murphy and Robertson were commissioned to write a play about their experience in Calais, which grew up into the international hit The Jungle (now at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco through May 19). They traveled around the U.K., leading workshops with migrants and asylum seekers to continue gathering material. And cast members: The Jungle’s ensemble comprises of actors of 11 different nationalities, including some people Murphy and Robertson met in Calais who had since emigrated to Britain.

“The action of The Jungle is set in an Afghan restaurant that was built in Calais, and is staged with such an immersive aesthetic that audience members feel as though they are fellow diners at the restaurant. Along with the café, makeshift mosques, churches, shops, and other restaurants were constructed in Calais, despite extremely limited resources (just two water spigots and two porta-potties).

“Mousawi joined Good Chance in September 2018, though she had been doing similar work for years both on her own and with Complicité. In fact, she led the first Good Chance workshop in the dome in Calais with 35 Sudanese men in Arabic.

“Raised in Iraq, Mousawi left during the war to move to England, but returned to the Middle East during the height of the conflict in Syria, feeling called to help by making theatre. There she worked with Syrian women to produce work telling their stories, which only strengthened her conviction that theatre is for everybody, and should be radically inclusive. …

“ ‘Theatre can act as a tool for so many things, and one of the ways we use it is to encourage integration in areas where there might be tension.’ …

“To those audiences moved by The Jungle, Mousawi recommends reaching out to migrants recently arrived in your local community to see what you can do to make them feel welcome. ‘That’s what Good Chance is all about,’ she said. ‘Making people feel welcome, not alienated.’ ”

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: Arden Theatre Company
Staff of the Arden Theatre Company in 1995 celebrating their recently purchased home. The building is at 2nd and Arch, in the Old City neighborhood.

I always enjoy stories about the arts sparking neighborhood revitalization. John Timpane, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, recently covered one from the City of Brotherly Love.

“There’s a lot of turnover in the theater world, many an entrance and exit, so the Arden Theatre Company’s 30th anniversary this season is a testament to clear vision, luck, a lot of work, and even more talent.

“But this story embraces more than a theater – it’s about a neighborhood, Old City, that in part revitalized around the Arden, and how an arts venue plays a potent role in such transformations.

“It began with two 1980s theater buddies at Northwestern University near Chicago. ‘Aaron Posner and I talked all the time about starting a theater,’ says Arden cofounder and producing artistic director Terrence J. Nolen. …

“Cofounder Amy Murphy, who met Nolen when both were at Upper Darby Summer Stage, says … ‘When Terry said, “Let’s do this,” I thought, “Sure, I can go down for a few weeks and help out.” Right. We were 24, young, and dumb enough to do it.’ …

“Arden opened in 1988 with a Kurt Vonnegut adaptation. …

“Is there an Arden philosophy? ‘Our first commitment is to Philly actors,’ Nolen says. ‘When we first opened and started getting great reviews, people said, “Where did you get these actors?” We said, “They’re from here.” ‘

“You can feel that loyalty among grads of the Arden Professional Apprentice Program. … Raelle Myrick-Hodges is founder of Azuka Theatre and a busy theater professional. And she’ll direct an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye at the F. Otto Haas Stage March 1-April 1. She says, ‘I began as an apprentice at the Arden 24 years ago, and I’m so grateful I went there instead of to a grad school.’ …

“[Former Arden apprentice Scott] Greer says Arden’s 1995 arrival helped revitalize the ’hood: ‘When they got the space in Old City, they were a big part of changing that neighborhood. There was hardly anything there, and they started bringing in subscribers eight nights a week.’

“Ellen Yin, proprietor of Fork at 306 Market St., … said the Arden presence ‘helped build a clientele for the earlier 5:30-8 p.m. dining hours, which are crucial.’ She and several other restaurant owners regularly have partnerships with the theater. …

” ‘Blown away’ is a term Murphy uses for the whole Arden story. ‘All the people we know, all the good work we’ve done because of it,’ she says. ‘I’m very grateful. All of us are, and I think we always will be.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: The Stage
Open Access Smart Capture’s glasses enable deaf theatergoers in Britain to read live captioning during a performance.

Earlier this month I posted about how the Vienna State Opera provides captions in six languages.

Today’s entry is on making dramatic productions more accessible to the deaf by means of glasses that churn out captions.

