Friday, October 26, 2018

Big Month of Plays

"Everything Is Okay (and Other Helpful Lies)"
by Melissa T. Crum & Caitlin Lewins
Cleveland Public Theatre
Photo by Steve Wagner
The Dark Room

It’s been a huge month for theater, which is usually the case for October as traditional season cycles begin. The difference this year is that I have actually had the opportunity to attend several of them, which is not often the case.

I actually had the chance to begin the month by attending the Dark Room, Cleveland Public Theatre’s monthly playwriting “open mic.” It’s free, it happens every second Tuesday, and there is beer. In addition to several ten minute plays written by about a half dozen writers, I threw in a few odd pages from a new piece I have started. They didn’t go anywhere, but people laughed, and so I am encouraged.

See you there November 13th.

Hello, Dolly!

The KeyBank Broadway Series at Playhouse Square has begun. First up, Hello Dolly! Featuring the incomparable Betty Buckley. She really was delightful and made a warm connection with the audience.

Waiting for the show to begin.
Personally, I loved when she crossed the stage to kneel and pick up a stray prop that rolled across the stage following a big, company dance routine. She didn’t break character or stop her delivery for a moment, just picked it up and set it aside like it was her job, because she a professional and it is.

Everything Is Okay (and Other Helpful Lies)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to witness a preview performance of Everything Is Okay (and Other Helpful Lies) at Cleveland Public Theatre. Written by Melissa T. Crum and Caitlin Lewins and under the powerful direction of Matthew Wright, this Millennial musical is a breathtakingly ambitious and brilliant event.

It has been very inspiring to watch and listen as Missy and Caitlin first presented this piece as a cabaret of songs at the first Entry Point, later performing an uncompleted version of the book at this year’s Entry Point (there was a point in the second act where character was broken and one announced, “Okay, we’re not sure how we’re wrapping this all up yet, but it may go like this ...”) to this fully-realized performance, executed with urgency and style. And may I say the band is fucking incredible?

The show opens to a sold out crowd tonight!

Colin Holter speaking before "Mamma Mia!"
Great Lakes Theater
Mamma Mia!

The company for whom I am employed, Great Lakes Theater, is currently presenting Mamma Mia! and Joseph Hanreddy’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in rotating repertory, and these productions are each a smash. The Jane Austen play is entirely sold out, with Mamma Mia! which runs an additional week, almost to capacity. Tickets are still available, especially on Halloween.

As a member of the education department, I often host GLT’s weekly pre-show event, Playnotes, where we engage an area expert to provide historical background to that afternoon’s performance. Last weekend our guest was Colin Holter, composer, teacher, and writer on music. He described to a packed salon the origins of ABBA’s original success in the mid-1970s, the particular techniques they use in their singing to catch the ear and the heart, and their enduring popularity.

Holter brought a guitar and was able to play and sing a few verse to better illustrate these techniques, and the assembled were rapt and impressed. He will speak again before matinee performances on Saturdays November 3rd and 10th, which currently have a limited number of available seats.

"When the Tiger Sneezed" by Toni  K. Thayer
Talespinner Children's Theatre
When the Lion Sneezed

Every year, in addition to their main stage work at Reinberger Auditorium, Talespinner Children's Theatre produces a shorter program, designed for touring. For 2019 that production is When the Lion Sneezed (Tales of Ancient Assyria and Beyond) written by Toni K. Thayer, a beautiful artist, educator, and my spouse.

It is a tradition that this touring show debuts at the annual Harlequinade gala in the fall and this year was no exception. What was unusual was the storm which blew through and knocked over powerlines across the city last Saturday night. The electricity went out roughly an hour and a half before guests were due to arrive, but thanks to smart thinking and a team of volunteers who just kept working by battery-operated lanterns (we have kinds of crazy things in theaters) they were able to procure a generator which lit up the party room upstairs.

The stage downstairs was still dark, however, but as this play was designed to be produced anywhere, they swiftly adapted it to the party room and we had the opportunity to witness and enjoy Toni’s delightful tale of the origin of cats -- and the diverse ways we feel about them.

"Sweat" by Lynn Nottage
Cleveland Play House
Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Earlier this week, Chennelle and I saw the Cleveland Play House production of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat. If there is a contemporary play that deserves a Pulitzer Prize, it is this play, and this local production, directed by Laura Kepley, is outstanding.

It is also a thrill to see that half of the cast consists of Cleveland actors, namely Bob Ellis, Chris Seibert, Jimmy D. Woody and CPH Associate Artistic Director Robert Barry Fleming.

Sweat is an epic take on the decline of American manufacturing jobs and an even-handed observation of the events which led to the election of Donald J. Trump. Not that Trump is the answer, as it is evident that he is absolutely not, but is a clear-eyed explanation of how we arrived at this present moment.

