Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Aliens (2014)

Alexander V. Thompson in "The Aliens" at Dobama Theatre

Too much information? Or too little? How much do you want to know about a play before you see it? On our drive back from a performance of Seven Ages at Lorain High School, Emily was all excited to learn we are producing The Tempest at Great Lakes Theater next year because she has never seen it. Never even read it. And she decided right there not to read it, to experience an entire Shakespeare from beginning to end with no foreknowledge. That will be an adventure!

(Why so excited about The Tempest without knowing anything about it? See: Neil Gaiman.)

I whole-heartedly support her decision. I like to be surprised. However, it is also true I do not like to be confused, or left confused. A little confusion is a good thing, it can be a mystery, it makes you think.

It also makes people talk during movies. Who is that guy? What are they talking about? Is she gonna die? When we get to talky bits in SHIELD, the kids get distracted and that’s when they make comments and I have to shush and remind them the talky bits is when we learn what the hell is going on.

Seven Ages was written to stand alone. Yes, you might get more out of it if you are familiar with As You Like It, you already have an idea of who these characters are. But the introduction explains all you really need to know; four people, hiding from danger, telling stories. One woman is dressed as a man and three of them must keep her gender a secret from the fourth. That’s it, easily spelled out, and on with the storytelling.

The first two performances a few adults in the audience expressed concern that the kids might be confused by some of the segues from one tale to another, because they include oblique references to As You Like It. I found only one such reference to the court of Duke Frederick, removed it (one sentence) and since then no one has expressed any confusion with the segues at all. To the contrary, the writers have been praised by audiences for how it all hangs together.

However, Lisa wanted to provide some context to the student audiences, explaining the origins of the play, how it was written, where the inspiration comes from. I told her I thought this was too much information to be providing the students prior to the show, that they would have the wrong impression from the get-go. She reluctantly followed my request, and our first student audience was confused and disengaged.

I was wrong.

Since then, each of our student audiences have received a very basic explanation of what it is we are trying to do with this play, how Jacques’ “Seven Ages” speech was the inspiration, and what they could expect -- seven stories. Those matinees were very successful. The students at Lorain High were most attentive, they got all the jokes and had many interesting questions or comments about the stories after the show.

Last night Brian and I went to see The Aliens by Annie Baker at Dobama Theatre (strong recommended, remaining performances tonight and tomorrow afternoon only). We arrived early to hear Nathan Motta, Dobama artistic director, and the director of this production, provide what they are calling a pre-show “conversation” though it’s not really a conversation, it’s a pre-show talk. For a half-hour, Motta provided very interesting background on the playwright, the history of this play and Baker’s other works, their importance and significance.

He also described the characters in the play, in some cases using the playwright’s stage directions, which gave the audiences clues as what to look for. This is what we strive to accomplish when presenting key scenes from Shakespeare in the classroom, as part of GLT’s residency program -- give the students something to watch for in the scene they are about to see. In that way, we make them active viewers.

But last night’s audience wasn’t full of students (though I was delighted to see a pack of teenagers there, on their own, seeing this play) we were adults. Granted, adults who voluntarily showed up forty-five minutes early for this information. Some of the information the director provided might be called spoilers -- not major plot points, but just the kind of things I like to figure out myself when watching a play or seeing a movie.

And yet, I feel this is an important step in keeping theater relevant in the 21st century. What media do we consume for which we have absolutely no foreknowledge? We have seen the trailers for films, that is largely how we choose them. And those are chock-a-block with spoilers. We read blogs, see commercials, have recommendations from friends, on books, TV shows, radio programs.

Why walk into a play and expect a modern audience to be satisfied to jump in with complete ignorance? Doesn’t make sense.

In my own works, I have tried to create “trailers” for plays, but they are devilishly difficult on a shoestring budget. We all know this. Even look at the online trailers for The Velocity of Autumn, they avoid showing actors speaking lines on stage as much as possible, because it just doesn't play the way it's supposed to on video. We get punchlines and audience reaction, which is the real selling point -- others enjoying it, not the work itself.

