Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Music of the Season

The Dramahound has been derelict in her blogging of late. Christmas is fast approaching, and those presents need to get mailed this week. I haven’t even begun cards, but the ones going to Europe will get mailed this week. In addition to that, I’ve got music to go over (beating out measures with a pencil, with a note from my trusty pitchpipe), and a bunch of writing projects. The new libretto I’ve been working on- the second draft (more like a second first draft) is nearly done, but not quite. The musicalization of a play of mine- the composer and I finished the first song on Sunday afternoon. And the other possible libretto has morphed into songwriting with a third composer. So it’s a busy time.

However, for your listening pleasure, let me tell you about three music opportunities, all at the Church of the Holy Trinity, on East 88th Street in Manhattan (link above). The first is Lessons and Carols on Sunday, December 16 at 4PM. The lessons range from Bible readings to poetry (past years have had selections from Langston Hughes and e.e. cummings). The music this year will be Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols”- the good choral parts, and a harpist as well; and the music of John Rutter and Sweelinck. In addition, there will be many of your favorite Christmas carols to sing along with. It’s too cold this year to sing in Washington Square or Gramercy Park, so come to Holy Trinity on Sunday instead.

Christmas Eve there will be two Eucharist services- one at 5:00 PM and one at 10:30 PM. The earlier service is more geared towards children, and both the children’s choir and the adult choir will perform. The late service begins at 11PM, with a half-hour musical prelude. So get out of your apartment and hear some Christmas music that isn’t Muzak.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Birth of a Nation

Since I moved to Brooklyn, I finally have a mailbox big enough to hold a DVD, so I am discovering the joys of Netflicks. I rent movies I’ve never seen or have only seen part of, or cable series I’m seen some or none of (“Deadwood” and “Rescue Me,” in particular). This week I saw “The Birth of a Nation.” I’d seen parts of it in a PBS documentary, and I’d certainly read about D.W. Griffith, Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh.

My friend Cheryl Davis recently had a production of her play “By Oscar Micheaux” produced by the Milk Can Theatre Company. Micheaux was a contemporary of Griffith’s, and also a film director (he made what were then called “race” movies). Throughout the play, Micheaux invokes Griffith as the exemplar of what is wrong with Hollywood and its treatment of black characters. His first full-length feature, “The Homesteader,” was made in response to Griffith’s depiction of Black Americans. Micheaux also wound up working with a young Robert Earl Jones towards the end of his life, which I find fascinating. Would James Earl Jones ever have gone into acting at all if his father hadn’t?

“Birth of a Nation” was made in 1915, the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War. (The link above gives a lot of information about the film and a plot summary.) It was the most popular silent film ever made; then-President Woodrow Wilson (who, don’t forget, was a Southerner himself) described it as “History written with lightning.” It was based on two novels of the Rev. Thomas Dixon, Jr., who adapted them into a play (“The Clansman”) that ran on Broadway at the Liberty Theatre (approximately where the AMC is now, on the 200 block of 42nd Street) in 1906. Civil War plays were very popular- the great actor William Gillette’s most famous vehicle was “Sherlock Holmes,” but a close second was his “Secret Service,” about a Union spy. Griffith was originally an actor and performed in several plays about the Civil War. He was a native of Kentucky, and his father was a decorated Confederate Army colonel.

All of that said, “Birth of a Nation” is deeply shocking. When it opened , there were protests in the Northeast, and by the NAACP. The State of Ohio tried to ban it from being shown at all. If you could, even for a moment (and I don’t think it’s possible, actually), try to detach the rampant racism from it, which is in every frame where there are any Black characters, there is certainly more stuff going on besides. It is anti-Northern in a hundred subtle ways. If I’d been a Union Army veteran watching it, I’d have been absolutely incensed. This pricked my conscience on and off while I was watching it, until the final scene. That scene is the two honeymooning couples, by the sea, dreaming of the New Jerusalem, a city of brotherly love and the image of Jesus. These words and images, particularly after what has come before (it’s long- about two and a half hours), are incredibly jarring. This is how the Ku Klux Klan imagines heaven? I could only take cold comfort in the fact that no one could ever make a movie like “Birth of a Nation” today.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

W.G. Sebald

I am back from southern California. Our plane was late because of the weather in New York yesterday, so between that and the incredibly slow baggage-handling at JFK, we walked into my boyfriend’s house around 2:30 this morning. My brain is sleep-deprived goo. In the process of unpacking, I noticed the library book that I assumed I’d finish on the plane is due tomorrow. I’ve just finished it now.

I have a visceral relationship with some writers’ work, and W.G. Sebald is one of them. The only two playwrights I can think of who write about memory as engagingly as Sebald are Mr. Albee (“Virginia Woolf” and “All Over”), and Harold Pinter (particularly in “Old Times”). You’d think that any translated fiction would be more likely to be distant from the reader (Sebald wrote in German), but that’s not true at all in this instance. I never read any Sebald until after he died- he was killed in a car accident in 2001. He didn’t write that many books, so once I discovered him, I had to dole them out to myself as treats. I have two books left to go, one of which (“Austerlitz”) I bought this week.

It’s difficult to describe Sebald as a novelist. In most of his work he writes about a protagonist named W.G. Sebald, who’s kind of him but not. There are many photographs taken by the author in these books, and always a lot of history, tinged often with curiosity and other times with deserved moral outrage. Sebald wrote, obliquely and less so, about his time and himself: growing up in post-war Germany and the difficulty, if not inability, to come to terms with all that happened in the 1930s and 1940s. Sebald wrestled with this in all his work, and immigrated to England in the 1970s, where he lived until his death.

In “The Rings of Saturn,” which I just finished, Sebald tells an amazing story of Roger Casement (the Irish patriot executed by the British in 1916) and his encounter with Joseph Conrad and Franz Kafka’s uncle in the Belgian Congo in 1915. I’d never really consider those three men inhabiting the same world, let alone King Leopold’s hellish Congo.

Sebald’s most traditionally fiction book is “The Emigrants,” which is haunting, and haunted by memory. It’s also one of those novels where you feel like you know the world the writer’s drawn you into, even though you can’t quite put your finger on what will happen next. The link to Sebald’s obituary in The Guardian is above.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Dramahound on the Other Coast

The Dramahound is going away for Thanksgiving with the other hounds in the family pack. There will be a very good dog there, and puppies (of the human kind, though the oldest insists she's a wolf) to play with. I hope to witness picketing WGAW writers, having seen the striking WGAE writers here. Though talks with the producers begin Monday (www.unitedhollywood.com).
Photos from the TRU Love Benefit are up on Playbill today (www.playbill.com).
Will be back blogging next week, with one about my favorite New York City museum, and whatever adventures I may have out West. Flying JetBlue on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving may be an adventure in itself!

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Veil of Forgetfulness

I saw a performance of “The Veil of Forgetfulness” on Tuesday evening. Described as “a mystical opera in two acts,” its libretto and music is by Susan Stoderl, who also conducted. The “art installation” (which I would’ve called projections; there’s nothing wrong with projections, would that we all could work with Wendell Harrington) was by Sarah Olson.

Set in an abbey during the Dark Ages, an abbess (based on the actual Marie de France, whose writing was quite racy for its day), her nuns, her very pregnant niece, and their cook (a Jewish woman to whom they’ve given asylum) are the seven keepers of the veil of forgetfulness. The opera ends with the niece dying in childbirth, and the nun with the will-to-power (Regina) trying to make up her mind if she’ll follow her sisters, or go her own way.

“The Veil of Forgetfulness” was performed by seven very talented singers; the two that stood out the most to me (and I admit that I knew their work previously) were Ilya Speranza as Dympha and Tracy Bidleman as Regina. They were accompanied by a five piece ensemble: organ, oboe, flute, synthesizer and cello.

The music was quite rich and varied. In it, I heard every from Cesar Franck, early Francois Poulenc, Phillip Glass’ pulsing tones and harmonies akin to Stephen Sondheim’s “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.” The music is the thing that carries the emotion of the piece. Unfortunately, it is not helped much by the lyrics (the opera is sung-through). The lyrics contain a lot of exposition and explanation; the second act is almost entirely arias that do just that. There are perfect rhymes, false rhymes and no rhymes (there may have been an interior logic to this but I didn’t see it). There were places where lyric repetition would have been welcome for reasons of emphasis, but there was little of that. This resulted in a sense that all the lyrics were of equal weight, which I doubt was the lyricist’s intention.

The music sounded quite difficult to sing (and I can pull a perfect ninth out of thin air when called upon). But this was daunting. The setting of the Church of the Holy Trinity certainly added to the atmosphere the opera was trying to evoke. The next Music at Holy Trinity event (Dr. Stephen Hamilton, Artistic Director)is on Monday at 8PM; James David Christie is performing on the Rieger pipe organ. For more information, clink on the link above.

Monday, November 12, 2007

TRU Throws a Party!

The theatre district was eerily quiet yesterday. There were still tourists wandering up and down Broadway, looking up and into the distance, as if they’d never seen a building higher than four stories. But most of the theatres had IATSE strikers doing the picket walk. Theatre at any level is so difficult in the first place, it pains me that Local One and the League won’t even talk to one another.

That said, boy, you missed a great party! I was in the cheap seats with playwrights, a composer and the Playbill photographer at my table. Once the Sardi’s waiters started plonking down the plates of tiramisu, the show started. Each piece was from a play that the honoree, Cheryl Wiesenfeld, had produced. Unfortunately my favorite (“Shockheaded Peter”- only time I’ve bought the CD in the lobby after a show ever) was not included. Laura Marie Duncan started it off with “Here I Am” from “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” Then TRU president Bob Obst gave out two awards. There was a song from “Saint Heaven,” the producers of which were mentored by Ms. Wiesenfeld. That was followed by Keir Dullea and Mia Dillon reading from “The Exonerated,” and Dania Gurira and Nikkole Salter performing their “In the Continuum” - what talented, gracious young ladies they are! Sara Chase performed “So Much More” from “Legally Blonde.”

