Monthly Archives: June 2006

Chinese Clowns, Redux…

Jane and her mom Tair are hitting the (mostly) Canadian Fringe circuit this summer with The Chinese Clown Cabaret, which I directed for them last summer. It is going very well (read the reviews!thanks Michael!), and if you are anywhere near there, you should really go see them–they’ve already done Montreal and Ottowa, but they have more to come:

St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival

Ottawa Fringe Festival

Berkshire Fringe Festival

Daniel Arts Center, Simon’s Rock College
84 Alford Road, Great Barrington, MA
TICKETS: $15 413.320.4175

Tuesday, August 1, 8:00 pm (includes a post-show talkback)
Wednesday, August 2, 8:00 pm
Friday, August 4, 8:00 pm

Edmonton Fringe Festival
August 17-27, 2006

Victoria Fringe Festival
August 24 – September 4, 2006

Vancouver Fringe Festival
September 7-17, 2006

brief reviews from over the last two months

Movies (the first three I watched on the plane)
Match Point
Woody hates women and has only contempt for the world he spent his entire life aspiring to, which leaves a bad taste in viewer’s mouth (even though his filmmaker’s skill, once the movie turns into a thriller, is undeniable). Unfortunately for Scarlett Johanssen, her breasts are the only expressive part of her.

Walk The Line
Pointless, cheesy, terrible biopic, how did it win anything? Sarah Vowell gets the heart of the story across better in 10 minutes with her nasally voice than the entire 3 hours of high-budget Hollywood schlock.

Pride and Prejudice
Admirable adaptation of an impossible task. Non-Austen fans will never know what’s missing, and that’s too bad.

Why don’t more people take chances and make movies like this? Especially now with DV! Rough around the edges, you can tell it’s cheap, but so ambitious and tremendous, who cares? It felt like great poor theater. My favorite part, the mock documentary.

Brokeback Mountain
Got under my skin more than I thought it could; I’ll never think of Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams as just pretty faces ever again.

Fun Home
Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel tracing her relationship with her dead father. Gorgeous canvas for her talent, best memoir I’ve read in awhile, go buy it.

Da Vinci Code
Reads like a bad film treatment, undeniably absorbing page-turner.

World Cup
Commentators JP Dellacamera and John Harkes: The only American commentators worth listening to. The other ones should be taken out, beaten with sticks, and never allowed to call a soccer game ever, ever again.

Bastian Schweinsteiger
German midfielder. His name means “Pig-Mounter”, but that’s ok, because I love him, he makes me root for Germany.

Atlantic Center for the Arts
I think it might be impossible for artists residencies to get better than this one.

Don’t Even Get Me Started on the Myth of the Young Male Genius…

I guess I’m so disconnected from New York at this point that this year’s Obies came and went last month without my noticing (I don’t care about the Tonys–only would have written about ’em had Lisa Kron won for Well).

Sheila Callaghan is a New York based playwright–her “riff” on Ulysses, Dead City, just opened at New Georges. And she wrote about this a month ago, on her blog (wow! there are blogs on theater! Here! And here! And, oh, gosh, here! (hi Daniel! Remember when you wrote that awesome stuff about your time at modo in haiku for me and Jen Mitas when we were doing Living Newspaper in 2001?! Hi!)). She wrote:

…at the Obie awards Monday night, the award for “playwriting” went to Rolin Jones and Martin McDonagh. The award for “emerging artist” went to Rinne Groff and Neena Beber.

Rolin Jones won for The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, his first play. Neena Beber, who has been doing this for twenty years, won an emerging playwright award.

Now I am certain Mr. Jones deserves an award for his lovely play. I am sure Ms. Beber does as well. I say this with absolute sincerity and respect. But I am also certain that something ugly lies within the distinction between Best Playwright and Best New Playwright, when two of the awardees should so clearly be reversed.

So I have this fantasy that I am Neena Beber, and when they call my name I walk up to the microphone and say, “I appreciate that you like my play, and that you acknowledge my existence in this field… but you can take your fucking Obie and shove it in your goddamn gender-biased twat.”

Ms. Callaghan goes on to say more…go read it. Also, Juliana F. responds with this comment, which I’m printing and taping to my wall:

Here’s my checklist: 1. Get mad, read and talk and write about it. 2. Avoid the bitterness and despair that can slow or stop your work, make up prayers to alchemize your outrage into writing better plays. 3. Write these better plays faster than you were writing them before. 4. If you write great stuff but you are shite at promoting your work due to gender trauma, do at least one uncomfortable but good business thing a week to break that lousy habit, for 21 weeks in a row. 5. Do something for young girls, or for women more marginalized than yourself. Do some volunteer tutoring through NY Cares; send a little scratch to Save Darfur or the IRC, become a Penpal to a woman in prison. 6. Stand up straight, breathe through your nose, invoke Mary Wollstonecraft and other greats, and fuck that noise!!

I haven’t seen a play by Ms. Callaghan, but will when I return from Floriday. Crowded Fire Theater is producing her play We Are Not These Hands at the Ashby Stage from June 23-July 16, and will update then.