Tomorrow the tour visits Cleveland Heights-University Heights Main Public Library on Lee Road. They are usually quite a discerning crowd, because, you know. Heights. And yet, I believe I will be encouraging our moderator Khaki to be providing some much-appreciated pre-show context.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Seven Ages: Post-Show Discussion


We are on the road. Our hosts at The Alcazar were gracious and our houses, too. Last night at Lorain County Community College was also very enjoyable. Following each performance there is a talkback, to provide the audience an opportunity to reflect upon what they have seen and share ideas.

We are still finding our way into the discussion following this particular show. It was helpful to have other playwrights present (Nina and Toni were at The Alcazar, thank you very much) but being the only representative for most of the performances from here on our, people pepper me with questions about my piece in particular, when I would much rather head what they have to say about what they have seen, and not what any of us intended to show.

Last night the subject was storytelling, and that was very good. We hear so much about how people have abbreviated attention spans, or how no one really "connects" anymore. One audience member mentioned blogging as a (relatively) new phenomenon, and how there are storytellers without number out there, whose works are read by people across the nation and around the world. That made me very happy, to hear that.

We could, of course, just open up the floor to questions, as in, "Is there anything you would like to ask the company?" But put on the spot like that people just ask how long it took us to learn all those lines. Someone asked that at a school performance today.

When you come to see the show, here are my top five questions:
  1. Which of the seven tales did you most enjoy, and why?
  2. Do you believe any of these seven tales unfairly depict the age it represents, and why?
  3. Which or how many of the seven tales best reflect the age it represents, and how?
  4. Which of our four characters most interested you, and why?
  5. Finally, if you could ask any of the seven playwrights a questions about their story, what would that question be? Now, how would you answer the question you just asked?

Seven Ages on Sound of Applause, 2/11/2014
(we begin around the 45 minute mark)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Regarding Neil Gaiman


Last year during the tour of Double Heart (The Courtship of Beatrice and Benedick), plans were already being made for this year's tour. The last time Great Lakes produced As You Like It, the outreach tour was a different play titled Seven Ages, featuring a slate of ten-minute plays, each written by a local playwright, each dealing with one of the seven ages of man. These short plays were contemporary, each a stand-alone short play.

We decided to put a spin on that concept, seven different Cleveland-area playwrights, each telling the story of one of seven ages, we would even use the same title, like editions of a magazine. Like the first three Peter Gabriel albums.

But how would it be unique? Emily asked me about it over lunch during the tour season, and I eagerly explained my concept. Four characters from As You Like It would be taking refuge someplace, like a tavern or somewhere, hiding out during a massive tempest, and they tell these stories to pass the time. And the stories could go anywhere! They can be fable or folktale, sincere or satire, spun from the past or even the future.

She said, "That's World's End."

Sandman #51, "A Tale of Two Cities"
(Vertigo, 1993)

Well, crap. She was absolutely right. My concept for Seven Ages even had a young woman passing as a boy.

Okay. Okay, okay. Okay? Yes, there are similarities. Neil Gaiman's World's End is one volume of his comic Sandman. Characters take shelter against a "reality storm" in the tavern "World's End". These people are from different periods in history, they are perceptibly "real" (from the world as we know it) or mythic.

And they tell stories, because that is what you do to pass the time. Today we can pass the time alone listening to stories (radio) or watching stories or even creating stories (screens). Without such technology, people will tell stories, they always have.

Gaiman's work is storytelling, which is the role of any writer, but a trope particular to him is the act or the art of telling stories, whether they come in dreams, shared by forgotten gods or months of the year,  or passed about in publicans.

Backstage at the Alcazar.

So? It's good to be aware of what influences you. Strangers coming together who then tell stories? Gaiman would be the last person to claim he has a copyright on that concept. And so we cobbled our tales and last night presented the work to an invitation-only preview audience of Great Lakes Theater supporters and friends at The Alcazar in Cleveland Heights. None dast call it unoriginal.

Seven Ages opens at The Alcazar tonight at 8 PM, free and open the the public. Please join us.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Seven Ages: Costumes

Costumes by Esther Montgomery Haberlen

Double Heart (The Courtship of Beatrice and Benedick) was written to be a prequel to Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. It was my intent that it be reasonably and justifiably be considered an explanation of events which preceded Shakespeare's work, that nothing contradicts what comes later (unlike, say, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.)

