Island Moving Company Brings Great Friends to Newport
Island Moving Company is continuing its return to live performances with the Newport Dance Festival, which takes place July 20-25 on the lawn of Great Friend Meeting House in Newport. This unique festival will continue the tradition of hosting a resident company for two weeks: Malashock Dance Company from San Deigo. As part of the residency, John Malashock, artistic director of Malashock Dance Company, will choreograph a dance that both companies will perform together at the festival.
Other dance companies taking part in the six-day dance festival include Boston Dance Theater (Boston), East Coast Contemporary Ballet (Norwalk, Conn.) and Revolve Dance Project (Providence). Inviting other dance companies to share the stage is in the spirt of “great friends,” the festival’s former name. The festival will be a display of diverse talent and choreographic points of view.
Danielle Genest, associate artistic director of Island Moving Company, shared that an audience favorite of the Newport Dance Festival is the Etudes repertory. For each day of the performances, a novel dance is created in a 2-hour rehearsal, the day of the show. Any dancer can sign up to dance and choreograph for Etudes.
Miki Ohlsen, artistic director of Island Moving Company states, “The joy of the Newport Dance Festival is bringing incredible choreographers and dancers from around the country and across the globe here to Newport to share their incredible art with our community.”
Newport Dance Festival takes place Jul 20 – 25 at 7pm. Lawn of Great Friends Meeting House, 21 Farewell St, Newport. For more info, islandmovingco.org @islandmovingcompany
Ready to Play: Contemporary Theater Company heads back onstage
Theaters are on the road to reopening with in-person shows scheduled all over the state — many of them outdoors and still taking a limited number of precautions. The most ambitious seasonal programming so far is the Contemporary Theater Company’s summer line-up in Wakefield. The theater has an updated patio space and a new artistic director, Tammy Brown, as it looks ahead to the next few months.
Motif contributor Kevin Broccoli spoke with Brown about what audiences can expect to see when shows start up over Memorial Day Weekend.
Kevin Broccoli (Motif): How does it feel to finally be looking at in-person programming on the horizon?
Tammy Brown: It feels like we’re on the road to getting back to normal, thank goodness! It’s great to be getting back to that in-person experience that we’ve all missed so dearly, but it can be daunting, too. We’re trying to ease back into the grind without overwhelming ourselves too quickly. And we’re also re-learning how to socially interact and how to be in rehearsals and act and direct in-person again. It’s an adventure!
KB: CTC has been undergoing some incredible growth, particularly in the patio area. How is this going to affect the summer season?
TB: Eventually it will be great because we’re adding a whole new seating section and a new bar area as well. But for this summer, it will definitely look like we’re under construction. All of our shows are out on the patio, so audiences will get to see our construction project first hand, in real time! But most of the former seating area of the patio is still intact, so it shouldn’t actually be a hindrance to shows.
KB: When the time came to choose titles for the next few months, what was first on your mind?
TB: I wanted our first few projects back to emphasize reinvention. Many of us made promises to not just go back to the same way we used to do things. I think theater constantly needs to evolve, so it always feels like the art form of the moment and not some historic relic. To that end, we have a lot of new work happening at the beginning of the summer — A new Shakespeare Mash-up show called Dearer The Eyesight, and a devised theater piece called Fools of Another Nature. The second half of the summer focuses on shows that feel like they belong outside, Bethel Park Falls and Native Gardens, so it will feel very much like a site-specific theater experience.
KB: How involved are you in the upcoming productions as the new artistic director?
TB: The early part of our summer season is centered on new work, so I’ve been pretty involved in the development process of those shows. I’m also directing Dearer Than Eyesight and Native Gardens.
KB: How important was it to you to keep the outdoor space active as we all begin to reopen?
TB: We see the patio space as a community gathering point, so it’s always been important for us to keep that space full of life. I think the fact that we have the patio space alone is what makes having an outdoor season possible this year, so we’re grateful for that, too. And the patio is a great place to stage things because we get a lot of curious passers-by, so it sparks their interest and hopefully entices them to come down and watch a show.
KB: Can you tell me what the experience will be like for the audience in terms of keeping certain restrictions in place?
TB: Guidance and guidelines are constantly evolving, so we’re definitely staying on top of that. For right now, the plan is to ask that members of the audience wear masks when moving about the space, but they can take them off when they’re seated. We plan on setting up the chairs with 3 feet of distance between them to start, but that could evolve over the course of the summer as more folks are vaccinated and people’s comfort levels change over time. We’re also mandating that all of our staff and volunteers be fully vaccinated by July 1, so our performers will be acting without masks.
KB: Later this year, you’re going to be presenting The Tempest. When looking at a classical piece to produce, what attracted you to this one?
TB: The things I was thinking about most were tone and familiarity. I wanted something that felt broad in scope, with a certain amount of gravity, but also something had some lightness to it and was ultimately hopeful. The Tempest fits those criteria nicely. And picking a show that has some familiarity to it will hopefully entice people to come watch theater indoors again.
