Saturday, November 22, 2014

How Shakespeare Spent the Day

"So much for Bardolatry!" - G.B. Shaw
If I were to start this post by stating, Look ... I'm not Anti-Stratfordian ... it sounds like when David Cross once began a stand-up routine lamenting, Look ... I don't hate children ...

But I do not like the term Anti-Stratfordian for the same reason I do not like the word Atheist. That's your word to describe me, and you cannot accurately nor fairly define a sentient being by what it does not believe. You wouldn't call someone who is Jewish Anti-Christian so you should not call someone who has no spiritual belief a non-believer. It's like calling someone who doesn't believe in vampires as being anti-vampire. 

What I don't believe doesn't concern me. It certainly shouldn't define me.

I believe Shakespeare wrote his plays, but that also does not make me Pro-Stratfordian. I am agnostic on the subject of William Shakespeare, the man. There have been so many lies - pretty lies, but outright falsehoods, nonetheless - that it is impossible to read any historical account of him without sighing.

I do not know how I acquired a copy of Ivor Brown's How Shakespeare Spent the Day (1963) but it has been on my shelf for some time. It has taken about six months to read it, on and off, because I got bogged down at the end. It was a great resource material for The Globe because it describes in detail how they ran a theater, they meaning Burbage and Henslowe and yes, Shakespeare. The real nuts and bolts, or more accurately, spindles and pegs, that held the work of theater together.

But even as Brown strives for accuracy, even he cannot help himself but speculates at length about the final year, spending a great deal of time lauding (his idea of) Shakespeare, a retired playwright who humbles himself, making repeated (if undocumented) visits to London in his final years, to improve upon the works of lesser poets like Fletcher and Middleton, adding his hand to elevate works like Pericles or Henry VIII or Timon of Athens.

Does it not make more sense that these were first unfinished works by WS, which had been abandoned for one reason or another (perhaps because they suck) only to be taken up and filled out by others for the purpose of production by a company that needed new works to maintain relevance?


Friday, November 21, 2014

The Great Globe Itself: Design Meetings

Suggested Poster Mock-Up
When I was a kid, more than anything, I wanted to sell things. This is not because I wanted to make money, my career choices should make that perfectly apparent. It is because I love packaging. I made posters and greeting cards and designed my own original cereal boxes and candy wrappers.

I did not have any concept of content, I looked up recipes for candy, and made a few, but the outside was much more important than what went in. While I have finally discovered what it is I truly want to sell, there is that part of me which is much more interested in making you want to buy.

I have written, directed and acted in plays, and even created a few sound designs. But as a stunted graphic artist, I have truly missed out on creating the visual components of theater. I took scenic, costume and lighting design in my freshman and sophomore years at school, and I was terrible at them. I wasn't particularly good at making posters either, and that really disappointed me.

However, that was a long time ago. And practical application of my abilities and the humility to stand and appreciate admire and the work of those who have made design their life has brought me into some very successful collaborations. We have employed the same team of designers for the past several years for the outreach tour (including Terry as scenic designer and Esther as costume designer) and I am consistently impressed, and delighted with the work, and grateful to get to work with them and it.

Wednesday we had our second production meeting for The Great Globe Itself. It is a new situation, acting as director and playwright, having shared the story and then being asked to weigh in on the creative decisions of others in its realization. This is where collaboration is such a relief, as we bat ideas around to discover how the costume design concept will play against the backdrop of the scenic design, how the colors will play, and can the set work with the limitations of three actors playing eighteen characters in forty-five minutes.

This is why it doesn't pay to walk in the room and say, boom. Here's what you get, take it or leave it. This is a manner in which theater is unique among the arts. This is why it never pays to scream at people.

Anyway, it was a very successful meeting and it made me smile. That afternoon, Todd and I had a different meeting, with the folks at TRG to discuss the promotional graphic for the brochure and the poster.

The first image I had, while composing the play (because, as I said, I am always thinking of packaging) was that of the character of Sam, facing the viewer, holding out a globe - a Globe Theatre - shimmering, floating just above his outstretched hand. In the background, the classic Cleveland skyline of the mid-20th century. One skyscraper, the Terminal Tower.

