Saturday, June 8, 2024

Three Very English Plays


“This is great! The last time you took me to a musical, it was
Always.”

That’s what my brother said as we reentered the hall at the Gillian Lynne Theatre for act two of Standing at the Sky’s Edge. And it’s true. Way back in 1997, when my wife and I were first visiting England together, I chose the first show, and it remains the worst British musical I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen Diana.)

This is why I let my wife choose the shows. That way I can say I told you so, but I never have to say I told you so. She choose a lot of things because her track record is unimpeachable.

We saw three shows over four days during our brief stay in the UK. We had arrived via the Queen Mary 2, a transatlantic crossing to celebrate our silver anniversary, and spent some time in a canal boat Airbnb before flying home. The shows we saw were each uniquely British, and all exceeded expectations.

"People, Places & Things"
(Trafalgar Theatre, 2024)
Friday we took the train to Maidstone, near Kent, to see the Russett Players production of A Bunch of Amateurs by Nick Newman and Ian Hislop. An “am dram” production, directed by my sister-in-law Brenda and featuring my brother Henrik, it was opening night for a two-day run (two shows on Saturday) and I was delighted how absolutely packed the hall was.

The play is about an arrogant Hollywood actor whose career is on the downslide who decides to brush up his resume with a classic credit, not realizing he has been roped into a production of King Lear at community theater in Stratford – but not that Stratford, England has a lot of Stratfords. It was a celebration of the form and high hilarity ensued.

Saturday, back in London, we attended a revival of People, Places and Things by Duncan Macmillan at Trafalgar Theatre, starring Denise Gough, Sinéad Cusack, Malachi Kirby and a strong ensemble of performers. A tale of addiction and recovery, it’s loud (and sometimes very loud) and frenetic, with swoops and turns and tricks which are disorienting for the audience as well as the protagonist, and a marathon for the lead performer, who was aggressive, vulnerable and deceptive.

"Standing at the Sky's Edge"
Gillian Lynne Theatre, 2024
But oh my, we loved Standing at the Sky’s Edge (book by Chris Bush, songs by Richard Hawley) at the Gillian Lynne Theatre. A musical which chronicles three generations at Park Hill, a brutalist housing estate in Sheffield, North Yorkshire. Taking place from 1960 to 2020, with each timeline thoughtfully threaded, we experience the decline of empire told from the vantage point of its most vulnerable subjects. It’s about class and race and gender and family and hope and despair and so much love. So so so much love.

The piece won the Olivier for Best Musical, 2023. It's a vast ensemble, impossible to point to one standout performance, the songs are gorgeous, the choreography is mesmerizing, but there’s no chance it will transfer to America. Its so entirely about England. Laughter in the crowd clued this Anglophile in on the many references I could not catch. But we bought the cast recording on CD and when was the last time we bought a CD?

Thursday, June 6, 2024

I Love the Bones of You: My Father and The Making of Me (book)

Aboard the Cunard Queen Mary 2, at the ship’s fore, there is a library. It is well stocked, a cozy room with many chairs and couches and plentiful views of the ocean. We spent much time there, and so did many others, the place was often full of people, reading.

The first book to catch my eye was Christopher Eccleston’s I Love the Bones of You: My Father and the Making of Me (2019). It is hard for the eye not to be caught by the sight of Eccleston’s face, or his name. Most Americans, if they know him, know him as an actor who often plays villains or other complicated people, or as the Ninth Doctor.

Of course, I had no idea he’d written a memoir, so I didn’t think twice, this would be my library loan for the week. And it’s like the opposite of a traditional memoir – his parents are loving and supportive. He’s a strong-minded actor, and one who plays intense characters, which has given him a reputation, but he’s so positive, about everything.

One thing I really enjoyed was how Eccleston really respects writers. Often, when involved in the production of a film or television series, he will base his performance on the writer. I love that.

The through line of his story is the love he holds for his father, and what it was like to lose him over a decade-long struggle with dementia. I lost my mother in two months. I do not know which is worse. I have wished to have had the chance to say good-bye better. Eccleston reassures me that just may not have been possible.