KB: Bethel Park Falls was a show I was unfamiliar with until I heard you were producing it. Can you talk a little more about that production?
TB: This is a pretty new play that was written by Jason Pizzarello in 2018. It’s made up of several sweet vignettes that talk about what happens when a beloved city park gets taken over by developers. I like how the play talks about the importance of public space to a community. Also, knowing that our season would be entirely outdoors, I loved the idea of staging a play that takes place in a park.
KB: CTC has had a lot of luck taking titles like The Father and Skriker that are typically produced indoors and bringing them outside. I’m especially excited to see how Native Gardens plays in an outdoor setting. Is that something you thought about as you were looking at titles?
TB: That’s definitely something I was thinking about. We had actually planned to stage Native Gardens outdoors in the summer of 2020. Staging a show about gardens in a real garden seemed really fun.
KB: What’s the response been like from the community now that you’ve announced you’re returning? I know how much the theater means to Wakefield and South County. Has it given you an extra boost seeing all the enthusiasm for you all to return in full force?
TB: YES! We’re really grateful that our local community has been so supportive of us during the closure. There’s been a lot of excitement about both our reopening and our expansion. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to welcome people back and signal that we’re gonna be ok, and things are slowly going back to normal.
For more information about the Contemporary Theater Company’s summer season, including musical events like the Wakefield Idol Concert, go to contemporarytheatercompany.com
Indefinite Postponement: Stage lights go dark on Invoice
Invoice for Emotional Labor, slated to be the latest production from Wilbury Theatre Group, has been indefinitely postponed, artistic director Josh Short confirmed to Motif Tuesday evening. The cancellation comes on the heels of sexual assault allegations against the show’s playwright and star, Christopher Johnson. The allegations appeared recently on local social media groups.
Johnson, an internationally known poetry slam champion and local playwright, produced the one-man show in collaboration with Wilbury and Community College of Rhode Island with support from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. The show itself was inspired by John Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons,” and Johnson tells stories and provides insight into his experience being both an artist educator and Black person in America. Johnson covers racial etiquette, historical facts not taught in school, cultural differences, unconscious bias, cultural appropriation and more.
Wilbury has no plans to reschedule the show at this time, said Short. Johnson could not be reached for comment in time for this posting.
Post amended May 19 at 9:30pm. The last sentence of the first paragraph was made more specific and the last sentence was updated. Mr. Johnson did respond to our inquiries, just not in time for this article.
Back in Business: Rhode Island theaters plan their in-person return
As we wrap up our (hopefully) last pandemic season, where theaters were making the best of digital resources and innovative engagement, we’re seeing more signs of in-person performing arts everyday.
This week featured Window Dressing: A Night of Live Entertainment in Wickford presented by the West Bay Community Theater, and had audiences taking in monologues performed in shop windows in the picturesque village. The always brilliant Terry Shea organized the outdoor experience, and it looked to be a great success. The Community Players of Pawtucket presented a virtual production of The Night of January 16th, reuniting several members of its original cast, as a tribute to the great Brian Mulvey, who directed the show in 1994.
We also got not one, but two, season announcements.
The first was from Trinity Repertory Company, which is returning with a quartet of productions and their annual Christmas Carol, which will be the first and only live production we see at the theater before the year is up.
In January, they’ll be presenting the Rhode Island Premiere of Tiny Beautiful Things, based on the book by Cheryl Strayed of Wild fame and adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding). The play was co-conceived by Vardalos, Thomas Kail and Marshall Heyman, and it had a sold-out run at the Public Theater in New York in 2016. It’s a semi-autobiographical look at Strayed’s rise to popularity as the anonymous advice columnist for Dear Sugar. Artistic director Curt Columbus will direct.
August Wilson’s Radio Golf was one of the highlights of Trinity’s last in-person season, and its director, Jude Sandy, is back doing double duty on both Gem of the Ocean in February and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview in May. Chronologically, Gem of the Ocean is the first in Wilson’s epic Pittsburgh Cycle. It’s the playwright’s most fantastical work and features the omnipresent Aunt Esther, who recurs in many of the other plays in the cycle.
Fairview not only won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018, but it is, perhaps, one of the most ambitious plays of the past 10 years. Its inaugural production blurred the line between reality and theater so well that critics wrote about audiences at some performances calling out to ask if what they were seeing was still “part of the play.” It’s destined to be a major event of next season, and I’m curious to see how the Trinity audiences will respond to such an adventurous work.
In between these two will be Sueño, José Rivera’s contemporary interpretation of Life is a Dream, the masterpiece by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, about a young prisoner freed to either rise to glory or end up imprisoned again. As classics go, Life is a Dream is certainly one of the most daring titles you could choose, and Rivera is a playwright who doesn’t get produced nearly enough. Trinity’s stellar production of Marisol proved that he should be on the shortlist anytime you want to produce soul-grabbing theater. Tatyana-Marie Carlo is slated to direct in April.