The highlights for me were two. Tonya Pinkins performed “I Got Four Kids” (the opening of “Caroline or Change”), which almost took the roof off the Sardi building. She was phenomenal- even better than when I saw her perform it on Broadway. And finally, Miss Elaine Stritch did come and speak, holding her audience rapt for fifteen minutes (it seemed like a moment, of course). She told a funny story about going to see “The Glass Menagerie” with Marlon Brando, when they were both students at The Actors Studio, because they “liked the title.” And how she can still remember Laurette Taylor’s magnificent performance. She was very funny, and her humor is my idea of great humor: if you tell the truth about something that most people wouldn’t, they’ll laugh. Ms. Stritch said a lot of things, but the one that really struck me (and I’m paraphrasing- I did not bring my reporter’s notebook with me, though I should have) was that theatre is a very demanding business, and there are and will be plenty of difficult times, of not mostly difficult times. But the reason that we all continue to pursue it is for those rare moments of great joy. I think that’s as true for her with her incredibly successful career as it is for those of us in the trenches.

Who knows what TRU will cook up for next year? How can they follow that?

Friday, November 9, 2007

TRU Love Indeed

TRU (Theatre Resources Unlimited) has its mission in its name. Its main purpose is to help theatre producers and other theatre professionals through the exchange of information and networking opportunities. TRU’s electronic newsletter alone is a reason to join. It covers arts jobs, submission opportunities, apartment sublets, casting notices, professional services, classes- everything a theatre professional could want.

TRU was founded 15 years ago by president Bob Obst, Gary Hughes, and vice president Cheryl Davis. Each year, amidst the many panel discussions, the Audition Event (very handy for casting Off-Off Broadway or showcases), staged readings of new plays and musicals, TRU has a benefit to raise money to keep its many programs going. This year’s is a luncheon on Sunday, November 11th at 1PM at Sardi’s (234 West 44th St.). The TRU Love Benefit will honor producer Cheryl Wiesenfeld (“The Exonerated,” “Caroline or Change,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” etc.) with the 2007 TRU Spirit Award.

Cocktails begin at 12:30, followed by lunch at 1PM, and the award presentation and performance at 2PM. Confirmed performers include Mia Dillon, Keir Dullea and Tonya Pinkins, and maybe even Elaine Stritch. Tickets for $100 or $150 are still available. You can buy them online (click link above), by credit card or Paypal. I’ll be there!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The WGA Strike

I've been trying to write all day, with some success. I'm at a difficult point (4/5 done) in the first draft of an original libretto. Nothing is so hard for me as a first draft; I can rewrite until the cows come home.
However, I've been distracted more than usual because of Day #4 of the Writers Guild of America strike. I'm not a member (though I have ceased to work on my series idea for the duration of the strike). But I have good friends and blood relatives marching on picket lines on both coasts, who have been sending me eloquent youtube links all day. The Teamsters and SAG are marching with the writers- I don't remember that happening the last time.
The WGA dropped the DVD issue. All they want now is some kind of compensation for new media. And the powers-that-be won't even talk to them. Smells like greed to me.
If you want to sign the petition in support of the writers, the link is above. If you want to learn more about the strike, go to:

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Veil of Forgetfulness

Everything in New York City costs more than it used to, particularly attending the performing arts. There’s an interview with Peter Gelb in last week’s New Yorker where he’s quoted as saying without individual, corporate and foundation contributions, a ticket to the Met would cost $400!

So I am pleased to tell you about the world premiere of a new opera with $20 tickets. “The Veil of Forgetfulness” is by Susan Stoderl (libretto, music and lyrics). Set in a medieval abbey, the opera explores the theme of how challenges to one’s faith often deepens it. “The Veil of Forgetfulness” features eight singers, pipe organ and a chamber ensemble, with art projections by Sarah Olson.

Performances are Sunday, November 11 at 4 and Tuesday, November 13 at 8 at the Church of the Holy Trinity, 316 East 88th Street (between First and Second Avenues). For more information or a list of the rest of Music at Holy Trinity’s 2007-2008 season, click on the Music at Holy Trinity link above. The artistic director of music at Holy Trinity is Dr. Stephen Hamilton. (Full disclosure: I am a member of Holy Trinity and sing it its choir. And my friend Elizabeth Munn, devoted reader of this blog, is in the cast.)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Shrunken Heads on the Deuce

A few weeks ago, I made my first trip to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium on West 42nd Street to celebrate my birthday. With me were my parents and my boyfriend. When we were young, my brothers and I went through a period where we spent time pouring over Ripley’s books, and the Guinness Book of World Records. I remember being very taken with the photo of the Indian man who had the world’s longest fingernails. I’m also intrigued by anything having to do with circuses, and as my father pointed out Ripley’s is as close to the freak shows he saw in his childhood as you can find these days.

I assumed that the Odditorium would have a fairly high cheese factor, which it did. Out front there is an animated mannequin dressed as a bearded lady singing a song about herself. There was a photo display about Robert Wadlow, the Alton Giant; film footage of Johnny Eck, the legless acrobat; a taxidermied chicken that lived for 17 days without a head; a model of a giant, prehistoric crocodile (which wouldn’t have been that out of place at the Natural History Museum) and a stuffed two-headed calf. At the same time, there were some beautiful things. Ripley collected Asian art and artifacts, and there are some beautiful jade pieces. There is a Spanish Armada built entirely of toothpicks. In the historical section, there’s John Wilkes Booth’s derringer (a wee bit of a firearm); a genuine Iron Maiden and other instruments of torture; and a lock of Napoleon’s hair. There’s also a video loop playing in a small theatre which features among other things, a family that suffers from “werewolf disease” (abundant hair growth on one’s face and upper body), and a skateboarding dog.

It’s not a cheap ticket (approximately $30) to get in to Ripley’s. But the exhibits were double the size I expected, and the big finish is some of Ripley’s shrunken head collection. We were there on a Saturday night around 7, and it was a very busy place: families, college kids, tourists. It wasn’t until I got home and started reading my souvenir guidebook that I found out how big this Ripley empire is. There are thirty Ripley museums, all over the world in Canada, Malaysia, England, Denmark, Mexico, Thailand, the U.S. and Australia. Ripley certainly made the most of his travels and information-gathering when he was alive: there were his newspaper cartoons, and radio shows (there’s streaming radio broadcasts from the 1930s and 1940s on the website above). But the man died in 1949. Other than marketing, what has kept the whole operation going for the last 58 years? Is it the freakish aspect? The wish to be scared and/or grossed-out? The romantic image of Ripley the world traveler, bringing these exotic treasures back to our world, for us to marvel at? Or a combination of all three?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

One More Season!

The Associated Press reported today that Astroland at Coney Island has gotten a one-year reprieve. Link above.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Could Ben Brantley Be Wrong?

I saw a matinee of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” ten days ago. Then I read Ben Brantley’s review of the same production in the New York Times on Friday.

I am not a little dubious about Mr. Brantley as a theatre reviewer. I often think that having to choose between clarity in a review and the ability to show off how clever he is, he will invariably choose the latter. To be fair, he can be very funny. The review he wrote of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” a few years ago included the funniest line I have ever read in the paper of record. I read it standing in line to check my bag for a flight from San Juan, and even in that noisy a setting I laughed so hard that people stared at me. He wrote (if this isn’t exact, it’s pretty damn close), “Sitting through ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ is like being kicked to death by circus ponies.” The image was so clear in my mind, I could see the blue spanglies on the ponies’ backs, which is why it was funny.

But to get back to Mr. Shaw. I spent a chunk of time in college studying Shaw, and since then I have read much of and seen many productions of Shaw. I don’t think David Grindley’s production is off-base. I find it difficult to believe that he couldn’t find a better actress than Claire Danes to play Eliza, but I suspect she may not have been his first choice. Grindley keeps the play moving. This is inherently difficult, because Shavian characters love to talk. A lot.

There are five acts in “Pygmalion,” taking place in three different settings, and those set changes had better be lightning fast because contemporary audiences don’t have the patience for anything slower than that. He and Jonathan Fensom solve that problem admirably. Grindley likes to stage scenes don front and center, as Brantley points out (and my brother reminded me that “Journey’s End” was staged the same way). However, the interior sets aren’t that deep to begin with, so there are inherent staging limitations in the design.

Finally, the acting. I enjoyed Boyd Gaines, Jay O. Sanders (who I initially had TV actor prejudice against which he completely overcame), and Helen Carey. I had heard nothing good about Clarie Danes’ performance before I saw the play. She was adequate once she dropped her Cockney accent; before she did, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through five acts of her shrieking. She showed none of Eliza’s (for lack of a better word) charm, as Wendy Hiller does so well in the movie. I thought that Jefferson Mays gave the performance of a lifetime. It had brave choices in it, used the text beautifully and was mesmerizing to watch. He wasn’t a cuddly Higgins by any means, but he was a charismatic one. How great would it be to see him play Shotover in “Heartbreak House” in twenty years?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Castel Sant’Angelo

The last day we were in Rome, we went to the Castel Sant’Angelo. It was built as Emperor Hadrian’s tomb, but has served many purposes since then as a papal residence, a prison, and the setting of Act Three of “Tosca.” The photo here (by Tom Bovo) is of a statue of an archangel- I like those wings!

So we walked up all these steps, and reached the mausoleum, though Hadrian’s remains are long gone. A few levels more, and there was a museum of Italian weapons, armor, and uniforms, some of them quite old. When you reach the very top, there are panoramic views of the hills beyond Rome, the Vatican and the city itself. But on a floor in between there was an extensive exhibition on Italian playwright Giuseppe Giacosa, 1842-1906. He wrote plays which Eleanora Duse performed; he wrote “La Dame de Challant” for Sarah Bernhardt. He wrote a book about the U.S. that he researched when he came over to see Bernhardt in “La Dame de Challant.” (No, I didn’t recognize his name, either.) Many of his plays were set in his native Piedmont.

