Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

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

Archive for the ‘Theatre Projects’ Category

Ensemble Studio Theatre is giving BREATHING ASH breath..

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..exciting -excited! -and feeling proud.

Through longstanding support of Bob Jaffe, Ensemble Studio Theatre is giving my play Breathing Ash a workshop, and then rehearsed reading, on Tuesday the 25th October.

The company have gathered a terrific group of actors, and I have a fearless and deep thinking director in Christopher Burris!

More to come on the details and journey of this work, whose themes and narrative profoundly resonate, in the chilling nature of culture today..

 

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Written by tomminteroffthestoop

September 22, 2016 at 8:51 AM

Another step of Blues..

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..beyond the averages; Blues has had three important iterations in a twelve month period, and for a ‘new work’, that is remarkable.

Such a swift journey has also afforded opportunity for me to whittle in on specific changes that I feel the need to engage in with this piece, as it is new, and as every time there is the chance to see it ‘standing’, I get to view a further shading in its stance.

Blues has a very far reach into a layered presentation of narrative; it requires fierce musicians – fearless actors – and visual artists of a unique coalition -all of whom play in a rhythm of words and music, through image and a prism of history.

With this last iteration of the work, presented for Stanford in Washington’s winter Arts Track students and guests, I was able to excise a ‘full thought’ of exchange, creating fodder for a potential Education plank, in that much of the material in the back half of Blues resonates with racial, social, and ideological conflicts that were manifesting in the late 60’s.

Clearly etching this, is the opportunity presented for characters of the play, at the time of Billy Strayhorn’s death, which occurred in 1967 – two years after the assassination  of Malcolm X, and a year before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr...

This specific moment in time is the ledge separating activism from rage; a breath, at the fulcrum, where civil disobedience was tenuously balanced against the unthinkable of chaos; that breath, shortly venting in confrontation and violence that would not only engulf U Street in flames, but would inform a new dynamic to the cry of “Black Power”.

..this is the texture that articulates in the play’s timeline and is resonant in every moment of exchange in Act II.

With Greg Watkins, Scott Patterson, and Bina Malhotra reprising their roles of BILLY STRAYHORN, DUKE ELLINGTON and LENA HORNE, respectively, and Joy Jones – who was originally ELLA in Act I – now informing the character of the REPORTER – rehearsals began with a base line of familiarity that allowed for deeper investigations into the ‘temperature’ of the dialogue and exchanges between the characters.

..this is the fullest measure of the gift – not only being able to have successive iterations of the work in a short amount of time, but also to have a troupe of professionals who bring with each iteration the discoveries of content and character, and commit to the endeavor which allows for deeper mining of nuance.

This particular presentation was given in the Langston Hughes Room, in the 14th Street Busboys & Poets – whose location, just beyond U Street, NW, is literally less than a block from the very history that is epilogue of the play; it was at 14th & U streets NW, in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on April 4th 1968, that flames, ignited by members of its own community, ravaged the area.

But DC was not the isolated event; between 1965 and 1967, endemic frustrations had already lit firebombs, leaving engulfing beacons of outrage to cross the states (Los Angeles; Chicago; Newark; Detroit) ..

-and it is in each edifying chance of presentation, that Blues For A Royal Flush gains its fluency to speak to context; it strides into a fissure of opportunities that were exceptional, significant, and as dynamic as any seismic shift of chord.

 

Bina Malhotra as LENA, Scott Patterson as DUKE, Greg Watkins as BILLY and Joy Jones as REPORTER/BLUES at Busboys and Poets - Feb 9, 2015/Kristenn Stipanov, photographer

Bina Malhotra as LENA, Scott Patterson as DUKE, Greg Watkins as BILLY and Joy Jones as REPORTER/BLUES at Busboys and Poets – Feb 9, 2015/Kristenn Stipanov, photographer

Greg Watkins as BILLY/BLUES at Busboys and Poets - Feb 9, 2015/Kristen Stipanov, photographer

Greg Watkins as BILLY/BLUES at Busboys and Poets – Feb 9, 2015/Kristen Stipanov, photographer

