Monday, August 24, 2009

Faith Restored

I'm going to be very hopeful and earnest in this post (a real change of pace, ha). Cynics, prepare yourselves.

As you, dear readers (whoever the eff you are), may have surmised from my earlier post, I interned at the Ojai Playwrights Conference this summer. I left Ojai just a little over a week ago (lordy, August has just flown by) and it's still all I can talk about. It was my first year there, but something like 8 out of the 11 or so interns were all Kenyon kids, a few of whom had been to Ojai in previous years, so we were lucky enough to have a great network going. (And I HAVE to take this moment to give a heartfelt shout-out to Kate Armstrong Ross and Japhet Balaban, recent graduates of Kenyon College, dear friends and extraordinarily talented actors, hard workers and generally fantastic people, without whom Ojai would probably not have been nearly the astounding experience it was for me. Watch out for them. They're about to take New York by storm.)

The truth is, Ojai was great on SO MANY levels - being exposed to the amazingly talented minds amassed within the entire company was obviously incredibly inspiring, every single minute; as was having the opportunity to "network" AND work in close contact with one playwright, one director, one cast of actors and ONE PLAY once we started rehearsals; not to mention seeing how professionals really work (this was my first time exposed to anything like that) with each other to create a piece of art - never mind that it was only staged readings, it was still phenomenal and exciting theatre. But for me, as an intern, the most important and heartwarming part was how amazingly open and giving everybody was. It's the most refreshing and wonderful thing I can think of, to experience artists giving so freely of their selves and their craft. I ended up having amazing conversations with professional dramaturges, directors, playwrights, actors - not even necessarily about theatre, but in some cases just about life. (I now owe my fabulous life plan to one Mr. Christopher Breyer, following an extended conversation over margaritas about the true role of a dramaturg and how quickly life passes us by and moving to Chicago and so on - this is probably the best summary I can give of the first week - pre-conference - of Ojai.)

In addition, every year at Ojai (well, this was only the second year it happened, but I get the impression the staff is looking to make it a tradition) the interns put on a show at the beginning of the second week, as a sort of welcome to everyone (the actors) arriving just for the second week, after the artistic teams (and the interns, we like to think) have all bonded. It's, among other things, a sort of way to say, look what us kids have come up with after working with your directors and your playwrights all week: it's gonna be great, get pumped. So for that first week, we had two hours a day set aside to develop our intern show. These two hours were led (and the show directed) by the effulgent Emily Weisberg, who is the Artistic Director of Push To Talk Theatre Company in El Lay as Perez Hilton likes to say. Side Note: Emily is pretty much who I aspire to be five years from now. She is wam and welcoming and giving, but very precise and specific and clear in her search for excellence. She's sweet, but she's straightforward and she doesn't sugarcoat. She's a breath of fresh air to work with. It was under her direction that the intern show became what it was - something for everybody to be proud of. I mean, there we were, standing in front of an audience comprised of people like Stephen Adly Guirgis, Jeanine Tesori, Andre Royo, Stephen Belber, Robert Egan, Patrick J. Adams, Linda Gehringer, so on and so forth - there we were reading out our personal stories vomited up and molded and sculpted and transferred (the best we could within the space of four or five days) into something we could present as theatre. It was ... exciting. But to get myself back on the track I tried to start on, one of the most important aspects that went into that intern show was the fact that so many of the playwrights and directors volunteered to lead us in writing workshops during our assigned "intern show workshop" time - they volunteered, during their free time, to come in and talk to us about writing, lead us in exercises, or just talk to us about their lives and their experiences. IT. WAS. AMAZING. And this is what I love, this is what restores my faith in theatre, in art - to see established artists and professionals willing to give, to share, to teach the younger generation.

I really can't get the words right and it's frustrating me. Let me try to break it down to the essentials. After Ojai, my belief is affirmed that theatre is a community. A global, spiritual, all-reaching community. This belief was affirmed because of the extraordinary people I spent my two weeks with, shared with, laughed with, bitched with, cried with sometimes, took great chances with. I owe them all a lot.

Breaking it down even more: Ojai is the shit.

I would live there if I could, but I'll settle for going back as an intern again next August. And then, someday, a very long time from now, going back as a playwright, with a piece of art of my own to nurture and shape and scuplt and develop and share with everybody.

Friday, August 07, 2009

The Fiercest Theatrical Event of the Summer

Courtesy of Robert Egan, Artistic Director of the Ojai Playwrights Conference:











Seriously though, it's going to be super great. I'm here working as an intern (with quite a few other Kenyon people actually, both grads and current students) and it's really like a dream. Maybe I'll talk more about it after it's all over but basically I'm freelance advertising. The plays are fierce, the playwrights are fiercer, Ojai is fiercest and absolutely beautiful.

