Friday, November 30, 2007

Organizational Objections

Mr. Timberline has been kind enough to include me as a kind of ‘guest columnist for the day’ here on RichmondVATheater, his always thought-provoking and informative blog. I felt it was important to respond to the anonymous critic who complained without detail about our organization, Richmond Shakespeare. Andrew Hamm, our terrific Director of Training began to do so (quite eloquently) and I’d like expand on what’s afoot for us.

Afterward, the ongoing discussion of spaces, attendance and aesthetics inspired me to give an update on Richmond Center Stage, which will appear next week.

Richmond Shakespeare is a 23 year-old non-profit organization in the midst of massive change. In just two years, we opened a new downtown space, added new staff, moved our entire offices and added an enormous new education program called Will Power to Youth Richmond, collaborating with the National Endowment for the Arts, the US Department of Justice, Shakespeare Festival/LA and the VA Attorney General’s Office. In those two years (one since the offices move), we have been honored with the Pollak award and grown our fledgling Training department to the point that it will now host such Richmond legends as Scott Wichmann, David Sennett, Jill Bari Steinberg and Daryl Clark Phillips and has already this year brought Jennifer Massey to teach classes. (You can come take one anytime!) London actor David Hall will also teach a class soon, and we recently enjoyed Stephen Williams’ visit, who played Prospero for Richmond Shakespeare; Stephen’s last “Tempest” was as Ariel opposite none other than Sir John Gielgud in 1964 at the Royal National Theatre.

However, I can’t help but think critics like ‘anonymous’ are referring to the staff when they say their objection to us is “organizational.” I wonder if they know that all of the above was accomplished with a staff of only four (4) people. In addition, I’ve also taken a full time teaching position at Maggie Walker Governor’s School. I haven’t made this public until now but I’ve waived my Richmond Shakespeare salary during this entire time so that it can go to our other staff—all in an effort to bring the company to a up to a new level. Is it hard? Exhausting? Do we make mistakes? Of course. But the alternative is to quit, and it’s just not in our nature. It unequivocally isn’t in mine.

You might think I’d be angry at anonymous. Quite the contrary—I invite anyone to come see our offices, give me their two cents about how they think our organization could be improved, in short, to become part of the RS family and phenomenon. Because the above list is just a partial one, and there are hundreds of performances and classes—and thousands of audience members yet to come. If you like our venues, our performance style and our vision for the future, come be a part of it.

In the meantime, it’s my great privilege to again be performing “A Christmas Carol for Two Actors,” which opens tonight. Nightly collections benefit CARITAS, Richmond’s most prominent non-profit homeless sheltering organization. We play inside 2nd Presbyterian Church, just two blocks from Richmond Center Stage, on 5th Street between Franklin and Main. Our patrons enjoy free parking in an attached secure garage, from which they can walk right into the theatre. The chapel at 2nd Pres is almost exactly the dimensions of Shakespeare’s own indoor theatre—which also used to be a chapel. Stop in for dinner first, or dessert after at Penny Lane right across the street—they’re great friends of ours and what could better following a performance of Shakespeare or Dickens?

We’re growing. Come see us evolve.

-Grant Mudge
Artistic Director, Richmond Shakespeare

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Broadway Strike Settled!

No details on terms have been released according to this story. You can bet there's a bunch of people breathing easier tonight...

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A little self-promotion

I don’t want to interrupt the great discussion happening (by all means see post below), but just wanted to interject that MaryB’s review of “The Eight” is now appearing in a Style Weekly near you.

Also, I’ll be on stage at the Firehouse tomorrow (Thurs) night. There’s a film called “The Business of Being Born” and I’ll be on a Q&A panel inciting discussion after it. Doors will open at 6 PM for hor d'oeurves, wine, beer and soft drinks and the movie begins promptly at 7 PM. Tickets are $10. As the marketing blurb for the film says, “If you or someone you know is considering having a baby for the first time or considering another pregnancy, this is the movie to see!” As the participant in six home births (four involving my own kids), I guess they think I would have a unique perspective. Come and critique MY performance!

Where can they go from there?

I've got another puzzle for you theater lovers out there...
Background first: I was at the gorgeous Cameron Hall (?) at Steward School on a recent Saturday to see my first CYT production ever. It was "Oliver" and quite well done but I kept thinking, "Wow! this theater is so fantastic. It is totally of a caliber that surpasses the professional theater venues available in town. Where do these kids go from here?"

How awful to have a gorgeous well built set, lovely expensive costumes, a beautiful, clean venue, wonderful lighting and sound capabilities, an on site scene shop, a big stage with ample fly space- imagine FLY SPACE in a Richmond theater - and then to go into local Professional theater and not have that. It seems like such a let down.