As the script took shape, with each age defined by its main character - Burbage, Sam, Clement - I saw each man, standing, laughing, collaborating, moving the Globe forward. Cleveland in the background is abstract, but present.

I created a mock-up using stock photos (see above) using the copy machine, scissors and tape, because I am old school and that I how I roll. This is what I shared with Todd, our marketing director, and the designers at TRG.

So far, all are supportive of the image. It is too much? We talked about these men being in a place, rather than in an abstract space, but where? Cleveland? Or Cleveland and London - and which London, 1613 or 2005? Or both? Will the final work come out like this, or something mind-blowingly different?

Photo shoot in two weeks.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Great Globe Itself: Original Pronunciation

Original Pronunciation is a practical, theatrical theory. We do not know what the people in Shakespeare's time sounded like. In America, there are those who believe that Shakespeare is only proper when performed in a British accent. However, there are many British accents today, and even Received English (the accent you must use when being "received" by British royalty, I heard Steve Coogan explain that once on NPR) was entirely fabricated.

David Crystal, linguist, author and scholar, working in collaboration with his son, the actor Ben Crystal, used texts from the period to divine what that "original" dialect might have been.

Take for example, Sonnet 116 (which was read at our wedding) which begins Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments ...

The final six lines read:
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Those are meant to be rhyming couples. But no modern American nor British dialect can twin the words come and doom, nor proved and loved in rhyme. And having decided to make them rhyme, which word are we rhyming with? Is it coom and doom or come and dumb?

By taking contemporary examples of how words were used, and what they meant at that time, the Crystal's constructed a "new" dialect which makes much better sense of Elizabethan prose and poetry.

They explain it much better here:

David & Ben Crystal. These men are adorable.

The Great Globe Itself takes place at three different periods in history, one of them 1613 England. It was decided to bring in a dialect coach to make distinct character voices for each of these time periods. I asked my friend Chuck Richie (Kent State professor, retired) to come work with our actors - Arthur, James and Kyle - to create voices not only in OP, but also Depression-era Midwest and modern-day London.

In the past, Chuck has worked with me to create voices for several tours, including a Brooklyn-raised Arthur Miller for Seeing Red, a Romanian Count for On the Dark Side of Twilight, and course, Belgian for Poirot.

We all met Monday evening in the rehearsal hall, Chuck providing a great deal of interesting material on OP, first receiving a primer in IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) and then being led through several recordings based on the work of David Crystal.

Finally, the actors just leapt into the script. It was delightful to hear the first scene, or part of it, anyway, read in the tongue in which I had attempted write it. True, our actors were going a bit fast, trying to approximate the speed in which it must eventually be performed, there were moments when I wanted to pull the reins and go back and cover certain words and phrases, but generally let it go. I was itching to direct.

Rehearsal for The Globe don't even begin until mid-February. But I am relieved to have these materials in the boys' hands. We've started already.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

I Hate This: Seeking Publication

John Dayton is David Hansen
For the better part of five years, I was performing I Hate This somewhere. First I created opportunities, through CPT's Big Box series, a couple of theater festivals, and as word began to spread I was being contacted by medical professionals I knew, and then those I did not know, to perform at hospitals and conference centers across the Midwest, culminating in a seven-date tour of Great Britain.

This could have been my gig. If I had promoted the piece who knows where it could have taken me. I could have made some well-needed income marketing the production, and told our story much farther afield. I did receive email once from the UAE asking if there was a video available, and I was like, Dubai? Can't you folks afford to fly me there in person?

I did suggest this but also told them about the radio drama, and they said the free audio version would suit their purposes just fine. So, oh well.

The question, "Would you let someone else perform this script?" did come up from time to time, and the answer, at the time, was no. It was my story, our story, it was far too personal, I had complete control over its presentation, and besides, who would want to tell it?

If you have been following along, you know a small, professional touring company in England, Freerange Theatre, inquired about I Hate This. I had last performed the show myself in 2011 at Cleveland Public Theatre, and had no immediate plans to ever perform it ever again. Also, I am entering my late 40s, I was in my early 30s during the events depicted. Allowing a younger performer to work with these words may add life to what I feel is an important work.

I did try to get it published, by sending it to a few high-profile theatrical rights management companies back in 2010. The response was pretty much the same from each of them, this work is too intimately tied to its author, no one else could do it justice.