Independent theaters in the area are also making plans for future productions, including two very different takes on one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies. Burbage Theatre Company has a filmed version of Macbeth on the way, while Psych Drama Company will be presenting an audio version in association with the Audiovisual Center Dubrovnik. The production will feature original music and soundscape by Zarko Dragojevik and an art exhibit of Nick Morse’s paintings during intermission. Psych Drama’s Lion in Winter was a standout audio experience, and they appear to be upping their game once more. They’ll be following that up with a second audio production of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Meanwhile, this summer already looks jam-packed with opportunities to see outdoor theater. The Contemporary Theatre Company is planning a full summer out on their gorgeous patio, including Bethel Park Falls and Native Gardens, Mixed Magic has their amphitheater ready to go for another summer of blockbuster theater and music, and Glass Horse Project will be mounting Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
As we start to see the number of digital productions dwindle, a nice way to celebrate local arts resiliency would be to take in Red Maple, a digital comedy presented by the Players at the Barker Playhouse. Their virtual productions have been some of the finest of the past year, and I’m happy to check out one more.
If I’ve missed anybody, please let me know, and I’ll be sure to mark you down in my calendar. After spending years quietly bemoaning having so much theater to see, I can’t wait to have that be my biggest problem again.
Over at my theater, we have an expression for what the next year calls for, and I might as well use it here as well.
Who Has the Rights?: On Licensing and Equity
“We know how disappointing this must be…”
I’m not sure why, but it had never occurred to me that as theaters were preparing to reopen all over the country, there would be a return to certain processes and procedures that were bound to make us wish we could stay dormant for just a little longer.
One of them being the utter torment known as applying for rights.
If you’re a larger company, it’s possible your experience with licensing is mostly positive. The licensing companies such as Dramatists and Concord Theatricals (formerly known as Samuel French) are not at all shy about engaging in Pay to Play when it comes to doling out permissions. While they go out of their way to make their decision-making as opaque as possible, their eventual reasoning for why bigger organizations get exclusivity over certain (usually newer) titles is because … they pay more for it.
It used to be that this was a perk of being an equity theater. These licensing houses would make it seem as though by restricting titles so that only “professional” houses could do them, they were somehow protecting the sanctity of having larger venues produce work first, as though that were some guarantee that the work would receive a higher quality premiere production in a given region. That logic has recently gone down the drain as its become clear that “professional rights” really just means “more expensive rights” and as long as you’re willing to pony up, you can purchase that same exclusivity whether you’re a regional powerhouse or just a kid right out of college whose parents can afford to finance a production of the latest Tony Award winner. As far as I can tell, there is no criteria in place to ensure quality, even if that was something a licensing company could do or was even tasked with doing. Send them a big enough check, and they’ll make sure you get first crack at a show.
This mixed with the culture of wanting to produce “premieres” of a high-interest titles led to a piranha pool in the pre-pandemic times of theaters being stuck into regions (again, hard to tell which region you’re in, because most of the time, the licensing companies will only give you a vague idea of where that is, something akin to artistic gerrymandering), and that means when a larger theater wants to produce a show, nobody else can go anywhere near it for at least one season. While that may be frustrating, it’s not nearly as enraging as when a theater puts a “hold” on a title, which means they might want to produce it, and they’re willing to put up some cash while they consider doing it, but if they don’t, the licensing company keeps the bulk of the money, the playwrights get a smaller amount than they would if the play were actually produced, and nobody gets to see the work, because it languishes on some mysterious purgatorial list that none of us are allowed to see. Years ago, I was told I couldn’t produce a show because a local professional theater was “interested” in it. Having good relationships with the professional theaters in the area, I simply called around and asked about the title, since I couldn’t imagine anyone else really intending to produce it. Sure enough, one of the local theaters had put a hold on it, but once they read it, they lost interest, and simply forgot to tell the company that held the rights. The company certainly wasn’t going to say anything, but had I not gotten the theater to contact them and remove the hold, that work might never have been produced. The reality of producing new shows is that sometimes their luster lies in their “newness.” If a title is held back long enough, people forget about it or simply lose interest and look for something else. If you’re thinking that based on how the money breaks down when it comes to holding rights versus actually granting them, it might be advantageous for licensing companies to seek out more holds rather than advocate for work to be produced, you’re not wrong.