Bina Malhotra as LENA, and Joy Jones as REPORTER/BLUES at Busboys and Poets -  Feb 9, 2015/Kristen Stipanov, photographer

Bina Malhotra as LENA, and Joy Jones as REPORTER/BLUES at Busboys and Poets – Feb 9, 2015/Kristen Stipanov, photographer

Scott Patterson as DUKE, and Bina Malhotra as LENA/BLUES at Busboys and Poets - Feb 9, 2015/Kristen Stipanov, photographer

Scott Patterson as DUKE, and Bina Malhotra as LENA/BLUES at Busboys and Poets – Feb 9, 2015/Kristen Stipanov, photographer

Scott Patterson as DUKE, and Joy Jones as REPORTER/BLUES at Busboys and Poets - Feb 9, 2015/Kristen Stipanov, photographer

Scott Patterson as DUKE, and Joy Jones as REPORTER/BLUES at Busboys and Poets – Feb 9, 2015/Kristen Stipanov, photographer


Blues For A Royal Flush/at the National Portrait Gallery/at 7PM, September 22, 2014

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No road is perfectly straight; neither is the progression of a new work.

But Blues For A Royal Flush has certainly been fixed to a fortunate star. From the beginning, this work has had benefit of support and community.

That embrace continues, and lifts an opportunity for this work to be part of a larger engagement.

 

At 7PM Monday evening, September 22nd, Blues For A Royal Flush will be presented without cover charge, and performed as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Audience Programming’, in the museum’s Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium.

This will be a co-production between the NPG and SIW (Stanford In Washington), who are the commissioning agent of Blues.

 

The cast will be the same troupe of incredible talents who premiered their roles, this past January, at the first performance, held at the Duke Ellington School For Arts.

 

Blues For A Royal Flush, weaves the music of an earlier era of jazz, through resonant experiences of Ethel Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Strayhorn and Lena Horne, all in the orbit of DC native son Duke Ellington, not only presenting their artistry, but exploring their different routes to platform, during a unique epoch of racial and cultural change.

This journey also speaks to family, and a crucible of class and social challenges met by these artists; the chords of which still vibrate.

 

The NPG is located at 8th & G Streets, NW; The Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium is located through entering at this G Street entrance.

The event will be posted by September on the NPG/McEvoy Auditorium calendar.

 

But let this entry suffice to mark the date!

Weaving the Bridge notes

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Actors need lines to read, or scenes to enact; musicians need notes to play, or parameters within which to riff.

Blues For A Royal Flush requires a group of artists, diverse in their expertise, to come together to put notes, words, and details ahead of the actions of actors, musicians, and technicians, so that this theatre piece can step onto its unique platform, and be experienced.

In exploring further, resonant interactions, I have found my way to envelope a stream of Billy Strayhorn into this narrative. The suggestive “Royal Flush” seems now to have further flesh; Duke, Ethel, Ella and Billy.

The work of Strayhorn is seminal to understanding Duke’s genius; a knack for finding talent, and construing it into a mantle of his own. The artists who worked, played, or wrote for Duke, came to know his way of ‘momentum’; making himself the light of the thunderclap.

..this paradigm of collaboration cost everyone involved utter commitment and a meshing of ego beyond a known map of partnership.

But the bargain was never really about obliterating the diversity of the individual voices, but of melding the sound into the distinct texture and tones of Ellington’s mystique.

It is easy to mark this journey through Witness of the exhaust trail. And this is well done in too many other places.

Blues For A Royal Flush is not going to attempt to speak as biography, but as instances of encounter; as ‘moments’, when the sparks struck surface, igniting an outline of personality, perseverance, preservation, performance.. and patience..

In its stride, Blues will include a cohort of its own artists, weaving their individual expertise into a bridge of grace notes to achieve a tapestry of storytelling beyond the page of a script.

The vision of this project has gained the imagination of three, very individual and unique talents: documentarian, Samantha Cheng; cultural illustrator, Nekisha Durrett; and filmmaker, Penny Hollis.

Their distinct styles will be utilized as ‘thresholds’; sequences of narrative image to resonate/’usher in’, scenes of live action.