You could say the same thing about The Santaland Diaries, but people keep dragging that threadbare holiday chestnut on stage. Ditto the monologues of Spalding Gray, and that big, sweaty, liar guy. But those are funny, or at the very least not about dead babies. Well, except for the Sedaris piece.

Perhaps emboldened by the impending Manchester performance at the Lowry, I sent the work out one more time, to one of the nation's largest play rights distributor. My query letter must have been something because they requested the complete script almost immediately - and almost as fast received a kind rejection letter, not from their editor, but from the President of the company himself.

His main point was this:
"While we found it often very moving indeed, the consensus here was that it would be a difficult play to place in our market, given that it is so deeply personal. The power would seem to rest a great deal in knowing that the person telling the story is the person to whom these things have happened."
I could not argue with this opinion, it is one I have heard before. Having said that, a little over a month later John Dayton and the folks at Freerange proved him entirely wrong.

The blog Write Out Loud had this to say about John's performance:
"Performing autobiographical work of course has its challenges but one can only image the difficulty of immersing yourself in such heart-breaking content. Yet Dayton explores this grief fearlessly, without pander ... To feel and experience the same as the portrayed protagonist in such a way, is down to honest writing, bold directing and fearless acting – which was certainly the case with Freerange Theatre Company’s production."
One very interesting development in this one-night-only performance at the Lowry was that Mr. Dayton was contracted a mere three days prior to the show, another actor having dropped out suddenly. More props to him for the work and what great notices he received putting this performance together (with director Hugo Chandor) on such short notice.

But he was "holding book" as we say, performing script-in-hand. Hugo explained this to the audience, with apologies, but according to audience member Paul Kleiman (who also moderated the post-show discussion) no contrition was necessary, not even for holding book. On his blog, Stumbling With Confidence, Paul wrote:
"What fascinated me was not only did the fact of reading from the script not detract at all from the play, it actually – in a strange way – enhanced it, aided by a very strong performance from the actor ...

"The actor obviously isn’t David Hansen, but he is telling David Hansen’s story. Rather than playing the ‘pretence’ game, by holding on to and acting out the script the actor introduces what, in Brechtian terms, might be referred to as an ‘alienating’ element, providing both a certain distance and also an opportunity to really empathize with the story itself rather than the performer/performance."
When Cleveland Play House performed Dustin Lance Black's 8 in 2013, the company also held book. This was out of necessity, it was a political-artistic statement presenting the piece, and done so through the generosity of all involved. There was not the time to memorize.

But also, we were reading the actual words which had been spoken in open court. Reading from texts visually reminded the audience that we were not asking them to suspend their disbelief, but to always be aware that this really happened, these words were actually spoken.

Following the performance of I Hate This Paul said he: "suggested (to the Freerange company) that the play works really well keeping the script in full view."

Most gratifying was Write Out Loud's observation that I Hate This is "laced with levity; there are some great one-liners and jokes that were complimented by dry British wit in their delivery."

The tagline I created back in 2003 states that this play is honest, horrible and even humorous, though I never felt I was able to convince anyone of the latter. And now it all makes sense ... I may write British, but I need a real Englishman to play it.

I Hate This blog (2003-2011)

UPDATE: The Write Out Loud post was written by Kate Morris, and edited version appeared on the Manchester entertainment site The Skinny. Four stars!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

TingleTangle @ Guide To Kulchur

Ute Lemper sang Weimar Berliner Cabaret songs at the Almeida Theatre in Islington tonight. Opening night. Full house. Third row. It was wonderful.”
- Journal: June 10, 1997
My appreciation of Weimar Republic culture grew very slowly during the 1990s, from witnessing a revival of the Degenerate Art Exhibit in Los Angeles in 1991 to my (then) girlfriend’s decision on our first day together in London in 1997 to get tickets for an evening of cabaret songs.

Earlier that year we had visited the U.S. Holocaust Museum in D.C. which included a special display on the Berlin Olympics, beginning my fascination with that event, and Cleveland’s connection to it.

In 1998, the day after the Starr Report was published in the New York Times, we saw Sam Mendes’ Cabaret on Broadway. These two events are not unrelated in my mind. It was the first time I had ever seen any stage version of Cabaret, witnessing that with some semblance of historical context was not unappreciated.