Yes there is the Empire which is lovely and has fly space and I do not know if you guys have the sound and lighting technology that Steward has or not. But the big acts in town (Swift Creek, Barksdale Willow Lawn, Barksdale Hanover, Firehouse, Triangle) have these tiny claustrophobic spaces. I was shocked and amazed when I went up on stage after "Urinetown" and saw the itty bitty space the actors had to dance on .

It just seems like a let down for these young actors in training to perform in these really nice spaces like the Oates Theater (which I have never acted on even though I went to Collegiate and dated Tony Oates- I guess Dr. Oates donated the money for the theater after being inspired by our fantastic performances on the cafeteria stage - and yes, I am bitter) and Cameron Hall (if I've got that right) at Steward and then offered the chance to perform professionally on these not as wonderful spaces.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Butts in Seats

Mary’s kicked off a great discussion that gets at the heart of growing and maintaining a vital theater scene here. I have just a few thoughts to contribute:

--> Growing a Constituency. There are programs like CYT and smaller theater companies like Chamberlayne Actors Theater that have been able to thrive (from what I can tell) by growing a regular and devoted constituency. This has always been the idea behind having subscribers but it really has to go beyond just getting someone to buy a season of tickets (which people are less and less willing to do given the demands on people's time and the myriad entertainment options out there). I think Barksdale is doing a great job at trying to build a constituency via their blog and their Coffee and Conversations series. You develop an awareness in people so they’re on the lookout for whatever production is coming up and they may be more willing to take a chance at checking out a play they hadn’t heard of before. Unfortunately, the myth seems to have been propagated that this strategy only works for older folks or groups with an already established commonality (Christians, the GLBT community, etc.) I think theaters are still struggling to get at that elusive younger crowd which is more fickle so you can’t always count on traditional methods. And the untraditional ones are risky – are you going to throw resources behind a “singles night” at the theater or a hip-hop night at the theater when there’s no telling whether that’ll amount to anything?

--> Challenging plays. One of the coolest things about seeing “Spring Awakening” in NYC was that the majority of the audience was younger, the first time I’d seen such a thing since “Rent.” But hey, it was a rock-n-roll show all about sex! There are other shows like this but nobody is willing to put them up. I still mourn the fact that Rick St. Peter left town because for a while there (before he got old and respectable and had kids of his own) he was putting together shows like “suburbia” and “Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop” that had a chance of intriguing a younger crowd (and even adventurous older folks). I also think producers have to shift their thinking a bit: The generation that matured in the 60s – remember free love and rampant drug use and everything? – is now entering their 60s. I think a grown-up these days is willing to see a show where they say “fuck” unlike the bro-ha-ha that such a show would engender years ago. Are we just going to do “Anything Goes” and “Guys and Dolls” forever? I guess you have to do them occasionally because those are the shows that sell out – there wasn’t a ticket to be found for “Anything Goes” a couple of summers ago – but how about something that shocks the system a little?

--> Venue. Richmond continues to have a venue problem. I know that the reason some people are wary of places like the Firehouse is because it’s not a big fancy theater like the National. The fanciest place we have in town is the Empire but that’s still in scary downtown, hard-to-park ville in the mind of most Richmonders -- Theater IV’s valet parking and positive marketing notwithstanding. From what I hear, some of the schools with nice theaters – Collegiate and Steward for instance – have rental rates that are prohibitive which is too bad because Theatre IV used to do shows at the Oates Theater at Collegiate and they were great. The downtown arts center debacle was supposed to solve that venue problem to some extent. It remains to be seen whether whatever comes out of it will.

No disrespect to anonymous but I don’t really get the appeal of going to DC at all. I used to live there and even when I could bike to a theater, transportation was a hassle. I’ve probably seen 8 professional theater productions in DC and half of them were great and the other half were…eh.

In general, I agree with everything robinitaface said and there’s no way Richmond could become DC for any number of reasons. But I spend more time than I have in years on Richmond’s two big campuses (UofR and VCU) and there are kids looking for things to do and a fair amount of disposable income at both places. That’s where the potential for the future is, I think.

I’ve got more thoughts but work is calling me. More soon…

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Where are the people who should fill those seats

Happy last day of the Thanksgiving Holiday Weekend, Everybody!!
My beautiful boy was visiting this week and so I am behind on everything due to my wanting to spend time with him and other family members not to mention that my husband has taken one for the Kennedy Center Honors scenic team and broken his leg in two places. A peice of giant scenery fell on him in the line of duty. NO kidding, a huge piece of scenery fell right on him and now he is on crutches during one of his busiest times of the year. So I am thankful that it was not worse and that I did not cancel his health insurance at his request in September.

