Oh.My.Goodness. I felt like Shirley Temple with her moppet-y, wide-eyed delight...I was definitely on the Good Ship Folliespop this past weekend~from some amazing shows to meeting legends to spending time with special theatre friends, this was a feast of fun!!
I chose this particular weekend for a NYC trip because it was the once-a-year extravaganza known as the Broadway Flea Market and Grand Auction to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a charity I give to throughout the year (and get many fun things in return!!). I love having mementos of experiences, and the BFM is table after table of all things theatre...old Playbills, opening night cast gifts, posters, props, costumes, etc. All the merchandise has been donated by shows, actors and others; and volunteers from the shows staff the tables and interact with the fans. So not only do you get to hunt for memorabilia, but you may be handing your money to a member of the cast! The tables/shows are all competing to raise the most money and their motivation was abundantly clear! :)
I met up with a friend first thing in the morning and within 30 minutes I had acquired what amounted to a holy grail of souvenirs for me: a chimney sweep's broom used in "Mary Poppins" and signed by Gavin Lee, the masterful actor who originated the role of Bert in London and NYC, and is still the gold standard. Lacking Mary Poppins' skill with flying by umbrella, I did have a moment of doubt as to how I was going to maneuver this treasure on the train...whatever~minor details be damned!
The "Newsies" table, conveniently right next door, was the subject of my friend's laser focus...she is an admirably devoted "Fansie" as they're called, and it was a fruitful stop...opening night cast gifts signed by Harvey Fierstein, props signed by cast members, chance to take photos with the enthusiastic Newsies cast members at the table...all around great fun. And at some random tables I found opening night gifts from "Promises Promises," a vintage Playbill I wanted and some artwork by one of my favorite Broadway artists.
My other goal for the day was to visit the autograph tables that featured an array of popular actors donating their time to meet and greet with fans. Each hour offered up a different group of actors and, for a single donation, you were able to meet and chat with approximately 15 actors...they would sign one or two things for you (posters were available to purchase for signing; that's what I did and you can see it above :)).
In the group I chose, I was positively giddy to meet Tyne Daly, Andrea McArdle (the original "Annie" :)), Bebe Neuwirth, Ed Asner, Colman Domingo ("The Scottsboro Boys"), Jan Maxwell ("Follies"), Corey Cott ("Newsies"), Jeremy Kushnier ("Jesus Christ Superstar"), Ann Harada ("Smash" & "Cinderella"), Stephanie Block ("The Mystery of Edwin Drood") and others. I may have broken some kind of record for saying "thank you so much" so many times in one 30 minute span...and yet, each exchange I had with an actor was personal and not rushed and so much fun. It's hard to overstate how satisfying it is to make a personal connection with an actor I've admired on stage; and how personally invested in that show it makes me feel.
By the way, the people watching was endlessly entertaining...fun to see what stuff interested different folks. I know I barely scratched the surface of the treasures to be found; I think next year I'll avoid scheduling a show that Sunday afternoon and be a bit more leisurely! And clearly I will then have to hire pack mules and caravan it back to DC...or get Amtrak to pick me up at my hotel and deliver me to my front door... :). I might need to avoid falling in love with shows that have unwieldy props that I may want to take home...I mean, how many chimney sweep brooms can you have?? Never mind, don't answer that...I don't want to hear it :).
When I wasn't at the Flea Market, the rest of the weekend was non-stop shows...
Next chapter ~ "Kicks" :)
"Join us, come and waste an hour or two...we've got magic to do, just for you...kings and things to take by storm" ("Pippin")
My friend Stephanie and me with the adorable and amazingly talented "Newsies"!
Jess LeProtto (far right) was one of my favorite finalists ever on "So You Think You Can Dance"!
The superstar siblings Celia Keenan Bolger ("Peter and the Starcatcher") and her brother Andrew ("Newsies") being interviewed about BC/EFA and their "Broadway 4 Obama" campaign...go see their shows!!
An original Playbill from one of my favorite shows of all time: Lily Tomlin's "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe"!