But near the end of his life, he teamed up with another writer, Luigi Illica, and it was what grew out of this partnership that put Giacosa in the Castel Sant’Angelo. Together they wrote the libretti for “La Boheme” (1896), “Tosca” (1899) and “Madame Butterfly” (1904). I’m always harping on the fact that librettists are the forgotten ones in the theatre process, and here I’d done it myself. It’s not like I’m going to forget Puccini. On the other hand, Scarpia and Tosca and Cavaradossi are infinitely more real to me than Emperor Hadrian could ever be. The exhibit (all in Italian, alas) had costumes from the operas, photographs of productions, Duse, Bernhardt, etc. Seeing it was oddly comforting to me. It was like “oh, yeah, theatre. Music. Making up stories. This is what this Giacosa guy did. It’s what I do, too.”

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The English Theatre of Rome

Last year, when my boyfriend took me to Rome, I had tried to arrange a meeting with the artistic director of the English Theatre of Rome, former New Yorker Gaby Ford. The theatre is now in its 12th season, and they do new plays, not just by the usual suspects. I’d emailed her before we left New York, but by the time I finally reached her in Rome, it was too late.

This year, we did better, and saw a production. The play was an interesting take on Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” (which I haven’t read since college so it isn’t that fresh in my mind) called “The Moths,” directed by Dustin Wills of Austin, Texas. “A wickedly wacky and purgatory journey through mythological Greece and the mind of Virginia Woolf,” to quote the press release. It was performed by five talented, non-union actors, including Gaby herself as Omphale; Luke Charles as Herakles; and Lorenza Damiani as Caeneas (the Orlando character, and a moth). It was one of those difficult pieces built in rehearsal by the actors and the director. That can be a very exciting way to work, but is fraught with the perils of everything that can go wrong putting it together. “The Moths” was a truly valiant effort. Most of it worked beautifully; the problem to me was the ending, which seemed more a matter of “well, we have to end it somehow, so let’s do this.” But up to that, it worked very well. The set was largely paperback book, or pages from paperback books, so that by the end of it the stage was so awash in paper I half-thought it could devour the actors.

Equally impressive (I haven’t been about to stop thinking about it) was the space. The Teatro L’arciliuto (www.arciliuto.it) is in the neighborhood of the Piazza Navona, on the Piazza Montevecchio. The building dates back to the late 14th century and has a concert hall and a lounge. They have a full schedule of spoken word and music performances. The space where “The Moths” was performed is in the basement, which is the remains of a second century villa. It’s basically square, with seating on two adjoining sides, and the playing space the other two sides. The seating is tiers covered with carpeting, just like some of the classroom building at my alma mater. The stage includes the ruins of the villa- two walls, two doorways, and a beautiful Roman arch window. So cool!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Many Happy Returns!

A Dramahound shout-out (Shout OUT!!!) to the Strand Bookstore on its 80th birthday.

I think I first became aware of the Strand when I moved to New York and lived on Alphabet City. Then I moved to East 13th Street, behind the old Palladium, and was dangerously close by (though it did make it easier to sell back the books I’d bought and read). These days I’m still there, almost weekly, and my boyfriend and I have been known to start our Friday nights with a good hour looking through the Strand. It’s also handy, if you’re in a hurry, to use their website and have the book waiting for you when you walk in the door.

Long may the 18 miles of books rule Broadway and Twelfth Street (and the Fulton Street store, too)!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Dramahound Time Travels

My boyfriend and I got back from Rome last night, jet-lagged but well-fed, well-watered, well-traveled. There were things that we had planned to do but were unable to. The Baths of Diocletian’s hours were simply impossible; we never got inside, though we managed to walk around the building twice. And the Domus Aurea (Nero’s Golden House) was equally inaccessible. Last Friday morning, it took us three hours, including our hotel manager making two phone calls, being on hold for nearly half an hour and finally the human being he reached hung up on him; taking the #3 bus ten stops; and standing there at the Domus Aurea’s gate with 15 or so other tourists, completely ignored by the staff for half an hour. Though all of the tour bus people had no problem getting in. All told, three hours to Not see the Domus Aurea. Not our best Roman memory.

However, after that we walked over to the Aventino neighborhood, which at one time had a cattle and a vegetable market in it. We went to Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which has the Mouth of Truth on one of its outside walls. I stuck my hand in and it did not bite me (it’s supposed to bite you if you’re a liar; there’s a moment in “Roman Holiday” when Audrey Hepburn sticks her hand in it). On the inside of the church were some really great relics of St. Valentine: I didn’t think he was a saint anymore, but you’d never guess it to look at the bones and the votive candles lit in front of them. See photo by Tom Bovo above.

We wandered across the Piazza Bocca della Verità to the Via Teatro di Marcello, and saw as much of the ruins of the theatre as we could. I read somewhere that to give verisimilitude to some plays’ death scenes, criminals would actually be killed in front of the crowd. Makes off-off Broadway seem tame, doesn’t it? There are lucky present day Romans (though I doubt there’s an elevator) who have apartments on the top floor of the theatre, where the cheap seats would have been.

Then we stopped at a church that wasn’t on any of our maps (and we must have ten maps because none of them has all the streets). We had not read about it on any websites or in tourist guidebooks. It is the Basilica of St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas was from Myra, in Turkey. Lovely old church which had been closed for decades, and reopened four years ago. We went in. My boyfriend was looking at the side altars, and I went over to a bulletin board to read about the basilica's history. A young woman volunteer approached me and asked if I spoke Italian. I said no, English. She then proceeded to give us a free private tour not only of the church, but of the ruins of the three Republican temples underneath it. The temples were dedicated to Hope, Janus, and Juno, and dated back to the Second Punic War (approximately 205-200 B.C.E.). The temples’ interiors were only for the use of the priests associated with those gods, and the Temple of Janus was only open during times of war, because he’s associated with war. The guide explained why the temples been built so close together: to makes the temples’ treasuries easier to guard, there were two very narrow alleys for access between the temples. She showed us how pieces of the temples had been incorporated into the construction of the basilica, both the interior and the exterior.

My definition of really old is George Washington’s pew at St. Paul’s Chapel down in the financial district. But 200 B.C.E. is before Julius Caesar was even a glimmer in his father’s eye. That’s really old!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Globetrotting Dramahound

There won't be any Dramahound posts next week. The Dramahound's boyfriend is taking her to sunny Italy, where we plan to eat, drink, explore catacombs and see a play at the English Theatre of Rome.

The Drowsy Chaperone

I’d intended to see “The Drowsy Chaperone” in previews, but life intervened. I have spent many happy hours listening to the CD. But yesterday I finally made it to the matinee. I also had an ulterior motive: I’ve been meeting with a composer about a new musical, and he’d suggested that I see it to look at the structure. The libretto hasn’t been published yet, so I must rely on memory and the Playbill.

The structure is ingenious. What tends to be the biggest problem with old musicals, and the older it is, the bigger the problem is? The books are a big snore; c.f. David Henry Hwang rewriting “Flower Drum Song” (though I think that was more a race problem than a boring issue); David Ives tinkering with old libretti for the “Encores!” series. How do we know most of these old musicals? Anything before “Oklahoma!” we know from reproductions, partial recordings (I grew up with eight songs from “Lady in the Dark” on an RCA reissue; it’s the original Broadway cast, but leaves out giant sections, including Danny Kaye singing “Tchaikovsky,” and barely begins to do service to the intricacies of Kurt Weill’s orchestrations) or individual songs. “Oklahoma!” was the first original cast album.

So what do librettists Bob Martin and Don McKellar do? They stretch the truth a little. Say that original cast albums did exist in the 1920s, what if we build a show around one of them? And this show has set pieces that are intrinsic to musicals of that time. There’s an old rich lady, Mrs. Tottendale; who has an estate with many servants and a butler, Underling; a follies showgirl, Janet Van De Graaff; the guy who runs the follies, Feldzieg, who has an intellectually challenged chorine girlfriend, Kitty; a wealthy juvenile, Robert Martin, with a best friend, George; and Janet’s chaperone (“champagne makes me drowsy”), the Drowsy Chaperone. They even manage to work in the most exciting technological advance of the 1920s with Trix the Aviatrix, and two gangsters (who wouldn’t be at all out of place in “Kiss Me, Kate”).

All of these characters and their antics live in Man in the Chair’s studio apartment, because that’s where the record player is. The action is driven by the record album itself; the Man in the Chair gives us comment on and the context of the show. It doesn’t feel forced or weird (well, it took me a minute to adjust to the action happening I the apartment, but once the refrigerator opened up, I felt at home).

Danny Burstein is hilarious as Aldolpho, as is Beth Leavel as the title character; Troy Britton Johnson and Patrick Wetzel do a great tap number, true to the period and mesmerizing. I regret not having seen Georgia Engel and Edward Hibbert in their original roles. Jo Anne Worley basically does Jo Anne Worley (where a lighter touch to the comedy might have been helpful), and Peter Bartlett appears to be trying to channel Hibbert. I've tried to include a photo, but Blogger keeps rejecting my .gif.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Look What a Wonder Jesus Has Done

I think that one of the tests of what is good theatre is if you’re still thinking about what you saw and heard a few days later. I saw a musical like that last week; it’s part of this year’s NYMF festival. One of the reasons I’m still thinking about “Look What a Wonder Jesus Has Done” is that I’m still not sure it’s really a musical. It’s some mixture of musical and opera and church, with beautiful, stirring gospel music and great singers.

The show is about a slave revolt in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822. The protagonist is a freeman, Denmark Vesey (Horace Rogers), who is trying to buy freedom for his wife and two children. Chloe, Denmark and Rose Vesey are owned by the evil Col. Moore (David Andrew Anderson, who literally stops the show with the ballad “Answer My Prayer”). The bulk of the action is built around the independent church that Vesey and Bishop Thomas (Allen Kendall) found. The church flourishes, it’s thwarted, it battles on and its members literally die for it. All through this wonderful music- arias, recitatives, call-and-response. It’s incredibly compelling. And if you check out the show’s website, you’ll see praise from no less than William Styron and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I can totally see it being performed in a church setting. The musician in me is sold on it.