Oftentimes, they’ll put it on a playwright or their agents when they refuse a company the right to perform a show, even though I’ve personally contacted agents and playwrights numerous times after being turned down for rights only to find that the writers had no idea their work was being hoarded by the people they trust to get it on as many stages as possible. In fact, after getting the rights released to three different plays by contacting their writers (all of whom were unbelievably gracious and quite annoyed that their work wasn’t being made readily available), I received a letter from the company representing their work that can only be described as mafia-esque. It told me that I needed to stop “bothering” the playwrights. When I forwarded my correspondence with all three to show that, as far as I could tell, no bothering was taking place, I received another email letting me know that the playwrights only have a “minor say” in where their work can be produced, and that if I kept trying to game the system, I would be in jeopardy of not being granted rights to anything moving forward. Because while some of these companies are easier to deal with than others, they all have the habit that most businesses have of mirror bad practices, knowing if they all do it, then they all can get away with it, I had no choice but to back down. One of the playwrights I was in contact with not only assured me that he wasn’t bothered, but he described the monopoly-style hold these companies have over rights to be a necessary evil when trying to get produced. He confirmed that, yes, when he wants to put up a fight over letting a small theater do his work, he can sometimes win the argument, more often than not, he’s told to back down, and so now he barely ever fights the good fight, and truthfully, I don’t blame him.
The Premiere Problem is especially an issue considering how close we are to Boston, where some theaters seem to have “producing whatever was popular in New York” as their sole mission statement. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve looked at a season in Boston only to see a mishmash of titles that only have their premiere status in common. Boston gets priority over even the biggest theaters in Providence, which means, even though any Rhode Islander will tell you that we’re unlikely to drive to Boston to see a play when we can just wait for it to trickle down a few years later to our local stages (again, provided the title doesn’t gather too much dust while it sits on the shelf), the priority for those Boston theaters is to say that they’re producing the “New England” or the “Regional” Premiere. It used to be exciting enough to say you were doing the state-wide premiere, but I guess as audience numbers in Boston dwindled, the language had to shift to try and make these shows sound more compelling. That meant a stranglehold over anything that wasn’t less than five years old.
So why does all this matter?
Because as we begin to get back in the habit of creating theater, we have made promises to do it better than we did before, and while that’s admirable, we have not even begun to have a conversation about the adjacent industries that we depend on (and who depend on us) to change along with us. The licensing companies have made no such promises, and it’s clear that they intend to go right back to the way they’ve always done things, despite the glaring inequities in determining who gets to produce what based on resources and finances. It’s no wonder most theaters end up producing dated schlock when it sometimes takes weeks to hear back after applying for a title only to find out you’ve had the door closed in your face, and you’re not allowed to ask why.
Shakespeare might be predictable, but at least you don’t need to check with his agents if you want to produce The Tempest.
While we have to hold ourselves accountable to do better, we also need to hold the people and industries around us accountable. It’s not a question of if they want to do better, but whether we mandate that we do. I understand the logic of wanting to make sure there aren’t multiple productions of a title within the same year, but what’s wrong with “First come, first served?” It would seem to me that any theater willing to make a commitment to produce a title as early as possible clearly feels passionately about producing that work. I’d even be open to the idea that a theater can only produce a certain number of high-interest titles in a given season. There are all sorts of ways to make this system more equitable, but as of now, there is no movement happening that’s looking to change the businesses that are in charge of our most precious commodities–
If we don’t put pressure on them to change the way they allow us to produce work, how can the work itself get better? The reality is that as much as I would champion producing brand new plays, smaller companies would benefit the most from being given a popular title to bring in audiences, so why not give them that leg up?
I’m well-aware that this is one of those inside baseball topics that makes people’s eyes glaze over once I start ranting about it, but it is most likely the reason you see otherwise exciting companies putting on droll productions and uninspired seasons. It is demoralizing to be at the whim of some imposing behemoth run by people you’ll never meet, who have such a large say in the kind of artistic direction you’re able to take your company. Many of the artists coming out of the pandemic who are interested in changing the landscape of theater are going to want to do so by producing work of their own, and if this is the kind of red tape and fiscal favoritism they’re met with, I can’t imagine it’ll take long for them to surrender any hope of coming back better.
Like it or not, these companies are our partners in the creative process, and as such, they need to be willing to make the same changes we are, even if we’re one of the larger theaters who profit from their current way of doing things. We said we were all committed to a radical reformation not just in terms of the art itself, but the business around the art.
That’s the contract we drew up over a year ago.
It’s time for them to sign it.
Island Moving Company Returns to Live Performance
On May 6, 7 and 8, Island Moving Company (IMC) will hold a hybrid in-person and livestreamed performance called Return to Live at the WaterFire Arts Center.
The performance will feature world premieres from guest choreographer Colin Connor, former artistic director of the José Limón Dance Company, and Danielle Genest, IMC’s associate artistic director. The performance will also include Mark Harootian’s recent work, Steady Grip, plus Ruth…Less, and A Life Well Lived by Miki Ohlsen, IMC’s artistic director. All performances will be accompanied by live music arranged by music director and cellist Adrienne Taylor, with pianist Andrei Bauman and violinist Emma Lee Holmes-Hicks.