Check it out!

- Elisabeth

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Last week, I was able to get tickets to see "Ruined" by Lynn Nottage. The sold-out play has been remarkably well received, most notably for winning this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama. The Pulitzer Prize is undoubtedly prestigious. It's a fucking Pulitzer. The Drama award specifically has, in the past, gone to such plays as "You Can't Take it With You," "Our Town," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Death of a Salesman," "Angels in America," "Rent," and- in 2008- "August: Osage County." Many of these winners, as well as the numerous others, are classics, or were incredibly groundbreaking for their time. Given this, I was very excited for the production, and was completely disappointed. Not only was "Ruined" not Pulitzer-worthy, I wouldn't even call it good.

The production itself was part of the problem. The direction was muddled, with many scenes dragging to the point of absolute boredom. Those that were not boring generally had much of the cast dancing on stage while characters talked, which was fairly distracting (had what the characters were saying been more interesting, perhaps this would have worked.) The performances were mostly not even worth mentioning. Even the strong performances (to me, the only two performances that warranted this description were those for the characters of Mama and Salima) seemed hindered somehow. The actors were clearly strong, but were unable to rise above the production.

But my main problem was with the script itself- the Pulitzer Prize winning script. The play is about a whorehouse called Mama Nadi's in The Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country infamous for currently being one of the most dangerous in the world. Mama, the head of the establishment, begins serving two opposing military leaders- the guerilla rebel Jerome Kisembe and the government licensed army commander Osembenga. As she juggles keeping both herself and her employees safe amidst the conflict, she has to keep the two men apart, as neither can know that she serves the other. Were they to know that she'd not chosen "their side," it would mean almost certain death for anyone connected to the establishment. With Mama's story, we also learn the story of Sophie, a young girl who is sold to Mama's by her uncle Christian, a professor and salesman who frequently sells goods to Mama, but never partakes in the services offered. Sophie is simply a worker, however, not a prostitute. She has been 'ruined' by soldiers who pillaged her town, referring to the issue of dangerous female circumcision often practised in the DR Congo. The thing about these stories is that THEY COULD HAVE BEEN REALLY AMAZING STORIES! The conflict in the DR Congo is a terrifying one that not enough people are aware of. Female circumcision too is a very prevalent topic which more material should be published on. So, what went wrong?

Well, what went wrong was that the playwright, Lynn Nottage, seemed unable to treat these topics with the respect they deserve. There is nothing other than a program note to identify the play as taking place in the DR Congo. This could have been any troubled African country from the way the play was written, and had the names been different, it could have been a troubled country anywhere (think Serbia.) As for female circumcision, this topic was not even addressed. Were one to know anything about these topics before seeing the play, they would have learned nothing more. And, had they known nothing about these topics, they would have left having gained nothing out of watching the play, and still not know anything about these issues. Perhaps saying they'd not know anything is a bit harsh- they would be able to gather at the very least that members of rebel militia terrorist groups are mean. Mean and disrespectful to women.

Rather than focusing on these promising topics, Nottage chooses to spend the majority of the play focusing on the romance of Mama and Christian. When they embrace in the final scene, I was left dumbfounded. Have none of these characters learned anything? These characters have just been held at gunpoint, the play's name comes from female circumcision, a village has been burnt down, and Nottage still feels the need to give the play a traditional Hollywood ending? This is not only implausible, it's unsatisfying.

When the Pulitzer was awarded to "Angels in America" in 1993, it shed light on the growing concern over AIDS, as well as the growing homophobia in this country that accompanied the disease's rise. To award the Pulitzer to a play dealing with an important issue at this time makes sense. But "Ruined" is about the DR Congo conflict and female circumcision in theory alone. In the end, it's simply a fairly mediocre love story. It provides no insight, or anything to make it stand out. The Pulitzer Prize, in my mind, dropped the ball this year. My only hope is that the award for the play has managed to give people reason to do further reasearch on these crucial topics- research that I wish Ms. Nottage had done herself.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What Happened to That Hummable Showtune?

It's surprising to me that I've now written two posts about musicals- I'm generally more of a fan of straight plays- but I've noticed an interesting trend in terms of musicals that I've been wanting to discuss- the evolution of the musical.