It’s quite a book. I had a fantasy about running into him in London, just so I could say thank you for this book you’ve written. That, and you’re my Doctor.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

The Dark Room (workshop)

Self w/Katherine Nash (Jan 2024)
So, the thing is, right … I’m kind of between writer’s groups right now? It’s not that I’m afraid of commitment, I just haven’t found the right ensemble of people to be with yet.

One great advantage of being a member of a writers’ group is that it creates for you a deadline. If you are on your own, you set your own timeline for creation. If you meet with colleagues – once a week, once every two weeks, once a month – you may be expected to produce a certain number of pages. And so you have a responsibility outside of yourself, you have homework.

Twenty or so years ago, my wife invited me to join her writers’ group. They met at the Case Campus Arabica (now The Coffee House at University Circle) and it was with this ensemble that I began work on what became I Hate This (a play without the baby). Sharing individual scenes from a larger work, as I was composing it, this was a new experience to me. It was a supportive ensemble and extremely rewarding.

Some years later, after this team had amicably parted ways, I tried starting a writers’ group on my own, which lasted two weeks. We had infant children and I wasn’t in the right place to be managing anything that would take up so much time outside of work. I didn’t want to run a writers’ group, you know? I wanted to be in one. I’d just ended a theater company, I still wanted to create things, I was done with running them.

By 2008, I had been invited to join the (former) Playwrights’ Unit at the Cleveland Play House, and that was when my work started to take off. We were required to bring ten pages every two weeks, and that’s when I really started writing them plays. I developed well over a dozen full length plays and several more short works before the Unit folded nine years later.

Since that time I have been a much more consistent writer, continuing to write plays on my own time. When a draft is complete, I will host a private reading to hear how it sounds and to receive comments. What I do miss, however, is receiving feedback as the work progresses.

So I have been going to the Dark Room.

The Dark Room is like an “open mic” for playwrights, to hear their work read aloud. It started about twenty years ago, a program of the (former) Cleveland Theater Collective, an organization created to foster and support collaboration between all area theaters.

Management and maintenance of the Dark Room was turned over to Mindy Childress Herman in 2007, John Busser signed on to co-manage two years later, and they have shepherded the program ever since, in various sites on the campus of Cleveland Public Theatre. It’s a free event, the second Tuesday of the month folks gather to have their work read, to read the works of others, or just to witness.

Paul Manganello (Feb 2017)
I’ve had the Dark Room as a repeating date on my Google calendar for years without ever attending. I mean, I had attended a couple of times. I can even remember them. I read a piece from And Then You Die (How I Ran a Marathon in 26.2 Years) in 2008. In 2017, I brought an actor from Michigan I was working with and he read a new work. But I didn’t make it a habit. I live in Cleveland Heights, it’s a Tuesday, I have kids, and so on. And I already had a writers group.

You know that list of things you say you’ll get to, but never do? Since our youngest headed off to school, I have found myself actually doing those things. And one of those things is the Dark Room.

There’s this thing I’ve been working on, I won’t go too far into it, it’s inspired by a lot of recent discoveries I’ve made, about my family, about my life. I got an idea for a structure, a family story told in reverse chronology. So I’ve been bringing pieces to the Dark Room since November, to read them in actual chronological order, to hear how folks respond to them, and the response has been pretty positive.

Better than that, however, has been listening to the other works. It's a good time! And the community, this Cleveland theater community, folks I see sporadically — or every fucking day on Facebook but that’s not the same, you know? I’ve grown accustomed to, or made myself accustomed to the familial solitude mandated by the quarantine, and I’ve always had a degree of social anxiety, anyway.

But sweet are the uses of community. I am glad for such company.

Special thanks to Mindy and John for their contributions to this post.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

This Is Not The Play (workshop)

One year (it was 2008) we were conducting a summer camp for CMSD middle school aged kids, and each member of our team chose one discipline to focus on; we had our dance captain, visual art instructor, music director, acting coach. I was to teach creative writing. I had never taught writing before in my life.

In preparation, I requested only two supply items; a Moleskine for each camper and an inexhaustible supply of pens. Yes, the kids could have used spiral bound notebooks, or even lined, loose-leaf paper. But I figured it this way, if they were going to take writing – during the summer – seriously, I wanted them to have something special to write in.