Congratulations to the gang at Barksdale on the opening of "Moonlight and Magnolia" last Friday night. Aside: Frank it is OK for you to say "hi" to me if you see me at the theater especially when I am working- I noticed you said it was OK for Dave to say "Hey" to you at Starbucks or Barnes and Noble and that you and your lovely wife were in attendance at Willow Lawn. You may read about my opinion of the show in the fabulous STYLE WEEKLY whenever that slow talkin' tall Texan editor decides to put it in. What I wanted to comment about in this post is how upset I get when I go to the theater in Richmond and see so many empty seats in these teeny theaters.

Where is the theater going population here?
Allow me to begin this querry with a description of a typical theater audience in DC...Imagine a theater that is virtually full with only a couple of random empty seats. The audience population consists of people in all manner of dress from jeans to ubiquitous artist black to tweedy professor to chic diplomat and preppy/yuppy - lots of cool angular shaped glasses. All races are represented. Ages vary from a smattering of high school and college aged kids to very old people with the majority in their thirties, fourties and fifties. Even at matinees. Granted, I have been to shows both day and night that were not full or even well attended. But that usually only happens at smaller theaters or community productions. Usually, at Studio, Source, and Wolly Mammoth where I go most frequently, there are pretty full houses.

When I go to the theater in Richmond it is quite different. It seems like there are hardly ever sold out shows. A show as potentially interesting as "Austin's Bridge" or as absolutely fabulous as "Urinetown" should be packed every show. Even on opening nights I have seen partly full houses. When I go to Barksdale I feel like a kid in the sense most of my fellow theater goers are older - or at least look older than me. Rarely are audiences mixed in terms of race as far as I can tell.

I am truly thankful for the people that do attend local theater. Thank you all for your support. But where are the bodies who should be filling the empty seats? And/or how do we get them there?

Appologies- no time for spell check. Must get to yoga.

Looking forward to your comments.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

My things to be thankful for

My lovely family, both close-by and far-flung, both related by blood and related by spirit.

The new friends I’ve made thanks to this blog, most of whom are remarkably literate and respectful.

That I live in a town with a thriving theater scene populated by some seriously talented folks. This critic gig would seriously suck otherwise.

That I made it to New York before the strike. And that I’m not dependent on Broadway or Hollywood for my livelihood. Bless you, strikers, and good luck.

That I’ve only gained 5 pounds over the past 3 months and not 10. Moderation resumes Nov. 23rd.

That people who read this blog don’t complain incessantly that I’m always three weeks behind on updating the links on the side of this page. I’ll get to it, honest.

That the people associated with “A Christmas Story” are consummate professionals who seem to still have a soft spot for my poor exhausted son after almost three weeks of rehearsal. You all are making his first professional theater experience an amazing one. I hope you are not spoiling him for the future…

That this old body of mine – though creaking ever more persistently – still gets me around to everywhere I need to go and generally responds to whatever it is asked to do. And that my hair is falling out at just an alarming rate, not a completely shocking one.

That I live in a country where I can disagree with people (including my aforementioned lovely family and friends) about politics, religion, theater, sports, and ethnic food and do not have to fear being placed in a gulag as a result.

And most of all, for my still-stunning-after-all-these-years wife with whom I’ve built a life that -- while not always perfect -- is still much better than I deserve.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Seven days four plays

Last week was amazing for me. I saw five plays in four days and I get to write them all off because I am now a Big Freakin' Theater Critic!!! Yippy!!!
I have so much to be thankful for this year and I adore the chance to be thankful for it officially day after tomorrow. I am thankful for all the normal things most of us have in this Land of Plenty called the US Of A like a home with decent furniture, the freedom to vote, travel, and express my opiniions, Target, etc. But personally, this year I am grateful to my new career as a writer.
I am so happy (though still financially strapped) and thankful to Brandon Reynolds and Jason Roop who gave me a chance at STYLE and have been wonderfully supportive of everything I do. Dave T. for inviting me to do this blog which has all been fun and educational, and for the opportunity to meet some of the wonderful people who make the theater scene operate around here. Dave is right in acknowledging in his blog all of the good folks who dedicate their time to stage-managing, wrangling kids, etc. Theater is a collaborative effort and each person must do their part to make it work - no matter how small that part may seem - like running props- it is still critical to the success of a show. So, thanks everyone for the great job you do to provide the best shows you can to the Richmond community.

Now for the theater report: I saw four plays in seven days and it was great. It all began last Sunday in DC at Woolly Mammoth with "Current Nobody" a modern adaptation of "The Odessey" in which the woman leaves on the adventure and leaves the man to raise the baby and fend off "suitors". It was a great production and a fun twist on a classic story. I totally recommend it if you can make it up to see it.

Second play: "The 8:Reindeer Monologues" : you already know I enjoyed the darkness of it and nearly all of the performances. Review to follow in STYLE sometime soon. It sounds like many of you will go see it and you should.