But at the same time, the Dramahound is thinking do you really need two cute children to exploit the audience’s empathy? The creator (composer/lyricist/librettist Walter Robinson) of the show writes gorgeous music, but the false rhymes in the lyrics start very early on, and they’re distracting (I know Tony Kushner writes false rhymes too, but I find that practice no less distracting when it comes from him). The show’s blurb (the theatrical equivalent of a logline in film- I’m not sure what you call it) is “A love story twisted by slavery.” Which is unfortunate, because we don’t so much see the love story of the couple as we see the struggles of Prosser Vesey and his church. We learn about the characters through the music itself, but we really aren’t given anything other than broad outlines in the libretto and the lyrics. And as underwritten as the male characters are, the female characters are even more so. This is not to say it’s unwatchable- there aren’t any bad performances and Hilary Adams does a commendable job with the direction. I just wanted it to be better.

You have four more chances to see it at St. Clement’s.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Reading Plays

I have read a lot of plays, and I still do. I read plays because I’m fascinated by how they work (each them its own little kingdom), and because I love stories. Another reason I read plays is because if I’m writing a play about characters or a situation that has been a play already, I want to read it. I don’t want to make the same mistakes another playwright already made. I want to make my own, different ones.

There are many people who don’t like to read plays. I remember actor friends from college who’d complain bitterly about the reading list we had to slog through. It was quite extensive, and there are certainly plays on it I have no desire to ever read again (“Secret Service”? “Fashion”? I shudder at the thought). But I always thought it was weird that my pals complained about reading plays so much. They were all readers; they read history and novels and whatever else. But plays were somehow more work to read.

I’ve had playwriting students who don’t like to read plays. Somewhere they’ve read, or someone has told them, that playwrights should not read plays written by other people. That they will somehow be unduly influenced by reading other writers, and lose their own voice. I admit I did used to go through a period if I was writing a first draft of a play, I didn’t read other writers. I don’t need to make that demarcation as clearly anymore. I’m not so afraid of another style creeping into mine anymore. But I admit I find it counter-intuitive to ignore millennia of plays that have come before us.

Plays cost money to buy- I’ll grant you that. I have been building a library of libretti for the past two years, and it hasn’t been cheap. But I do hit the good book sales, and I know about the secret weapon: Project Gutenberg (link is above). Project Gutenberg has hundreds of plays in the public domain, in many languages. It also has foreign language (including Middle English) plays in translation. It is a wonderful, wonderful thing! It has poetry and prose as well.

I have heard Edward Albee say (and I’m paraphrasing) that he doesn’t understand why people don’t like to read plays. A play is as much of a story as a novel, and it takes a fraction of the time to read. Makes perfect sense to me.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Library Book

I was a great library devotee for most of my life. At one point, I had library cards for both the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library (I was working in Brooklyn, and needed to do research there). But somewhere along the way, I fell away. My then neighborhood branch had erratic opening hours, and for months at a stretch wasn’t open at all. I was living with someone at that time who felt library books were beneath him, and I picked up his bad habits. Add to that Amazon, Alibris, and worst of all, Barnes & Noble.com, which will deliver the next day in Manhattan. So my library card fell into great disuse (I’m not sure I could find it if I tried, and that was two apartments ago).
When I was in DC a few weeks ago, I was hanging out with a college friend, bemoaning the fact that other than my family and her, I know almost no one who reads a daily newspaper anymore (she reads the "Washington Post", and I read the "NY Times"). I have friends who say they read the Times, but they don’t- they read the electronic arts digest which does not count in my eyes. So I’m on quite the judge-y roll with this newspaper thing, and my friend says to me, “Yeah, I know, but what about the people who don’t have library cards?” And I became strangely silent.
She is, of course, right. Even with my bimonthly trips to the Strand, there’s always books they don’t have. Or a book I want to read but will probably never read again. That’s my rule for keeping books: if it’s not research I need at hand, or something I will ever read again, it goes out, to the neighbors or to a thrift store.
So one day last week I went to the Mid-Manhattan branch, and while I visited the book sale (there’s usually something in the book sale, and often for $2), I did spend time in the library proper, got myself a card and borrowed a book (a W.G. Sebald novel that’s out of print). There’s all sorts of things you can do online now- not just look up books in the card catalogue. You can reserve books, and look at the Picture Collection (click on the question mark above, and the attractive lion above can testify). The library cards themselves are quite high-tech- little swipe-y things to go on your keychain. I checked the book out myself: put the digital tag underneath the laser, and swiped my card. And now I have a red and blue lion tag on my keychain, should I ever forget the lions on Fifth Avenue and Fortieth Street. But how could I?

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Here There Be Dragons

Last weekend, my brother and his eldest daughter were in town. So the four of us- brother, niece, my boyfriend and me- went to the American Natural History Museum to see the special exhibit on mythical creatures. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more predisposed audience for this show than us.
The good parts of the show were very good. They had what’s thought to be the actual fake mermaid (the Feejee Mermaid) that P.T. Barnum had assembled from a fish tail and a monkey, and displayed to great acclaim in lower Manhattan over a hundred years ago. I’d read about it, but never dreamed I’d actually see it. There were also great displays about gryphons, and a fascinating explanation of how gryphons came to be. When dinosaurs’ fossils were found in the Gobi desert, the people of that time didn’t know from Protoceratops. They thought the fossils looked like an animal that was part-lion and part eagle, which is how the gryphon came to be. For reasons I’m not sure of, the Romans associated gryphons with Nemesis. A similar fossil explanation is given for the Cyclops. Someone found the skull of a pygmy elephant, which had a large hole in the center of it, where the trunk would have been. In looking at the skull, they assumed the big hole was for a giant, single eye.
There were also displays of unicorns, and narwhals. I had seen narwhals at the museum in Valdez, Alaska (along with some really big taxidermied polar bears), but at the Natural History Museum, I got to touch a narwhal horn. The Japanese kappa, which lives in water and is said to try to pull children under to their death, may be tamed by feeding him a cucumber. I never knew vegetables could be so handy.
What was disappointing to me were the dragons. For some reason, in my Readers Theatre class in prep school we spent a lot of time on Kenneth Grahame’s "The Reluctant Dragon". I have also had an idea, for years, about writing a cabaret based on the lives of the saints, one of whom will be St. George. In my research, I found one St. George legend (Syrian, I think) where the dragon was not killing people by breathing fire on them like a barbecue, but his breath was so foul that it killed any human to come near it.
This Mythic Creatures show has been running since May, the ads for it are all over the subways (using the image of a dragon), there’s been at least one extensive article on it in the Times. But other than a handful of examples, the majority of the dragons were Asian, not European. I had come to be scared (well, a little scared) by the dragons, and left unscathed. Still, each of enjoyed some aspect of it. So after we paid our respects to the dinosaurs, we went off to lunch.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Ten-Minute Plays

I belong to three Yahoo! Groups for playwrights. Two of them don’t have much (other than porn and Cialis offers), but the third is pretty active- at least three posts a day, every day. Since I joined last spring, there have been two really spirited, passionate discussions, one about charging fees for playwriting contests. The most recent has revolved around a theatre that had been (and has since desisted) charging a $12 fee to submit a ten-minute play. Since dialogue is approximately a minute a page, that struck some people as excessive. But in the midst of this passionate debate, an ancillary topic came up, which is the value of ten-minute plays. One member wrote that ten-minute plays are for students, and useless for anyone else, certainly for professional playwrights.
I am not sure I would go quite that far. I think ten-minute plays are reflective of how our culture has changed since the 1950s, particularly through tv. The most visible proponent of the ten-minute play has been the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Every year, playwrights from all over the country submit their ten-minute masterpieces to ATL, where a handful are produced as part of the Humana Festival. For decades, ATL has published collections of the best ten-minute plays they’ve produced. I have used several of them in playwriting classes, if one of the goals of the class (which it often is) is to have each student complete a ten-minute play.
But the truth is, writing a good ten-minute play is quite difficult. It should have a beginning, a middle and an end. It shouldn’t be a comedy sketch. It shouldn’t be the first scene of a much longer work. (I myself am most guilty of the latter.) Out of the ATL collections, even the “Best of” anthologies, at least half don’t fulfill those three criteria. And many that do, aren’t really ten-minutes long. The former artistic director of ATL, Jon Jory, used to say that no ten-minute play is really ten minutes long.
On the other hand, for theatres, ten-minute plays can be a godsend. They bring in new audiences (the family and friends of the actors and the directors); they’re much faster to rehearse; it’s less daunting to put amateur actors in shorter, unsustained roles, so they save money by not paying salaries or stipends. And for audiences who aren’t used to going to the theatre, it’s less intimidating because it’s more like tv. You don’t like the first piece? That’s okay. Wait ten minutes and we’ll be on to the next one.
What’s most difficult (and off-putting) to me about ten-minute plays is that the form pretty much dictates content that’s either a shallow riff about something important, or a riff on something of little importance. My friend Elaine Romero wrote a ten-minute play about Susan Smith (the woman who killed her children) which is wonderful, but ten-minute plays of that level are very rare. I have written at least ten of them myself; three are coming out in anthologies published by Smith and Kraus this year.
Of course the other problem with ten-minute festivals is they have spawned ever-shorter plays- eight-minutes, five-minutes, even down to one-page (they certainly exist). I guess I wonder when they’ll shrink to two lines of dialogue. Or maybe just one word

Monday, September 3, 2007

Laptop Defeat, or Bill Gates, You Lose!

I have been lucky, up to now, in that I have never had a computer hard drive die on me. That is, until Thursday morning. I had planned a busy day of writing. But something was not right with my Toshiba laptop. It was running really slow (even for it), and freezing.

I had an idea that its days were numbered- I was backing up much more often than usual. I’d told myself that I wouldn’t get another PC. I was sick of all the fiddling with virus software (the latest Symantec is completely impossible- I had to run a patch every week to get the virus update), the incredibly intrusive “Automatic Updates,” the buggy software, the knowledge that eventually I’d have to break down and buy Vista, which looked ridiculous. I told myself I would finally get a Mac Book and be done with it. But I had more expenses from my move than I’d counted on (like the enormous air conditioner I had to buy to make it possible to sleep in my windowless bedroom during the summer), so I kept putting it off. And frankly, I was leery of the cultishness of the Mac people I know- my brother and sister, my boyfriend, my old roommate, pretty much everyone I know under the age of 30.