Ohlsen, who curated the performance with Genest, said of the upcoming collection of pieces, “It furthers IMC’s commitment to artistic collaboration and providing audiences with the rare opportunity to engage with two live art forms in a singular production.”
Return to Live takes place May 6 – 8 at the WaterFire Arts Center. 475 Valley St, PVD. For more information, go to islandmovingco.org
Kevin’s Culture Picks: What did our expert watch in April?
Every week, I’ve been doing a deep dive into cultural issues, usually theater-related, that are bothering me or that deserve a second look. But who needs another thinkpiece, right?
I host two weekly programs on my theater company’s Faceboook page (Facebook.com/EpicTheatreCo) where I ask guests what has been keeping them creatively engaged or excited, and I thought I could put together some of the movies, television shows, books and music we discuss.
I’ll do this at the beginning of every month (until we’re out of … this), and hopefully it’ll keep you busy as we start to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
So, here’s what I enjoyed in the month of April:
The Last Blockbuster (Streaming on Netflix)
Bad Trip (Streaming on Netflix)
Tina (Streaming on HBO Max)
All Creatures Great and Small
Sasquatch (Streaming on Hulu)
Crying in H Mart, by Michelle Zauner
Peaces, by Helen Oyeyemi
100 Boyfriends, by Brontez Purnell
Today We’re the Greatest, Middle Kids
OK, Orchestra, AJR
Our Country, Miko Marks & The ResurrectorsMusic, Benny Sings
Six Cover Songs, Wild Pink
Californian Soil, London Grammar
Flu Game, AJ Tracy
Best Streaming Theater of the Month
The Belle of Amherst — Granite Theatre in Westerly chose a perfect show for the digital form in William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst. The one-woman show all about the enigmatic Emily Dickinson was smartly directed by Paula Glen and featured a must-see performance from Steph Rodger. I didn’t review it for this magazine because I’m friendly with all involved, but since this is a space where I can laud my favorites unapologetically, I’ll take this opportunity to say that my very talented friends knocked it out of the park.
Retiring the Mockingbird: On cash grabs, Scott Rudin, and the search for better theatrical programming
I used to have a joke I’d make whenever somebody would tell me their theater needed to raise money fast.
“Well,” I’d say, “you could always do To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Sometimes when you deal in the commodities of art, things can be both profound and profitable, and you grapple with whether the profitability somehow taints the profundity.
When it comes to To Kill a Mockingbird, there seems to be an immunity in place that protects the source material from the fact that, while many people who produce it do love it or the book it’s based on, there is no denying that it might be the most sellable play on Earth. It’s probably more sellable than most musicals. It often sells out runs as soon as its announced and gives subscription numbers a bounce, and every time that happens, the theaters producing it like to pretend that it’s not the Mockingbird factor, but something having to do with them specifically and how good their production of the show is going to be.
If you haven’t already, now might be when you begin to wonder why I’m talking about To Kill a Mockingbird at this particular point in time.
There are a few reasons.
One of which is the ongoing nightmare of disentangling the theater industry from Scott Rudin.
Rudin’s relationship with Mockingbird is fraught to say the least. I have a version of how this all went down that is mostly speculative, so if you read on, please be advised that this is all opinion, and not actual journalism. It’s barely an OpEd.
But here it goes–
For years, there was a licensed version of To Kill a Mockingbird that was done all over the country and probably made the playwright and the licensing company an ungodly fortune. Was it a great adaptation? Eh. It’s fine. Literary adaptations rarely rise to the level of “passable,” and it was certainly passable. It got the job done. And it must have banked more money than I will ever see in my life. The adaptor is Christopher Sergel, and with all due respect to him, he’s not exactly a theatrical titan.
All this is to say, it’s pretty easy to see an opportunity there to make even more money than was previously made with this halfway-decent adaptation written by a little-known playwright.
In walks Rudin.
He essentially commissions a new adaptation from Aaron Sorkin. (You know what might have been cool? An adaptation from a Black playwright, but hey, asking too much I guess.) He then gets into a lengthy legal battle with the Harper Lee estate regarding the adaptation, and he prevails, I’m assuming, because he has more resources at his disposal than the average country.
This is when I stress to you that we did not need another adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, and we certainly didn’t need one from Aaron @$#%-ing Sorkin. The one that existed was not great, but fine, considering which audience it’s targeting. This was a money grab using a title that has already evolved into a money grab for the theater industry.
But the fun doesn’t stop there.
Rudin then proceeded to go on a kind of mafioso litigation tour across the country, shutting down the pre-existing, pre-licensed productions of Sergel’s version. It was like organized crime if it were being organized by Moss Hart. I couldn’t believe it. How could Rudin survive this, I thought. He’s bullying small theaters. The logic was that he wanted the version on Broadway to be the only version. I can only imagine how Sergel felt about this. After all, he had gotten permission without any bullying tactics, and Rudin had to take the estate to court and now wanted no other version to exist.