Third Play: I endured CYT's "Oliver" on Saturday afternoon because they were kind enough to send tickets and my daughter wanted to see it. I say "endured" because I do not care for the show - the set, costumes, props, and most of the kids were wonderful- I just think "Oliver" is one of those musicals that unless you are in it it is like being at a party where everyone is having a great time and you are merely observing rather than participating. It's old school score feels outdated to me or maybe just tired. And of course I want to kill Nancy myself for being such a co-dependant idiot. But there were several lovely performances and my daughter enjoyed it so there you go.

Fourth Play: Saturday night found me at my favorite theater in town, The Firehouse, for "Spinning Into Butter". It was every bit what I had hoped for and a whole lot funnier. All of the actors performed their parts very well. I especially enjoyed Bob Albertia's performance- he was just dead on with his bow tie and mannerisms. But really everyone was wonderful. My only complaint about the show was the costumes. Usually I whine about the sets at Firehouse but Ed Slipeck's set design was beautiful and finally something worthy of the high level of acting related to that venue. But back to the costumes...Dear Lisa, Vermont is cold. It gets cold at the end of August and stays cold until the middle of May. Why was the lead character in sandals and flimsey skirts with tiny thin little seaters through the entire show? My toes were freezing just thinking about how cold her feet should feel. No one was dressed for Vermont in the entire show- not that it ruined it or anything it just didn't fit and made the play imperfect.

Looking forward to "Moonlight and Magnolia" Friday night after some fabulous turkey on Thursday and of course the original black and white version of "Miracle on 34th Street".

Being Thankful,
Mary B.

Friday, November 16, 2007

And another...

Been blog-crawling tonight and came across this great post on Andrew Hamm's blog. You people seem determined to force me out of my Scrooge-funk!

Oh, and do check out the "Marmaduke explained" site that Andrew links to. I almost peed my pants -- from laughing, not age-related incontinence as my smart-ass daughter might assert...

One for the Scrooges

Hey, I'm no big fan of all the Christmas who-hah -- check out my comment in response to MaryB's post if you want just a tiny taste of my eggnog-flavored bile -- but this post from local theater mom, Melinda, entitled "Merrie Agnostic Christmas" did remind me of the true spirit of the season. I think I could remember these kinds of thoughts easier if everything wasn't so Christmas-centric -- which automatically marginalizes so many people -- but with Melinda's words on my mind I can try to be more like the poor downtrodden prophet in "Life of Brian" and try to look on the bright side of life.

An Appreciation

“Swingtime Canteen” opens at Hanover Tavern, “Plaid Tidings” is in previews down at the Mill, and “Cats” is even in town – things are really picking up now! Is anyone going to “Cats”? And if so, why? If you saw SPARC’s production of “Cats” a couple of summers ago, do you really need to see it ever again?

Speaking of that production (smooth segue), one of the actresses in the SPARC show was Ali Thibodeau who is the big sister of Michael who is in the upcoming “A Christmas Story” at Theatre IV. Though I have admired her performances from afar in the past, it was my pleasure to meet her the other day and to find out some exciting news: she’s in the running for the national tour of “Spring Awakening.” She’s already been through 4 auditions and so is one of the final contenders. I’d love to write an inspiring “local girl makes it big” story (it is all about me, after all) so I’m rooting for Ali and I hope all of you out in the blogosphere will be as well.

So here’s one of my insights from my renewed “insider” perspective on the local theater scene – but I’m afraid it falls under the “annoying love fest” category. When I go to a show, I seldom really read the program cover to cover, skimming through many of the bios and mostly overlooking the names other than the lead actors and principle techies. What I have forgotten is how vital and generally awesome all the people behind all those often-overlooked other names are. This won’t be any big revelation to you folks in the biz already but it’s something I think us regular folks forget. After my son got cast in “A Christmas Story,” the main contact we’ve had is with folks like production manager Ginnie Willard and stage manager Ariel Osborne. And while the director may be the guy behind the steering wheel, it’s people like Ginnie and Ariel who keep the production purring along without crashing into a tree. Or who help out parents who are trying to juggle 47 things in addition to getting their child to rehearsal on time.

So my respect goes out to you behind the scenes folks – the prop runners (that was my job!), the lighting board operators, the house managers, the assistant costumers, etc. etc. It is unlikely that I’ll ever have the space or the occasion to recognize an outstanding effort by a stage manager in a published review. But let me say here that I have been reminded over the past couple of weeks how important you all are to a successful production and, while you might not see it in print, I hope you know you are appreciated.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Reindeer already?