I saw this in its first run multiple times but had lost track of my Playbill across many moves (I've learned my lesson, believe me!!)
By the way, Playbill covers for a show are generally only in color for a limited period and then switch to black/white, so I was thrilled to find this one in color and mint!
"Theatre as cultural diplomacy"... Nicholas Cull
That's the title of the booklet telling the story of the production of "Black Watch" by the National Theatre of Scotland, currently beginning its second run at The Shakespeare Theatre Company after a successful 2011 production.
I would take it a step farther and say "theatre as human diplomacy"....a bridge to understanding each other better; whether the audience member I don't know sitting next to me, a friend, a child, someone older than me...myself. And a show that crosses cultural lines, has the potential to send ripples that will permanently change how we relate to each other forever.
I was beyond fortunate today to be included in a press/social media preview event for the unique show opening tonight, "Black Watch," at The Shakespeare Theatre (in the lovely Harman Hall venue; which has been transformed to evoke an "armory" feel for this show).
I knew very little about the history of this show, never mind this piece of Scottish history (despite my roots in Nova Scotia that date back to the 1700s :)). And, to be frank, I'm not sure I would have put an "immersive," as described by the show, work about combat forces in the midst of battle at the top of my list...not at all because I don't think it would be great theatre, or a great story, or an important experience...it's because I have a flimsy constitution when it comes to horror and suffering. But that's why I challenge myself to attend shows I might be skittish about on paper. This kind of theatre can be transformative...I walk back out into the reality of my life somehow more fully human. I often use "The Scottsboro Boys" or "The Normal Heart" as examples of theatre that, while painful to watch, gets a grip on your soul and leaves a mark that you wear with pride.
So I embraced the opportunity to hear about the creative process, and what this story is really all about before I go back to see the full piece. I thank the lovely team at The Shakespeare Theatre Company who made this possible. The STC was the recipient of the 2012 Tony Award for best regional theatre in the country; and I can say from firsthand experience that they deserve that accolade. The theatre stages a variety of works; the shows are not limited to Shakespeare (but they do it extremely well! :)). Some of my favorites over the past few years have been "Hamlet" with Jeffrey Carlson, "The Imaginary Invalid" with René Auberjonois and the recent "A Servant of Two Masters."
The event featured a run-through of two scenes, and discussions with Alexandra Dimsdale, the Head of Press and Communications for The British Council here in DC; the STC Managing Director, Chris Jennings, and Samantha Wyer, STC Director of Education; as well as a brief talkback with the director, John Tiffany, and several cast members.
I really love these glimpses of the creative work that brings a show to the stage. John Tiffany introduced the first scene by sharing that the Black Watch regiment has a long tradition of really beautiful uniforms and that he very much wanted to somehow "shoehorn" (his word :)) these costumes into the story. His answer was quite brilliant: have a soldier stride back and forth across a red carpet on the stage, relating at a fast clip the vaunted history of this regiment from its inception nearly 300 years ago, to present day, reaching the context of the show. While he ticks off each war/era in which the Black Watch participated, a series of soldiers dressed in present-day fatigues meets up with him and, through a beautifully choreographed series of movements that evoke ballet more than battle, re-clothe him in the next uniform, and then off he goes again striding and storytelling. I loved it.
Such a clever concept should come as no surprise: John Tiffany received the Tony Award this year for Best Direction of a Musical for "Once," one of my very favorite shows in recent memory, and the set and design of that show is wonderfully evocative. So I was positively thrilled to see more of his work (and get to say "thanks" for "Once" too!).
The choreographer for "Black Watch" is Steven Hoggett, and I thought when I saw the movement/ choreography of that first "uniform" scene that the style seemed familiar to me, and there was a reason for that: he was the choreographer for both "American Idiot" and "Once," and his style is truly unique and unexpected. When I first saw "Once" and commented to Steve Kazee, the lead actor, on how much I loved the style of the choreography in that show, he told me that Hoggett likes to refer to it as "movement" rather than choreography to minimize the automatic association with "dance." It changed the way I view choreography and staging, and "Black Watch" seems the perfect use of this style.