Georgia Snow writes at the Stage, “The National Theatre has unveiled new technology that will enable deaf audiences to see captions for performances in front of their eyes using special glasses, … removing the need for captioning screens in the auditorium.

“Developed by the NT with its innovation partner, consultancy firm Accenture, Open Access Smart Capture is being introduced during a year-long pilot.

“If it is a success, the result would be ‘transformational,’ [NT director Rufus] Norris said. …

“The glasses boast 97% accuracy in the timing of the captions, and can also facilitate audio description, for audiences with restricted vision. …

“The project is one of two new initiatives being introduced by the NT around accessibility, the second being an online video database showcasing deaf and disabled actors. …

“It is part of a drive to tackle the under-representation of disabled actors working in the profession, Norris said. …

“He added that ProFile also hopes to remove some of the barriers for deaf and disabled performers, for whom travelling to auditions and meetings can be difficult and expensive.” More at the Stage, here.

If nothing the else, the glasses will be fun. A few years ago, I got to see that for myself using Google Glass. An executive where I worked was having summer interns play around with programming the glasses to test the possibilities for the Fed. That didn’t go anywhere, but it was definitely fun.

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Photo: American Theatre
A scene from “Mentiras Piadosas,” by the troupe Los ImproDucktivos. That’s the audience watching from behind the Venetian blinds.

Theater people keep thinking up new ways to create work that moves you in an immediate and intimate way and that attracts new audiences. We’ve written about theater in taxis in Iran and dramatic productions conducted one-on-one, among other experiments.

Now from Spain comes micro theater, 10-minute plays that allow you to stand in the same room with the actors.

Felicity Hughes writes at American Theatre, “On a rainy Thursday night in Madrid the bar of Micro Teatro Por Dinero is packed with a young crowd of theatregoers waiting to catch a short performance in one of the five tiny rooms in the venue’s basement. When our number is called, we’re led into a small dark room where the audience sits pressed up against each other sardine fashion on tiny stools.

A door is flung open, immediately breaking the fourth wall as a distressed young man stumbles in and sits down on my knee in floods of tears.

“ ‘Never before has there been a theatre so close, so intimate, and so open — there are no preconceptions, no limits, no censure,’ says Miguel Alcantud, the inventor of micro teatro, an abbreviated form of theatre. …

“The concept has since become so popular that the Micro Teatro Por Dinero franchise has been sold to venues in 15 different cities around the globe, including Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Lima, Lebanon, even Miami. …

“ ‘The cost of putting on a show is very small, and we change the program every month,’ Alcantud continues. ‘We don’t mind if the piece works or doesn’t work, because we’re always putting something new on. The commercial success of a single show doesn’t matter so much.’ …

“ ‘You feel as if you’re breathing alongside the public and they’re breathing with you,’ says [Juan Carlos Pabón, a Venezuelan actor]. ‘We’re dealing with a lot of emotion inside a scene and a lot of attention. There’s not as much artifice, so it’s a tough discipline; the public are really concentrating on you, and notice the good along with the not so good.’ ” More here.

The director in Miami says audiences seem to prefer comedies to dramas. I can see why. If you are going to be that up close and personal with strangers, you probably want keep things light.

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On the other hand, your living room could be a perfectly good performance venue. In fact, the Guardian calls your living room the “hottest new arts venue.”

The newspaper’s Darryn King writes, “On a recent Friday night in Manhattan, around 20 people and one terrier gathered in the living room of an Upper East Side apartment to listen to a string quartet perform Beethoven, Ravel and Tchaikovsky.

“The guests sampled cheese and wine – several had brought bottles to share – and asked strangers: ‘Is this your first time?’ …

“There are similar events to this performance, organised by Boston-based chamber music concert community Groupmuse, happening in New York, San Francisco and four other cities every week: intimate shows taking place in living rooms of all shapes, sizes and levels of cleanliness, a paradoxically homely and exciting alternative to traditional theatres, concert venues and comedy clubs.

“And it isn’t limited to classical music. Thanks to a range of organisations putting on events in the home, there’s a good chance that, if you were so inclined, you could enjoy standup comedy, live theatre and rock gigs in the comfort of someone else’s residence tonight. Welcome to the latest and greatest nontraditional venue invigorating the city’s live performance scene: the humble living room.

