Friday, October 23, 2009


Performance Date: 10.23.09
The John Golden Theatre

Allow me to make some grandiose statements I probably have no authority to make.  These are thoughts on various aspects of theater that came to mind during a matinee of Oleanna on Broadway this week. 

CASTING:  Every actor has certain qualities, inherent to their natural selves, that are more or less irrepressible and shine through in any role he or she plays.  True, some actors are absolute chameleons, but most actors aren't and I think that's just fine.  These "essential qualities" are kind of like the top notes in perfume or the flavor profile of a wine.  So whereas a Pinot Noir might be "black cherry and tobacco," Julia Stiles might be "cerebral and confident" and Bill Pullman "affable and self-deprecating."  Part of casting is matching an actor's essential qualities to the requirements of a role.

ACTIONS/TACTICS:  Actions and tactics are tools actors sometimes use when figuring out how to play a scene.  An action, usually identified as a verb, describes what a character is doing to another character to get some type of desired result.  Juliet wants Romeo to woo more strongly.  As an actor, an action I might try is to push away.  That is, I use the sense of "pushing away" to influence the way I speak and behave towards my scene partner, in order to challenge his Romeo to try harder.  A tactic is like the adverb.  I can push away playfully, reluctantly, or aggressively.  Each tactic will have a different effect.

TEXT: A playwright's text is sacrosanct.  Most of the time.  If a character describes herself as "stupid" or someone else as "self-aggrandizing," it is important and must be credibly addressed.  You can decide the comment is a lie or an exaggeration, or you can decide that it's true.  Doesn't matter, as long as your choice is supported by the text, or reinforced by your other choices regarding the text.

So here's where I bring it all together with seeing Oleanna.

In the first half of the play, I felt that these three elements I've just described -- casting, actions/tactics, and text -- were working against one another.  It made me feel perplexed and prevented me from really engaging in the play.

In the second half of the play, these elements were working in concert.  I was much more engaged.  And it resulted in an explosive ending that actually made me feel guilty

It made me feel guilty!  How awesome is that?  I think that may be all I want from theater -- that it be affecting.  In whatever way.  It can be imperfect.  It can be difficult.  Or silly.  But I want it to affect me.  And at the end of the day, Oleanna did.


No post next week as I will be in Cuba -- Cuba! -- with Infinite Stage for some cultural exchange with a Cuban theater company and to perform at the International Theater Festival of Havana.  Pin a rose on my nose!  When I'm back, I'll have plenty of shows to blog about and keep me on track in my Year of Plays!  (Sounds like!!!)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Estrogenius Festival - Week 2

Performance Date: 10.08.09

Manhattan Theatre Source

Last Thursday I went in for an evening of five short plays at Manhattan Theatre Source’s Estrogenius Festival, an annual celebration of female voices now in its 10th year.  A couple things immediately come to mind upon writing that sentence:

  1. Hallelujah for a festival that celebrates female artists, particularly female playwrights.  I’m reminded of a study by a Princeton grad which got a lot of press this year (see NY Times, New York Magazine and LA Times) for demonstrating that female playwrights are indeed discriminated against when theaters select scripts for production.  Brava, Estrogenius, for mounting new works by women writers for 10 years strong.

  2. Manhattan Theatre Source, which has been a lovely artistic home for several theater pals of mine, is in danger of losing their lease.  I feel I would be remiss not to mention that they could use your help.  Visit their site to throw a couple bucks their way.

So after this night of new works by women playwrights, I realized I don’t often think about writing when I go see a play – whereas when I read a play, or work on one as an actor, I think about the writing very much.  Is this true for everyone, i.e. that writing goes unnoticed when seeing a work on its feet?  Is it because the elements of sight, sound, and the energetic presence of people are so dominant?  Or is it because I’m an actor and I pay more attention to the performances, just as my brother is more attuned to the nuances of scenic design?  Or is it a false claim?  Is it actually a reflection of the plays I’ve been seeing lately – mostly naturalistic, not much language-driven stuff – and would I not make such a claim if I’d been seeing more Mamet, Stoppard, or Moliere?   Or highly stylized, text-based, avant-garde pieces?  Yes I suppose it’s all about the lenses through which we see.  The lens we use most often, or the one used most recently, filters our experience.  That is, unless we are aware and can choose otherwise.

