Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

Archive for May 2010

best in the box

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I went to the opera the other night at the Kennedy Center, and saw Ambroise ThomasHamlet.

As with anything adapted from an original source, the opera bears little resemblance to the play, and when the Britts first saw it, they let Thomas know just how off the dock he’d leapt! A critic sneered in the London press: “No one but a barbarian or a Frenchman would have dared to make such a lamentable burlesque of so tragic a theme as Hamlet.”

Hamlet premiered at the Paris Opera in 1868, an institution Verdi dismissively marked as the “Grande Boutique”, having survived the overwrought social, political and musical convolutions of rehearsals and the belabored premiere of his own opera, Don Carlos, in 1867.

The Paris Opera was a factory whose productions held firm grip on the musical tastes of Paris, and much of Europe.

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Since Meyerbeer first premiered his Robert le Diable at the Opera (1831), French taste had solidified behind extravagance, in a 5 Act format that inflated spectacle, and facilitated a grand ballet in the mid section of the evening, allowing for many of the aristocracy to dine sociably -and still make it to the performance to applaud their mistresses in the corps de ballet.

Drama, in such a rigid code of presentation, more often took a back seat to pomp and pageantry.

It is without question that Shakespeare’s drama of Hamlet suffered at the hands of Thomas’ opera, and requirements of French taste. The opera establishes new relationships, adds a love duet for Hamlet and Ophelia, immediately suggests Gertrude’s awareness of her criminal culpability and damnation, and –depending on which version is being presented- allows for, at the time, the obligatory “happy ending”.

Hamlet was Thomas’ greatest success, but as tastes changed from one century to another, his opera sank into ridicule, if not obscurity. Though often raised from the dead, since the mid 1980’s, the opera has also carried a whiff of.. -mealy aptitude –leaving critics a banquet offering that seemingly begs re-internment.

What many of the public, and critics alike, seem to gloss over is that Thomas’ opera, Hamlet, is a product of a specific period, created in the bounds of the taste of that period, and reflects its composer’s adept abilities to satisfy the needs of his time. Thomas’ opera is a perfect realization of an evening’s entertainment, superbly crafted, in the box of the times.

Many composers and librettists, have suffered undue criticism of their works due to the fact that they “pleased” in their time –without consideration of the fact that their time might not please any other. Such artists are often wrung through a grid of 20/20 hindsight, which usually judges them wanting and allows some fine works to be tossed into the wrong pile..

Verdi undoubtedly is an innovator; he wrestled with the stricture of bel canto, and was able, through his genius and disciplined fire, to fashion new boundaries to the art form of opera, divesting it of an overwrought artifice for the sake of a lovely turn of melodic phrase, giving paramount position to the dictates of drama, and keeping abreast of his literary heroes Goethe and Shakespeare.

For opera, this activity was well ‘out of the box’ and it created a spotlight, and ruler, whereby his contemporaries and colleagues were suddenly judged; if Verdi could make ‘the Scottish play’ a searing psychological investigation of unbridled avarice and power, then why couldn’t anyone else taking up an opera pen..?

Perhaps because playing in the box is the ground upon which most artists find guaranteed footing.

Public Taste is not generally interested in a main course diet of innovators, renegades and enfant terribles. And this ‘taste’ remains the box.

But artists want platform, even if it’s in a mediocre square.

Perhaps it is time to discourse on the symbiotic dynamic between demands of the Public, and the facilitations of companies that platform works which do little to test the boundaries of theatre or social commentary..

Jenn Larsen seems to be considering questions along the same rail..

riding the rail

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…there is no real way of giving the full description of a writer’s life..

It often wobbles somewhere between obscurity and, in a subsequent second, for an evening (or a phone call), celebrity. The daily pulse, however, is the whittling of character, and the connection of point to plot. Good days involve finding the rail through the subject of the moment, and riding it evenly, creatively, and effectively, hammering together all the seams of narrative and leaving no scars to derail an audience on a tight curve.

Most of this occurs in the writer’s mind, or, if particularly lucky, on the page. And, when luck is involved, there are instances of serendipity, where that page gets handed to interested parties who feel the need to expose the words to a live gathering of folks, who will applaud it, or leave you with nightmares of an experience to gnash and blush over..

But, either way, the whole point of writing anything is to reach out –to lay down words which connect to other people’s hearts, minds, wonder, and curiosity.. and facilitate a journey they’d not contemplated taking, one, hopefully, enjoyed.