Happy Holidays, Everybody! It is annoyingly starting to look a lot like Christmas. Any yes, this blogger who used to be nicknamed "Mary Christmas"(a nickname earned as the producer/promoter/stage manager/performer in those wonderful Byrd Theatre Christmas shows all illegally put on during the Nelson era of the theater)has turned into a Scrooge before the cool parts of the story. If Christmas was kept in the confines of a reasonable time frame on the calendar, I might enjoy it more. I am a traditionalist. I like to enjoy each holiday singularly in its proper time. I loath Christmas decorations up before Halloween. I feel that Thanksgiving deserves an autumnal harvest theme and proper notoriety rather than an obscure place between Halloween and the big commercial gig. In fact I think Thanksgiving is the most important Holiday of the year but it gets overlooked because it is not so commercial.
Anyway- sorry for the soapbox action. I saw the Christmas season Holiday opener (as Dave so aptly put it), "The 8: Reindeer Monologues" at Fielden's last night. I enjoyed it but Warning: This show goes from irreverently funny to dark dark dark. Not "Santaland Diaries" dark. Really dark. I had a conversation with Ross Aitkin following the performance and we chatted about alternative ways to go with the material and he said he searched for them but found that it definitely needed to go into the very thick very scary forest of emotion that it does. I am now itching to see other productions of it just to see what other treatments other companies come up with if at all. I will also chat with my friend, Beth Warren, who originated one of the roles when she was acting in Chicago to get her take on it.
Look for the review in an upcoming STYLE issue. It is a good little production and everyone should go see it. Jase Smith and Suzanne Ankrum are wonderful at creating not one but two characters each in the show.
I also had an interesting conversation with actor,Chris Hester after the show. Turns out he is a devoted fan of this blog- THANK YOU, CHRIS! and he is producing a musical showcase slated for Firehouse in March. He promised to keep us posted.
Buckle your seat belts everyone and prepare for the Holiday ride. Look for a good theater question in my next blog.
See you at the theater!
Mary B.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

It Begins

Sorry I’ve been a little scarce here lately blog pals but my few moments of free time these days have been spent geeking out on a little project I’m doing for school that, if you are really excited about East Asian history like me, I’d be happy to link you to.

But more to the point, I hope you check out Mary’s review of “A Lesson Before Dying.” And you might also be interested in the piece by Mary’s boss and mine, Brandon Reynolds, who is a member of one of a "48 Film Project" team that has been going gangbusters. Scottie Wichmann gets a quick and somewhat obscure mention in the article. If you’re out there, Mr. W., would you care to elaborate?

Tonight marks the official beginning of the holiday theater season with the opening of “The Eight: Reindeer Monologues” by Richmond Triangle Players. One way or another, I’m getting out to see this show because I loved their last darker holiday offering, “The Santaland Diaries,” and any show that features Santa Claus and suspected sexual abuse is worthy of attention in my book.

My son has been toiling away in rehearsals for “A Christmas Story” and it’s been very interesting to be just a tad – a very little tad -- on the inside of the biz again. I’ll try to post some of my thoughts from in there soon.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

New York: Jump!

(Warning! This is a long post. Enter at your own risk. Also, be sure and scroll on down for MB’s recap of her recent trip to Austin.)

So I forgot to mention that one of the kicks of “Spring Awakening” for me was seeing Stephen Spinella -- who plays all of the adult male characters – onstage. He’s an actor that I had only seen on “24” in the past – a show I was somewhat of a slavish fan of at one point – and he played a kind of slimy, bureaucratic bad guy on the show. In “Awakening” he mostly plays a nasty, abusive bad guy, so really not that different. But he sings!

I also said all of the “Awakening” performances were great. I had forgotten that a swing actor was playing (for those of you who know the show) the more aggressive gay character. He has a big solo late in the show and, sorry to say, but this guy was pretty dreadful: off-tune and, when he had to go falsetto at one point, cringe-inducing. Kind of surprising to see on Broadway but it also was a nice reminder – theater is rarely perfect anywhere.

Day two in New York started with a whole lot of nothing. Sleeping in. Ahhh. When we finally went out, we walked all over the city, shopping for friends, for ourselves, and for our kids. I always see something new and surprising when I go up there. Ducking inside a Manhattan drug store for some allergy medicine provided something that was somewhat mundane but no less eye-widening: did you know they now make condoms with built-in vibrators? I stared at the display for a full minute before I really believed it. And there were two varieties: regular and extra-intense! Jeez, if I was a teenager these days I think I would truly lose my mind.

Anyway, the show for the night was “Jump!” – an off-Broadway diversion that I read about when it was in previews. It has since become famous after Brangelina and their kids attended the opening night performance. It’s a show performed by a North Korean martial arts / acrobatics crew and so we decided to make it kind of theme night, going out to Korean barbeque for dinner. Have you ever eaten authentic Korean food? It’s wild. For the barbeque, you sit at a table with a grill built into the center of the table. The entrees are all very meat intensive (ox-tongue!) and, if you order enough of it, they grill it right on the table. They also lay out a series of 12 different side dishes at the beginning of the meal, including kim-chi and fish balls (get your mind out of the gutter!) and seaweed and bok-choi and yummy barbeque sauce and sprouts and then big lettuce leaves and you roll all of it up in the lettuce and munch it on up. Yum! We got a beef dish that was exquisite and then also a “hot bowl” which is a noodle dish with veggies and spices and stuff all layered in a deep crockery bowl. They make a big production of coming out and mixing the hot bowl for you which you could just as easily do yourself but it’s cool for them to do it for you. I’m not really great at describing tastes (need your help, Muffin Face!) but it was all amazing and not like Chinese, Thai, or Vietnamese either. It was it’s own thing and just delicious.