In the recent musical "The Drowsy Chaperone," the main character, Man in Chair, opens the show by speaking to the audience in pitch black, discussing what it used to mean to go to a Broadway musical, mentioning that it used to be exciting- an escape into a new world. You left the theater humming a song from the show. These have become instant classics that any theater buff knows, at least by name. I'm talking about "A Chorus Line," "Bye Bye Birdie," "Chicago" etc. Man in Chair goes on to compare these days of musical yore to the present, where he says the main thought of any theatergoer is "Dear God, Elton John, must we continue this charade?"

This comment is funny because of its truth- it seems like Broadway has become a breeding ground for commercialization. This means that very few original musicals are actually original. "Billy Elliot," the Tony winner for best musical and practically everything else as well, is inspired by a movie of the same name. The same goes for the cavalcade of musicals produced by Disney ("The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Mary Poppins.") Even the undisputed best of these Disney shows, "The Lion King," leaves a feeling of remorse. Yes, it's beautiful (thanks to Julie Taymor) but it's still Disney. And this trend of Disney musicals has expanded outside of Disney now. Other producers have jumped on the idea- hence "Shrek the Musical" has come into existence, and "Coraline" has started an off-broadway run. For the grown-ups, most of the choices may have original stories, but unoriginal music. "Mamma Mia," "9 to 5," and "All Shook Up" are just examples of the many shows based on the music written by popular musicians. While these can be fun, especially for the fans of that music, these often come across as disjointed in plot, as their sole purpose is to showcase the music. This makes the shows feel more like concerts than actual theatre, certainly not original, and usually not good (as evidenced by the recent atrocity "Rock of Ages.")

The only original musicals in recent years have also been unconventional. For example, you'd never have seen "Avenue Q" back in Broadway's glory days. This past year, the only really original musical (under my qualifications) nominated for best new musical was "Next to Normal," featuring an all rock score and pretty bleak subject matter. "Next to Normal" is about SPOILER ALERT a woman with a mental illness who believes her dead son is still alive. The whole musical is bleak- the mother undergoes electroshock therapy, the daughter develops a drug addiction, etc. This is a far cry from the day when "Oklahoma" premiered and was thought to be too dark because a character was killed (the first time in theater history.) That's right- audiences thought "Oklahoma" was too bleak. With its fucking fields of wheat.

All of this is fine, but there is one real problem, and that's the real point of this article (finally.) These "new Broadway musical" conditions will never produce a classic, like the ones mentioned earlier in the post. The hottest show of the past few years was undoubtedly "Spring Awakening," which, while hated by many, was absolutelt idolized by even more- and managed to create the closest Broadway has come to a sensation in quite some time. Even "Spring Awakening," with its centuries old text may not be considered new, but with the score, cast, and overall energy of the production, I feel it can't help but be indicative of this wave of "new musical." Despite "Spring Awakening"'s immense popularity, I highly doubt we will ever see this show revived. The script and music are simply not appealing enough to justify it. In these new musicals, what everyone goes to see is the production itself, and that is something that can't be recreated in years to come. The shows that we now see as fun and spoofy, such as "Avenue Q" and "Urinetown" will also possibly lose their edge and originality if they were to be revived on Broadway too many years into the future. "Rent," for example, was being referred to as dated only five years after its premiere. Compare these to "Guys and Dolls," which has been revived just this past year. Granted, the production has received very poor reviews, but nobody really cares. They go to it to see a Broadway classic, and that's what they get.

This age of the Broadway musical is not really a bad thing, but I worry that it's not something that will ever live on as previous musicals have. I long for those hummable showtunes we used to have- the kind that people will want to see and hear again and again, many years into the future.

To expound upon a recent, surprisingly common debate

So lately I really really feel like I'm starting to hate Broadway. Like, hate everything about it and don't want to go near it. And I don't think I'm alone in this.

And yet, how can it be avoided? New York is slowly exerting a very powerful pull on me when I try to think seriously about post-graduate plans - it's just one of THOSE places for someone looking to go into theatre. So much going on, so many options. And once you're there you want to shoot for the top, right? And what's higher than Broadway? I have a lot of anxieties about the conflict between artistic integrity regardless of finances and the necessity of living expenses (and I'm REALLY bad at living frugally) looming its head in my near future. Broadway is a business. Some people get lucky I guess but they still have to cater to what's ultimately going to make them money.

The thing is, this thing sort of stretches to all theatre when you think about it - well, almost all. But there's a difference, say, between Arena Stage or Woolly Mammoth and the folks who brought The Little Mermaid to the stage. (Don't get me wrong, I loved that flick as a kid, but ... really???)

Anyway, I didn't even mean to go on for this long - I really wanted to open this one up to general discussion, because I'd love to hear anybody else's thoughts on this conundrum.