Monthly Archives: October 2006

vewy scawy

So I dragged Ben and Hao to the Pirates of Emerson, an annual haunted house in the wilds of Fremont. It was a last minute decision, goaded by the good folks at Haunted Bay and my sudden need to be a kid for a moment.

It was ok–clearly a ton of work and money had been poured into it and there was lots of animatronic spectacle. As I walked through it, though, I realized that a haunted house requires two different types of scary:
1. People jumping out saying “boo!” and making you yelp; and
2. The witnessing of horrifying, terrifying things.

Our theater department in high school held an annual Haunted House as a fundraiser–I seem to recall on year, there was a scene in which we walk into a couple’s intimate bedroom and watch one of the pair get sweet-talked, then horribly axed (strangled?) by the other. I mean, Hell House might be a bizarre Christian fundamentalist artifact, but at least they show souls suffering in hell, people committing suicide, others dying on the abortion table. Now that’s some scary shit. That’s theater right there.

Pirates was long on the “boos!”, short on the actual creepy darkness reaching into your soul performance.

It certainly was no Face Your Fears Haunted House, directed by Timothy Haskell, in which they polled New Yorkers about what they feared the most, and then created five distinct, borough specific houses. (Apparently, Manhattenites fear clowns, Bronxites fear homelessness).

Strange simultaneity–just the day before I saw HIGH SCHOOL, a production at Berkeley High created in collaboration with Antenna Theater, in which you walk through the school with audio tour headphones on, hearing the voices of the students. I think the live action could have been further integrated and elaborated upon, and I thought the physical design elements a bit weak (though a few of the puppets and masks were gorgeous)–sadly, just the simplicity of walking through the geography with that soundscape informing what you see, so precisely synced, and relinquishing your control and being commanded through–that was such a dreamlike, pleasurable experience–the live action seemed a bit superfluous.

Unto These Hills–Updated!

There are times when blogging really pays off.

In June, I wrote about the recent big changes happening at Unto These Hills, an outdoor drama in Cherokee, NC. They were finally updating the racist 50-year old script.

This weekend, I received a thorough, measured review of the new production by Keith Best, a former cast member of the old show, who also blogs at Castle of Stink. He currently teaches at Francis Marion University in South Carolina.

(It makes me feel so excited to get this email–like I have a network of spies nationally to see plays and slip me information. Please, if I really have any readers, send me things like this! Blogging is awesome!)

Perhaps I have to set up the context of Outdoor Dramas and their general set of techniques and storytelling style a little more before you know why this is so very interesting, but I don’t have time. This is long, but it’s my blog, and I think it’s fascinating, so there! I’m putting Keith in italics–bold emphasis is mine.

Generally, he descrbes the play as “non-traditional”

…sort of a spectacle-driven, surrealistic, postmodern, deconstructionist view of the old script…

With a greater emphasis on dance

…birds, eagle dance, hoop dance…some of them are certainly spectacular. Lots of lighting effects, sound effects, costumes. The dances seem to have a base of traditional native American footwork, but then contemporary modern movement is added on top of that.

The play structure?

…retained a very basic structure from the old Kermit Hunter script, but just barely.

It seems like they sliced the old script to ribbons, and maintained as major characters only the two Cherokee leads, Kenati and Selu. In Act I, serving as narrators, they tromp through the action of the old story and

are outside of the action of the story when it is told, with a few exceptions. Given that any other characters in the play appear for only a few moments, there is no one character with whom the audience can identify.

We see Major Davis for a moment. We see de Soto for a moment. We see Andrew Jackson for a moment. However, all three of these appear for a very short time and are played by native American actors—the result is these characters have no real depth.

This choice is interesting because it becomes a play about the Cherokee experience (somewhat) as told from the Cherokee point-of-view–therefore, we don’t see Major Davis, but the native-American representation of Davis.

This juxtaposition is interesting, but it bothered me that the representation of Davis is also using the words from Kermit’s old script. This bit of info, of course, is missed by almost everyone but those very familiar with the old show, but it adds a layer of irony that almost comes across as sarcasm.

It doesn’t help that most of the actors in these small roles were barely competent. They walked stiffly and had little vocal range. As a result, these roles appeared to be characterizations, rather than characters with any sense of reality. Given that native-Americans have been portrayed as stereotypical characterizations rather than fully drawn characters for most of cinematic history, this choice, though understood, seems a step backwards to me.

Act I ends with the Trail of Tears:

The intermission came in the middle of what would have been the old scene 12 climax. We get a Trail of Tears told in tableau style, so there is a sense of the entire trail rather than just the beginning, but there are no characters to which we’ve established a connection, so it’s more like an interactive museum display than a dramatic presentation

Act Two starts with Selu, our female narrator, weeping about the Trail of Tears…

Granted this isn’t traditional storytelling, but if the Trail of Tears should be the climax of the show, then it bothers me that the climax is interrupted by the intermission. I’m sure it’s Hanay’s writing/directorial choice, but it’s a very Brechtian one.

