Friday, September 14, 2012

Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage

Great Lakes Theater School Residency Program includes about a dozen (and growing) lesson plans, for students in first grade through seniors in high school. These five days residencies may cover a single play (e.g., Romeo and Juliet, recommended for freshmen) or in the case of elementary school students, a variety of classic children’s tales. Our actor-teachers are paired off in teams of two, who visit the schools bringing costumes, props, scripts, swords, stage blood, whatever is necessary to facilitate the plan. Our people perform keys scenes, put scripts into students’ hands and act with them, conduct relevant theater exercises, and hold meaningful discussions which connect the students’ own lives to the classic text at hand.

During September, which is to say right now, our actors are in training. We have five return individuals, and three people new to the program. They have a weight of new material to memorize and learn to facilitate before working with actual kids, and only three weeks to get it all in. Usually this means picking up one new residency a week, throughout the process.

On occasion, though not every not year, not even every other year, we take some kind of relevant field trip. When everyone is learning the elementary school residencies, we have visited the zoo to study animals and tell stories about them. In my time with the program, we’ve only done this twice, in 2004 and again in 2007. When there was a special exhibit at the Western Reserve Historical Society on Maurice Sendak in 2005, we went there as well. However, such journeys are time-consuming, often taking an entire day away from rehearsal, which is why they are so infrequent.

My favorite of all the lesson plans is the middle school one, which is called the Classic Drama Residency (CDR), as it covers several plays in the course of one week, each day addressing a different form of conflict in society, and how to cope and resolve conflict. Junior high is a powerful, sometimes extremely troubling period in human development (worst period of my life) and having the opportunity to address issues that directly affect students that age is moving, exciting, and important.

The work that gets the most attention through CDR is The Diary of Anne Frank. This is the story of an astonishingly self-aware girl. It is also a story of the Holocaust. our actor-teachers do not teach Holocaust history. But in order to appropriately understand the girl and her circumstances, you must understand the time. Part of my job is to bring our performers -- whose average age is 24 or 25 -- up to speed on an awe-inspiring period in human history, and to do that in a couple hours. We have so many lessons to prepare for, there isn’t time. I have tried long-form improvisations, sharing books, documents obtain from various sources ... it all feels woefully inadequate.

However, we have in Cleveland a remarkable resource in the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, and in preparation for this year’s rehearsal process we arranged a tour of the exhibits, requesting special attention on Antisemitism. What we received was a truly moving experience.

The permanent exhibit at the Maltz Museum is a must-see, which I especially recommend to my fellow Clevelanders, because it is not simply about Jewish history. These fascinating displays, many of them interactive, chronicle the immigrant experience in America, through the particular lens of European Jews, with an emphasis on (wait for it) Cleveland!

Our docent led us to particular points of interest on our journey to the extreme manifestation of hate. There is, in fact, a room labeled HATE, which includes a stirring film of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, the song about lynching, lyrics by Jewish-American Abel Merropol -- a man who events would have it adopted the orphaned children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (I heard that on NPR.) Several of our people took in the map of known hate groups in the US and were astonished to learn how many are in the Cleveland area.

The thematic connection of race-hatred toward American blacks and its relation to Antisemitism extended to the 1936 Berlin Olympics display, prominently featuring our own Jesse Owens.

Our docent kept asking questions of the group and it was my role to play Hermione, putting my hand up every time.

Docent: Does anyone know why we have Superman here?

Me: Glenville High graduates Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel!

Five points from Gryffindor for being an insufferable know-it-all.

Zap! Pow! Bam! (2009)

We eventually came to the Holocaust room, which is set off as an alcove from the main path of the exhibits. I had brought my son for the Zap! Pow! Bam! exhibition in January 2009. He wasn’t yet four years old, but enjoyed the Superman serials and the supermarket Batman car which you could ride for a quarter. Taking in the permanent exhibit, I guided him past this certain alcove.

The images are horrible. There are hateful cartoons of leering Jews, reminding me, for example, that Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was considered, in spite of modern revisionist thinking, supposed to be a hilarious comedy where the villainous Shylock gets what’s coming to him. Just because he’s a more interesting, nuanced character than say, Marlowe’s Barabas, only means Shakespeare was a better writer, not a better person.

Mounted on the wall is an article (which I will, someday, include in its entirety) written by my old nemesis, theater critic William F. McDermott. Poor Bill. He was supposed to be taking a summer holiday in Austria in 1938, instead was appalled to find the treatment of Jews there something he was unable to keep silent about, and on July 7 had penned an op-ed for The Plain Dealer warning America of what was happening, and what was next.

The three-minute film of the liberation of the death camps is simply unbearable.

This part of our tour, albiet all-too-brief, was not without hope, though we did, unfortunately, have to dash through one of my favorite parts -- the hall of inspiring Clevelanders of Jewish descent. It’s a list too long to cover here, but I am glad to say I know many of them!