This is not about playing with media as a ‘toy’, but about finding the right moments to work with its ability to deliver a deeper layer of the ..unspoken context, that pervade our experiences, and enhances 21st century communication – because Blues, though it speaks of the past, is a work of the present, and is a multidisciplinary endeavor.

As a commission by Stanford in Washington, Blues must also speak to a wide dynamic of audience; not only students, faculty, and alumnae, but to the larger community in which Stanford stands established.

In alignment with the ethos of its commission, this project continues to broaden into an educational opportunity; it has engaged the participation of students from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, in DC.

Interns, from DESA’s Museum Studies, and Theatre track, have joined to research archive material and images, which will be offered to the project’s visual artists as possible material to work with, or ‘re-imagine’ with. For these interns, working with established artists creates opportunity for an exchange of knowledge and ‘real life application’ that might not otherwise be available.

Additionally the students will create their own image gallery and content exhibition, elaborating on their personal discoveries while investigating lesser known details, and challenges, in the lives of the artists they’ve researched.

This component of exhibition will be part of the overall event, of Blues’ presentation, allowing the interns platform and recognition for their work.

As artist, and Teaching artist, I am very grateful for this project; as the deeper institutional partnerships that are threading, because of it, are crucial to ensuring that Arts Education is not tilted entirely off the future landscape ..

The gift of a sandbox

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..is very precious.

As children I don’t believe we comprehend just how informing the opportunity is, being able to freely muck about in a specific space of imagination, sharing toys and tools with any other like minds who bumble over the sides of the box to play.

At present, the analogy of a ‘sandbox’ is particularly apt for me, and has broad parameter around music.

In bringing together a classical orchestra, the sandbox for ‘creating’ is identified as the rehearsal room; here, the music score is rendered through a certain experimentation of ‘phrasing’ and finesse, accent and ‘attack’.

Though each division of the orchestra may have some flexibility, it is the conductor who lays down the parameters – the conductor who establishes the shading of the moments of individualism, in order to keep the orchestra etching the same diagram.

Within the dimensions of this particular sandbox comes agreement that the composer has laid down the ‘word’, so to speak, and however the orchestra paints that specific, ultimately, it renders a charted course and presentation of the maestro’s intention.

..in another kind of music -the written phrase is there to mutate, and noted merely to establish a point of entry off of which a group might riff. Here individual instruments speak their expertise, note to note across a terrain of exquisite expressions of sound, sliding through chat to, perhaps, identify some relative corner of the initial note to dialogue in.

This sandbox is jazz, where a coalition of musicians discerns a musical conversation through ‘open questions’, and ‘riffing’ is not about an answer; it is about etching a texture for further conversation.

..Let me suggest that, with my writing, I endeavor to create in a riff of ‘open questions’ – having found that an audience is tackled by this, and in consequence, will readily ransack the baggage each has carried in from their own paradigm, provoked to patch the perceived gap. Unaware that the quivering, left of the experience, is the resonance of the question, which still itches through the dark into a riff off other articles of secreted debris..

Resonance; like molecules, collide and shape trajectory to other experiences and sensations ..perhaps, in the final analysis, unanswerable; but in the journey, informing.

…I have always had a passion for large canvasses of texture and tapestry, and have always sought opportunities to riff.

In the last few years I have found myself engaged in an amazing journey with Stanford in Washington, lecturing an audience of students and guests ahead of opera performances attended at The Kennedy Center.

These lectures began as straightforward information on the opera’s they were going to see, but, over time, I enlarged the scope of presentation to weave in conversation of context, of how music defined, or was impeded in a particular political period; how composers were connected to the mapping of current, or cross-current, cultural challenges; how enlightenment or repression affected the advancement of ‘entertainment’, and the purposes of composition. Context, ultimately, that allowed me to present a more organic sense of integration of environment, political landscape, society, and endeavor, beyond the notes placed on a stave.

This past May my passion for storytelling elicited a special commission from Stanford in Washington, which is the riff I’m currently endeavoring.

The main instrument through this piece is Duke Ellington, but chords of the story of Ethel Waters and Ella Fitzgerald breech a counterpoint to genius, creating a dissonant look at privilege, race, and opportunity between the 1920’s and 1950’s.