The show was also unique but really was more like circus than theater. The very lose plot involves a whole family of martial artists with a hard-driving grandfather that makes them all train all the time. A suitor for the young girl of the family is introduced and he turns out to be kind of a nerd who turns into a martial arts superhero when you take his glasses off. The second half of the show is dominated by the madness that ensues when a pair of would-be robbers – kind of a martial arts Laurel and Hardy -- break into the family’s house. The acrobatics are all amazing and much of the show is pretty hilarious. But as it drags on toward 90 minutes without interruption, the lack of a real plot or any significant character development starts to take its toll. It’s too bad really. The physical aspect of the show almost carries it and if only a real playwright spent some time turning the comic pratfalls into a real plot, the show would be more satisfying. The cast seemed to be waiting for a standing ovation at the show’s end but I can imagine it doesn’t get that many of them. It’s a show you appreciate rather than love.

But will we bring the kids to it next time we’re in New York? Oh yeah.

The show was over pretty early and so we wandered down into SoHo. Eliza had told us she was in ANOTHER off-Broadway joint at 11pm Saturday night, a show down at a venue called – and this is important – “Here.” Now Eliza didn’t know the address of the place but assured us that it was a pretty popular place and we could ask just about anyone in SoHo where it was and they could tell us. I asked her incredulously, “so when I ask people where ‘Here’ is and they look at me funny, what am I supposed to do?” She retorted that I should look back at them funnier, “that’s how New York works.” Hmmm. So we stroll along through the Village into SoHo and start asking a couple people, “Have you ever heard of ‘Here?’” or telling them “We’re trying to get to ‘Here.’” We even went by a little comedy club where a guy was working a mic on the street and we became a bit of an impromptu Abbott and Costello routine: “You’re looking for where” “No, ‘Here.’” “But you’re already here!” At this point I’m thinking Eliza purposely set us up for this as a bit of living performance art.

But after two phone calls to information and several more blocks of wandering, we make it to ‘Here’ (because, if you can make it to ‘Here,’ you can make it to Anywhere. It is New York, New York, after all…) It’s a somewhat less divey-looking place and actually has a little reception area with a guy behind a counter. We ask him if we’re on the list for the 11 o’clock show and he looks at us like we’re stoned (which I was kind of wishing I was at that point). We could pay for the tickets – which were only 1/10th of what “Awakening” cost, after all -- but after all that wandering, a nice hot chocolate and a warm bed were sounding pretty good. So we passed on the fourth show of the weekend but you know, sometimes three’s a charm.

Thanks for wading through this New York Odyssey with me. Now it’s back to the grind…and all of those Christmas shows opening any day now!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Another Traveling Blogger

So Dave was in New York last weekend and I was in Austin, Tx. Hmmm. There is a relationship here somewhere. My mission was a bit different though. I did not experience the joi de vie of life without kids, my venture was a family visit to my husband's Aunt who lives in a hoidy-toidy Austin suburb. Since Austin is the Live Music Capital of the World (so they tell me), seeing a show was not forefront on my mind but I did see one play- more about that later. Austin has a fabulous arts scene in terms of performing arts. "THe Austin Chronicle", a cultural cross between "Style" and "Brick", is packed with, of course, live music choices but also lots of good theater. I really wanted to see a good rockabilly band but alas it was not in the stars. I let my husband choose the band to see since he is the music buff in the family and we ended up at the Cactus Cafe on the UT campus to see an acoustic show featuring John Wesley Harding who I do not remember at all but apparently had made some name for himself in the '80's - it is all such a blur. He was a wonderful showman but I had to fight to stay awake.