Then, as a sort of … concession (?), Rudin offers to let the theaters whose productions he had just shut down do the new version of the show. You know, the one that puts money in his pocket. The press release announcing this was one of the most audacious things I have ever read. It’s like robbing someone of their hundred dollars, then giving them euros back, and telling them they should be grateful, because euros are kind of cool, right? I mean, sure, you have to go re-rehearse your show, scrap all the previous advertising, and produce a version you probably haven’t even read yet, but aren’t you lucky, because this is the Sorkin version. Now, say, “Thank you,” to Mr. Rudin, and back away slowly. He doesn’t like any sudden movement.
How Rudin was allowed to get away with this is beyond me. Of course, now we know he’s gotten away with a lot worse, but most of that was at least partly done in the dark. This was all in full public view. And while people were angry, more than a few of them kowtowed and produced the new version. I don’t blame them. It was the easiest course to take.
What really boiled me up was seeing the main production open on Broadway, and not only become a major hit, but receive critical acclaim. I remember telling a friend that I thought it was shameful that Rudin was able to weather all that bad behavior, and they countered that the people in Mockingbird shouldn’t be held accountable for what he’d done. I agree with that, but the reality is that the show’s success was not only Rudin’s success, but a sent message to everyone who had witnessed what he’d done, and the message was–
Rudin can do whatever he wants.
And it speaks to a disconnect that exists between audience and artist that we are going to have to deal with sooner rather than later as we move toward reopening and try to deal with problems within our field.
Mainly, that audiences don’t seem to care how the food gets made as long as it’s tasty.
Remember years ago, when Actors’ Equity tried to get audiences to care about how many tours were pivoting to non-equity by kicking off the “Ask If It’s Equity” campaign? The premise was that if audiences understood the difference between the two, they’d advocate to see more equity tours in their hometowns and cities.
Turns out, audiences, for the most part, cannot tell the difference between equity and non-equity. It becomes like inside baseball to them. An issue that exists in the weeds, when all they want to know is how much the ticket costs and can they take their little nephew to the show and how long is it, because they don’t like to drive at night.
They want to see To Kill a Mockingbird, and you are not going to make them feel bad about it.
That’s not an argument to just produce what audiences are going to be comfortable seeing. I’m always a champion for cultivating an audience and moving them in more interesting directions. I’m just not sure it’s possible to do that by explaining to them what was going on behind-the-scenes, because ultimately, that doesn’t affect them, does it?
Oh sure, there are wonderful, empathetic audience members who want to know that actors are being treated right and nobody was picked on and everybody is having a great time, but I’m not sure there are enough of those people to fill a blackbox, let alone a Broadway house.
Audiences in New York have known who Rudin is for years the same way the industry has, and they still went to see productions where his name was above the title. The only reason we aren’t holding them accountable is because an “audience” is as spiritual a thing as a poltergeist. It would be like holding air pollution accountable. It just doesn’t work.
That disconnect is also why it’s going to be hard to reopen with an eye on audience comfort in regard to safety, because we haven’t figured out how to create a channel of communication with them, but that’s an essay for another day.
Today, I’m thinking back on what I’ve written about what “better” looks like when we come back, and it has me thinking about cash grabs like Mockingbird. There’s nothing wrong with doing shows you know audiences are going to like, and depending on your financial situation, it might just be necessary, but here’s my question–
If students have been reading Mockingbird in school for years as I did, and theaters have been producing Mockingbird all over the country, as my college did and two theaters I’ve worked with, then when do we start to wonder if the message of Mockingbird is actually getting through to people?
What is it that people are reading and watching, because when a pivotal moment in the book and the play feature the line, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand,” and yet we’re still living in the world we’re in, you have to wonder if maybe we need to start getting our point across using somebody other than Atticus and Gem.
Every time a theater produces Mockingbird, somewhere in the ad copy the phrase “The story we need now more than ever” appears in some form, and while it may be true that we need the story, I’m wondering if, due to no fault of Lee’s work, it’s not making the kind of impact we’re telling people it is.
Instead, I think it’s become this inoculated story that presents a white savior and a story about fear and racism that is very easily digestible, to the point where bigots can sit quite comfortably in a cushy seat in an audience and try to remember their reservation time at the fancy restaurant across the street.
Before you hop in the comments and suggest that I’m talking about canceling To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m not. It’s still one of my favorite novels, but I think it’s always been asked to do too much, and it’s certainly a product of its time. I’d never suggest not reading it, but I’m not sure it should be the only thing you read that addresses the themes found in the book. More often than not, when it’s produced in a theater, it’s as political as that theater is willing to go, namely — not far enough.
And time after time, they get a pat on the back for producing something so brave and important. The liberals cry and the conservatives yawn, and the details of the production tend to be forgotten shortly thereafter by everybody except the people who worked on them, who conflate that warm, fuzzy feeling of being in a hit show with having been a part of something special.