The second scene was a look at the parallel story being told during the show: the stories of the soldiers after they had returned from Iraq and were being asked about their experiences by a writer. It takes place in a pool hall in Fife, Scotland, the home of The Black Watch, and the returned soldiers are being first approached about whether they'd be willing to share their experiences. The discussion devolves into speculation about who would play each of them in the movie, and the scene made clear that there is still humor amidst the horror.
During the discussions after the show, Chris Jennings talked about this show being in the genre of "site specific" theatre; i.e., works designed for the setting in which they take place, as opposed to a standard theatre. For "Black Watch," this meant that it was initially designed and performed in the armory in Fife. This, he said, was why the show did not come to DC on its first US tour in 2010; the proper venue couldn't be found. In 2011, STC worked to evoke that feel with adding stadium-style seating at the back of the stage, and giving the set a cavernous, bare design. Chris said that STC wants to bring more "site specific" theatre to the DC area, and next up is "The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart" at the Bier Baron Tavern Nov 14-Dec 9. I'm definitely up for the adventure!
Alexandra Dimsdale from The British Council spoke to us about the Council's concerted efforts to exchange culture between our countries and enhance our understanding through the arts. I can see how "Black Watch" provided the perfect opportunity. With the focus on US involvement in various wars/conflicts, I think it's easy to forget that there are other countries sending their citizens there as well...is their experience comparable? The entwinement of pride of one's country and the reality of war in this piece is palpable even in the small bits I saw.
It was wonderful to have John Tiffany and several of the cast members come back out to answer some questions, and I wasn't surprised to hear how much respect they each have for the soldiers whose stories they are telling. The fact that returning soldiers often do not feel comfortable talking about the details of war made the actors' portrayals all the more difficult, and yet that much more important.
I am very much looking forward to seeing the full production in two weeks, and I know I'll appreciate the experience exponentially because of this preview!
Thanks again to The Shakespeare Theatre Company, especially Lindsay, Diane and Kate, and the "Black Watch" team for making this possible! And they even took a group photo of us!
NOTE: The theatre includes a caution about the show that it includes "very strong language," which it does, as well as loud explosions, strobe lights, etc. The age recommendation is 13 and up.
Photo from the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Social Media call, with Black Watch director John Tiffany (center) and Black Watch cast members Scott Fletcher, Ryan Fletcher, Robert Jack and Chris Starkie.
Here are John Tiffany, the director, and the members of the cast who were kind enough to answer our questions!
Hi, my name's Ellen, and I suffer from Pollyana-itis. Is that the disease of the day you ask? Invented by a pharmaceutical overlord?
Nope, it's just me confessing to my eternal optimism in the face of the wildly shifting tectonic plate of public opinion.
Today, I looked at these iconic theatre masks and decided that instead of comedy and tragedy, they were saying to me, "Ellen, always remember: you saw one show, I saw another."
A superhero power I wish I had? The power to unhear or unread spoilers and other people's opinions when it comes to theatre I have not yet seen. Whether it's a professional critic's review, or a friend's musings, I wish I could enjoy that review or opinion on its own merit and then file it away in the "blah blah blah I can't hear you" file until after I've formed my own opinion. I am, in a word, susceptible. And that makes me avoid reviews like the plague before I've seen a show. But then along came social media and all my best efforts seem to be for naught. I love Twitter and I love Facebook, but I don't love the spoilers...and they're getting pretty hard to avoid. So I guess I'm going to have to girl-up and get tough.