My connection with the Berkshire Playwrights Lab came as a true gift of serendipity, and has only reinforced my belief in that, every time I’ve been fortunate to work with them.

This is the third year of the Lab’s existence, and last Friday evening, 21st May, was its Gala Opening event.

A ten minute work of mine, Groundwork, was in the roster of the evening, and last Tuesday I drove up to Great Barrington with Joe Cacaci, one of BPL’s artistic directors, and Carol Schneider, another of the playwrights being plat-formed.

Joe was directing Carol’s piece, and, once we got to Great Barrington, they disappeared into rehearsals and weren’t seen again until evening, at a terrific dinner at the Old Mill, a local restaurant. It was the first time for the whole company, minus a straggler or two, to come together and learn of one another’s presentations.

Though I knew of the two actors assigned to my piece, it was at this dinner that I first met Dan Lauria and Jay Thomas.

Bob Jaffe, another of the artistic directors of BPL, was the director of my play. We started rehearsal the next morning at 9.

..ok –you’ve got to know that having Dan and Jay in the same room, not to mention sharing the same stage, is an event of hysteric proportion; they’re old friends, and have wanted to have a whack at one another from the same script for some time!

Jay, is ever ready with a story; from New Orleans, ‘fable curling’ comes off his lips like limitless honey, while Dan, a solid northerner, cuts to the chase of a tale with a no nonsense delivery, and always has the listener rapt. I filled volumes of notebooks on stories these two let fly, and read them now daily, to savor the ribald, wrenching, and unbelievable that I was witness to, laughing uncontrollably.

But the process, of Dan and Jay finding their feet in my words, was a privileged one to watch.

The rehearsal started at a long table, in a large classroom at the Great Barrington Community College, where they first read through the piece. There was a bit of back and forth afterwards, about ‘word reading’ and word meaning, and then Bob asked if they were feeling like they might like to ‘move it’. They were ready to, and so Dan and Jay walked about for the second reading. In the course of this came movements, connected to particular lines that shaped an action in a particular moment.

Bob massaged these moments, and asked Dan and Jay to see if a different connection could be made to a word, facilitating a different action.

..the rest of us in the room, Abby Edber, BPL intern, Don Kimmel, stage manager, and I, would be silent and hanging on every instance, watching these two actors create, from nothing but words, characters, relationship, comedy and entertainment.

We ran the piece several times in that first rehearsal, and each time round I was able to marvel –what had first existed as a conversation between two voices in my head, was now in the flesh in front of me, pulsing with a wit and life I’d only sketched as guide.

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When the connection is a good one, magic happens. It came in that first rehearsal, and stayed rich through opening night!

through the arbor of leaves

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…the town of Great Barrington is about a two and a half hour drive north of Manhattan, in the lower western corner of Massachusetts, settled in a part of the smooth, tall rolling collection of mountains, hills, forests and pastures of the Berkshires.

Joe Cacaci drove, while Carol Schneider, a warm and wonderful playwright, and I, as passengers, spent the trip nattering about Joe, as if he wasn’t there, and talking about our profession, which we both felt was in dire straits, as production companies fight for funding and make choices which strangle opportunity for nurturing originality and new voices. Which would bring us back to nattering about Joe, and the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, a group that really puts their effort behind their mission, to nurture and platform, new and original voices in theatre.

Both Carol and I have pieces being done in BPL’s Gala Night presentation, and we are both in Great Barrington to participate in the series of rehearsals and fetings BPL has facilitated to launch their third year season.

But once in the corner of Massachusetts, we all find ourselves silenced by the woods and fields we roll through.

The green is deep, lush and almost silken in the light mist of an afternoon cloud spritzing.. A cow pasture on the right appears, and reveals a procession of black, stolid cows, munching and moving at a walking pace, following the lone figure of a young man, hands in his pockets, in sweater and jeans, leading the herd to a maze, just ahead, that will leave them in a lower field of heavy green..

The towns slip by, announced by markers which invariably state the date of incorporation as sometime in the 1700’s.. Tall trees part to permit settlement, but remain predominant, and the thick damp scent of pine and mulch permeate the interior of the car..

Last year was my first experience with BPL and Great Barrington, and I was housed at The Egremont Inn, a tavern, coach and carriage house built in the late 1700’s. Tragedy consumed the place this past winter, as an electrical fire broke out, late at night, and incinerated the place to its foundations. Luckily no one was hurt, but the building no longer exists.