This is followed by a local young Cherokee, Alyssa Sampson, sing a cappela. It is:

the purest emotional moment of the show…it connects the sorrow of the people with the tragedy of the Trail of Tears.

After that, the “play” or “narrative” is finished:

The rest of act two is basically a celebration in dance and music. We see traditional Cherokee costumes onstage, and then cast members slowly appear on stage in modern clothes. The mixture of the “new day, old day” is lovely, but this convention seems out of place without having been introduced earlier in the show and is likely to confuse this audience….It feels like a different show now.

...there is a hoedown and a hoop dance mixing all these time periods together…the hoop dance was basically traditional, though not particularly good hoop dancing–it was almost a stylized eagle dance with hoops held on the shoulders like wings—and was done under black lights…It probably didn’t help that one of the dancers was stumbling and had difficulty with timing, though he clearly knew the choreography. Still, though, there seemed to be a lot of joy and fun in these performances in the second half…

Keith certainly had some strong notes:

Dream-like, in fact, is a good description of the “feel” for the whole show. Pacing was really slow (annoyingly so, at times). I can’t imagine this slow pacing wasn’t a directorial choice, but for the most part, the performers lacked the energy and presence to maintain a slow pace without it seeming “lazy.”

The actor playing Kenati was exceptional. The actress playing Selu was not as strong. She stumbled over lines way too much (but that may be due to the fact that rewrites continue) and didn’t seem to have the presence to fill the large stage as well.

He also has a terrific sense of the show’s shape as a whole:

The show really feels more like a performance piece you might see attached to a museum exhibit. This show is certainly more a celebration of the Cherokee spirit more than anything—so much so that some felt like it was a party to which we were invited to watch, but not participate.

Keith seemed to enjoy the style for the most part:

…I am honestly amazed that such theatre is available in Cherokee. It seems the type of theatre that would demand a theatrically educated audience–one that wouldn’t expect the typical storytelling of traditional theatre–that you might find at a performing arts center in a major city.

But he seemed concerned for the audience:

even though I think it’s better theatre, I’m not sure the same audience that enjoys the Dixie Stampede would agree…

I do fear…that the typical audience member in Cherokee might not “get it.” If so, the spectacle alone will have to drive the show for them. One member of the audience was overheard saying, “well, I liked it…it didn’t seem to mean anything, but I liked it…”

That being said,

If this show is truly a part of the triangle formed along with the village and the museum, I don’t know that opinions like these will be a problem.

Of major importance is the relationship of the play to its host community:

Of the local tribe members I spoke to, all but one felt the new show did not accomplish what they had hoped…. they were concerned that the story of the Trail of Tears is no longer part of the entire experience with the emotional weight it used to have…

If the show continues to evolve, I have hopes that it will be the type of theatre that challenges the audience while taking them on a journey of the Cherokee experience. It certainly seems to be headed in the right direction to do that…

But backstage:

…backstage is apparently experiencing lots of problems…it was maintained in a manner that we found unsafe and generally sloppysome of the local company seemed to harbor a great deal of ill will toward the staff—so much so that a couple seemed frightened of them.

…I experienced a couple of things after the show (an actress YELLING at a stage manager, a dancer that reeked of alcohol and was clearly intoxicated) that would not just have been frowned upon by staff in previous years, but would have absolutely resulted in someone losing a job… In fact, I would characterize the backstage environment as tense and unfriendly (not to me, but to each other).

Overall, the show is much improved. Unfortunately, very few local native-Americans were used and several of those quit shortly after rehearsals began because they felt they were being treated poorly. The rest of the cast were non-local, non-Cherokee native-Americans. A few white people were on the crew, but none from the previous season. A couple of the tribal matriarchs in the show were literally afraid of the backstage staff. My hope is that these backstage problems will be improved upon next season.

I hope so, too. I wish I could have seen this. Apparently, the production attracted significantly increased numbers this year–we’ll see if they come back.

Responses To Responses

1. Excellent point, Parabasis, that I fell into the trap (which I myself hate) of some nostalgia fantasy of “when things were better.” Who knows if things were better? Probably there was just as much crap in the 60s downtown or in the heydey of vaudeville–and we just know about what was worth remembering.

But I vehemently disagree about “Thing” being so difficult to achieve. Right now, I’m teaching in East Oakland–my kids have moments and minutes and small stretches of Thing all the time. I love the rehearsal process the most when I direct, because it’s a long stretches of Thing-making. Thing is easy.

Creating a collaborative live art piece in which Thing is sustained, anchored to a greater live event that tells a more complex story, is intellectually and politically honest and interesting, and can be repeated–that’s what’s so hard. That’s why, for every rare play that sparkles with life, it’s the even rarer one which is truly Great.