Now about the theater experience. A little background:
My husband's family live under the charming illusion that because I do not have a job in which I go to an office from nine to five and make $150,000 plus a year to support their darling son/grandson/nephew, that I must sit on my fanny, eat bon bon's and watch Jerry Springer and Soap Operas all day. In their eyes I am valuable only as the mother of their next generation and when I stopped producing related off-spring they decided that they were pretty much done with any effort on my part. My husband's aunt had no idea that I ever had anything to do with theater much less write about it. So upon learning that I am, among other things, a theater critic, she became overwhelmed with the idea that I must see a show while in town. More information necessary to fully understand this situation is that my darling husband's family and I do not share the same taste so when she chose "Tuna Vegas" over some more meaty and interesting plays I was a little disappointed. But she INSISTED despite my pleas to beg off. So on Sunday night we drove into town and saw "Tuna Vegas" at the gorgeous historical Paramount Theater. The Paramount is like a western version of the Empire. It is about the same age and a similar style except that its interior features dessert colors like burnt orange and sage green mixed in with the gold leafed accents an lots of dark red Texas roses. The play was good if not my taste. I missed some of the jokes because they were insider Texas jokes but the characters were humorous and well- developed. If you are not familiar with the "Tuna" plays: These two actors came up with this idea to write a play about the third smallest town in Texas with two actors and a dozen or so different characters. They started this concept 22 years ago and have been performing the "Tuna" plays all over the world ever since. Apparently "Tuna Vegas" is better if you have seen the other plays and are familiar with the reappearing characters. As I said, they were funny but I got very antsy. These guys are getting a little slow on the costume changes so there was some kind of dead time throughout. What was really impressive though was the pantomime. They use no props. All card playing, cig smoking, coffee making etc was pantomime. These guys were so smooth at one point I found myself surprised at the realization that one of the actors was not really holding a glass of water that they had just "poured".

So that was my Texas live theater experience. I did get some nice boots too.

Now that the NEA Arts Journalism Institute application is safely sent to LA, may we open the discussion of "What is the State of American Theater"? I said in my essay that I feel that American Theater is as relevant in our culture as ever. That I am optimistic about it's future because as an art form it is due for a resurgence. I see this resurgence in popularity coming from our youth. I know it sounds crazy. The idea that these media savvy and oriented kids are going to get into live theater but think about it. Observation 1: There are oodles of theater training programs for youth these days. We have about a dozen right here in Richmond (I am writing a story about this but it is slow coming due to the volume of information and the lack of a deadline). Kids and parents can choose private programs all year long or no-fee or low-fee programs from Henley Street (free) or the Department of Rec and Parks (Pine Camp has a good one for a low fee). There are programs like Will Power to Youth that has been in LA for 14 years and piloted in Richmond last summer (go to, arts and culture, then search for past articles). National programs like the NEA's Shakespeare in America from which companies like the Staunton Shakespeare Theater receive grants to involve young people in Shakespeare plays. The end result will be supporters of live theater. Theory: With all of the non-human involvement of electronic media, these kids will crave the spontaneity and reality of live theater as they get older. The pendulum of popularity swings.

Okay, that is the beginning of my thoughts. Have at it.


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

New York: Awakening

I don’t know if it’s intensified because of having kids and because it’s so rare that my wife and I truly get to leave them behind, but there’s this amazing feeling that overtakes me when I drive away from my house to head off on a trip like I did last Friday. First, there’s the mix of trepidation and foreboding, wondering if there’s a key instruction that we’ve forgotten to communicate to Gramma and whether everyone will behave. Then, all at once, the burden of responsibility lifts off me like a blanket being blown aside by the wind and I realize that, yes, after all those weeks of anticipation, we are truly leaving town.

One of the best things about that feeling is it allows the more petty annoyances of life to fall to the side. Our flight has a one-hour delay? Big deal! I’m in an airport, reading quietly and calmly, and there are no children around. What could be so wrong?

So the first night in New York we are hoping we can sneak in a viewing of Eliza Skinner’s one-woman show, “Eliza Skinner is: Shameless!” before running off to “Spring Awakening.” As luck and logistics would have it, her show is at 7pm, lasts just 30 minutes, and it’s a straight shot up 8th Avenue to the Eugene O’Neill for “Spring.” We have just enough time to check into our hotel, check out our room, call down to get our room switched (twin beds??? Sorry, that’s not going to work), unload our stuff in our new room, and change for the show. We go looking for a quick bite – hoping for Thai food in the neighborhood. As we walk the 15 blocks to the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater, our standards fall to “anything ethnic,” and when we finally get to 8th Avenue, we settle for a local Mexican joint that’s actually pretty good. The UCB Theatre is conveniently located underneath the largest grocery store I’ve ever seen in Manhattan which comes in handy when it’s decided we must have M&M’s before the show. The theater is also everything you’d expect from an off-off-B’Way locale – that is, a bit seedy – but we’re excited to see Eliza and sure enough, as soon as she steps out on stage, the surroundings disappear (well, all except for the G*&$^%#& column that obstructs my view occasionally…)

Eliza’s show is a series of short scenes illuminating three very different but all desperate characters: a mom determined to be her daughter’s best pal, a newly 30 suburbanite lusting after a 14 year-old, and a loose party girl whose boyfriend just broke up with her. She absolutely owns these characters: each one is deeply flawed but her performance is polished like a diamond. And the scenes are gut-bustingly hilarious, filled with truly memorable moments. One of my favorites was when she inadvertently slices her hand while preparing a bagel for a friend and, after bleeding profusely a minute, realizes she should go to the emergency room but not before asking, “Did you still want that?” Her party girl could easily be a Saturday night live character, and not one of the stupid ones either, but a good one like the Church Lady or any of Mike Myers ones. In a show that packs a load of laughs into 30 minutes, my only quibble would be an ending that just goes on a little too long.