The title of the work is Blues For A Royal Flush.

..my hope is that it will allow me to continue an artistic reach of personal ethic, while engaging the tools of 21st century theatre. In this I mean: finding the route and balance to manipulate stage action, musical performance, and sequences of film (as visual transition; ‘resonant stepping stones’ of specific images and associations) – moving each of these components fluidly as collaborative narrative, without congestion or gimmick, while creating storytelling opportunities resonant of aural textures and ‘fuzzy logic’.

..yes, well; speaking all that out loud I know how it sounds: “..ambitious”!

But fortuitously, as I speak with colleagues, it is the very ambitious nature of the stretch that engages them, and piques their desire to collaborate in the endeavor.

And so this sandbox is a unique place of play, with a commissioned piece offering me opportunity to ask a diverse coalition of artists, talents and expertise, to bumble over boundaries and riff!

Written by tomminteroffthestoop

August 13, 2013 at 3:23 PM

In the still of the hurricane…

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..how odd to find stillness in a hurricane; to find that moment’s peace in which to catch up with oneself.. –listening, past the howling and rattling windows..

Yes; oddness.

It is not as if nothing has been happening since my last entry; a great deal has.. But in this great deal were opportunities that I was uncertain would come to fruition, and who wants to nail dreams down on a page, in a viewable journal?

Not me. Not my style. And so silence, and playing things close to my chest turned into a reticence of communication and chronicling. Perhaps not only for regard for the potential of things not coming to fruition, but in consideration for the various synchronicities that were involved; an open eager word can avert connection.

I have patience, but it holds best in the quiet and observation of expectation.

Months ago, I handed a play to chance. A weighed chance, I’ll admit. I handed it off to be read, knowing that it would intrigue, and hoped more; to engage.

It did both; and on the conversation of acumen with a director, Steven Mazzola, I tinkered with a work (I must admit) I’d always held in sacrosanct and inviolate state. Steven’s advice offered re-entry; I worked quickly, and the result was a more unfussy view into the work.

The culminating ambition then was to hear it, in front of an audience, in some full state of its text; a way to weigh myself, as the last and only time it had been heard was in a private reading, through Joe Cacaci’s effort, and with Bob and Jill Jaffe’s graciousness facilitating a last minute move of ‘place’, to their New York apartment.

This occurred this past January.

Hearing the words, there, spoken for the first time out loud, I was overwhelmed; this particular work had been gestating since the late 90’s, and first written out in 2004. Few knew of it; fewer, beyond my support of Berkshire Playwrights Lab, had “heard” it, or even seen its print.

The play is called Reconstruction.

Though a ‘free standing’ work, it also sits as the third ‘panel’ of a triptych, whose first panel is entitled The Orion; the play which was my introduction to BPL, and a Great Barrington audience. Reconstruction is also the first time I have ever returned to the journey of a particular character; in this case, Ioni, the woman (in The Orion)  who was the cable network executive who created a break out, hit show. With Reconstruction, and in the full mien of her achievements, we catch up with Ioni; the many successes of her life have failed to prepare her for the experience of facing personal challenges.

Her mother, just before the narrative of this play begins, has died; Ioni is in a dark fugue of isolation, feeling the oppression of being alone and facing the unexpected realization of being the last of her family..

But it happens that she is not alone; ghosts pry into Ioni’s grief, and compel her focus on a portrait in her mother’s bedroom, that has been in the family since ..well, ever; memory coalesces legacy, and forces secrets, long hidden, to be urged toward a reconstruction.

Memory is the fluid of the play. We move back and forth in time -2008 America, to 1871 America; as well as across continents: America to France.

In the ‘past’ of the play, we follow the journey of an artist, Charles; a fair man of color, who makes opportunity in the period of cacophony at the end of the civil war. Discovered, he flees America –for France; leaving behind his father, the man who had placed him in line for better chances to begin with.

The only mark of connection Charles left to his family, or to even detail his existence in America, is the portrait, titled “The Artist’s father”.

