A Weekend of Powerful Arts

I was only there for about 41 hours.

In New York City, 41 hours can be packed with adventure, learning, fun, emotions, and everything in between.  In the next few posts I will share some of the craziness and fabulousity (I like creating words) of this adventure. Of course, I must begin with one of my main reasons for this trip at this particular time. If you have read my blog for any length of time, you know that one of the issues I am most passionate about is

The Power and Importance of the Arts!!!!

This short venture into the Big Apple, while also an excuse for fun with friends, was really based on this premise. Three separate experiences validated and reinforced this for me in interesting ways.

Part I

Je Laisse L’Amour Entrer:
Even Zombies Need Art

On Friday night I saw this devised theatre piece performed by undergraduate students from the Playwrights Horizons Theater School at NYU, Tisch School of the Arts.

Devised theatre, as defined by the (ahem) always trustworthy source of Wikipedia, is:

Devised theatre (also called collaborative creation, particularly in the United States [1]) is a form of theatre where the script originates not from a writer or writers, but from collaborative, usually improvisatory, work by a group of people (usually, but not necessarily, the performers).”

I have a love/hate relationship with devised theatre. I love working on it, and when it is good it is really really good. Sometimes I find it so esoteric and confusing that I don’t enjoy it. This wasn’t one of those times.

The program explains that Je Laisse L’Amour Entrer (I Let Love in) was “Based on the Ballet La Sylphide & The Music of Nick Cave and Rob Zombie.” The text also includes William Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov, Helen Fisther, Robert Sternberg, and Wikipedia. In other words it was a mash-up of classic complicated ballet love story with hard and classical rock, with classic texts, all mixed in with a little zombie horror. Complicated, right?

In reality, it was a blast.

At first I wasn’t sure. My biggest complaint about this production was that they painted the entire theatre yellow (which is always a complex color on the stage) then dressed the ensemble cast in costumes that matched the yellow, and lit it with yellow light. This meant that sometimes the performers bodies disappeared in a performance that relied heavily on movement and the incredible physicality of the performers. However, eventually I was able to let that go for the pure fun of the evening, especially after the zombie lover crashed out of a cardboard box that had been sitting on the stage since before the audience entered the theatre. The production celebrated love, questioned purpose, pointed out hypocrisy, and glorified the pure joy of living life with love and passion (even when you fall in love with a zombie).

"Our Zombie in Her Tu-Tu, Photo Courtesy of Joanna Li " borrowed from a blog post by Southerner in the City. http://southernerinthecity.blogspot.com/2012/03/je-laisse-lamour-entrer.html

What really blew me away about this production was the quality of performances by these students and the commitment of each performer to create a highly energized and engaging show.  There wasn’t a weak link in the entire ensemble. It was fun, terrifying, full of surprises and a delight to watch.

Part II

Art and Culture in Public Service:
The Important Truths

The main reason for this trip was to be a guest lecturer in my friend Christen’s class at Rutgers called Art and Culture in Public Service. Christen wanted me to share how theatre in education can be used to do more than simply create the next generation of struggling theatre artists, but teach about other aspects of life and of what it means to live in our society. The class is 3 hours long on a Saturday, and Christen asked me to prepare about an hours worth of presentation. Before that, I sat in and listened to the class discussion about arts and politics, as well as two presentations–one about the KONY video (which was a wrap up of a presentation from last week) and one about Arts in Education. As I observed, I realized a few things:

  • Christen is an AMAZING teacher
  • This group of students was eloquent, passionate, and committed to making the world a better place
  • I miss teaching classes which make real world connections between theory, history, and life to more mature students
  • Art truly is the most valuable tool to make a difference
  • There was no way I would have time to do the full lesson I had planned because this group of students loved to discuss, debate, and question

When it came to my turn, with less than an hour to go, I had to scrap everything but I was okay with that. I decided to share with them some activities that would allow them to explore their discussion in a theatrical way, because that is really what theatre in education is all about. It is about using arts as a tool to further discussion. I pointed out to them how theatre really combines all art forms, so it is perhaps the most powerful tool that can be used in this way. I borrowed from Augusto Boal and had them sculpt each other into images that represented certain words and issues. Some hesitated at first but then they got into the freedom and creativity with powerful results.  Here are some images we explored:

Justice

Racism

Pretty self explanatory image of racism.

Anger

Women's Rights or the War on Women

Need I say more about why this experience was so valuable?

Part III

The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler:
Theatre as Art, Community and Message

To put it simply, this was the best theatrical experience I have had in a long time. Every element, the location, the performances, the script, the audience, the meal served at intermission . . . everything created a magical moment that truly resonated the value of the arts to our society.

The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler was written by Jeff Whitty who also wrote the musical scripts for Avenue Q  which won a Tony Award. For this production at Exit, Pursued by A Bear (EPBB), Whitty also peformed the role of Hedda Gabler with exquisite grace and beauty. It was truly amazing to watch. This talented professional cast also included Billy Porter, whose bio is almost a full page in the program,  in the role of Mammy. Both of these men played these female roles with poignancy and humor and true empathy. Each member of the ensemble just added to power of this performance.