It was a good experience. We played with rhetorical devices. A “ya mama” joke is just a metaphor, right? We flipped that and wrote metaphors about ourselves, comparisons which could be amusing in their grandiose self-confidence. "I'm so cool they put me in lemonade." We also wrote poems and other bits of prose.

Of course, for some campers the time we spent together was torturous. Some people just don’t want to write, they definitely don’t want to write during summer vacation. I don’t blame them. Some were so resistant to the idea of writing I just sent them to work with another one of the instructors. It was a camp, it was supposed to be fun.

The company I work for has been hosting a different summer arts camp in another part of greater Cleveland since 2010, but I never considered suggesting I teach writing again until last year. We made it elective; there was time mapped out for visual arts, you could do that or you could write. I didn’t want to have a single person engaged in the writing workshop who didn’t want to be there.

It was just a one hour block. I began our second day of camp making the offer; anyone who wanted to write instead of do art, even if it’s just one person, I would be happy to work with them. Most chose art, I got six people. That was perfect.

We found an area of quietude, camp can be pretty noisy with kids from elementary to high school all over the place. It was a relief in the late morning to be able to concentrate with our small cadre. We sat around a table in the house of the auditorium, the lights were dimmer than the brightness of the stage. I played instrumental jazz on my phone, or noise for focusing from an app I'd discovered.

My lesson plan was mostly the same each day, and inspired by the daily writing ritual I had employed to create the short play project. Unlike with my solitary, quarantine era writing, however, each brief writing period with the campers included the opportunity for a debrief and reflection.

1. Free Write (10 min.)
Debrief:
  • How was that?
  • What did you discover?
  • What surprised you?
2. Single Word Prompt (10 min.)
They were asked to choose one from three suggested one-word prompts.*
Examples:
  • Darkness - what we can’t see
  • Normal - what does that mean to you?
  • Frozen - a moment in your life you wish you could freeze and preserve and keep
Similar debrief questions, adding, "Would you like to share what you wrote about?"

3. Dialogue (10 min.)
Choose a central question inspired by your response to the previous prompt.
  • Create dialogue between two characters, no names, no specific gender, no stage directions (Unless you feel any of these things are necessary, then go ahead. It’s your work.)
Sharing the work, al fresco.
That was the first lesson. The next day, when we broke into these groups, I made it clear that if you changed your mind and would rather create visual art than writing, that was cool. And also that if anyone else wanted to try the writing, that would be cool, too.

To my delight, we pretty much had six people each day for the rest of camp. Five were committed, the sixth was usually someone new who tried it out once, maybe twice.

From the second day forward, the third ten minutes could be for creating something new from that day’s chosen prompt, or campers could continue or rewrite something they had previously written.

By the end of the first week we had a name for the writing group. Early on, when I proposed writing from a prompt, one of the campers asked, “Is this the play? Are we writing the play?”

“This is not the play,” I told them, which struck them as amusing, the way I said it. It became a daily reminder about the free writing periods. “This is not the play.”

We also wrote some poems, we read our work aloud. I encouraged them to choose one piece to polish, type up and share with the rest of the middle and high school age campers, and to get other kids to read and perform their new scripts.

During our last session together, at the end of camp, we talked about submissions, competitions, their writing aspirations. We recently announced the dates for this year’s camp. I’m looking forward to it. I think there will be writing.

*Source: Think Written | 365 Creative Writing Prompts

Sunday, February 4, 2024

The Toothpaste Millionaire (book)

The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill was published in 1972, and it was a book I treasured when I was in elementary school. It is the story of an intrepid sixth grader from East Cleveland who creates and successfully markets a new brand of toothpaste.

I’ve always loved stories of independent young people making their own way through the world. Also, from a young age I was fascinated with making and selling things. Growing up, the corner counter in our kitchen had been transformed by me, so many times, into supermarkets, post offices, computer warehouses, medical centers, greeting card stores, that my parents and brothers just casually referred to that counter as my shop.

“Where should I set this stack of magazines?”

“Put them on Karl’s Shop.”

They used to call me Karl.

I saw the ABC After School Special adaptation of The Toothpaste Millionaire, maybe not when it first aired in 1974, but surely upon one of its many reruns, and that further inspired my interest in the original text.