I once produced a version of Tartuffe that was so offensive three people got up and walked out.
Do you know how hard it is to offend an audience with Tartuffe?
That, to me, was special.
I feel bad about the snark in that last part, but I’m not editing it out, and I’m not making room for exceptions where, yes, I’m sure some people have worked on Mockingbird and had their lives changed the same way some people can work on Starlight Express and achieve Nirvana. Anything is possible, but we’re not here to talk about exceptions.
The monetization of stories like Harper Lee’s masterpiece should be most offensive to those who claim to care about the work. The way artistic directors will rattle off a list of plays that cost next-to-nothing to produce with guaranteed profit and then give interviews about how much those same stories mean to them has moved beyond distasteful. It’s become boring and the boredom shows up first in the work.
The expectation pre-pandemic between large-sized theaters and their audiences had devolved into, “You produce something I’ve heard of, read, and seen at the movie theater, or I’ll cancel my subscription. Oh, and make sure the lead guy looks like Gregory Peck or I’ll express my dismay at the talkback after telling you all about how the actors weren’t loud enough.”
There is no coming back to that if what we’re striving for is “better.”
What we do when we’re in a good place as theater organizations and institutions is not a reflection of who we are. That reflection appears when we need money, when we’re trying to sell tickets, when we need good reviews, or when we want our audiences to clap politely and not complain that we’ve become too woke.
The best of who we are exists in what we’re willing to leave on the table in search of better titles, better stories and better people to tell them.
Barely any of them will sell as well as To Kill a Mockingbird will, or The Glass Menagerie, or The Tempest, or Steel Magnolias, or dozens of other plays that we keep behind a glass and break in case the last show moved fewer tickets than we thought it would.
People like Rudin know where we keep our emergency stash, and they know how to use the popularity of those titles to advance themselves and their reputation. They know that even when we think we’re getting a lesser version of a story, we’ll still go if it’s a story we have some sort of emotional or sentimental attachment to, and we’ll complain about it later if we have to.
The solution is to come up with better solutions.
It’s about doing the hard thing even if it means accepting that a loss might be inevitable.
That’s something I learned from a book about a lawyer, his daughter and bravery.
You should read it sometime.
The Ordinary Instant: “The Year of Magical Thinking” from The Players
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”
Through April 11, The Players at Barker Playhouse treated audiences to an emotionally intense and creatively directed streaming version of The Year of Magical Thinking, and the result was breathtaking.
In 2005, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking was published to near universal acclaim. The book recounted the fairly recent tragedies of Didion losing her husband, fellow author John Gregory Dunne, and the subsequent illness of her daughter Quintana, who passed away shortly before the release of her mother’s masterful meditation on grieving and mortality. It almost immediately became a must-read and went on to win the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Two years later, Didion adapted the book for the stage, where it played on Broadway and in London. The play was directed by David Hare, and starred Vanessa Redgrave, before she herself experienced the loss of her daughter several years later. Didion included Quintana’s death in the play, which makes it even more heartbreaking than the book. Reading it, it was always clear that, when adapted, it would be done as a solo performance.
The question was: Who would see it?
One-person shows always bring an air of intensity to them, but when the subject matter is this gripping, it seems natural to wonder who would want to sit with these themes while taking in an evening at the theater.
That might be why the switch to digital is a blessing in disguise for titles like this one, that seem to be somewhat more absorbable when you’re able to view them from the security of your home. Seeing the show in New York, I felt immensely exposed being asked to consider such profundity while surrounded by strangers. Though that’s part of the power of theater, it’s interesting how I was able to process the play this time around, and how open I was to its examinations.
First off, there is a story. Didion doesn’t rely merely on reflection to drive the piece. She lays out the events of her husband’s passing and the cruel brevity with which she had to pivot from widow in mourning to mother in action. Redgrave weaved in and out of the play’s two worlds — the contemplative and the narrative — effortlessly, but I remember being concerned that future productions would have a hard time finding an actress who could carry the weight of all that agony.
In Patricia Hawkridge’s digital production for The Players, the evening is not presented as a one-woman show, nor is Didion’s portrayed by multiple women, but rather, we’re given a woman and a chorus, which I think is a very intelligent way to handle the allocation of such heady material, especially if you have such a talented group of women to shoulder the play’s remorse.
As The Woman, I found Carol Schlink to be powerfully understated. The worst thing you can do in a play that could be labeled “sad” is double down on the sadness. Schlink, under Hawkridge’s direction, holds back where she could go over the top and lets out her frustration and denial in bursts that create a portrayal of someone barely held together, but fighting to stay active. It’s that same fight that great actors know how to wage. Play the action, not the feeling — and Schink buoys the part so that her performance comes across as something of a video diary. A confessional. Not something filmed that’s trying to replicate what you’d see onstage, but something more immediate.