We were hurrying to meet a special guest, Mrs. Betty Gold, formerly of Trochenbrod, Poland (now Ukraine) a city which no longer exists. Mrs. Gold was not one of those who endured the camps, but rather an 11 year-old girl whose family members lived for two years in a swamp, hiding from the Nazis before being rescued by the Soviets.

Listening to her story, it was impossible for my mind not to wander to my own girl, age 9. Mrs. Gold’s stories of her own father, whose determination and good sense and good fortune made his most of his family members of the only 40 people who survived out of a city of 5,000.

Sometimes I forget that, in spite of my own research, this time continues to slip further and further into the past. As I press on into my mid-40s, the actors-remain in their mid-twenties. Great books have been written, and films made, of this horrible time in an effort to ensure that no one forgets. Or that it is understood that these things do not simply happen. They were caused, intentionally, by people.

The next day, our actors were back at work, performing scenes from A Raisin in the Sun and The Glass Menagerie, playing theater exercises, eating sandwiches from various PlayhouseSquare establishments. But as we revisit the scenes from Anne Frank -- or even a new scene included in the Macbeth residency, in which Macduff learns the news that his entire family has been slaughtered -- our young actors can no longer say they have never met someone to whom this has happened.

“Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” - Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Winsor McCay's Slumberland

This video was made of our second (out of three) performances last Saturday night, Sept. 8, 2012 at the Cleveland Public Theatre PANDEMONIUM benefit. The theme for the event was The House of Dreams.

The Parish Hall on the CPT campus was the fellowship hall for the adjacent Romanian Orthodox Church, which is very small, no doubt the congregation at one time required additional space for social events -- the Parish Hall is much larger than the church itself. But it’s not that large, either. At one end of the hall is a little stage, which CPT has made look absolutely lovely, with a new red curtain, neatly painted trim, a black back wall, the wood floor has been finished, and professional lighting. But as you can see -- it’s tiny! It’s so cute.

Nemo & Princess!
There were eight of us backstage, waiting in the limited wingspace. The hall itself was divided in half by a divider, which did not stop sound from travelling from the art exhibit on the other side of the hall, but I do love hearing all the sound coming in from everywhere on this video, it gives a sense of all the activity going on beyond the stage.

Marian made this video from one of the sixty-five available seats. I encouraged her to sit up close, you can just make out the “moon” light crafted by Ben Gantose -- which was a bonus, when we can in for tech. Love that moon!

Valerie plays the part of “Imp” which my daughter (who plays the Princess) describes as actually more like a monkey in McCay’s original. I will take some time before correcting her, McCay’s Imp is actually a grotesque African caricature.

Also, the original King Morpheus is a giant of a man, burly, bald, bushy-bearded, stripped to the waist with gold bands around his bulging, muscular arms. I asked Keith to dress like Neil Gaiman’s Morpheus, so there’s a little geeky joke there for you.

Prior to each performance, Valerie handed copies of the original strip to members of the audience. Before our third and final performance a man came in, greatly excited. He asked Valerie if this was really based on Little Nemo -- the cartoon handout confirmed this -- and waited after to talk to me about it. He was delighted to find that it was a legitimate adaptation, and not some kind of gag.

I found the music on YouTube, a fan of old timey music boxes has a series of videos playing their Edison wax cylinders and 78s. These recordings are from 18 ½ inch metal disc music boxes, including In the Good Old Summertime, Amoureuse Waltz and Come Take a Trip in My Airship.

Read the complete, five-minute version of Winsor McCay's Slumberland and the one-hour, full-length Adventures In Slumberland at New Play Exchange.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Pandemonium 12

Tonight is the night. Many of my artsy friends are participating in Cleveland Public Theatre's Annual PANDEMONIUM benefit, including several actor-teachers. My production will happen in the Parish Hall at 7:45, 8:20 and 8:55. Here are a few sample panels from Winsor McCay's original strip that we incorporated into our brief tale.

During the first several months of publication (1905) Little Nemo In Slumberland was almost entirely about the continuing, fruitless attempts to get Nemo to Slumberland to be the playmate for the Princess.

The character of Flip acted as a kind of nemesis, intentionally waking Nemo up before he could reach his destination. In short time, however, he became a kindred spirit for Nemo, and a companion.

This evening's performance embodies the fears and anxieties present in those first few months of publication, and Flip remains an adversary. He is played by Al.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Double Heart: Stage Combat

Oo-ah ... some sit-ups are in order.

Double Heart opens February 12. However, when your favorite combat choreographer is in town, you get her and your available cast together to stage a KNIFE FIGHT.

Why knives? If you live in Amherst, you do not need to answer this question. Some sites for the tour are quite intimate, and swing rapiers about is entirely not practical. However, writing my first period, iambic pentameter verse play, I knew I wanted at least these two things -- a dance, and some kind of sword fight.

Creating this fight was not as easy as Kelly deciding what are the coolest moves and working them into the dialogue. Laws, no. She had a lot of questions about the characters I had not even answered myself, including what class status Benedick is, and Valentine and Virginia. What does Valentine (who we decided is some kind of lord, because we had determined that Virginia must be a lady) challenging Benedick to a duel mean, in the larger sense? What is at stake?