What do I think? I agree with Ms. Callaghan. It’s typical sexist bullshit: of course Neena Beber doesn’t exist until the Voice notices her existence. Alexis, what’s going on?

In news of admiration of the masculine body and what it can endure, I live for the World Cup. 3 games a day for the first two weeks. Jumping out of bed at 6am to watch Univision. Bliss!

Outdoor Dramas, and why I’ll never write the damn book.

That last post was supposed to be a short aside, and I didn’t even get into a lot of things I wanted to say.

So before I forget: Four major variables determine an Outdoor Drama: the values it desires to promote; the historical story it uses to present those values; the theatrical means by which it communicates the historical story; and the relationship of the theater with its locality.

Can you imagine? Each separate variable had such a wildly diverse expression at every play I went to, that the synthesis of all four variables per play created 27 totally disparate animals. Each event was so unique, that there wasn’t even a single way to tell every story.

The things I didn’t write about below:

  • The many ways they do actually paint white boys red
  • The narrative pretzels Outdoor Dramas twist themselves into trying to make everyone the good guy so that neither whites nor the people they oppressed are offended (though of course, that in itself is offensive)
  • Reasons that so many Outdoor Dramas and pageants emerged in communities post-World War II (e.g., Legend of Rawhide)
  • The phenomenon of Greater Tuna
  • John Rollins Ridge, and the mythical outlaw Joaquin Murrieta
  • Recent innovations of historical museum curation and presentation
  • The story told to me by the former head of the Institute of Outdoor Drama about companies whose business was to stage pageants for towns, and his job at a tobacco town

Unto These Hills

In the midst of working through some complicated (for me, anyway) thoughts about history and Miss Saigon–so in the meantime, some exciting news (for me, anyway) about theater and historical representation:

This year, there are radical changes afoot at Unto These Hills, an outdoor drama that has been running for 57 years in Cherokee, North Carolina. Hanay Geiogamah, playwright, founder of American Indian Dance Theater, Native American Theater Ensemble, and Project Hoop, UCLA professor and editor of American Indian Theater in Performance: A Reader, has completely rewritten and restaged the play, now using a cast of 75% local people.

There are no words for how happy this makes me. Unto These Hills was a particularly embarrassing specimin of Americana when I visited in 2001, on a three month long road trip documenting historical and religious outdoor dramas in the U.S.

Historical Outdoor Dramas (annually performed, site-specific theatrical spectacles) tend to be creation myths, celebrating and performing the origins of a localities as we know them (or as local people would like to have them known). Thus, one running theme of my road-trip and a continuing problem of the genre was the representation of Native Americans. How do you justify and celebrate a nation’s stories when they’re built on the bones of whole destroyed races? Nasty savage or noble savage? And just how are you going to paint them white boys red, anyway?^

These questions were answered in as many different ways as the plays. You can even use the plays to trace 70 years of the Indian in American cultural consciousness, as some still use original scripts from the 1930s; most updated themselves piece-meal; and a few, finally feeling the currents of what has been a historical tsunami of increased political consciousness, buoyed themselves into complete reinvention.

On my travels, two plays most clearly held up the polarities of the continuum: Unto These Hills* in Cherokee, NC; and Trail of Tears, in Tahlequah, OK. The former town is home to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee nation, descendents of those who managed to hide out and avoid resettlement along the Trail of Tears–the latter is where the Trail landed the Cherokee.

Both original productions (the former, which told the story leading up to the expulsion; and the latter, tracing the expulsion and its aftermath) were written by the same playwright: Kermit Hunter, one of the Carolina Playmakers out of UNC-Chapel Hill, birthplace of the Outdoor Drama movement.

I visited Trail of Tears first. The amphitheater had been dark for four years, as the audience for a poor production of a hopelessly outdated script had, understandably, waned. In 2001, they hired Joe Sears, half-Cherokee playwright of the Greater Tuna trilogy (that’s another story), to write it–they had a local Native American turned big-time actor (I think he was in “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”) direct it–and got the signoff of the Cherokee nation.

The play told the story of the removal and its continuing trauma quite bluntly, using a charming framing device of Thanksgiving Night at the Ziegfeld Follies, where Will Rogers (famous Oklahoman and Cherokee) is starring. Girls begin toparade out, dressed as squaws and pumpkins, when the electricity goes on the fritz. Forced to entertain the crowd, Rogers tells the tale of Stand Watie and John Ross:

The treaty used by the US to forced Cherokee removal was not recognized either by the Cherokee Tribal government or the majority of the Nation; it had been signed by a small cadre of prosperous Cherokee farmers and businessmen (including Watie and his father) who figured that expulsion by whites was inevitable and they might as well cut their losses. This betrayal inevitably led to bloody acts of vengeance and power struggles for years afterwards (with the side impact on John Rollins Ridge, who went on to write Joaquin Murrieta, but that’s another story).

Trail of Tears, when I saw it, still had its colt legs; its earnest anxiety to achieve historical accuracy meant it missed some opportunities for dynamic drama–but essentially, the show was a solid, admirable production; used local professional Native American performers in major roles; and ending beautifully with painted-face ghosts framing the stage, singing Amazing Grace in Cherokee.