The Toshiba froze when I was trying to read my email. I restarted it, printed out a copy of the one document I had to have this week (lyrics to audition for the BMI Songwriting Workshop). First the screen went blue, and then black, with a pulsating cursor, asking for the password for my hard drive. I called Toshiba, and the guy on the other end of the line said, “Lady, your hard drive is dead.”

So the all writing day turned into going into Manhattan, since I had no email access, then home, and then back again to meet my boyfriend to go to Tekserve (which is much more pleasant that Datavision, the nearest PC repair place, I must say) and buy a Mac Book. The Tekserve guy took my money, and gave me a Mac Book and a chocolate bar.

I think writers have a deep attachment to whatever they write on. When my old laptop was in the shop getting a new CD drive, I could feel this physical sense of absence. Not to mention the lack of web surfing, email, and music other than the radio. So I’m still getting used to my Mac Book. But I hope we’re together for a long time.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

De Gustibus II

Thinking of the history of food again, there have been two interesting articles in The New Yorker recently. In the August 6th issue, Elizabeth Kolbert writes about the American bee industry (who knew?) in Stung: Where Have all the Bees Gone? It’s about the search to find both the disease that’s decimating the American bee population and its cause. The disease seems to be an apian form of AIDS. I understand that it’s not uncommon for diseases to jump species (I have a friend whose cat had feline AIDS for years), but there is something about that I find scary. In the course of the article she also mentions that in the past ten years, hybrid honeybees have taken over. It isn’t that there aren’t a lot of North American honeybees left- there aren’t any. I understand that over time species evolve and mutate, be they insects or plants. I doubt we’re eating the same rye that Charles Dickens did. But the eradication of that common a species that quickly is troubling to me.

This week’s issue has an article by John Seabrook about seeds- Sowing for Apocalypse: The Quest for a Global Seed Bank. Seabrook covers a lot of ground, and history. He identifies which plants from the Old World were brought by Columbus (including wheat, onions, citrus, melons, radishes, sugarcane, grapes and olives). The seeds of plants that Columbus took back to Spain were corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, squash, pineapples and sweet potatoes. Ah, old Cincinnatus’ dining options have exploded!

Though Seabrook is largely concerned with current efforts to preserve seeds, he manages to work in three pretty cool facts. One is that “most of the coffee that grows in Latin America today traces its ancestry to a single coffee plant from Java that was taken to the Amsterdam Botanical Garden in 1706.” Another is that much of what Columbus took back to Spain with him originated in Central and South America, not North. North America offered “blueberries, cranberries and a type of sunflower.” All good things, but not much of a basis for cuisine. The third fact is that Thomas Jefferson “smuggled rice seeds out of Italy by sewing them into his coat”. What would the U.S.D.A. make of that today?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Dramahound on the Road

Last weekend, I went to DC. On Saturday, the heat was unbelievable- at least 100 degrees and as muggy as a city built on a swamp can get. The friend I was staying with lives near the National Gallery, so we decided to get some culture and quality air conditioning at the same time.

There were two things at the Gallery that made a big impression on me. One was a photography exhibit called Foto, which was comprised of late Expressionist and Surrealist photos from Central Europe. Some familiar names (August Sander, Max Ernst, etc.) but I don’t remember seeing any of those images before.

The other was an amazing painting by Peter Paul Rubens. It was not a subject that I usually associate with Rubens- all those zaftig ladies and cherubs. The oddest Rubens I’ve ever seen is at Schonbrunn Palce outside Vienna. There’s a carriage museum (those Habsburgs knew how to live), that contains a carriage painted by Rubens, which I take to be the highest level of detailed van ever. The painting at the National Gallery was Daniel in the Lions’ Den, circa 1614. It is enormous (88 1/4 x 130 1/8 inches). There are nine lions, mostly males, depicted in various states of hunger. One is asleep. Another two are looking at each other, like they’re plotting the best way to get Daniel as a snack. They really look like lions- these are not metaphoric lions. And many of them are looking at you. Rubens did initial sketches of the lions at the Royal Menagerie in Brussels, and the lions in the painting are life-sized. Daniel is praying, but he still looks really, really nervous.

You should go. And it’s free.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Water Weather

So you’re thinking this is a subject not within the purview of the Dramahound? Well, yesterday I received an attractive pamphlet in the mail from the city office of Emergency Management. It was not about preparing for a terrorist attack, but for a hurricane.

When I lived in Rhode Island, there was one bad hurricane. I ignored the warnings and went to work at The Perishable Theatre that morning. But after awhile, no one else came in, so I called my boss. He told me to go home- the roads into Providence had been blocked off by the National Guard. So I started walking home and was indeed met by several members of the National Guard, who told me to give up any idea of buying candles, the stores were all out. I went home, waited out the storm, the electricity came back on by evening and that was that. Other Rhode Islanders didn’t have power for a week, but I was lucky.

If you spend much time in downtown Providence, you can’t avoid being reminded of hurricanes. There’s a big, ugly hurricane barrier in the bay, and a plaque on the Biltmore Hotel showing how far the water rose during the big hurricane in the 1930s- almost to the second floor. There’s been two hurricanes that swung by New York since I moved here, the big result of which were office buildings taping their windows. Nothing compared to a really bad nor’easter. For a hurricane to do real damage here, it would have to come all the way up the bay. Ever taken the Long Island Railroad from Montauk or East Hampton? It’s a long trip.

However, the NYC pamphlet tells me a bad storm could put the lowest lying parts of the city under 30 feet of water. It has three levels of evacuation zones for flood conditions. I was surprised to learn that not only do I live in an evacuation zone (if wind speeds hit 110 miles per hour), my old apartment in Yorkville is in one as well. It also suggests what you should have packed in a bag to leave, and what your emergency supplies should be (mine are woefully insufficient). The pamphlet alludes to Katrina, which was a nightmare. But New York’s topography isn’t the same as the Gulf States. Still, if a tornado can touch down in Brooklyn and do the damage it did- not a wide geographical area, but I’ve seen the ripped off roofs and pulled up trees- anything is possible.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Dating Game, or, What No One Told Me in Drama School

There are actually a lot of things I wasn’t told in drama school. But the one that’s taken more time and effort out of my professional life than any other is the amount of time that one spends “dating”- looking for the right director or composer. First, you must connect with them, on some level- not only aesthetically, but you need to be able to exchange ideas and speak freely about each other’s work, with a minimum of hurt feelings. You also need to be able to communicate with each other (harder than it sounds). Second, they need to love the piece as much as you do. Third, and this is particularly true of musicals, they need to think the play is about the same thing that you do.

The connection thing is really, really like a first date. It’s nerve-wracking, high-pressure, “Oh, my God, do they like me?” lunch or cup of coffee. And also like a first date, you watch them to see if they look bored. You notice if they only spew forth about their work, their training, who they’ve worked with. 70% of conversation dominance with a director is okay, but anything more than that and I’m done. Do they ask questions is also key (the more intelligent the better). And the ever-loaded question: whose work do you like? Because if they love the plays of Horton Foote and Richard Greenberg, they’re probably not going to like mine. I’m also leery of working with directors or composers with too thin a skin- if you spend all your time apologizing, it’s hard to get work done.

More times than not, the person sitting across the table from you will not love your play. It’s a very personal thing. Like dating. They may love another play of yours, if you’re lucky. Or they may be curious about the play but unclear about what you’re really saying with it, and once you tell them, they don’t want to devote months of their life to that.

This year, I’ve had some good first dates. I met a director who wants me to adapt two one acts from a book of short stories by one of my favorite novelists- very excited about that. I met another director who loves Brecht as much as I do, and we are intermittently meeting about a Faust adaptation of mine. Heard from her yesterday about how much she likes the music. I’ve also had first (and last) dates with a composer who had more lush nose hair than I’ve ever seen in a man under 70, and had no musical theatre music to give me, either lead sheets or a CD (a graduate of NYU, no less); and a director who’d moved to New York over a year ago, and hadn’t made an attempt to direct anything since.

And unfortunately, as with most love affairs, there are the relationships that come to an end. My favorite director in New York, the best dramaturg I’ve ever worked with, moved to Indiana this summer to start his own theatre. Brave, I’ll grant you, but I certainly miss him. There are two composers I’ve stopped working with because they’re too unreliable. Or the director that simply disappeared (last I heard she was in northern California).

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The City Watched by God

I’m taking a weekend excursion to Providence tomorrow, so I’m blogging earlier than usual. It’s not as easy to get to as it should be- for my entire adult life there’s been construction on I-95, and the train is always, always late.

I lived in Providence for part of the 1980s- first as a student at the Trinity Rep Conservatory, and then as the playwright-in-residence and tour booker for The Perishable Theatre. It was kind of a strange place in those days. The mayor, Buddy Cianci, had recently been convicted of having one of his thugs beat up his ex-wife’s boyfriend. On my way to school each day, I’d walk past Patriarca Vending Machines, which was the headquarters of the New England mob. Equally strange was the fact that Trinity Rep’s artistic director, Adrian Hall, was simultaneously artistic director of the Dallas Theatre Center. Which meant he was rarely in Providence, he was usually in Texas.

But that was long ago. Cianci did time in federal prison, the FBI cleaned up the mob, Trinity’s on its fourth artistic director since then. The reason I’m going to Providence is not to relive my misspent youth, but to see my friend James, who’s one of the smartest directors I know, and has done a lot of great work on plays of mine. He’s also one of those friends you can always rely on to tell you the truth, whether you want to hear it or not.

I spent a year of my life in law school in the 1990s, and while I was by no means friendless there, it was nothing like going to drama school. I still keep in touch with one classmate, who’s a corporate patent lawyer in New York. But the whole nature of the school (maybe the nature of the law?) was cold and competitive. There really was someone who hid a book on library reserve so the rest of us couldn’t do an assignment- like something out of “The Paper Chase.” There was certainly implicit and explicit competition at the Conservatory, but the equivalent of book-hiding never would have happened.

I guess I felt sorry for my George Gund School of Law classmates, that they wouldn’t have the opportunity to build the working relationships and the friendships that we took for granted in school. They certainly never had the opportunity to work on the “nightingale/lark” scene from “Romeo and Juliet,” and to hear James tell them: “It’s just like the ‘horse/mule’ scene from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’!”