With Seven Ages, we harbor no such pretensions. In devising a premise - time, place, characters - I told our playwrights that our scene rests somewhere in Act II of As You Like It, between scenes six and seven. I provided a general sense of who the four characters are who will be telling these tales, and that we would choose as time period the date in which the Bard's play was written, Fifteen Ninety-Nine.

But don't search too hard for continuity. Later in As You Like It, Jacques and Rosalind (as Ganymede) appear to be meeting for the first time, and unfamiliar with each other. It doesn't matter, we are not trying to expand upon the narrative of Shakespeare's play. It is a device through which four people tell stories inspired by the seven ages of man.

Set as it is, in one place, at one time, our costume designer Esther decided upon a period look, which is to say, the period in which it is set. Pretty novel, right? For Double Heart she took inspiration from Branagh's film version of Much Ado, or at least the time period, eighteenth century, rather than sixteenth, and there was a very good reason for that. They were colorful. If she had gone with sixteenth century Italian military wear and women's attire, things would have been very brown, and the ladies outfits restricting, which was not conducive to our youthful, racy love story.

The Tempest

Time and again a vocal minority of audience members lament that this company or that company (nearly every company, really) never performs Shakespeare "the way it is meant to be performed" meaning in Elizabethan dress. Time and again this does happen, however, though I do not know if they actually notice it (Great Lakes Theater's 2007 production of The Tempest was period, though I don't think that had any impact on ticket sales) but should all Shakespearean productions be in period costumes? Wouldn't that get a little boring? Besides, it is also very expensive to create and keep costumes from that period. The dresses are HUGE.

Having said that, Esther has designed and her company have built beautiful Elizabethan costumes for Seven Ages. I love what I get to wear, with a marvelous fur-collared cape and matching doublet, and I am even more taken with our Ganymede and his/her stylish green doublet and pants with golden slashes and accents.

Then there is a codpiece, which, once you have seen it ... you cannot stop seeing.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Off-Hollywood Flick Fest

Winter, 1994. Guerrilla Theater Company presents MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS at The Actors' Gym.
Loud, upbeat music, as always, blared from speakers upstairs and down in The Actors' Gym. Lefty sat in the box office reading a copy of the Weekly World News, Gooch wandered in and out, playing games with Digit. Torque was down in the Boutique with Beemer. I sat in the display, staring hard at the front door, but it failed to open. 

At 8:00 sharp we canceled another early Friday evening show. This was even following our latest gambit -- declaring the 8 PM show on Friday as the Two-Dollar Show. It was always the least attended so we thought it might boost sales. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. It seemed pretty arbitrary.

There was an extended tug-of-war between those who felt we should cancel the 8 o’clock show, and those who didn’t. Those for cancellation argued that as there were no doubt a finite number of people on any given night who would be willing to weather the storm and city streets to drive to Tremont of all places just to see avante-garde funny people, why distribute that number between two shows? Why not force them to all come to one show, maybe one 10 o’clock show?

The other side stated quite clearly that since so many people of a certain age had expressed so clearly that they would have come to see YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT except for its going on when all sane, aging Baby Boomers (and theater critics) are home and asleep, we needed to offer the earlier show. If we stuck to this regiment, the audiences would grow. Our followers knew they could depend on our being open at eight and eleven, every single week of the year. They wouldn’t even need to look it up in the paper or call "The Connection", we’d be here, for them. The idea of a 10 o’clock show was declared “unfeasible.”

As the argument for maintaining an 8 o’clock show was so strongly set forth by Torque and myself, it was pretty much set in stone.

And so it was, as on so many other Friday nights shortly after eight, some of us drove off to West 25th Street in search of fast food. Others went back into the apartment to watch tee vee. I bundled up and walked down Professor Street.

The Winter of 1994 stretched on forever and ever. I couldn't be warm enough. We kept The Actors' Gym pleasantly toasty, there were fortunately no real drafts in the building, just through the front door and we hung a curtain over the doorway to the space to prevent too much heat from escaping.

Wind tore through my ancient army coat as I stuck my head into Edison's to see if anyone was there. It was crowded with people, but nobody was there.