The question is, why do so few plays sparkle with life? Why the un-dead?

Demanding radiant engagement is not anti-art–radiant engagement is the process of making art. Sometimes that engagement leads to art which is confused, overreaches, doesn’t succeed, is uneven, loses relevance. I don’t care about that. What pisses me off is the lack of rigorous engagement you see in regional theater hacks and experimental poseurs, art’s equivalent of Celebrity Dead Eye.

2. “A replica is a replica and there is no point in believing in utopias that will never be delivered.”

Bryan has a lovely post which brings up a problem which also stretches across aisles across America–the obsession with “authenticity.” It dogs all kinds of art and culture–it hits theater the hardest in terms of performance and acting–from the attempts to create hyper-naturalist living rooms or waterworks soap opera emotional pornography or the misguided “Theater of Awkwardness” where pretentious hipsters conflate discomfort and non-actory lack of craft with “the real.”

I’m not a believer that form is the answer. I like Parabasis’ friend Malachy Walsh‘s statement that “aesthetic choices are the wardrobe for ideas.” We have so much to play with at this point–what a gift–can you imagine when breaking the fourth wall was important?

Update Postponed: Thing, Part II

Dan Trujillo has a thoughtful response to Mr. Feingold, requesting further precision–go read it.

And I guess I would respond by saying: yes, Feingold is general, because it is generally that big of a problem. So what is the “it” that’s such a problem? you ask and quite rightly, be specific!

I will sound vague. But it’s a stunning lack of the Thing, which I’ve written about before. You know, the Thing. When the play is Thingy, when artistic choices are actually unfolding and we’re in the same room and the room vibrates, and it’s very exciting because you know that the artists are not compromising their complete pursuit of a story or obsession or idea or genre or theory.

In the three full years of living and making work in New York, I saw only four–no, five–plays there that hit the Thing. And I saw a lot of fucking plays.

1. Ivo von Hove’s production of Streetcar Named Desire at New York Theater Workshop.
2. The ’99 revival of Kiss Me Kate, the only time I saw a Broadway musical and understood the magic that B’way must once have been.
3. A shockingly stirring production of an otherwise simplistically constructed play called The Trial of One Shortsighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae. I know, it’s I Ain’t Yo Uncle all over again, but really, it was one of the most alive, exciting, things I’ve ever seen.
4. Target Margin’s Seagull was just dripping with Thing from the first moment.
5. Matt Wilder’s Secret History of the Lower East Side had slabs of Thing in it.

[Just wanted to add to the post that I left NYC in 2001, people. But I still remember with startling specificity every single Thingy play I saw–because it was so rare and surprising.]

Of course, the Wooster Group is always and entirely Thingy, but they’re such a fait accomplit that they don’t even count.

Now that I think about it, Thing = RADIANT ENGAGEMENT THAT COMES FROM THE ARTIST’S DESIRE TO COMMUNICATE/INTERROGATE USING THE MEDIUM OF LIVE PERFORMANCE. Isn’t that the bare-assed minimum we should be able to expect from theater? If a play can’t even hit that, what’s the goddamn point?

It isn’t a genre problem. It’s a problem throughout the American theater. I see it in the so-called “avant garde”/”experimental”. I see it on Broadway, in the regional theaters, in the universities, in fringe fests and amphitheaters, in community-based theater, political theater, revivals, Shakespeare plays, musicals, performance art, “physical” theater, theater created with Viewpoints and Strassberg and Stanislavski and a hope and a prayer. A void of Thing. A huge gaping hole lack of Thing.

Yet, it has become so rare for a theater production to have Thing, that even when a play is flawed or intellectually lazy, or has an inconsistent script, or is politically meh, or makes artistic choices that I think aren’t very interesting, I will forgive it. I will forgive all for Thing. Jesus, it has become a luxury to be able to even have that kind of conversation about a play.

What Feingold hit on for me is what I am so lonely for: theater with something to say and do and make, that knows why it’s live and why it exists, why it’s important that the material is presented as theater or live art and not any other medium.

Bold, sincere, rigorous use of the medium. Combination of craft and intellect asking the difficult, unsolveable questions, creating art, creating that wonderful moment when things don’t get solved or get made easy for us. Theater that asks something of its audience, that asks something of itself. Surprise. Wonder. Glorious manipulation. Fellowship. Confrontation.

Theater that isn’t so collapsed to the apparatus that it doesn’t even try, because it has already settled for being more of the same.

This has become a ramble. Does it help?

i’ve been saying this for years–

The irascible and honest Mr. Feingold tells it like it is in this week’s Village Voice. (Thanks for the link, Matt). Such a relief to see someone say it in print, I can’t tell you.

I haven’t been writing because I’ve been very busy–teaching, getting the company together, working on projects. Longer update to come.