For this time we’re put up at the Wainwright Inn. Built as an Inn and Tavern in 1766, the house was used as a fort and colonial armory during the American Revolution. It was bought, in 1790, by State Representative David Wainwright, and then became known as Wainwright Hall. He passed it onto his daughter and son-in-law, Electra and Ebenezer Popes, whose son, Franklin, grew up to become an accomplished inventor; as well as being co-inventor of the ticker tape, he worked for a time with Thomas Edison.

..I am ensconced in Mr Pope’s second floor, corner room, sitting at a writing desk, where an arbor of thick Maple leaves screen the morning sun, before light sieves through the large clear windows..

The couple who own the Inn, Robert and Marja Tepper, are Dutch, and have had the property for over ten years. It is an incredible experience being in this home.. or sitting on the warp around porch.. The bedrooms are all quiet and cozy and have thimble post, poster beds.. made for deep dreaming rest..  Sofas and chairs are of a ‘period’ comfort –eclectic, Colonial, European.. There is a commanding fireplace in the front parlor, and an upright piano, beside which is a basket, filled with music books. Although it is spring and not cold enough for a fire, the last one lit remains as a smoldering aroma..

..everything about this B&B is about creating a sense of ‘destination’ and repose.. The dining room looks out onto a large green, and in front of the main windows are two wrought iron feeders, serving an incredible variety of beautiful birds which swoop, perch and pick.. Flowers on the tables are all from the garden.. A large vase of mixed roses laze into another day, ripe with scent, and softened by the bit of time they have spent cut already..

Marja presides in this oasis.. She is keen to make sure every detail of the house will encourage every visitor to relax and enjoy this home base.. Breakfast is served every morning from 8-9:30.. And it is the first feast. Always home fashioned. I’d mentioned a fondness for a Dutch holiday treat, Oliebollen (a deep fried dough ball of currants, covered in powdered sugar). Reminding me that having Oliebollen at any time other than New Year’s was bad luck, Marja proceeded to fashion a variant of the treat for breakfast, and served it with poached apples in a sweet syrup.. Bliss!

Everything out of the kitchen is prepared by Marja and her co-chef Daryl. The bread is home made, and the sinful orange marmalade is the result of many hours cooking, steady stirring, and weeks settling.. Yes, this all sounds great and indulgent.. and it is. But it is the warmth of the Wainwright Inn’s host and hostess which make this B&B the most perfect and incredible experience, in an area replete with vintage B&B’s, and culinary competition. Marja and Robert are.. well.. gracious, giving and content individuals, who like sharing their enjoyment of life..

The BPL group have engaged a handful of places to house the artists involved with this Gala event. The artists included in this are Dan Lauria, Treat Williams, Elizabeth Franz, James DeMarse, Charles Socarides, Vasili Bogazianos, Chris Stack, Kristen Johnston, Ted Sod, Pepper Binkley, Jessica Dickey, Lauren Ambrose, and Joe Paulik. Jay Thomas, and his wife Sally are also here, staying at the Wainwright. The writers involved are Anna Zeigler, Kelly Masterson, Gina Barnett, Dean Imperial, Carol Schneider and I. Joe Cacaci also has a short piece in the roster.

Rehearsals began yesterday. Dan and Jay are in my piece, called Groundwork. It was wonderful watching these two good friends find their legs in my words, and bring off the page more than I’d envisioned, snapping up the humor and dishing it out with relish.

We rehearsed today on stage, in the Mahaiwe. Tomorrow afternoon is tech, and tomorrow night –a definite Gala! Photos to come..

making time

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..the one thing there never seems to be enough of –time.

The last two weeks have been very full of presentations; ones at schools, and then, this past week, two days of ‘Showcase’ day presentations, where all 17 schools, that were involved in the WNO DCPS program, came together, at the opera company’s studios in Takoma Park, to show one another the results of their work.

The two days of the Showcase were spectacular and engaging to all the schools and students involved. One class’ reinterpretation of Falstaff included an ‘updating’ of their costumes, resulting in a ‘Falstaff Fashion Show’, complete with runway depictions of how Falstaff and the Merry Wives would look in 20th century costume.