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Au Revoir, Grande Dames

The Dramahound hesitates to turn this into an elegy festival, and “Tennis, Anyone?” was on the verge of elegy, I’m afraid. But when Mrs. Astor died yesterday, I couldn’t help thinking that death, of famous people or not famous people, comes in threes.

In a fairly short time span, three ladies responsible for not a little of New York City’s cultural life have died. So it would seem neglectful not to pay some small Dramahound tribute to them. I didn’t know any of them personally. I had a very pleasant dim sum lunch with one of their children last year; that’s as close as I got.

Beverly Sills was a force of nature in the opera world in New York City. When she retired from performing, she took on responsibility for getting City Opera on solid financial ground, which made the kind of work they produced in recent memory possible. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike the Met. I can’t afford it but once in a blue moon, and their programming is extremely conservative (though that seems to be changing under Peter Gelb). But I’ve seen I believe the only New York production of Tippett’s “Midsummer Marriage,” and that was at City Opera. We need both of them, City and the Met. Beverly Sills knew that, too. She went over to the Met when her work was done at City, and when her work was done at the Met, even as she was dying, she was navigating the treacherous waters and egos of Lincoln Center. She didn’t have to, she chose to, and opera in New York is all the better for it.

Kitty Carlisle Hart was a force of nature in the arts in the state of New York. She traveled all over, saw work and talked to people about their work, into her 90s. Mrs. Hart is difficult to write about because she ran the New York State Council on the Arts for so long and did so much for so many. She did not retreat into widowhood when her husband died (when Kennedy was President- a long, long time ago). She raised her two kids, and jumped back into life. Mrs. Hart’s work made a difference to nearly everyone who was in an audience or worked in the arts in New York for decades. I can’t imagine a better epitaph than that.

And finally, Mrs. Astor. It was her husband’s money, but, boy, she enjoyed giving it away. And she gave away a lot of it, particularly to the Public Library. I have spent many hours in the Research Library, reading and waiting for books to come up from the stacks in the basement. I always think of her when I’m there.

Ms. Sills, Mrs. Hart and Mrs. Astor. They all fought the good fight for years. And we are all the better for their efforts.

Saturday, August 11, 2007


My friend Joyce and I figured out a few months ago that we were derelict in our museum-going (you get out of the habit, you know?). One friend I used to go with moved away, one died, a third is too ill. I will go when I’ve got guests in from out-of-town, but there’s no regularity to that. So a few months ago, after I went to the Morgan to see the Fred Ebb Expressionist legacy, Joyce and I decided we would make the effort. We both think it’s good for writers, certainly for the two of us, to see visual art. Clears out your head and re-focuses it, somehow.

We both went to MoMA yesterday, but in the crush of people, we never found each other. I hadn’t been in the new building (sore that the admission went up to $20, and the other big museums followed suite, of course). I certainly went to the old museum a few times a year. I remember sitting with my sister in the sculpture garden, drinking iced tea and laughing at that silly Picasso of a goat. In my twenties, I’d make my visits to Guernica. I temped there, for a few weeks, in the photography department.

Even for a big show (the Richard Serra) I was completely unprepared for the number of people. The ticket line was nothing compared to the line for the checkroom, which was trumped by the line to pick up what was checkroom. There were many people with cameras. In that group, more than a few were interested in taking a photo of a painting they liked, and then rushing onto the next one (there didn’t seem to be a lot of actual “seeing” involved). So the dance to avoid photographers, baby strollers and other patrons got quite complicated.

There were also some characters. One woman in her 60s darted in and out of the Pollack room (completely ignoring a lovely Lee Krasner in the adjoining room), and finally shrieked at her husband, “House paint! He did it with house paint!” And I thanked God that went I went to the Pollack-Krasner house in Amagansett, she was not with me. There was another woman with a little boy, couldn’t have been more than four. He wanted to go back to his friend Tommy’s house for a play date. His mother would pause in front of each painting with an animal in it, like the Cezanne boy leading a horse. Then in a loud voice, so we all could appreciate both what a genius mother she was and how advanced her child was, she’d ask the kid what animal it was. The kid, bless him, would inquire about going back to Tommy’s, or become fascinated with something else in the room.

I did make the re-acquaintance of some of my old MoMA buddies: ”Broadway Boogie Woogie”; Brancusi’s “Bird in Flight”; the Oskar Kokoschka of the seated couple with the huge hands; Jasper Johns’ “American Flag”; Monet’s water lilies; the creepy Joseph Cornell box with the baby doll trapped by tree branches; “Starry Night” (not that I could get anywhere near it); the Matisse dancers in a circle (which you’ll miss if you’re not careful, because it’s been hung on a stairway). I made some new art friends- there was a wall of some great August Sander photographs, mostly old peasant ladies. There’s also a Joan Miro assemblage with a big, stuffed green parrot on top. Some Atgets, but not the reflected Paris shop windows. Some Seurats, but not the circus acrobats. Some mid-career Rothkos, but not the darker, later ones. Half the problem with MoMA is they have so much stuff, there’s no way they can display anything but a fraction of it. No matter how big the building is.

On some level, I hesitate to write anything about visual art because I have no training in it. I haven’t had a studio class since high school, and I did not excel in it. I never had an art history class, per se (though I had history classes with art in it). I bought a copy of Janson’s History of Art in college because that was the text book for the course, and I could never get in the class because majors had to take it. But I’m certainly interested in it, I’ve seen a lot of it and have my painter favorites. I also use art when I’m writing plays, for the emotions and images it conjures up. And when I’m teaching, particularly with students who are not at ease with or in the habit of discussing or expressing emotion, some how they do much better with trying to answer ”how does that reproduction of a piece of art make you feel?” than answering the same questions in regards to their own hearts, or words on a page.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Tennis, Anyone?

I saw “Deuce” last night at The Music Box. Terrence McNally’s play about a famous doubles team stars Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes. As a play, it’s pretty slight and not one of Mr. McNally’s best. Though other than Arthur Kopit’s hilarious “The Day the Whores Came Out to Play Tennis,” I’ve been hard pressed to call to mind another play about tennis.

What the play does is allow Miss Lansbury and Miss Seldes to work together for 90 minutes. We were sitting in the eighth row, and could see every sigh, every raised eyebrow, every emotion passing across a face. The subsidiary characters in the play interrupt the action between the two leading characters, which really gets wearing after awhile, but they also give the play its elegiac tone. I couldn’t help thinking that I will never see Miss Lansbury on stage again, which is sad to contemplate.

I grew up with the original Broadway cast recordings of “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Mame.” The first time I saw Miss Lansbury on stage was in “Sweeney Todd,” in that barn of a theatre, the Gershwin (then the Uris). It was the last night that she and Len Cariou were in it together, and it was absolutely mesmerizing, however far away our seats were from the stage. Miss Lansbury was in her late 50s then, and musicals are hard work at any age. When I was still acting, she was who I wanted to be when I grew up. Now, she’s 81, and who can blame the woman if she wants to retire and spend time with her grandchildren?

I’ve admired Miss Seldes since I saw her in the original production of Tony Kushner’s “A Bright Room Called Day.” That play was so much of its time (the first Bush administration), I have a difficult time imagining what a revival would be like, though I know they’ve been done. Set in Berlin in the early 1930s, the emotions it evoked were identical to those in the air in New York City. And Miss Seldes was somehow able to inhabit the play and its period, but simultaneously to let the audience see her in a completely contemporary light. I still don’t know how she did it, but it was chilling. Miss Seldes is such a fixture in New York theatre I can’t imagine her retiring, though she’s not much younger than Miss Lansbury.

At the curtain call, I stood up for the ovation. I rarely do that, because it’s usually completely unwarranted. But for those two ladies, who wouldn’t?

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Shakespeare in Another Park

I am embarrassed to admit that I’d never seen a performance by Gorilla Rep until last Wednesday. I knew about them, of course- they’re in their 15th season of doing free, classical theatre in New York City parks. Their work was certainly more accessible to me when I lived in Manhattan. But I took three subways, and got to Riverside Park to see their latest production of “Henry V.”

I’ve seen a lot of Shakespeare in my life, both live and on film. My senior thesis in college was “Actors’ Interpretations of Hamlet,” with a slight bending of the thesis to be able to include the E. Gordon Craig/Stanislavski production at the Moscow Art Theatre. I saw the “Henry V” that the Public did a few years ago. I saw a “Measure for Measure” at the Riverside Theatre (which is located in an Iowa City park; but it’s basically an amphitheatre with sides to it, capped by an Elizabethan stage).

I was a little leery of seeing a production of “Henry V” with the country at war. There’s always a chance that some overly enthusiastic director will go crazy trying to bend Shakespeare to his will be making it all pro-war (which I don’t believe it is) or all anti-war (which it is decidedly not). I need not have worried.

Christopher Sanderson’s direction is by far the best I’ve seen of a Shakespeare play in ages. You are draw into the action so quickly, and held there the whole time. The changes in location (the audience follows the actors to various parts of a fenced section of the park) don’t stop the action, they pull you along with it. At the same time, no matter how close you get to the actors, you never get that uncomfortable “oh, my God, it’s audience participation waiting to happen” feeling, nor that your presence or space is somehow intruding on theirs. There is some direct address, but not too much. Sanderson uses the natural world- a hill, trees, the setting of the sun (the fireflies add a great deal, but I assume he can’t take credit for them)- very specifically and to great effect. And it didn’t come over me gradually- I think I smiled all the way through the prologue (“O, for a muse of fire”), and not just because I had to learn it in school.

The performances ranged from great to okay. The comedic roles were all funny (which is key, and I have seen them not bee very funny at all). Ru-Chen and Frances You Sanderson as Alice and Katherine were ebullient, and in the last scene, touching, as Alice and Katherine, And it’s difficult to do that well, particularly in French. I had a very difficult time understanding the actor who played the King of France, but he brought such great enthusiasm and energy to his role. Jacob Knoll played the Prologue, Chorus and Epilogue, and he was absolutely riveting. I wish I’d seen his Hamlet last May. I understand why there was no intermission, but at 2 hours and 40 minutes, the last half hour was a bit of a haul. I wasn’t bored, I just needed to stretch.