"MST3K Live 30th Anniversary Tour"
The Agora
MST3K Live!

Last night the boy and I attended the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Live 30th Anniversary Tour at the Agora. My goodness, I have not been to the Agora in years and years and years. The movie being taken apart was Deathstalker II, and during the first few minutes the ‘bots made a GWAR joke, which was striking to me because that may have been the last concert I attended there!

Jokes flew fast and furiously, and there is really nothing like laughing together in a packed house. Robots Tom Servo and Crow were joined by both Joel Hodgson and Jonah Ray.

I’ve been enjoying MST3K since the early 90s, so Joel is my favorite, but the Netflix reboot featuring Jonah is also hilarious and the pop culture references are fresh so my son can enjoy they, too. The old episodes are practically Dada-esque to him, most satire is … which may be why his generation loves nonsense humor. It’s good pushback and it irritates the grown-ups.

iGen humor.
The Way I Danced With You

It’s time. We announced auditions for this weekend a few days ago, and the available slots filled up pretty fast. There is a company in there somewhere and I am very excited to discover who they are.

Cleveland Public Theatre presents "Everything Is Okay (and other Helpful Lies)" in the Levin Theatre through November 10, 2018.

Great Lakes Theatre presents "Mamma Mia!" at the Hanna Theatre through November 11, 2018.

Cleveland Play House presents "Sweat" at the Outcalt Theatre through November 4, 2018.

Sunday, October 21, 2018


"About a Ghoul"
(Talespinner Children's Theatre, 2019)
How do you get that next production? That’s a question. Without a name, without a history, when your work has largely been confined to your own community, without representation, how does one push their own work into the larger world?

In the gig economy, there are plentiful opportunities to attract attention to yourself, but there are thousands of others taking those same opportunities. Yes, there are many examples now of playwrights whose work has been discovered on New Play Exchange. For a moment I thought I was one of those.

In January, a small company in a large city cold-contacted me about one of my previously produced works. They really wanted it! I was interviewed by the artistic director. I was consulted about concept. They requested a contract, which I sent. Then … nothing.

I tried to reach out once, just a big hello? Are we on? No response. They announced their season in the summer, and no surprise, my play was not there. How disappointing. That’s not how you do that.

The entire year has been like that.

Casting spells in the rain.
(Harry Potter World, Orlando)
The year literally began on the tarmac. After a significant delay, we touchdown in Orlando minutes before midnight New Year’s Eve, and rang in 2018 waiting to exit. It was a last-minute decision, to drop everything and scurry off to see Harry Potter and Mickey Mouse. After the horrors of the holidays, the wife just wanted time with her family.

What we got were four wet days in an amusement park, with temps in the mid-forties. But we were adventurous, we dined and played and loved together as a family under a dark cloud, because that’s a metaphor for everything these days.

New writing was under the radar this past year, I spent far more time doing crossword puzzles. It’s just a fact. However, works that have been in development or previously presented found their home, some more than one home.

The Way I Danced With You was presented as part of their Factory Series at Blank Canvas Theatre, and it was a very successful weekend. Funny, I did not think it was particularly well-attended. It’s not a big house, and it felt like there a lot of empty seats. And yet, the feedback was highly positive -- and it keeps coming. Since March numerous people, folks I didn’t even remember attending, have told me what an impression it made how much they are still thinking about it.

"The Way I Danced With You
(Blank Canvas Theatre, 2018)
The script will receive a full run of performances, opening March 21, at Ensemble Theatre. Directed by Tyler J. Whidden, The Way I Danced With You will headline the 2019 Columbi New Plays Festival. Auditions were announced yesterday.

Last year I lamented how I had fallen away from writing, longhand, every morning. Well, it took most of the year, but I now have an established ritual of writing 30 minutes or three pages every single morning, without fail. And it makes a difference. I even pushed through an illness to keep covering the page.

Just last night, Talespinner Children’s Theatre announced their 2019 season, which will include the world premiere of About a Ghoul, my new play inspired by Moroccan folk tales.

On the publication front, I have two exciting developments. In an effort to control my own work, I decided to self-publish I Hate This on Amazon. Ten years ago there was a limited edition of that script released in Britain, with all profits going to a national charity. To my surprise, I have found copies of that script going for as much as $50 on various websites. So I have published a version for $5.95, which means pennies for me, but at least it is available to whoever wants it at a price they can afford. You can get an electronic version for even less.

The second publication is still in the works, and I look forward to announcing that soon.