So let’s see if I can’t choose to unearth a few writing observations from the Estrogenius plays, even though it wasn’t my focus while watching them live:
  • You can pack a lot of information into a few specific details.  In one play, a mother mentions her son only twice – once to say that he spends all his time lining up his dinosaurs in neat rows, and once to say that he doesn’t like to be touched.  From these two nearly off-hand remarks, I understand her son has autism — a particular that lends great depth to the mother’s struggle in the play.

  • Gimme one reason to stay here…and I’ll turn right back around.  I’ve been taking this acting class lately, and one of the lessons that comes up often is you gotta figure out why your character stays in the scene.  What does she want (preferably from the other person) that keeps her from exiting?  Most of the time, your playwright has given you at least one possibility, if not several.  The plays I remember most clearly from the EstroGenius lineup had characters with multiple reasons for staying in the scene.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Performance Date: 10.01.09
The Public and Labyrinth Theater, NYU Skirball Center

“Mercury is in retrograde” is a real thing, people.  Last Thursday morning someone in my acting class cited “Mercury is in retrograde” as a possible explanation for a fellow classmate’s lateness.  I’d never been quite sure what that phrase meant, so I asked for clarification.  Apparently this particular planetary phenomenon is thought to cause mishaps in communication and disruptions of technical gadgetry.  Trains get messed up, I was told, emails go missing, cell phones break.  That sort thing. 

Well, apparently so.  For that evening I attended the Labyrinth production of Othello and there were some major technical difficulties going on.  The actors, poor things, spent half the first act in near complete darkness.  At first I didn’t quite register it as an error, but I soon decided that Peter Sellars could not have intended for this play to be performed under work lights.  Oh it was sad.  Over and over again, specials would go out on actors in mid-soliloquy, leaving them in the pitch black, mustering all their worth for the task of relaying Shakespeare’s story as if it were a radio play.  Then the upstage work lights come on, giving everyone a grayish halo around their darkened faces, but at least allowing us to see their limbs move.  And onward ho the valiant actors go, maintaining their focus admirably, until hallelujah the lights are restored!  Philip Seymour Hoffman is revealed in all his pale Iagoan glory, and we all enjoy some blessedly visible theater – until once again the lights fail.  Darkness overcomes the stage, work lights come up, and so on.  I felt awful for everyone.

I hate to admit it, but I left at intermission.  I know!  I’m sorry!  It’s terrible, but I couldn’t endure Mercury’s influence any longer.  It was too distracting.  And it was a long play – four hours total, and I lasted two.  Even so, I still found myself thinking of this production for days afterward.  Here’s some of what was trolling through my head:
  • Cell phones are alienating.  Not only when they ring unbidden from the audience, but also when they are used as a device in a modern-day Shakespeare production.  I can understand the logic of using them – we don’t use horse-riding messengers anymore, we conference call and text.  It should make things more accessible.  But I found that watching two actors play a scene on opposite sides of stage, facing the audience and speaking into cell phones (rather than engaged with and speaking to one another) distanced me from the action of the play.  Now that may very well have been the intent, as the production does make use of several other alienating technologies – microphones, blinding flood lights (they were among the few instruments that were working), and a giant television-screen bed.  But I experienced the cell phone thing as an obstacle between me and the story.  And that's kind of a big deal when Shakespeare's language is already a major obstacle for many folks. 
  • Speaking of language, it is one of my greatest sorrows as an actor that people find Shakespeare’s language so obfuscating and obscure.  My boyfriend claims to hate Shakespeare and it kills me.  I guess I felt nearly the same way for a while, until I learned how to play it.  How to unlock the language.  To use the meter, the consonants and vowels, and the imagery to inform the character’s actions and motivations.  How to ride the rhythm of the language – allowing it to carry you forward – so that a long, winding, rhetorical text clips along, revealing itself as a cohesive, comprehensible, musical whole.  The language seems so clear when you know how to play it.  So why is it so hard to convey that clarity to an audience?  Sure, you could say that there are too many “bad” productions of Shakespeare, where the text isn’t treated “correctly.”  But Anna the Good Student thinks she knows how to “do it right” and yet when I rehearse Lady Percy for my boyfriend, I still sweat bullets trying to get him to feel the same vitality he feels watching me do a contemporary monologue.  It drives me nuts.  It’s a puzzle.  I’ll keep working at it.  Hopefully everyone will.
  • I find famous people shiny.  Meaning they literally seem (can you literally seem?) to shine out to me more than average people.  My friends know this about me, that I’m completely susceptible to the specious allure of fame.  So whether it was for this reason or some other that I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Phil Hoffman I do not know.  Nonetheless, I was drawn to his every move.