The biggest surprise of the afternoon was when we decided that, as a result of Virginia's intercession, Benedick accidentally slashes Valentine across the ass.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Scenes From a Night's Dream

We populate your dreams.

Final rehearsal before Pandemonium. It's going to be a sweet, surreal, candy box of a dream. A Winsor McCay comic told on a dinky stage stage full of fears and fancy ... just a little over five minutes long.

Nemo! Get out of bed!
Don't tell me stories, I don't want to know!
Come on you sleepy head, we're waiting to go!

Okay, so this song, "Scenes from a Night's Dream" was my first introduction to Little Nemo. It's a little embarrassing. Bad enough to admit being such a huge fan of Phil Collins when I was in high school, without digging up what may be the worst song Genesis ever recorded.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

House of Dreams

Little Nemo & the Princess.

Cleveland theater community (or at least the cool kids) are all bug-a-boo about this year's PANDEMONIUM! Actors, directors, playwrights, dancers, designers, devised-work-mediators all conspire for a feverish couple of weeks to bring together new works, works-in-progress, or the same crap they always to to entertain the masses and attain a golden ticket to the funkiest high-stakes fundraiser in Cleveland.

I am happy they keep asking me back to do stuff. This is my fourth contribution, dating back to the first Pandemonium in 2003. Last year I wrote a brief history of the event and my place in it, and the opportunity to stage one scene from the Cleveland history play (title TBA) which will debut at Big Box this March.

I was not planning on participating this year, things being so off-the-hook busy at work and at home, but what can I say? A personal invitation from Beth Wood is difficult to refuse. This year the theme is House of Dreams, which I found serendipitous as I have been preoccupied with Little Nemo in Slumberland. 

I wrote a brief piece, asked a few performers from Henry VIII to join me. My daughter asked if she could be the Princess, and roped a friend of hers from school to play Nemo. Then I connived his parents into playing the role of chaperone ... and then actual roles for the performance.

We had our forty-five minute tech rehearsal this evening (thank you, Rachael!) and will present this eight-minute-version of what I am calling Winsor McCay's Slumberland at 7:45, 8:20 and 8:55 in the Parish Hall.

Pandemonium is Saturday, September 8.

Monday, September 3, 2012

WCLV Marathon for the Cleveland Orchestra

Spring, 1970 - Cleveland's classic music station, WCLV 95 FM conducted its first on-air marathon to raise money for the Cleveland Orchestra. The goal was $10,000 which they raised handily within 24 hours.

The goal for their eighth marathon (1977) was $125,000.  That seems so modest by today's standards, when the Cleveland Orchestra's 2012 operating budget is $42M. But as today, the recession hit performing arts organizations very hard, and public fund-raisers like this not only raise necessary funds, but "demonstrates the wide support of the orchestra by thousands of people who may never set foot in Severance Hall," said (then) WCLV vice president and program manager Robert Conrad.

Hitting the east side and west side, the 24-a-day weekend of events (April 22-24) were broadcast live from Severance Center and Parma Town. Conrad and Tony Bianchi interviewed a host of regional celebrities, including orchestra Director Lorin Maazel, Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Vincent Dowling, Fred Griffith and Joel Rose from Channel 5's Morning Exchange, among many others, including the legendary Mitch Miller.

Ours was a WCLV household, though I have never been a fan of classical music. However, at the age of eight I was definitely a huge fan of WCLV Saturday Night, which had been a fixture on the program schedule since it went on the air in 1962. Three-hours of high-brow comedy from 10 PM to the 1 AM sign-off. (Cue: Today Is The First Day of The Rest of Your Life.) It was due to this program, perhaps, more than any other influence that I became an anglophile. They played Flanders & Swann, bits of The Goon Show, Monty Python and Beyond the Fringe, as well as Nichols and May, Bob Newhart, National Lampoon (the clean stuff) and countless other comedians, comedy troupes, parody commercials and novelty songs.

The annual orchestra marathon included premiums for those who contributed, including CLE Orchestra swag, and tickets to Severance or Blossom, as well as contributed offers from area merchants and artists. However, if enough people kicked in a total of $20 per hour, every hour, my brothers and their friends would keep playing Monopoly in a tree.

No kidding. I wish I could claim to have been a part of it, but at the age of eight my limbs were still to short (and my nerves too weak) to climb the tree in our backyard. But I did try to contribute, fetching things like food and drinks to haul up in a bucket while they tree sat, huddled around a wooden frame set in the tree to hold the board, using cards and money which had been laminated for the occasion.

Because it was April in Bay Village. It rained. It was cold. As I recall, it sucked, but then I was listening to the radio all night, warm and dry in my bed.

WCLV now broadcasting from ideacenter in downtown Cleveland at 104.9 FM celebrates its fiftieth anniversary on November 4, 2012.

The Plain Dealer:
April 11, 1977 - Marathon: Serious Business by Raymond P. Hart
April 6, 1977 - Marathon for Orchestra has a star cast by Robert Finn