Friday, April 30, 2010

In the Heights

Performance Date: 04.16.10
Richard Rodgers Theatre:

I watched In the Heights from the tippy top of the rear mezzanine – literally in the heights – surrounded by a balcony full of high school students who were on some kind of class trip.  The girls predictably screamed when the guy with High School Musical in his bio made his entrance, and whenever anyone kissed on stage, the whole balcony erupted in a chorus of woooOOOoOoOOOOOoooOO!!!!  After one such kiss and woo incident, a lone male voice advised the characters to use a condom, a suggestion that was met with high-fiving chuckles from the guys and whispered what did he say? conferences from the girls.  It was distracting, but for this forever-fifteen thirty-four year old, also strangely nostalgic.

Despite the diversions of my mezzanine-mates, and despite the distance from my seat to the stage, I nevertheless left with some lasting impressions from this show, the 2008 Tony-award winning musical set in the latin-infused neighborhood of Manhattan’s Washington Heights.  Let’s go macro to micro:

  1. You should write/produce your own play.  This is the inevitable suggestion made by loved ones whenever I get into a conversation about the frustrations of nurturing an acting career without representation.  Eight times out of ten (or 4 out of 5 for you math whizzes out there), I respond to this suggestion with about a half-ton stubborn resistance, a couple tablespoons self-pity, and a dash of righteous resentment.  A bad mixture of human frailty and the power of inertia.  But the other 20% of the time (I can do math too) I recognize that my loved ones are right.  Taking my career into my own hands would no doubt be an empowering and creatively fulfilling endeavor.  Reading in Lin-Manuel Miranda's bio that he wrote the first draft of In the Heights when he was a sophomore in college was another inspiring push in that direction.  Surely I can muster as much motivation as a sophomore in college, right?  Right??

  2. Paciencia y Fe.  Right in line with that inspiration is the guiding wisdom offered by one denizen of Miranda’s Heights, Abuela Claudia.  Paciencia y fe.  Patience and faith are exactly the virtues required in the life of an under-employed actor.  However, there’s a cynical part of me that sometimes views the patience-and-faith mindset as anesthetic.  A“you never know” type of optimism that can numb an artist to reality and becomes the perpetual carrot that keeps an unhappy actor hoofing it around town to open calls and pay-to-audition “networking opportunities.”  The remedy to this cynism, I think, is to apply paciencia y fe to actions that are more rewarding, more fulfilling, and more personally motivated.  Oh, you mean like writing/producing your own show, Anna?  Oh, um, yeah…I guess I mean like that.

  3. An authentic voice.  The performers of In the Heights were all extremely talented singers, but there was one guy whose voice stood out from the rest.  It’s not that his voice was better than the others, but whereas many of his castmates had the same (albeit impressive) belty, pop-vocal stylings that are apparently and enduringly in high-demand Broadway, his voice just seemed to be his own.  A singing voice that was simply the beautiful and natural extension of his speaking voice.  It was remarkably refreshing, and yet another reminder to me to thine own self be true.
So.  It would seem that the sum total of my In the Heights impressions leave me with no other choice that to find my own true voice, write myself a play, and have patience and faith that it will lead me where I'm meant to go.  It’s not the first time I’ve had that idea so I wouldn't hold your breath.  But one does begin to wonder how many times the universe has to hit a girl on the head before she starts to listen.  Perhaps only eight out of ten times?

Monday, April 19, 2010


Performance Date: 04.13.10
Minetta Lane Theatre

"Falling behind again...never wanted to...what am I to do...can't help it."

It would seem the change in seasons has not put a spring in my step.  I'm in Month 8 of my Year of Plays and it looks like I’ve lost some steam.  Three out of the past four weeks have been post-less.  Bad Anna.  Maybe I burned myself out when I overstacked with theater tickets back in March, or maybe the case of actor blues I recently contracted rubbed off a bit on my writer self.  Or maybe it’s just that travel, visitors, and a new job have disrupted more than my circadian rhythms.  Probably all of the above.  But fear not, my loyal readers.  I have not abandoned you.  All along, a very tiny Daniel Day Lewis has been in my head shouting, "STAY ALIVE!  NO MATTER WHAT OCCURS!  I WILL FIND YOU!" and it has kept me afloat.  And now at last I am seeing some shore on the horizon.

My first sight of land while adrift in that sea of blues last week was seeing 666, a dose of non-verbal, physical comedy from Spanish theater company Yllana.  While I’d like to say it was artistry that lifted me from the doldrums, in truth it just felt good to laugh.  Nothing like a little clowning to lighten my load.  You know, some slapstick, a little audience flirtation, a stage full of oversized, veins-a-bulging phalluses.  What?  Did I say a stage full of oversized veins-a-bulging phalluses?  Oh yes, this was clowning of a coarser kind.  A don’t-take-your-Grandma kind of event.  No, I take that back because I think my Grandma would have laughed herself silly whilst hiding behind her lovely arthritic little hands.  All the same, the humor in 666 is not for those easily offended, nor for those who wish to keep their clothes dry.  Thankfully I’m neither, so I had a grand ole time and left the theater feeling quite light.