This is a big reason why I try hard to see shows during previews. During previews, official reviews are generally not yet out there. Word of mouth certainly is, but people who did enjoy a show I suspect are more open about it before the tide has turned, especially if a show takes a very public trouncing in the press after opening night (think "Bonnie & Clyde" or "Spiderman Turn Off the Dark"). I was in NYC fairly soon after "Bonnie & Clyde" started previews and I heard folks talking in line at the shows I was seeing...every single person I heard LOVED the show...they didn't just like the show, they LOVED the show. I already had tickets to see it in a couple of weeks and was so glad I'd decided to see it. Then came opening night and a spate of negative reviews. The show couldn't survive in the face of it, and I quickly got an email telling me the show would close before my ticketed date and here was my refund. But I didn't want a refund! I wanted to see the show! This show remains, in my experience, one of the most-lamented closings of the past couple of years. And its leads are no slouches either; each has gone on to other big projects i.e., Jeremy Jordan ("Newsies" and now "Smash") and Laura Osnes (the upcoming "Cinderella"). To many people's great delight, a cast recording was released after the show closed.
"Lysistrata Jones" was a big hit off Broadway and moved to Broadway for what proved an all-too-short run and disappointingly mixed reviews. I almost missed that one too, but the show closed a day after my ticket was for. Phew. It was so much fun! I enjoyed it much more than a number of big shows that lasted much longer. And I went into it knowing that it had gotten some negative reviews, and having heard from some people I'd just met at a show a month before that they'd left at intermission [eek :) see my earlier post about leaving at intermission, below]. That had me questioning my ticket choice. But within the first few minutes, I was ecstatic that I'd gone, and by the end, I was truly baffled by some of the extremely negative things I'd heard and read. (This show also got a cast recording.)
People have gotten downright sheepish in confessing that they indeed did like "Spiderman" despite the bashing the show took. And in the reverse, being almost embarrassed to admit that they didn't like "Once" or "Book of Mormon" in the face of what seems to be universal love. Before they knew everyone "loved" it, they might have been a bit less apologetic. And they shouldn't be. Their opinion is just as valid...and more valid to them, of course.
It's just so tough to not be influenced by what someone else thought. And I love the feeling of discovery and reacting to the moment, without having a preconception driven by someone else's experience.
Another example? I loved "Ghost"...loved the story, the special effects, the actors and some (but not all) of the songs. I also didn't love some aspects of the production itself, but overall I had a great experience, and so did many people I talked with. But to say the critics were not impressed is an understatement; the majority of reviews were pretty bad. And some folks told me they just didn't respond to it or it left them cold. I saw the show twice, and definitely enjoyed it more the first time than the second, so I understand both sides. But it had so many good things to recommend it.
And now "Chaplin," which has received some really fantastic word of mouth during previews. The show had its opening night the other night, and the professional critics were not impressed, to say the least. I will be seeing it next weekend and it seems to have all the elements of a show I'll like, but I guess we'll see. But I had enjoyed the little bubble of positivity up to this point.
I really do enjoy a well-written professional review, positive or negative, if it's thoughtful, productive and not vitriolic (you can be measured and still be highly critical and, yes, entertaining). I have absolutely agreed with some very negative reviews. But what frustrates me is that, if a show (especially a revival) didn't measure up to my expectations, that does not mean that there was some plot to foist bad theatre on me (and really, my definition of "bad theatre" is just that...mine), so I don't have a great deal of patience with an overload of vitriol in a review.
I may love what you hate and you may hate what I love. And that's fine, but it doesn't make either of us wrong. Opinions and reviews and discussion and passion are what make theatre so satisfying...it's such a human experience, this telling of stories. I don't want people to be dishonest about what they think, I just really, really wish I could unhear/unread/unprocess all those opinions before I walk into the theatre and the curtain rises for the first time for me.
So I'm not saying I don't maintain my own opinions whether or not they are in the majority. Or that I don't want to hear what you think of a show you've seen. I really, really do. I just may not ask you what you think until after I've seen it! :). That's why I rush to see shows early in their runs so that I can talk about it with you. I truly enjoy meeting that show and shaking its hand before someone at the virtual watercooler whispers in my ear that they don't like its outfit. :)
The play takes place on a rooftop in South Bay, Boston in the late '60s; a group of "lost girls" has formed a family, of sorts, a la the fabled "Peter Pan" tale. The anti-war protests on the streets below can be heard from up above, and the noise bothers the girls. There are drugs, and then, a boy, lured by the lead girl, "Crow." There is madness and mystery and fear and growth...and death.