Another thing that compelled me was the setting, East Cleveland. We Clevelanders do love it when people recognize and acknowledge our existence. Jean Merrill, who died in 2012, spent some of her early years living in the Cleveland area where her father was employed by Republic Steel. Most of her childhood, however, was lived in upstate New York.

Like a lot of folks, I think Merrill had heard of “East Cleveland” and assumed it was the name of a neighborhood on the east side of the city of Cleveland, and was unaware of the particular transformation that was taking place in the inner-ring suburb of East Cleveland just as she was writing this brief novel.

In any event, I have now written a stage adaptation of The Toothpaste Millionaire for Talespinner Children’s Theatre, and it absolutely takes place in East Cleveland, circa 1970. Last week we held the first official reading, and it was an evening of pure joy. Both then and also at a private reading I held late last year, it was delightful to hear a room of adults laugh from dialogue which was intended for an elementary school audience. I think anyone from the age of eight and up will be engaged, amused and inspired by the story of Rufus Mayflower and his friends when it hits the stage in May.

The Talespinner Children's Theatre production of "The Toothpaste Millionaire" by David Hansen, based on the book by Jean Merrill and directed by Ananias Dixon, opens Saturday, May 18 at the Rainey Institute, 1705 E 55th St, in Cleveland.

Source: The Toothpaste Millionaire, 35th Anniversary Edition, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006

This post was updated on February 6, 2024, and now includes information about Jean Merrill which was generously provided by her estate.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Hamlet & Me (Part XII)

Gertrude & Hamlet
Laura Perrotta, Laura Welsh Berg
Great Lake Theater, 2017
Photo: Roger Mastroiann
i
"What then? What rests?"
- Hamlet, III.iii

To conclude, I have seen more live stage productions of Hamlet than any other play by Shakespeare, except for perhaps As You Like It, which is a shame because, as G.B. Shaw said, “It is not as I like it.” But the latter is more commonly produced than the former at a rate of at least ten-to-one.

There are, of course, the recent stage productions of Hamlet adapted for television and much beloved by my contemporaries, those starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Paapa Essiedu, Andrew Scott or David Tennant. Oddly enough, I have never made the time to watch any of those. The fact is, I love to hear Shakespeare in a theater, live or filmed, but have little patience for him on the small screen.

I can think of three downright terrible live productions of Hamlet. I haven’t made mention of any of them in this series of posts, but I will say the principal sin of each of these productions was a lack of inspiration. Hamlet is such a weird play, the man himself such an odd character, you can’t just decide to “do” Hamlet. When you aim at a king, etc.

A couple years ago I recounted my experience thrilling to Clayton Jevne’s One-Man Hamlet at the Minnesota Fringe (you may watch the entire show online) and I am still smarting that I did not make time to see the Israeli Cameri Theatre troupe perform the play entirely in Hebrew when they visited Cleveland in 2008. I have yet to see Hamlet performed in another language, but I know the text so well that I think doing so would be a fascinating thing to do. I will not pass on another such opportunity.

If I were to elevate one Hamlet that I have enjoyed above all others, that would be Laura Welsh Berg at Great Lakes Theater in 2017. This was not a gender-concealed retelling, like the Asta Nielsen film or my Beck Center production, Berg was playing Hamlet as a man, in Elizabethan dress and on a stage design to evoke the Globe. It was the most “traditional” production of Hamlet I’d ever seen, and it was a revelation.

While I do not agree with what Edward P. Vining characterized as feminine “weaknesses” in the Dane’s psychology, I have found that Hamlet’s transparent misogyny becomes something quite else when communicated by a woman. Disappointment instead of derision. Empathy instead of anger. Berg powerfully embodied all of the grief and rage and condescension Hamlet holds for his father, his uncle, Polonius, while also making the “nunnery” and “closet” scenes, in which he traumatizes first his lover and then his mother, truly affecting for all parties.

Recently, I read the script for the new play The Motive and the Cue by Jack Thorne. Inspired by the books Letters From an Actor by William Redfield and John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in "Hamlet" by Richard Sterne. It is an imagined dramatization of the rehearsal process for that 1964 Broadway production.