"Hey!" Sandy yelled to me, "shouldn’t you be doing a show!?"

"No audience," I yelled back -- I was just standing at the door, I wasn't going to make the effort to push through. I had to shout over a dozen of post-graduates from Bay Village who were, you know, slumming it. In the Slum. Where I worked.

She gave me a sympathetic smile. "Some of these folks are heading over at eleven."

"Great!" I said. Great, I thought, by eleven they should be plastered and either forget what they came here for or be having too much fun in this place to bother. I got resentful sometimes, thinking of all the people who came to Edison's after seeing one of our shows -- they came to this God-forsaken neighborhood to see our show. They spend five bucks to get in, quibble over the price of a T-shirt, and then drop a wad for alcohol and cigarettes here afterwards.

Bitter, bitter, bitter. I continued down the street.

Alcohol. That was another of the major changes that had taken place between the first and second years. We banned alcohol from the space. It goes without saying that drinking it was verboten among the company during performance -- besides, in the old days you hid your open container in the Green Room to pull on when you weren’t performing, out of sight. There was no out of sight in The Actors’ Gym, the entire space was open and actors watched every scene they were not part of in plain sight, standing there next to one of the seating sections. No more fist-fights. No more sloppy, unprofessional, bad actors.

But we also told the audience they couldn’t bring beer into the space anymore, that we would be happy to hold it for them in the box office until the show was over. We were adamant. And people either handed it over, or a surprising number of the them turned around and left. It wasn’t a party without beer.

I wandered to the former Professor Street Theater. Now christened "The Lab" by Retro, Geddy, and two of their associates, Bernadette and Annetta. The four of them were filmmakers, working for other people as editors, line producers, cinematographers, gaffers, camera operators, whatever. They had, as we all do, higher aspirations and had created a mound of their own independent work which they felt they had every right to show. And so they started The Off-Hollywood Flick Fest.

They gathered their own material, and that of friends and coworkers, put a tee vee monitor and a home movie screen at one end of the space, the end where the Boutique and Green Room used to be, set out maybe fifty chairs and floor pillows and carpeting, and invited their friends to come and see.

As I approached the building the night of the first Off-Hollywood Flick Fest, it didn't appear like anything was going on. The windows were still covered with black paper, there were still white, holiday lights lining the edges of those windows. Such an inviting looking building, it was much much warmer looking than The Actors' Gym. Windows. Lights.

The Actors’ Gym was one block to the east. Two doors down from Edison’s. That made it furthest outpost of Gentrified Tremont. The Frontier. How many people had driven to find our show, saw the uninviting facade, looked around at all the derelict houses, and simply moved on?

I pushed the door open. I could only get it open part-way, because three people stood in the tiny alcove. They were standing there, watching the show because there wasn't another seat to be had. I forced my way in to discover almost a hundred people, sitting standing, lying around in the dark, watching homemade movies.

"Hansen!" Retro called. He came over and gave me a big hug. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and holding a beer. "What's going on, don't you have a show?"

"Uh, it was canceled," I said. "Damn, Retro this is amazing!" I hissed in a whisper so as not to disturb anyone. For such a large crowd everyone was intently respecting the films by not talking.

"Isn't it?" he said, "we were hoping maybe our friends would show and I gotta tell you, I don't think I know a single person here."

"Sucks when your friends let you down like that," I said. I was happy for him. I was depressed as shit. "How much longer does it go on tonight?"

"We've got stuff to go until at least midnight." So much for asking him to plug our show up the street when the lights come on.

"You make any money?"

"Enough to cover our costs, just tonight," he said, "which is more than we were expecting. You want a beer?"

"Uh, no," I said, "I, heh, have a show tonight."

"Well, I gotta schmooze," he said. "There's another program tomorrow afternoon and tomorrow night -- maybe you could spread the word to the audience over at Guerrilla."

"This is great, Retro," I said, "I'm proud of you. Tell Geddy I said so."

And so I braced myself against the breeze and headed back to Guerrilla. And I did tell our 11 PM audience about The Flick Fest. I hope all eight of them checked it out.
In the late 1990s, the Off-Hollywood Flick Fest changed its name to the Ohio Independent Film Festival.