Oh, and this evocative setting was created simply by using my imagination and watching a group of actors read lines from a script...no set, no costumes, no movement...just standing at their lecterns when it was time for them to read.
The musical takes place in Manhattan. Across generations; in flashbacks; in present day. There is a dilapidated Lower East Side apartment, young love and murder. There are drugs....friendship....disappointment...discarded dreams. There are the Upper East Side moneyed and privileged families~money doesn't buy happiness, right? And there is betrayal.
There goes my imagination again. Aided and abetted by a different group of actors reading lines and singing beautiful songs; without a set, without costumes. But they created the city and the apartment and Washington Square Park with its chess games. And I went with them and became part of their story.
The font of all shifting knowledge, Wikipedia, says that a "staged reading" of a play is "an intermediate phase between a cold reading, with the cast usually sitting around a table, and a full production. A narrator may read stage directions aloud. The purpose is to gauge the effectiveness of the dialogue, pacing and flow, and other dramatic elements that the playwright or director may wish to adjust."
The significant missing elements in a staged reading are the set and costumes. The scenery and ambiance must be created through the simultaneous efforts of the actors and your imagination. It can be the most satisfying part of the event for me!
Because we all had a "very beginning," especially works of theatre. And I'm discovering that being in on that beginning can be extremely satisfying and great fun, even if you're not sure the baby's going to grow up to be "The Book of Mormon," "Wicked," "Death of a Salesman," or "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."
Long before you settle into your seat (and turn off your cell phone and unwrap your hard candy :)) at a big play or musical on Broadway or on tour in your neighborhood, the work you are about to see has had an infancy, a childhood, an adolescence and probably a quite tumultuous trip through puberty. Along the way, various audiences have seen it grow: at workshops, staged readings, small productions and previews. In fact, your seat in that big theatre was only theoretical for a very long time; it may, in fact, never actually exist, if the show doesn't grow up to be that kind of show.
Because not every show is suited to the big stage. Some are best seen in small, intimate spaces; and some are a complete experience with not one bell or whistle, just great dialogue, intriguing characters and a piano, if it's got music. But even the big shows need a small start. That start may include productions that are open to the public in the form of workshops, staged readings, out-of-NYC runs and special performances. And I've had such great experiences at these kinds of events that I find myself hunting for the next opportunity, and the one after that. To my surprise, I don't automatically assume anymore, when I go to NYC with the primary purpose of seeing theatre, that I will be filling up those "show slots" with only Broadway shows. And I now pay particular attention when I see the word "workshop" or "reading" in an announcement from a theatre, whether in NYC or elsewhere.
I love the feeling of returning to a show with actors I love, or songs I love to hear; it's like slipping on a comfy sweater or taking another spin on that roller coaster that made me squeal with delight. But there is true joy in discovering a brand new sweater or twisty new coaster, and that's the joy I find in watching a new story told in a new way, or an old story seen with new eyes or heard with new voices. I like to think that readings/workshops force my imagination to exercise and stay healthy!!
By the way, some pretty cool encounters can be had at readings...in 2005, I attended a reading at Ford's Theatre in DC, of "My Antonia," a play by Scott Schwartz, with music by his dad, Stephen Schwartz...yes, that Stephen Schwartz; the "Pippin," "Godspell," "Working" one. He played the keyboard for the play. I was giddy just to be in the same room; even giddier when he stayed at the keyboard during the break and graciously signed our programs. It was a small audience, a lovely play and an unforgettable evening. I think it was that night that "readings" began to work their magic on me.
I don't know what the future will hold for "The Crow" by Danielle Mohlman [Kennedy Center Page to Stage Festival, 9/1/12] or "The Break" by Scott Davenport Richards & Michele Lowe; [Signature Theatre, 9/2/12]; the two shows that provided the impetus for this post, but I can't wait to find out!
So give a reading or workshop a try...you might love it! And your imagination will thank you!!