I find that this script is most successful at describing to an audience just what it is a director does – and what they should not do – as the legendary though cash-poor Gielgud endeavors to shape the performance of the besotted but powerful Burton in a role that he, Gielgud, knows all too well, or perhaps much too well, while Burton struggles to make the role his, Burton’s, own.

It's a play I'd like to attend. Better still, I'd like to play Gielgud. I think I could. And anyway, no one ever asked me to play Hamlet.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Hamlet & Me (Part XI)

Edward P. Vining was a Union Pacific executive in the 19th century and a part-time thinker. He independently developed a unique theory regarding the three extant versions of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The First Quarto of 1603, the Second Quarto of 1604 and the First Folio of 1623.

Vining believed each subsequent version was a revision of the one previous, each an improvement upon its predecessor on the way to an ultimate, perfect vision of Hamlet which the Stratford man either did not complete or that has been lost to history.

That’s not the unique bit. No, Vining’s grand theory focuses on what he perceived as an increasing “femininity” in the character as these draft progress, as the Dane becomes ever more thoughtful, emotional, and hesitant to act. Soft, if you will.

That Vining's theory is entirely misogynist goes without saying. What is interesting, from a narrative standpoint, is how Vining suggests it was possible that Hamlet was born female, that it was kept a secret, and that she was raised to pass as male. Vining set this all down in his book The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem (1881).

Vining’s theory may have been lost to history, but that it was elevated by Danish film star and producer Asta Nielsen, who used his theory when deciding to play the title role as the premiere offering from her new production company, Art-Film. This 1921 silent film version is quite possibly the best adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet ever made.

Asta Nielsen in "Hamlet"
Art-Film, 1921
Here’s the thing: We know "Young Hamlet was born" on "that day that our last King Hamlet overcame [Old] Fortinbras." A gravedigger tells us so. (HAM V.i) But what if word traveled faster than the old Danish King, and that it was reported that it was he who had been slain? To secure the throne in a time of war, the new mother, Queen Gertrude, announces a son! By the time Old Hamlet returns, the lie has been widely accepted and is held as truth. The girl is raised a prince, only her mother and father aware of the deception.

This is all prologue. The question then is how this all affects her, Hamlet’s, relationships with Ophelia, Horatio, her mother, the new king Claudius, everyone? In 2006, I directed another production of Hamlet at Beck Center for the Arts, inspired by Nielsen’s film, and starring Sarah Morton in the lead, supported by an outstanding company of local artists.
“Since Hansen is experienced and demonstrably astute, there are no embarrassments here and much to appreciate. Most to be appreciated is his shrewd casting of the lady Hamlet. Sarah Morton is a palpably enchanting stage presence – smart, wry, covertly vulnerable and hesitantly self-confident. Properly attired, she's also tall, thin and still tomboyish enough to get away with the physical aspects of the evening's masquerade." - Damico [2]

"Oozing misery and nerves, Morton plays a Hamlet pierced by grief and drunk on death. She handles the language flawlessly, and several of her scenes are the best I've ever seen  her death, and the "nunnery" scene with Ophelia (a sensitive Rachel Lee Kolis)." - Eisenstein [3]

Hamlet & Horatio
Sarah Morton, Nick Koesters
Beck Center, 2006

One of the original aspects of this adaptation, one highlighted in Nielsen’s film, is the love triangle between Hamlet, Horatio and Ophelia. Each love goes unrequited and misunderstood, until the final moments of the tragedy. In the 1921 film, Horatio cradles the dead Hamlet and, in an unintentionally comic moment, discovers her breast. In our 2006 version, Hamlet instead chooses to “out” herself:
“In the final scene, a dying Hamlet places a kiss on Horatio's lips, revealing her true feelings. It's a poignant moment In a credible production of the fiendishly difficult, challenging play, one that keeps the integrity of the language and drama intact.” - Heller [1]



Sources:
[1] "Review: Hamlet" by Fran Heller, Backstage, 10/16/2006
[2] "Shakespearean Mélange a Trois: A Bardic Orgy of Drag, Gender-bending and Shaky Celibacy" by James Damico, The Free Times, 10/4/2006
[3] "Hamlet @ Beck Center" by Linda Eisenstein, CoolCleveland.com, 10/1/2006