So if you hurry, you can still make it to Riverside Park by 8PM tonight for the final performance of “Henry V.”

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

De Gustibus

The Dramahound has been thinking about food lately. Not that there’s anything new about that, but this is more than the usual “what’s for dinner?”

There are not a lot of plays about food. I did see a hilarious ten-minute play by Melissa Fendell about the history of the potato a few months ago at the Milk Can Theatre Co., along with a play by my friend Cheryl Davis that involved a recipe for salmon poach in a dishwasher. M.L. Kinney has written a really creepy play about gluttony- a couple is so into what they’re eating and each other, they let their offstage baby die. Brecht mentions bread a lot (he would, wouldn’t he?), as does Shakespeare in Coriolanus.

My scene partner from grad school, Giuliano Hazan, now is a chef and writes cookbooks. The scene we did that I remember best was from The Country Girl, and when I had to slap him, my hand slipped and threw his glasses across the studio. But he forgave me. Before we went to school together, Giuliano translated at least one play of Dario Fo’s into English. There must be a Fo play about food.

Sunday night my boyfriend and I were cooking, which we do for recreation and because it’s something we can do together. Otherwise, that’s what take-out menus are for. We made a roasted vegetable dish from one of Giuliano’s books, and my boyfriend started waxing rhapsodically (as he is wont to do) about the Roman countryside, and what might Cincinnatus have had for dinner from his farm. And the more we talked about it, the more we were surprised. There’s no pasta in fourth century B.C.E. Italy- that doesn’t come until Marco Polo brings it back from China. Probably no rice or risotto yet, either. No potatoes or turkey, they’re American. Tomatoes are from South America. So old Cincinnatus has wine, olives, probably figs, some kind of bread. Not quite fettucine alfredo.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Wild Parrots of Brooklyn

Some years ago my brother and his family were living in a house in Pasadena. My little niece was very taken with the wild parrots that lived in the neighborhood. You couldn’t always see them, but you could certainly hear them. Later I read about the wild parrots of San Francisco, so I assumed parrots were a California thing.

A few summers ago, long before I had a clue I’d be transplanted to Gowanus, my boyfriend and I were walking to our favorite diner near his house in Bay Ridge. As we’re walking along a sidewalk that borders Leif Erikson Park, I looked down at the grass. And there, six feet from me, was a youthful-sized green parrot.

The parrots have been in Brooklyn since the early 1970s. The species (monk parrots, also called Quaker parrots) is originally from Argentina. No one seems to really know how they got here, though some say they escaped from a cargo at JFK. Their original home was at the Brooklyn College athletic field. They made their nests up in the light towers. Near Leif Erikson is a baseball field called the Dust Bowl, and we’ve watched the parrots building their nests in the light towers there.

The parrots’ third Brooklyn home is closer Gowanus, and that’s in the Gates of Eternity leading into Green-Wood Cemetery. They just love those Gothic spires, and they are quite squawky in their greetings to visitors.

There are many photographs of the parrots in Brooklyn and New Jersey at www.brooklynparrots.com. My personal favorites are the ones of them eating pizza; they also seem to enjoy bagels. There’s also a Brooklyn parrot video: http://www.loftinpro.com/animalplanet.htm. And a slide show of photos to watch while you listen to “The Ballad of the Brooklyn Parrots.”

Thursday, July 26, 2007


I got an email from a playwright friend yesterday, which I responded to this morning. I had to think about what she’d written before I could write back anything of substance. She is adapting some myths into a play. She’s done adaptations before, as have I. But this adaptation is different for her.

I know how she feels. I tried to think of one adaptation I’d done where it was the same process as another I’d done, and I couldn’t think of any. It’s always different. It always has to do with the nature of the material, plus the original author’s intent, and where it intersects my intent.

So it’s in that context, I can truthfully say I don’t have a clue what adaptation is. Has Sarah Ruhl, the critics’ darling of the moment, written an adaptation of Eurydice? I bet she’d say no. Has Steve Sater written an adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening? Probably, but it isn’t a slavish adaptation, however true it is to Wedekind’s intent. Even though I knew even before I read an interview with Sater there are scenes in the musical that aren’t in the play. The father-son scene makes complete sense, it’s emotionally satisfying, it isn’t jarring in the least. However, I know enough about the original play, and European drama and societal attitudes of a century ago, to know that Wedekind never would have written that scene. In his authorial context, in his world, it wouldn’t have made sense. But in Sater’s and our world, it makes perfect sense. I think that is what makes that libretto particularly admirable. If he did a word-for-word adaptation from the German, or from Eric Bentley’s translation, that’s all well and good, I guess. But to get into the world of a play and figure what is going to resonate emotionally with a contemporary audience, while not violating what Wedekind was trying to say- to me, that’s the whole point.

Never fear, there will be more Dramahound on adaptation. I’ve spent years of my life trying to figure it out.

Monday, July 23, 2007

110 in the Shade

It's been a long time since I worked at the Theatre Development Fund. But as a Dramatist Guild member, I still get discount tickets through them. So Wednesday night I went to see "110 in the Shade" with two actor/singer friends (one of whom is a devoted and much appreciated reader of this blog!). The three of us did not go to school together, we have completely different training. And had fairly different reactions to the show.

I thought Audra McDonald was simply amazing. I'm not surprised she's won that many Tonys at her age. John Collum (who I'd seen on stage before, but never in a musical) was incredible. He does what every really great actor does- he makes his work look absolutely effortless.

I grew up with a lot of Jones & Schmidt music around me. I sang songs from "Celebration" for voice lessons; auditioned for multiple productions of "The Fantasticks"; I studied with a man who directed a production of "Philemon"; and my parents has the original cast album of "I Do, I Do" which I listened to frequently.

Now, I have a greater appreciation of libretti, and in particular this one. N. Richard Nash wrote the libretto for "110 in the Shade," based on his play "The Rainmaker." I'm trying to think of another playwright who's done that, adapted their own straight play into a libretto, and off the top of my head can't think of one. I sat through a lot of scene classes in school where someone was doing the Starbuck/Lizzie scene. In my youth, I dismissed it as incredibly hokey. But I don't believe that now. I think that Nash put his finger on something very important about being a woman in this culture, in the scene where Starbuck tries to get Lizzie to say she's pretty. I've seen incredibly assertive actresses dissolve into tears while working on that scene. It was by far the most moving scene in this production.

I suspect that even the beautiful Audra McDonald has a critical voice in her head telling her that she's not really that pretty. I suspect that we all do.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Immortal Magyar

When I was researching Hungarian history for what turned into two plays (“Maura and Katinka” and “Geography”), I was looking at a list of famous Hungarians of the 19th century. There were some politicians, some composers (like Liszt) and a guy who I had never heard of: Ignaz Semmelweis. Who the hell was he?

Well, if you’re a woman and you’ve ever given birth (or if you’re not a woman and you’ve ever had surgery), Semmelweis is kinda huge. He discovered the importance of antiseptic surgery 15 years before Joseph Lister did- though I know I was told in high school that Lister was first. Semmelweis was from a working class family in Pest. He studied at the General Hospital (Allgemeines Krankenhaus) in Vienna and specialized in obstetrics. He noticed that the women giving birth in the charity ward had a lower death rate from childbed fever than the wealthier women. In some European hospitals up to a third of women giving birth died from childbed fever, so this was no small thing. The reason was that the poor women tended to be dirtier, and the doctors would wash their hands between deliveries. The rich women were cleaner, so the doctors didn’t bother.

But nobody in power in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, believed him. They thought he was at best an upstart, and at worse a nut. Semmelweis finally retreated to Pest, and ran an obstetrics clinic there. But still he was undermined: one of the nurses had a grudge against him, and didn’t bother to change sheets between patients, even though she’d been told to; things of that ilk. This went on for years- Semmelweis battling to save women’s lives, and carrying incredible guilt when he was unable to. He had doctors wash their hands with soap, sterilize them with a chemical (carbolic acid) and then rub their hands with oil, so that the germs (not that anyone knew what a germ was yet- this was all observation on his part) wouldn’t get into the pores of their hands (no rubber gloves in the 1850s).

Finally, in the summer of 1865, Semmelweis lost it and cracked up. His wife had him committed to a sanatorium outside of Vienna. What no one knew was that during one of his last obstetrics cases, Semmelweis had cut his finger. He developed gangrene, and was dead in two weeks. The day before Semmelweis died, in England Lister began using carbolic acid to sterilize his hands before surgery. Fourteen years later, Louis Pasteur identified the bacteria that caused childbed fever.

There is a building in Pest that’s part of the general hospital that has Semmelweis’ name on it- I’ve seen it. But there’s not much else to remember poor old crazy Ignaz, who saved so many lives. “Immortal Magyar” is the name of an old biography of Semmelweis from 1950.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Green-Wood Cemetery Thespians

There are four well-known actors buried in Green-Wood Cemetery. One is Laura Keene, who starred in “Our American Cousin,” and was onstage at Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. Another is Kate Claxton, who was onstage when the Great Brooklyn Theatre Fire broke out.

The most famous actor that we’ve all seen (he was in a lot of movies) buried in Green-Wood is Frank Morgan. Born Francis Wupperman in New York City, he was one of eleven children. His family were the distributors of Agostura Bitters, which must have been how they could afford to have eleven children. Morgan is best known for playing the Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz.” But I think he’s even better in Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner” where he plays the owner, Mr. Matuschek.

The famous actor that none of us have seen now resting in Green-Wood is Lola Montez. I spent a year or two trying to write a screenplay about her. I have never been sure if I abandoned it because she was such a slippery character, or because I was working on it when my sister-in-law called to tell me that the World Trade Center had been hit. Or as my brother put it: “Somebody bombed your back yard.” Which is exactly what it felt like. My work on Lola is still sitting in my file cabinet.