Many school classes decided that Falstaff had received a bum rap, at the hands of Meg and Alice, and created presentations which afforded Falstaff a moment of revenge, or, better yet, justice.

In all the cases though, the creativity was incredible, and all the students were delighted to view what other classes had come up with.

Fun as it may have been, keeping the attention of a room full of 4th & 5th graders is no easy thing –but, by and large, the two days of presentations were captivating to the students, and we had consistently appreciative audiences.

Many of the students had their parents also attending the Showcase, and were performing for proud and beaming relatives.

Those presentations concluded, it was time to turn my attention to an upcoming presentation of my own..

Many weeks back I had a call from Joe Cacaci, one of the Artistic Directors of the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, asking me if I had a short play at hand that BPL could use in their Gala season opening.

At the time he asked, I didn’t have such a thing; to be honest, I’d never written a short [ten minute] work before. But after saying ‘no’, and going to bed that evening, I found myself sitting upright in bed the next morning with the remnant of a conversation in my head which I believed I could make into a 10 minute skit. So hurtling out of bed that morning, I proceeded to write out the play, and was able to turn it over to Joe –and have it accepted into the Gala’s proceedings.

This is the opening of the third season of the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, and the guest artists involved are a heady batch for any writer to be playing with. In my case, Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) and Jay Thomas (Murphy Brown) are in my piece called, Groundwork.

Writers, actors and BPL’s artistic team all come together tomorrow, up in Great Barrington, to begin rehearsing for Friday night’s event. The show is being held at The Mahaiwe Theatre.

It promises to be an incredible evening, a very full week -with loads of photos to follow!

peonies

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..when I can, there are flowers on the desk where I write. I’ll look up from time to time, or be across the room and notice color, or scent..

Storylines come like that –a word, or a scent of a story, coming to the front of my thinking. Sometimes a story can lead from simple, various, completely unrelated pieces of thought.

I bring that awareness with me to the schools I go to; I engage students, always remembering that one unrelated thing could, somehow, link to another, and, eventually, bind itself to the thread of a tale.

Last year, students wrestled with what to do with the story of Carmen. As they did not feel as though Don Jose would receive the just punishment he deserved, I asked a particular class of students to write down some ideas of where the story could go, in their ideal resolution. Suffice it to say –responses involved all manner of viscous spurting (results of commando marksmanship, of knives, of strangulation, of run away automobiles), and even included a deus ex machina maiming, provided by a long stranded group of extraterrestrials…

None of which had Bizet or his librettist, Merimee, thought of, oddly enough..

..watching her class just the other week, a teacher mentioned, in passing, the odd behavior of a certain 9 year old girl who had been working on an art assignment for the class’ upcoming presentation on their concept for Falstaff. The teacher had stepped away from the project for no more than a minute. When the teacher came back, the girl had stuffed her hands in a jar of red paint and was walking her palms up the school building’s walls, like foot prints; the deep red was drooling down her arms, like blood, and she was intoning the chant.. ‘follow the blood.. you’re next..’ –over and over again..

Perhaps if it had been around Halloween, the incident would have been less disconcerting for the teacher. She then mentioned that the girl has always been ‘easily distracted’ -drawn to things “gothic”, dark, bloody and vicious. The teacher never encouraged the girl in that portion of her imagination; this was just somewhere the child went, on her own, and often, to play..

In the course of the 10 visits I’d had with this particular class, it was this very girl who was always the most engaged and engaging; she expressed herself, and always had a story to present to portray a character, or a scene the class might be trying to work through. Up to this moment, I’d found her one of the ablest students in constructing character traits, situations, and story threads, upon which the rest of her classmates would invariably grab to play with..

But listening to the story of the teacher, and observing the quality of evaluation which crossed the woman’s gaze as she related the incident, I had the first comprehension of the deeper responsibility which falls to teachers as they interpret the abilities of a child, and search for context for the aptitudes and obsessions which are witnessed..

..then I remembered my own deep imaginings- as a child who loved all things warlock, or witches ..vampires, mummies ..murder, and murderous man eating dinosaurs.. then, as I grew older, I was the youth devouring novels which were guaranteed to give me nightmares.. The Amityville Horror, The Shining, The Exorcist, Pet Cemetary..

I do not mean to make light of this, but I can only imagine the teachers who narrowed their eyes at me..