Fast forward two weeks into my road trip, to Cherokee and Unto These Hills. The play had been running for 52 years, and the producer, an charming older man with an iron fist, made it clear to me that they had never even vaguely considered updating the script.

Watching Hunter’s original script in action made me realize just why Trail of Tears had no choice but to undergo such a radical transformation. Hunter told the story as dumb, innocent natives being hornswoggled by whites through a corrupt preacher. Voice-over narrations described the Indians’ as “primitive” and “simple” in their connection to nature. There are exotic dances that seem entirely made-up. The protagonists with the most stage time are stock characters in Outdoor Dramas: the kindly honest white folks. The production exacerbated the problem: local Cherokee were used in the most perfunctory, pandering, and thematically offensive way (aka, during the scene when the Preacher cheats those simple Injuns, the simple Injuns were played by solely women and children locals).

Of course Hunter meant to be sympathetic to the Cherokee, I think, but he did so in the only way he knew how: by painting the white folk’s cruelty as dog kicking, as opposed to dispossessing a nation, a developed functioning culture of productive (and quite assimilated) human beings. It was terribly, terribly offensive.

Especially considering that just down the hill was a recently renovated Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Some day I’ll write about what has clearly been a dramatic leap forward in historical museum curation and presentation, but for now, let me just recommend the Cherokee Musuem as an outstanding collection of exhibits, covering 12,000 years of Cherokee history and culture intelligently, innovatively, explicitly and attractively.

To my shock, none of the actors I had spoken to had visited the museum once. The museum and drama had, in fact, begun as different limbs of the same organization. A schism had set them on separate courses, and they moved forward with no connection or communication: the museum resolutely making progress, and the drama, equally resolutely, hovering comfortably where it was.

But the most striking, most extraordinary part of the whole thing, was the utterly disconnected actor culture [Insert actor joke here]: the production was a kind of artists’ summer camp. All summer stock is, but there was this yawning chasm between the play the actors performed nightly and the life they lived on the hill behind the amphitheater, in which they did yoga and ate and partied and produced an impressive variety of cabarets.

Not one actor, from the newbie to the vet, literally had a single thing to say about Unto These Hills.

Think about it. If you’re performing one play every night for three months, especially if it’s specific to the geographical location, at some point, you have to think about what you’re doing. Every actor in every other production I visited (and I visited 27) had thoughts, showed curiosity, a basic awareness (even if it was shallow), and had opinions about the play, the history, and the host community.

The “Indians” at Daniel Boone: The Man and the Legend underwent a sort of Native American boot camp, assiduously learning how to walk and move and behave when in character. The folks at the Blue Jacket Drama burned sage before each performance. My favorite–the actors at Kermit Hunter’s Horn in the West had actually hijacked the production from under the director’s nose, adding a historically researched prequel about the Regulators that artfully filled in later plot gaps in the script.

Not so at Unto These Hills. Whenever I asked about they play, they responded by talking about their artist’s colony. They weren’t even defensive about the atrocious, historically incorrect and politically insensitive clap trap on the stage–the play was a vacuum, a lacuna; it might have well not existed in their aerie.

In fact, the only reason I heard about the recent new brooms sweeping through the place is because the Atlanta actors from Merry Wives have friends who are out of the cushy summer gig they had come to presume upon.

My congratulations to Hanay Geiogamah and Unto These Hills–I wish I could see it–it’s long overdue.

process, product, risk and "physical theater"

Lisa Drostova of the East Bay Express, in her recent review of Theater de la Jeune Lune’s production of The Miser asks why we don’t see more “intensely physical theater” in the East Bay, why it is that when we do see it, it comes from outside companies like Jeune Lune and Culture Clash and Mary Zimmerman’s ensemble productions.

“Most of our houses simply don’t go as far as the companies that visit,” Drostova writes, blaming it on a “Stanislavskian fixation on text analysis.”

The real answer is far simpler and more obvious:

Most theater houses put up a play in 4-6 weeks. That means there’s no time for much of anything other than getting the show on its feet to the best effect possible.

I saw it in Merry Wives: the people working on it were so good–they were being paid to be that good full-time, and showed up having done their homework, prepared and thoughtful. A few of the puppeteers had experience working together in Atlanta, and their shared training helped tremendously. There was no way the show would be terrible. But it wouldn’t be utterly brilliant, either–how could it? By the very nature of the regional theater schedule, it didn’t take the risks that come with completely committing, full-time, to a process. When a group doesn’t have the shared time with which to put a show together, the result simply will not be a “Total Play” with dynamic physical consistency, complexity, oomph.

That happens when companies have time to work together, to build a common, specific physical and emotional and visual language both onstage for plays and offstage in training. That’s why dance companies take classes together multiple times a week. Culture Clash has been working together for 22 years. Jeune Lune has been doing its thing together since 1978, with all three founding artists having gone to Lecoq together. Such groups (let us not forget my fave) generally have a rotating repertory of plays, which have been developed over YEARS by the time they get to a run at the Berkeley Rep or whatever.

Theater critics need to write about these pragmatic realities when they attempt to interrogate the artistic results. People who watch theater need to know about the pragmatic realities when they begin to see plays.