I find it difficult to explain this in my own words, so I will quote from the Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, the Artistic Director of EPBB and the director of this production:

“There is no adventure more unusual, nor story more extraordinarily human, than the birth of Hedda Gabler as she journeys from literary fiction to independent self-awareness. Tonight, you’ll have the further pleasure of watching the playwright portray his own protagonist, and you’ll experience the author and his character mounting a passionate, thrilling and moving defence of the theatre.
Jeff treats his characters–and his colleagues–with profound empathy and sincere affection. It is a fundamentally nurturing instinct that remind me of why I fell in love with the theatre–as a craft, and as a lifestyle. We are drawn to the theatre because we know we’ll meet like-minded misfits there, those others who are terrorized by isolation, face the same nameless terrors and sleepless nights and take comfort in sharing the experiences that make us who we are. The familiar (and unfamiliar) characters in Jeff’s play are slivers of the human imagination dating back to the Greeks: they are evidence of where we’ve been and the foundations for where we’ll go.”

What you need to really understand why this was such a profound and powerful evening of theatre for me, is that it is not your typical production. EPBB presents their plays in the home, yes the loft apartment, of Artistic Director Iskandar. The plays are free (although they ask for donations), and they provide a delicious vegetarian meal for every audience member during intermission. When you enter, the cast is mingling with the audience and welcoming you with a glass of wine or other beverage. (Audience members are asked to bring drinks or desserts).  During intermission, these same incredible talents, who have just wowed you on the stage help serve the meal and mingle more with the audience. After the play, they help serve dessert and the audience is welcome to stay and enjoy this party for as long as they like. Conversations and laughter abound, and the line between audience and performer blurs in a delightful way.

In some ways it is a return to the roots of theatre, to the storytelling and sharing around the fire, to celebrations of community and the lessons every member of that community has to teach. This show comes down to the basic purpose of theatre, to share story and encourage empathy and understanding.

Unfortunately for those of you in New York, the show closed last night. But, if anyone is ever in New York City and finds out a production is being put on at Exit, Pursued By a Bear put it at the top of your list.

You won’t regret it!!!

 

 

Chocolate, Chekhov, and Choices

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. Oil on canvas. From t...

Image via Wikipedia

Russian forests crash down under the axe, billions of trees are dying, the habitations of animals and birds are layed waste, rivers grow shallow and dry up, marvelous landscapes are disappearing forever…. Man is endowed with creativity in order to multiply that which has been given him; he has not created, but destroyed. There are fewer and fewer forests, rivers are drying up, wildlife has become extinct, the climate is ruined, and the earth is becoming ever poorer and uglier.” (Anton Chekhov,  Uncle Vanya)

Last night Nathan and I went to see Apollinaire Theatre’s production of Uncle Vanya, which Nathan designed and I helped paint.

Not a production shot, but you get the idea.

I am not all that fond of Anton Chekhov, having worked on at least two slo-o-www productions of The Cherry Orchard  and The Seagull. I think The Cherry Orchard was the first show I did in college, and I was the props person. In plays that center around domestic life on Russian estates, that means A LOT of props.

I appreciate the language and the symbolism and the messages of Chekhov, but I usually find productions leave a lot to be desired. Last night, however, I was pleasantly surprised. I still think it was completely depressing,  but the production itself was excellent. Perhaps the main difference came from seeing it done with professional, age appropriate actors, instead of college students. I also enjoyed the artistic premise which had the small audience (limited to 30 for the purposes of this production) moving from room to room in the old theater building (1906) as we follow the story of people struggling to survive and find happiness in their fading country estate.  In an article for the Boston Globe, John Kuntz, who gives an amazing performance in the title role said:

“We start in the biggest room, and as we work our way through the play, the rooms start getting close, until in the last act we’re all sort of intimately together in this room that’s pretty small,’’ says John Kuntz, who stars as Vanya. “I kind of like that idea, that sense of people being trapped on this estate.’’

They successfully brought us into the intimacy, the tension, and the sadness of this particular estate. Actually, my only complaint was that Act I and Act II (of this four act play) didn’t have a button at the end to indicate to the audience that the act was over. Instead, the house manager jumped up and said, “OK, that was the end . . . follow me to the next location,” or something to that effect. I found that to be jarring, by not enabling the audience to applaud or stay in the moment that we had been invited to so intimately.

Meanwhile, the play was full of words, as Chekhov’s plays usually are. This time, however, I found myself pondering the meaning and how they relate or don’t relate to our times. The above quote really hit home with me, as I reflect on the complete destruction humankind has wrought on the environment. Other things, struck me as well, particularly Uncle Vanya’s despair that his life was over at 47, where he had no hope of changing or finding any purpose. (I told you it was depressing). It made me think about how different the world is now. While I, at 43, struggle with what kind of changes I would like in my life, and how to live fully and completely, Vanya really had no hope for the future, and his niece, Sonya, had even less because she was “plain” (although I found the actress pretty) and would never find a husband, particularly not the man she loved.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

All in all, it was  delightful night at the theater, where I got to

  • celebrate my talented husband
  • eat a delicious meal beforehand
  • ponder the meaning of life, love, and the pursuit of happiness
  • think about the choices we have and the choices we cannot make
  • and leave with a decadent, Trader Joe’s milk chocolate bar that Nathan bought at concessions.

I chose to eat that for breakfast this morning. 😉  Probably not the wisest choice of my life, but boy did it taste good.  I will, eventually, counteract it with something healthy and full of fiber, but once in a while, especially after watching a production filled with despair, it seems important to celebrate with a little bit of chocolate. Don’t you?

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