Forward. Always forward.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Jane Austen's Epitaph

A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.
 - Jane Austen, "Northanger Abbey"
"Pride and Prejudice"
Amy Keum, Kailey Boyle, Laura Welsh Berg
Idaho Shakespeare Festival
Photo: DKM Photography
Tonight is opening night for the Great Lakes Theater production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, directed by Joseph Hanreddy from the play script adapted by Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan. It appears to be a sumptuous production, and I am already a great fan of Hanreddy’s direction. Previously for GLT he has helmed epic, modern interpretations of King Lear (2015) and Richard III (2013).

My own experience with the works of Jane Austen are limited. By that I mean, I have never read any of her work. I have the same working knowledge of many Americans my age and gender. I have seen Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (screenplay by Emma Thompson) and Emma, which may have starred Gwyneth Paltrow but is more notable for introducing American audiences to Alan Cumming, Toni Collette and Ewan McGregor.

Last fall I took an unusual journey to Winchester, England. My niece Lydia was graduating from the university, she who was the inspiration for everyone’s favorite character in I Hate This, who was at that time an inquisitive six year-old.

Though I wanted to attend the ceremony, last fall was particularly difficult as my wife was spending most weekends out of town, assisting her father through the final stages of cancer. Leaving town for even a week seemed to me to be terribly selfish. But my mother, who was eighty-two was certainly going to go, and she could use my assistance and my company. Honestly, I thought, I could also use hers.

Winchester Student Union
We spent a lovely few days in Winchester, this was almost a year ago. October, 2017. It was cold, a little damp, but the company was pleasant and we did make the best of our trek. Lydia gave us a tour of her campus, and it was then I learned the strong connection the place has made with Austen, who spent her final years in the city. It is not often you find a large mural of a nineteenth century author in a university cantina.

Her graduating class was enormous. The ceremony was held in the vast and cavernous Winchester Cathedral, even so there were seven commencements, morning and afternoon, for four days. If she had participated in that afternoon's event the keynote speaker would have been David Suchet (of Poirot fame) receiving an honorary degree.

On our way to our seats I noticed David Suchet also narrates the cathedral's audio tour.

It was until we were filing out that someone indicated that the final resting place of Jane Austen was right over there. Right over there? Yes! Right there, in the cathedral. I shimmied my way between folding chairs to the “North Aisle” where I noticed displays about the author. But where was she? Under my feet.
In Memory of JANE AUSTEN, youngest daughter of the late Revd GEORGE AUSTEN, formerly Rector of Steventon in this County. She departed this Life on the 18th of July 1817, aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian. The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her and the warmest love of her intimate connections. Their grief is in proportion to their affection, they know their loss to be irreparable, but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the sight of her REDEEMER.
She was published. She was popular. She was anonymous. Her works attributed to "a lady" the author of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and Emma and Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park and so on, were revealed by her own brother to be Jane Austen. But her original epitaph made clear that her greatest contribution was to have been her father's daughter.

Looking up I saw a newer, golden plaque, set into the stone of the wall.
Jane Austen. Known to many by her writings, endeared to her family by the varied charms of her character and ennobled by her Christian faith and piety was born at Steventon in the County of Hants, December 16 1775 and buried in the Cathedral July 18 1817. "She openeth her mouth with wisdom and in her tongue is the law of kindness".
Next to that, a modern contribution, to more clearly set the record straight. It reads in part:
The grave of Jane Austen … with its inscription which gives no indication that she was one of the greatest English writers.
One of the greatest English writers. Perhaps its greatest author, though fans of Dickens might disagree. (Shakespeare, of course, is not an author. He's a poet and a playwright.) Not the greatest woman author, no qualification necessary. The greatest English author, full stop.

We do not generally grant women the appellations of absolute superiority. Serena Williams is the greatest female athlete. Meryl Streep at greatest female film actor. Jane Austen the greatest female author in the English language.

"Though she be but little, she is fierce."
A Midsummer Night's Dream, III.ii
When we call to strip these gender-based qualifications, inevitably there are those who would question why we need to establish supremacy. When women step to the line and cross it, we simply take the line away.

The wife was in Washington, D.C. today, to protest the advancement of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States of America. We did not believe it would make any difference, but when you have the opportunity to speak up, to make yourself heard, even in the face of disaster, you must seize that opportunity.

And she was heard, indeed, she made a speech and it was broadcast on C-SPAN. She also writes plays.

Pride and Prejudice at Great Lakes Theater is presented in rotating repertory with the musical Mamma Mia! which opened with a bang last weekend. A woman-centered musical paired with the adaptation of a beloved female author.

Dobama Theatre presents a season of work written entirely by female playwrights. The current season at Talespinner Children’s Theatre, also written entirely by local, woman playwrights. Women lead the way. One day the government will follow.

But not today.

Great Lakes Theater presents Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" adapted by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan at the Hanna Theatre through November 4, 2018.