Now there’s an aspect of theater I haven’t spent too much time writing about this year – theater as good old fashioned entertainment.  Theater as diversion.  Escape.  A leavening agent.  Not unlike baking soda.  Because let’s face it, sometimes what we really need is a little fizz in our lives.  And while movies and TV are where we usually turn to satisfy this craving, theater offers plenty to snack on as well.

And yet, we don’t tend to think of theater when we’re looking for a lift.  When we’re down, we want a quick fix and seeing a play requires a little more effort than following the masses to the multiplex or turning on Real Housewives of New York City.  Not that I watch that show.  Only bad people watch that show.  Only awful people who are shamelessly hooked on the disintegrating friendship between former besties Bethanny and Jill and the resulting gloat-fest from the Countess Luann and oh my god what the hell is wrong with Ramona this season??  And thus theater suffers.

Well, actually, this is a point of some contention.  Not that theater suffers due to increasing numbers of self-flagellating Housewives watchers named Anna – no point in arguing that – but that theater requires more effort than movies.  Some people say it’s just as easy to buy a theater ticket as a movie ticket, and that oftentimes it’s just as inexpensive, if you know where to look.  But that’s the problem – if you know where to look.  The average entertainment-seeker doesn’t know what plays are running (if they’re even in a theater town) let alone where to find discounted seats.  And while it takes just a few extra clicks of the mouse to figure it out, that’s all that’s needed to keep a consumer at bay.

Or at least so says consumer expert Anna Moore.

At any rate, 666 provided me with some much needed diversion, and according to Yllana’s company bio, that’s precisely what they were seeking to supply.  It wasn’t high-brow or revelatory or even truly provocative (phalluses on stage have been old news since the ancient Greeks, after all) – but thanks to them and the tiny Day-Lewis in my head, the blues have been banished and this blog shall live to see another day.  Perhaps next time with a little more spring in my step.

Monday, April 5, 2010


Performance Date: 3.31.10
The John Golden Theatre

People have been asking me lately if seeing and writing about so many plays has ruined theater for me.   In other words, has all this analysis ruined my ability to experience a play simply and innocently?  Great question.

The answer, in short, is no.  My experience of theater has not been ruined.  It’s true that when I watch a play these days, I spend much more time contemplating the technical and craft-related aspects than I ever did before.  And, true, there’s always a part of my brain that stays occupied with looking for something to write about.  But while I concede these facts together may mean my experience is neither simple nor innocent, I hardly think that’s a ruinous thing.  The added analysis may leave me more detached at moments, but on the whole my appreciation for theater is much more enriched.  And when my attention does get pulled from that meta place and becomes riveted to the action on the stage, then I know that something truly special is happening.

Let’s take Red for instance.  I was up in the balcony for this show, a two-hander on Broadway (by way of London) about a late-career Mark Rothko who hires a young painter to assist him in his studio.  Thanks in part to my bird’s eye view, but also in part to my blog-related duties, I spent the first section of the play largely in that meta space:
Ah, they’re making good use of their diagonals.  Well they have to with all this open playing space.  I wonder if that’s the actors or the director?  Probably both... Oop, he’s overreaching with his voice.  He’s not talking to his scene partner.  He’s afraid we can’t hear him up here but we can.  Oh, he’s caught himself, now it’s better… You know I bet the play feels entirely different from the second row with all those red canvasses consuming your peripheral vision… I like how they’re not afraid to be still.  They’re only moving when they have to.
But rather than alienate me from my theatrical experience, my detachment actually contributed to it, because as I watched the actors move the canvasses around during a scene transition, my next thoughts were:
See I love this.  This is what we do.  We come together, we put on a play.  We make choices and mistakes.  We design, we act, we move the scenery.  It’s good.  This is the work and it’s good.
Now some might say if I’m thinking about moving scenery, then somebody’s doing something wrong.  But that attitude just privileges a certain type of experience, one of transportation and emotional investment.  I love those experiences, but I liked this one too.  I liked having those thoughts.  At the risk of being precious, those thoughts made me proud and happy.  They were valuable to me.  So why would I trade them for some other, supposedly more desirable theatrical experience?  I wouldn’t.

And lest you think this is a post that is secretly bagging on Red in disguise, let me say that this show had many riveted-to-the-stage-something-special-is-happening moments too.  Most of them involved the younger actor, Eddie Redmayne, although Alfred Molina was also terrific as Rothko.  There was something messy about Redmayne’s performance that was very appealing.  When his character, the young assistant, finally makes an impassioned stand against his giant of a mentor, Redmayne’s voice was all over the place, dancing in and out of a shrill register, and his body bounced and spasmed as if overloaded with adrenaline and disbelief.  Watching him, that busy part of my brain wondered for a second if perhaps it was too much.  But another part of me was (simply? innocently?) transported by the mess.  This is the mess and risk and adrenaline of breaking away from someone you believe in.  This is the mess of life.

Yes, I think after having spent nearly a decade at the altar of precise and well-crafted acting, I’m now in a period where messy is where it’s at.  My old acting teacher Gregory Wallace would be proud.  He used to harangue me and my classmates, “Where is the mess?  Where is the MESS?  I want messy!”  If only I could've taken that in then.  It would have saved me years of confusing “precise and well-crafted” with “polite and predictable.”  But no longer!  Because messy’s where it’s at.  And so am I.  Watch out world.  Me and Eddie Redmayne are comin’ at ya.