Written by tomminteroffthestoop

May 8, 2010 at 9:43 AM

the trail of simple wanderings in a working mind

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..snippet of a casual conversation, conducted at the reception desk in my building:

“With all that road work going on outside, everything’s being dislodged. Paul found a mouse in his kitchen.”

“You know, that smell goes away after awhile.”

“What smell?”

“That mouse smell. When they die in the wall, or behind the refrigerator. The smell goes away after awhile.”

“Well that’s good to know. ‘Cause, you know, I wouldn’t want to remove it before experiencing that..”

…which made me remember having run across this, some time ago:

-which made me think how funny taking the piss out of opera can be, especially when done by French & Saunders-

That slid into thinking about comedy in general, and how it often eases the barb of politics, especially when there’s a President behind the podium who knows how to laugh..

And that then turned to thinking about playing with the ‘iconic’..

Cartoons remind me of morning, and started me thinking about a cup of strong coffee..

-which then had me surfing TV commercials, until I saw this parody-

…and I started focusing on the work I should be doing, but took a moment to look for the right tempo-

Ok. Work now. -but.. -no-

things in the dark

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Controversy continues to simmer over the selection of white, French actor, Gérard Depardieu, to portray the French literary lion Alexandre Dumas, who was three-quarters black. The film, entitled “L’Autre Dumas” (The Other Dumas), is accused of playing fast and loose with opportunity, to further distance truth from fact.

In all of the commentary about the subject, there is agreement that French film culture continues in its unwillingness to celebrate the depth of ethnic diversity in its history or national identity, and seems determined to divert any opportunity to do so by remaining aloof from engaging in the reasons which perpetuate this by simply deflecting the debate into one of ‘artistic license’.

Though France may dilute accurate portrayals of historic characters, a different shiver is onstage in American theater.

In The Scottsboro Boys, a minstrel musical is made of the event of the nine black teenagers, who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train bound for Memphis, and tried in an Alabama court before a white judge and all white jury. The subsequent series of trials, convictions, retrials and reversals, provoked two unprecedented Supreme Court decisions, and put fuel to the Civil Rights Movement.

..what resonates for me, in these two artistic endeavors, is the heat which their presentations are generating. Both have resulted in vigorous social commentary, striving to raise issues of racism and ‘tampering with history’ into the cultural mainstream for debate. Both endeavors have taken a particular artistic license in presenting their subject. Both, seemingly, to sensationalist effect.

..but in either case, discourse is the outcome. And to me, that is a great thing.

History is stubbled with wrongs, racial, political, religious, that remain in obscurity, by the silence that allowed them to be subsumed.

..in the dark of a theatre, in the glare and wash from screen or stage, a presentation can unfasten more than outrage though; it can release memory, reconnecting us to silenced instances of Witness.

While in New York last week I spent some time with my theatre godmother, Billie Allen. One afternoon we sat at her dining room table, which was ladened with correspondence, project outlines and Playbill programs. And as the subject of Kander & Ebb’s piece came into our conversation, Billie found expression for something, she later admitted, never having consciously touched before.

“..how else could you do such a subject, but as a minstrel show? It’s too horrible a truth to sit through naturally.”

Her voice changed at that, and words just came of their own..

“…I lived in Richmond Virginia in the time of that trial. There were all kinds of intellectual and important African-Americans coming through town. Lawyers, journalists, thinkers. It was all anyone was speaking about. It was at that time that I stopped looking at white people. I looked at them, but I never really ever, from that time, looked at them, because what that time taught me was that, if you look the wrong way at a white person, you were dead. From that moment in time I worried, about my mother, about my brother, about everyone I loved, looking at a white person, and disappearing. Because it was a fact. You would disappear.

I finally overcame myself, and forced myself to look at white people, to see them, and look directly at them, but it struck me, when I sat in that theater, and I started staring at a minstrel show depicting that time, and that story, that a piece of me still is haunted by that moment, and those days in Richmond. I didn’t realize that until I found my whole body reacting to what it was I was watching onstage –my chest went tight, my heart started pounding, my throat closed, I wanted to flee. I felt as if I’d start gasping for air at any moment. And when that happened to me, that’s when I suddenly remembered, that I’d stopped looking at white people for a time. For a great long time. And felt that fear, as if I could be made to fear looking at them again. But I don’t fear that. I just remember what it was like to.”

Of course it is important to give silence up. It is also important to consider that the silence may be drawn from an acutely personal place in each of us, and charged with unexpected energy and consequence.