Our Town

Performance Date: 09.30.09

Barrow Street Theatre

It should be said that it is not difficult to make me cry.  I mist up easily and often.  I get verklempt during refrigerator commercials.  I brim over watching flash mobs on YouTube.  And if any actual person so much as catches their throat on an emotional word while I am in their presence, I’m done for.  Once, I scared the bejeezus out of my boyfriend in the car because that ukelele version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” came on the radio and I promptly and spontaneously burst into tears.  I mean, weeping, sobbing, snotty tears.  (What can I say?  It’s the song Dr. Greene died listening to on E.R.)  So it’s almost not worth noting that Our Town at the Barrow Theatre made me cry.  I say almost, because while it was unsurprising that I cried, I was very surprised by when.

I should first say that the foundation for tears was laid before I even entered the theater.  I felt a very special anticipation for the play that night.  My friend Kevin felt it too.  In fact, we were so excited – oh boy, the Theater! – that we literally hopped up and down in the lobby waiting to go in.  Yes we are drama school nerds, but word on the street was that this production was good.  And something about believing that this play – a simple classic play written for an empty stage – was going to be done well, got me excited in a very innocent and child-like way.  So when we finally settled in our seats and Kevin, who knows my weepy ways, sang to me under his breath, “You’re gonna crryyyy,” I knew he was right. 

But I thought I’d last more than 6 minutes.  SIX MINUTES, PEOPLE.  That’s gotta be a record, even for me.

So this is the moment I started welling up.  The Stage Manager is laying out the town for the audience, gesturing to various parts of the intimate space and telling them where Main Street lies, and where Mrs. Gibbs’ garden full of corn and peas is, and at one point he says, “We’ve got a factory in our town too – hear it?”  And then he listens.  And we listen.  The ambient rustling of the room quiets.  A collective stillness comes over us.  And we are all sitting there, listening for the factory.  For a good ten seconds.  It was the most pristine, beautiful silence I’d ever heard.  Cue watery eyes. 

It happened again later, when the Stage Manager interrupts his narration to listen for the 5:45 for Boston.  And later again when Mrs. Gibbs tells her husband to come out and smell the heliotrope in the moonlight.  Each time a simple moment of a person sensing, in real time, no rushing.  Each time, I tear up.

Why was I so moved by these moments?  In part it was the simplicity of the action.  How beautiful it can be to simply listen, to smell, to see, and how rarely that seems to happen in modern life.  But I was moved even more so by how well those moments were treated.  How they were given proper time and breath.  And how, in so doing, we as an audience were given space to become complicit in the imagination of the play.  And be united in that complicity.  To listen together, smell together.  Conjure the town of Grover’s Corners together.  It’s one of the most beautiful aspects of Thorton Wilder’s play and yet rarely does it get the kind of follow through it gets in this production. 

The whole thing makes me happy.  Happy that there is theater that makes people hop up and down in the lobby and cry over ten seconds of silence.  Even if it’s only the nerds who do.  Oh boy, the Theater!  I wish all plays did that to me.