The filming component of the piece is excellent — a trait we’re now expecting every time we see a production from the Players. I commend them for continuing to invest in the more cinematic opportunities of their shows. Katherine Reaves is cognizant of the soft touch the story calls for, and her work is exceptional. The original music by Chris Korangy was equally lovely. Praise should also be given to Hawkridge’s assistant director Morgan Salpietro and her production manager Rachel Nadeau. Theater is always communal, but these virtual undertakings call for even more of that company spirit.
In that spirit, the women who make up The Chorus are each outstanding and pull off just the right mix of delicacy and gravitas. I was really struck by the performances of both Paula Faber and Marcia A. Layden, but each of the women did impressive work. Hats off to Kathleen Moore Ambrosini, Eva-Maria Coffey, Kristen Ann Gunning, Michelle Savoie and Janette Talento-Ley.
While I’m sure nobody is eager to produce anything digitally once we’re back to in-person theater, I hope we explore why we typically fear bringing plays like The Year of Magical Thinking to life. If it’s because of how difficult it is to sell it or to make it work onstage, perhaps it’s worth hanging onto those Zoom subscriptions a little longer. The questions Didion poses are essential to the current moment, as so many of us are in the throes of our own experiences with loss and suffering. While that might not make for a fanciful night on the town, it doesn’t make the work any less urgent. Not every story works every time on every stage, but every story deserves a chance to be told. Bravo to the Players for being brave enough to tell this one.
A Return to PPAC: The comeback tour
The last time I stepped foot in the Providence Performing Arts Center, it was to see the splendid tour of Hello Dolly! that played to less than full houses because of concerns rippling through the news that there was a strange new virus making people sick. I remember dismissing that in my review of the show, and chastising audiences for letting a little fear keep them away.
As they say on Twitter, that part of the review has probably not aged well.
On Tuesday morning, I was back at PPAC for the first local season announcement that might bring about an actual season. That bit of cleverness is how I’m going to balance out the sentimental feeling that swept over me when I walked through the double doors and into the lobby where chairs were set up — but spaced apart — and posters for the upcoming shows lined the staircase leading up to the second level.
The outside of the building is looking as good as ever with a brand new facade, a restoration project that was completed while the stage lay dormant. The press in attendance included the great Don Fowler, who I greeted the way you’d greet a relative you only get to see at Christmas. It has been a year, after all, and it turns out, I’d even grown to miss the critics.
The announcement was being livestreamed by the social media sponsor WPRI 12, and it opened with PPAC’s board chairman, Joseph W. Walsh, Esq., who made brief remarks before introducing the president of the Performing Arts Center, J.L. “Lynn” Singleton, who unveiled the roster of upcoming tours that will be visiting Providence, including the return of Hamilton (November 30 – December 12, 2021) and the acclaimed production of Oklahoma! (March 22 – 27, 2022) that recently played Broadway’s Circle in the Square.
I was also excited to hear that Lincoln Center’s revival of My Fair Lady would be coming to town in May 2022, following the hit musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,which will play the venue in April 2022. Other productions in the Taco/White Family Foundation Broadway Series include The Prom (March 8 – 13, 2022) and Pretty Woman, which will be kicking off the season October 9 – 16 of this year.
The Encore Series includes the 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour of Rent (January 14- 16, 2022), the musical version of An Officer and a Gentleman (February 18 – 20, 2022), and Blue Man Group (May 20 – 22, 2022).
Completing the season will be three “Broadway Specials,” including the Broadway smash Dear Evan Hansen (April 5 – 10, 2022), Jesus Christ Superstar (January 25 – 30, 2022), and Cirque Dreams Holidaze (December 17 – 18, 2021), which means there’s a full calendar starting in just six months ready to go.
While there are many things about theater I’ve grown to miss over the past year, there were also things I’d forgotten until the promise of a return began to present itself. It’s easy to take institutions like the Performing Arts Center for granted, but until I was sitting in the grand lobby, I had forgotten that PPAC was where I saw my first major musical on a field trip with my school. It’s where I had my first exposure to musical canon warhorses like Rent and Fiddler on the Roof. Once I started seeing shows as they premiered in New York, I began skipping the tours that would come through, sure that they wouldn’t measure up to their Broadway counterparts, but over the past few years, I’ve seen more and more productions there, and I’ve been reminded that a place like PPAC is an asset for people who don’t have the opportunity to see theater outside the state, and that much of what comes through features talent as remarkable as any you’d find in New York, and occasionally surpasses it.
On the way out of the theater, I ran into another friend who writes for a different publication, and I remarked that this was my first time covering the season announcement. That’s probably why you’re reading something a little more personal than a list of shows and dates, but you wouldn’t expect anything else from me by now, right?
As I was driving away, I took in the sign and felt a wave of gratitude that soon it’s going to be all lit up again, with crowds underneath it, hurrying inside before the overture begins.
Not wanting to miss a note.
For more information on PPAC’s upcoming season, go to PPACRI.org