“A lot of folks seek out live music to feel like they are actively contributing to and sharing in something larger than themselves – not just standing by, observing the experience,” says Groupmuse founder Sam Bodkin. “Living rooms are just the best way to do that.”…

“The New Place Players, a troupe of Shakespearean performers-for-hire, have also been busy immersing audiences. The group has staged their productions of Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in homes all over the city, while also putting on regular supper-and-show performances in the sumptuous living room of the historic Casa Duse residence in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

“The productions are a harmonious blend of music, lighting, theatre, food and drink, amounting to a communal atmosphere that harks back to the experience of catching a theatre performance in Elizabethan times.” More here.

Photo: Groupmuse
A Groupmuse gig.

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

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

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

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John sent me a good New Yorker story about “the Arslanköy Women’s Theatre Group, an all-female theatre group, based in rural Turkey, which is writing and performing plays.

“Ümmiye Koçak, who is now in her mid-fifties, was a forty-four-year-old farmworker with a primary-school education when she caught the theatre bug from a school play that a local school principal, Hüseyin Arslanköylü, had staged the previous year,” writes Elif Batuman.

“Ümmiye had never seen a play before, and it seeped into her thoughts. For a long time, she had been puzzling over the situation of village women and the many roles they had to play. In the fields, they worked like men; in villas, they became housekeepers; at home, they were wives and mothers.

“In 2000, with other women from her village, Arslanköy, she formed the Arslanköy Women’s Theatre Group. The group met every night at the school, after the women had worked ten- or twelve-hour days on farms. Their first production, a contemporary Turkish play called ‘Stone Almonds,’ sold out a theatre in the provincial capital of Mersin, and was written up in the national press.” Continued here.

Still more at the New Yorker blog, here.

I’m wondering about the mysterious figure at the left here. Hamlet’s father? But he doesn’t show up after people die, or does he? It was always a somewhat confusing play. As my father used to say, quoting I know not who: “The king dies, the queen dies, Ham dies — I calls it a helluva play!”

Photograph: New Yorker magazine
“Hamlet” performed in a mountain location near Arslanköy at dawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the article in the Christian Science Monitor.

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

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

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Today’s NY Times has an article on the cutbacks in prison arts programs and on the many ways they help convicts prepare to lead a better life outside. Tim Robbins and the Actors Gang is trying to raise funds to keep this theater program in a California prison alive.

“Two years ago, arts in corrections programs were a mainstay of prisons across the country, embraced by administrators as a way to channel aggression, break down racial barriers, teach social skills and prepare inmates for the outside world. There was an arts coordinator in each of the 33 California state prisons, overseeing a rich variety of theater, painting and dance. But these programs have become a fading memory, casualties of the budget crises.”

Read more here.

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I am taking a playwriting class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education with Peter Littlefield, who also does a lot of directing. Here is an opera (Handel’s “Partenope”) he co-directed at the English National Opera. I wish I had a real video, but this is what I could find on YouTube.

I just had one class so far, and it looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. The students are an interesting mix of ages and backgrounds, and I’m really looking forward to getting to know everyone. One woman, as it happens, teaches in a Boston elementary school where I volunteer.

I really like Peter’s sort of associative approach to playwriting, in which you mess around with images and ideas that interest you, then set them aside while you play with different images and ideas, and ultimately see how they converge. To me the attraction is that you’re less likely to get bored with what you are doing than if you were trying to force an idea into a structure. (I really am sick of writing coaches who harp on “structure.” I believe a structure will emerge.) We did a really funny exercise for openers.

Although I have often tried to write plays, the only actual class I ever had was in writing for TV, which I took while getting a master’s in communications at Syracuse’s Newhouse School. It was all about the formula: one, two three, gag (joke); one, two three, gag; one, two three, gag. Spirit crushing.

For fun, watch the first few minutes of opening-night comments on my teacher’s production of Partenope.

Comments may be sent to suzannesmom@lunaandstella.com. I will post them.

Asakiyume comments: I’m so excited about this playwriting class. You must have such a great sense of theater from *watching* so many plays, and you’ve definitely got stories to tell. I hope you’ll share any scripts that you do write.  (Your thing about television screenplays, with the “one, two, three, gag” made me laugh because of the alternative meaning of gag–which is what, of course, someone with an artistic vision and free spirit must surely do if trapped with such a formula.)

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