Born in Ireland to an unmarried milliner, as a young woman she invented herself as Lola Montez, a widowed Spanish countess who had to perform for a living because her husband left her penniless. Her biggest hit was the erotic “Spider Dance,” where she would sweep off her dress imaginary, strategically placed tarantulas. Men loved it- Lola was the toast of Europe. She had an affair with the Tsar, and she brought Bavaria to the brink of civil war, because King Ludwig I couldn’t live without her. He abdicated, and Lola went off to greener pastures- New York City.

In the States, Lola wrote two plays about her life, in which she played herself (who else could?). She ran them in New York multiple times, and toured up and down the Mississippi. When the Gold Rush broke out, Lola got on a boat and sailed to California, where she entertained the miners. Then she went to Australia and performed there. Behind her, Lola left a succession of husbands (she never actually bothered to divorce the first one), and a few neglected children. By the time she made it back to New York, she was broke, and had a stroke. In the winter of 1861, she died in a rooming house on the west side of Manhattan. Lola Montez was 42 years old. She is buried in Green-Wood under her real name, Eliza Gilbert. There was a very good biography of her- “Lola Montez: A Life” by Bruce Seymour.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Careful What You Say

I am very careful about what I say in a theatre or in the lobby during intermission if I don't like the play. I have overheard things about my work that I wish I hadn't more than once. I remember seeing a show 15 years ago in I think the Royale, one of those old great Shubert houses on 45th Street, and I was with my parents. We were sitting in the orchestra very near one of the boxes. I'd been backstage in that house. There is a curtain hanging underneath the box, and if you go behind it, you are backstage. At that time there wasn't even a door. At intermission my mother starts- ranting would be the right word- about how she hates the acting. I'm begging her to shut up or lower her voice because at best she's entertaining the stage management staff, and at worst she's undermining the actors' confidence. Which I told her, and which, of course, didn't stop her.

In Manhattan, there's the ten block rule. You have to be ten blocks away to say Anything negative, however much you're dying to, to whomever you saw the show with. I really try to stick to this rule, which it's always easy if you've sat still for three hours and had your head brimming with what you want to say. An old boyfriend of mine extended the ten block rule to include cars with the windows closed.

But once in awhile when you're the target, you hear something good. I worked on a 24 Hour Play Festival in Kansas when I was playwright-in-residence at the Inge Center. It was not the best of circumstances. I'd be there 36 hours, my divorce lawyer was having a hard time with my case, I had bronchitis, I was on antibiotics and had a raging fever. My play was in the first half, and the lead actor had far from mastered his lines so there was a lot of the other actors milling around onstage and trying to feed the lines to him. So the only thing for me to do at intermission was go out for a smoke. There was a family already out there- mother, father, adult son. They talked about what they'd just seen. The more obvious and cliched the situation, the more it was like a TV skit, the more they liked the play. So then they got around to mine. "I didn't like it," the son said. "Why?" asked his mother. "Because you didn't know what was going to happen next," he said. Which to me is the the best thing he could have said. If you do know what's going to happen next, then what's the point?

Smith & Kraus felt otherwise; it's coming out in their "Best Short Plays for Three or More Actors" this year. It's called "Body Shop."

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Great Brooklyn Theatre Fire

On the 4th of July, we did not go away, since my boyfriend and I had to work Tuesday and Thursday. Instead, we made a short trip to Green-Wood Cemetery, , which is about ten blocks from where I live. It's enormous, has four lakes (some bigger than others), a Gothic-looking chapel, hilly, lots of trees, great view of lower Manhattan. Really interesting funereal statuary, not to mention more mausoleums than I've ever seen in one place in my life.

We did some walking, and some slow driving (it kept raining). The nice guard at the entrance gave us a map, and we hunted down former Gov. DeWitt Clinton, but had less luck with Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the first important classical composer in the U.S.

One monument I noticed was what I thought was a memorial to the victims of the Brooklyn Theatre Fire. There was a large theatre called the Brooklyn Theatre; it looks like it was what's now in the southwest corner of what's now the Brooklyn Navy Yard. On the evening of Dec. 5, 1876, a kerosene lamp ignited a stage drop in the middle of a performance of "The Two Orphans". There were no fire escapes. The fire went up the drape to the ceiling of the theatre, and turned the building into a conflagration. Over 300 people died. Underneath the monument in Green-Wood are the victims whose bodies couldn't be identified. I thought I knew a lot of theatre fire history- in the 19th century, there was a massive fire at theatre Barnum rented (the menagerie was in the basement) on 14th Street and Irving Place (later the Academy of Music and then the Palladium), killed people and animals. And I've read about the Ringling Brothers fire in Hartford in the 1940s- the whole tent went up. But I'd never heard of the Brooklyn Theatre Fire before.

For contemporary newspaper accounts, go to:

Friday, July 6, 2007

My P.O. Pals

Eudora Welty wrote a story called "Why I Live at the P.O." Which if you used to use Eudora mail in the olden internet days, is why it was called that. I don't spend as much time as I did at the p.o. as I did, say, three years ago. More and more theatres let playwrights submit electronically. But most still don't.

My boyfriend was very pleased to tell me this morning that he had mailed two (2!) items using first-class stamps in the past month. I was lugging mail that came to $40+ when I got to the p.o. That's this week's take- I was there last week as well. You can't mail a manuscript in a mail box anymore- I think it was the Atlanta Olympics scare that brought an end to that. You must hand your envelope to a person in a post office. And if you already have the postage on it, the post office employees don't always agree who should take the envelope. It can be an elaborate game of "keep away."

It's more convenient for me to go to my old post office on 85th Street in Manhattan (it's on my way to work and near an express train), than it is to go to my new post office in Brooklyn. So I see all my old p.o. clerk pals. The sweet lady who hums to herself; the harried lady who doesn't like having to write out "Bound Printed Matter" on my play envelopes. And my own personal favorite, spray-on-hair guy. I'm not sure I knew you could get spray-on hair anymore before I met him. He never doesn't use it. It always covers exactly the same amount of his scalp. Does he think people won't notice that it's spray-on?

You have to have a p.o. strategy to beat the lines. I have a pretty good idea of when the shifts change. Mondays and Fridays are not so good. But if I can get there before 9:15, Tuesday through Thursday, there's no one there. Except between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Then you'd just better bring a book.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Dramahound Dramaturg

In school, I learned that the first dramaturg was Schiller. He was helping Goethe out on a play. But they had a difficult time figuring out exactly what Schiller should be doing, so he only had the job a few months before Goethe let him go. In German, "dramaturg" is "dramaturg" (the "g" is hard). In French, it's "dramaturge" (the "g" like a "j"). In Polish and Romanian, dramaturg actually means playwright. In English, people seems to spell it without the "e," but pronounce it either the French way or the German way. Which is strange. It's like when I was a kid, the accepted spelling was "theater." But somehow, by the time out of college, all these theaters were spelling it the French way (or aping the Brits, spelling it that way).

Dramaturg means different things to different people. Some theatres say it's the equivalent of a literary manager. Others say a dramaturg is the person who helps the director with his research- both the history of the era in which the play is set, and the production history of the play if it's a revival. To me, being a dramaturg is more like being a copy editor. You have a piece, you want to keep the writer's voice in in and your voice out of it, you want to keep it accessible and clear. You don't want to leave big black paw prints all over it.

Particularly if I'm working on a good play, being a dramaturg is fun. You get to observe somebody else's writing process, you're the second set of eyes, you help them make the play better. Very rewarding, emotionally and intellectually if never financially, but that's okay. Very like teaching, actually.

But if it's my play, dramaturgs make me really nervous. I had a bad experience with one early on, who insisted a comedy of mine really needed marijuana-induced jokes in it, and I couldn't get away from her fast enough. Would have totally undercut who the characters were, and the world they were in. Or as David Chase had Carmela say to AJ when he was smoking dope at his confirmation party, "You're an animal!"

In the best of all possible worlds, to steal from M. Voltaire, I am blessed with a good director who has worked on new plays before and knows what he or she is doing. That is a complicated enough relationship; adding a dramaturg is like having a third person in bed with you. Of course if it's not my play, it's totally different.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

More Drama, Less Hound

Over the past few days, I’ve noticed this blog is more “hound” than “drama,” and I’ve asked myself what’s up with that. I’m not unqualified to write about theatre. I went to college, then grad school, joined The Dramatists Guild (http://www.dramatistsguild. com/), wrote plays, wrote more plays, taught, dramaturged (not a pretty word, certainly not when used as a verb; it basically means helping the playwright shape their play into what they want it to be, either before or during rehearsal), wrote the libretto and lyrics for two short musicals, taught, wrote, etc.

Part of my reticence is never wanting to sound like the voice of God. I can’t get a roomful of students to agree on “what a play is”- nor should they. A playwright without opinions can’t be much of a playwright. Some years ago, I had an incredibly talented student who kept blowing off my class. He didn’t even bother to be sneaky about it- I’d see him hanging out in the hallway with his girlfriend. When I confronted him, he said, “You’re trying to tell me how to write.” I was astonished. Really. I said, “I’m trying to give you tools to help you write. I’d never tell you how to write. What would be the point of that?” He never missed a class again.

Writing plays is sort of a strange process. Unless you write with a partner, it involves a great deal of solitude; the discipline to not let the rest of your life (blogging, friends, bills, email) distract you for blocks of time; the continuing act of will to keep at it, despite the fact you will invariably be rejected many more times than accepted (I mean, of course, the work being rejected, though it often feels infinitely more personal than that); and the willingness to commit something of yourself to paper. A very smart director friend said to me once that the act of writing a play means that you believe that something that is emotionally true for you is true for everyone else. She was right, and I’ve never forgotten that.

And then, if you’re lucky, you go into rehearsal, and everything changes. You talk (to the producer, the director the designers); you take notes; you ask the director questions; you rewrite scenes that don’t work. You listen (to the director, the actors, the designers, the producer). You rethink characters. You rewrite lines that assault your ear like a car alarm. You invite someone you trust professionally to rehearsal, and listen to what they say. Finally, you reach the day that the script has to be frozen (no more changes, not even moving a comma), or the actors will rise up and kill you. And then, you can’t do anything. Which in its way is the hardest part of all.