It was 7:35 but still we hung around for a few minutes hoping to catch a word with Eliza but eventually just had to bolt. We grad a cab going up 8th Avenue that ends up crawling along at about a block a minute. After 10 blocks, we lose the cab and end up trotting the last 10 blocks to the theater. Mezzanine seats, third row center – nice view but OH MY GOD can the people behind us talk ANY LOUDER? It’s like they’re trying to project well enough to be heard on stage. Anyway, the lights come up and it’s “Spring Awakening.”

Wow – what a cool show. The music was awesome, the performances all great, and the staging pretty nifty as well. “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked” made me remember the kinetic feeling of discovery that I had the first time I saw “Rent.” But the last several scenes are awfully predictable and overall, the story left a lot to be desired. Sex is such an amazing, enlightening, blessed thing – it’d be great to find a show that celebrates it without making it tragic. And adolescence is such a fantastic time of discovery, of you know, awakening – couldn’t the kids come out on top somehow at the end?

Anyway, it was still a great show and one of the most uplifting things about it was how many young folks were in the audience. We hung out afterwards and talked to some cast members as they were leaving (ok, Holly did, because she’s braver than I) and they were as nice as could be. We wandered back to toward our hotel, stopping into an all-night deli for a nosh. We were sitting at the counter and, as we were deconstructing both “Shameless” and “Spring,” a very friendly, very hyper guy comes up and joins our conversation. Turns out he’s an actor of sorts – does children’s theater and works as a clown (and a bartender) – and gives us his take on the scene. Says “Young Frankenstein” is the best thing on Broadway right now but the best show in the city is some experiential thing that happens all around you and has circus performers and such. Oh well – too bad we’re going to miss that one. After a quick conversation on his cell phone (in Russian!), he’s off and so are we, to our rooms where we’ll have sweet Broadway dreams…

That’s day one. Day two, coming up…someday…soon?

Monday, November 05, 2007

New York Odyssey: overview

One of the great things about New York is that so much can happen in such a short period of time. My beloved and I were there a total of about 48 hours. We saw three shows and could have seen a 4th, had one scrumptious new dining experience as well as many more minor indulgences, walked and shopped and shopped and walked, and even with all that, got a decent amount of “not-disturbed-by-children-anywhere-in-the-vacinity” rest.

More details to come, specifically my thoughts on the “State of American Theatre,” assuming of course that we're talking about the state of New York.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

What is the State of American Theater?

I am applying for an NEA sponsored program for theater writers and one of the questions on the application is: What are your thoughts on the state of American Theater? I find this question confusing. What does it mean? Is it a comparison ie the state of American Theater compared to theater elsewhere? Is it a question of volume ie. is there enough good theater out there? Enough good material to produce? Is it a quality question as in Is American theater any good? or evolving? or relevant to our time? or innovative? Is it a question of survival? Is American theater standing up to other entertainment options? is it financially solvent?

I would love your thoughts on defining this question and how you think it should be answered. You - the active theater population- are the front line of this question and your ideas, comments, observations etc are the most valid.


Life imitates art?

The day my review of “Spinning into Butter” showed up in Style, I received an amazingly timely email at my University of Richmond email address. Here’s an excerpt:

“Dear Campus Community,

I was saddened to learn of a report early Sunday morning that students walking in the University Forest Apartments area around 1:00 a.m.witnessed a young white man wearing "a painted black face, a dreadlock wig, baseball cap, big pink lips, and aviator sunglasses." This example of "blackface"--when people wear black makeup in racist caricatures of African-Americans--represents a painful part of our nation's history and culture. It has no place on this campus.

As I've mentioned to students and parents nearly every time I've had the chance, the University of Richmond offers an opportunity to take intellectual risks, risks that we are only willing to take within the safety of our community. Dressing in blackface breaches that sense of trust. It threatens not just some of our members, but the inclusive community we work to secure every day. As a historian of race in America, I work in my classes and scholarship to understand the powerful destructive undertow of our past. As president, I work with colleagues across campus to ensure that our university becomes a more generous and fair-minded community.

At the University of Richmond, diversity and inclusion stand alongside learning as core institutional values. We all have a role to play in translating those values into meaningful action.”

The email was signed by University president Ed Ayers. I was tempted to reply and suggest he send another email encouraging every student to go see “Spinning into Butter.” Does theater address important issues of the day? I’d say the answer to that is pretty clear.