(The 2000s were not Hitler’s Germany, however the Starr Report was an indication of the kind of casual Fascism that has become mainstream in today’s political-entertainment culture. Tsk tsk. Shame shame. We do not murder those who threaten us anymore, we mock them to the point of irrelevancy.)

To truly appreciate the music of Cabaret, you must understand what was being emulated. And it was a delightful surprise to learn, thanks to the remarkable and almost supernatural stylings of Ms. Lemper, how risqué and gay the Weimar Republic was, and far and away more overt than the Kander and Ebb musical it inspired.

The song Two Ladies is kinky when Joel Gray’s Emcee sings it with two women, as in the 1966 original. New boundaries were crossed when Alan Cumming’s Emcee first performed the song with one woman and one man in the 1993 revival. But it’s still one big double entendre.

However, when Ute sang Das Lila Lied or The Lavender Song (slipping in and out of German, she apologized in advance, she does that) you see a woman bravely announcing she is “queer and different” and boldly challenging her oppressors:
Round us all up, send us away
that's what you'd really like to do
But we're too strong, proud, unafraid
In fact we almost pity you
You act from fear, why should that be
What is it that you are frightened of
The way that we dress
The way that we meet
The fact that you cannot destroy our love
We're going to win our rights
To lavender days and nights
Cabaret’s Emcee is brash and obnoxious, to be sure, but he never had the stones to get into anyone’s face like that.

In Thursday evening’s performance of TingleTangle, Ray Caspio performs The Lavender Song quite differently, as a rock song, and using a microphone literally gets into the faces of the audience with this bravely defiant gay anthem.

TingleTangle is the latest production from Theater Ninjas, Ray Caspio is the Assoc. Artistic Director of the company, and this piece is both a very personal collection of stories and also a number of hilarious and sometimes beautiful cabaret sketches. The show is going on now at Guide To Kulchur.

Earlier this year my (now) wife introduce me to GTK, home to second hand books and zines -- remember zines? -- located in a Gordon Square storefront, adjacent to the Capitol Theatre on West 65th. Like all the best bookstores, it is small on ground level but features a large basement full of moe stuff.

The Sally Tatnall Black Box

The basement is your average, unfinished urban basement. Cement floors, brick walls. They have readings in what they call the “Sally Tatnall Black Box”. It’s homely state reminded me of personal episodes from mid-90s Tremont. Installations, happenings. It’s the kind of location I would like to see something theatrical “take place” in.

So of course I was thrilled to discover the Ninjas would be satisfying my desires with this production. They have created a neat little cabaret stage, crammed into one corner of the space, more than or only just enough room for their company of six to perform.

Just a brief description of TingleTangle (because there are many surprises and it is not my desire to ruin any of them) and that is that the show is about two things: Sex and Ray.  Not the two together (though that does come up) but that there is a great deal to Ray Caspio which is revealed in this production through his sincere storytelling, and then there's a lot of hilarious songs and comedy pieces about sex. And those are two things I would never have expected.

The monologues are breathy with an almost off-the-cuff quality, like I just have to tell you this story right now, okay? Which is very different from the ensemble pieces, some of which are fall on the floor funny (I have said this before, making sex funny is very, very difficult) while others are erotic in a manner which deftly compel you to watch and forget there are others around you.

Much of the personal material has to do with nothing so well-traveled as being gay. We live in a strange time, when marriage equality is an all but done deal in the U.S. (save the Deep South and, you know ... OHIO) and where the Cleveland Play House could rally all the local theater companies together to mount a staged reading of the politically charged play 8, only to have the appointed performance date fall less than a week after a Supreme Court decision had reversed Proposition 8.

This is not the Weimar Republic, and gays living openly will not be forced back into the closet. We have all come too far for that.

And yet. What do I know? What do I know about living openly? Nothing, I know nothing. What I do know comes to me from friends and colleagues and co-workers and storytellers. An hour into the show the lights came up and everyone was quiet and I was the first one to stand because I guess I thought the show was over. On my way out of the space one of their people said softly, "The intermission will be ten minutes," and I was so relieved because I didn't want it to be over.

TingleTangle continues through November 15.