___________________

..the work is an immense chew; the very idea of journeying, with “fluidity”, between time and cultures is challenging enough, but the play’s core narrative -of ‘choices’; of ‘degrees of color’; of the voice of an artist; of the urgency of ghosts- all these ramifications of choice, is material that jerks many hands off the text.

But Saturday, 20th October, at The Shop, at Fort Fringe, in DC, Reconstruction had its audience for a reading. There were about 30 folks present; a diverse 30, who witnessed an assembled talent of actors deliver a deep glimpse of characters, who then fully drew the parameters and context of this work. The result: an engaged audience; and a feed back session that ‘unknit’ its seams of PC reticence, to engage discussion in the hot corners of race and American culture.

This talk back was astonishing; civil; unreserved; unscripted. And to be honest, I am still unpacking all the details and currents I witnessed from the “hot seat” on stage..

I can say, unreservedly, that I am very proud of the work; it proves it will engage; it will conflict; it will give opportunity for conversation, dialogue, and journey.

And one other thing I took away from the presentation is that.. –once it is on its feet, in production, it will wreck its own havoc.

Before rehearsals..

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..walking down Great Barrington’s main street: facing Robbin’s insolently enticing open doors, and straining not to succumb to the perfume of sugar (in incalculable forms), there is a tickle at the back of your neck; facing the itch –you turn to find Tom’s Toy Store.

Yes. True. I couldn’t even make this geography up! Two poles of childhood; one sweet, the other beckoning –with my own name..-and ‘yes’, though the mountains beyond coddle a sluice of other stores and shops and points of interest, that purl through town.. I have to admit to being arrested in my steps, and almost incapable of wandering elsewhere..

I am proud to say that I remained steadfast –almost; I won’t spill the dots on which shop, shopping caused me to forget myself..

..indulgent daily pastimes, which began at breakfast. And Jay Thomas. Jousting at the brink of day.

No matter how early I was downstairs for coffee, Jay was earlier, reading glasses perched on his gaze and focusing fodder to his humor; testing its worth; wrapping it in every garb of joke and anecdote the man had in his arsenal of wit, and lobbing hook after hook at anyone in the room.

Mornings at the Wainwright Inn.. -not exactly for the fainthearted, slow wakening, or easily offended. Jay always had mining choice provocations and unsettling stories on his mind, and was not to be deflected by anyone’s daintiness; actually, any whiff of unease only went to affirm just how perfect his pitch!

Reading from the paper, eyes punctuating every sentence with a glance to see what sticks, Jay’s on a roll: ..man attacked by brother with machete. This looks interesting.

And I should have taken better care than endowing curiosity with a ‘tic’, but the tag of the tale was so odd that it curled  my eyebrow just enough to spur Jay deeper into the story..

..yeah it’s true. It’s right here. And they don’t lie in this paper.. –what is this paper? Yeah, they don’t lie in this paper. Guy came at his brother with a machete. In the kitchen. At 60. 60 years old, and he’s had enough. ‘I’ve had enough’; where’s a guy get a machete in the kitchen? Why would you have a machete in the kitchen? So you have a machete in the kitchen, and now, all of a sudden at 60 –you’ve had enough! “I’ve had enough!” -..Where’s a guy get a machete in the kitchen and at 60 years old even have the anger to raise it? And what’s his brother do?

..at this point I was hooked and let slip ‘what did his brother do’?

He was under the sink. But he had a crowbar. Can you see this: a 60 year old, coming after a 75 year old, under the sink, fixing the pipes with a crowbar..?

 I wasn’t the only one engaged by this rumination; a colleague who was also being platformed in the week’s Gala presentation, Kevin Christopher Snipes, was at breakfast by this point, buttering toast, and felt compelled to say… -oh there’s a play.

-to which, Jay’s eyes already bright, went nova –and he says: yeah!

So, of course, Kevin asks which brother he’d like to play, and Jay doesn’t miss a beat: The one under the sink. Legs sticking out. Totally unaware his insane brother has found the machete, and is coming at him. Can’t you see it? My legs sticking out? That lunatic brother coming at those legs, trying to raise the machete. Oh yeah, I’d be under the sink.

-and by now, sick as it all is, we’re howling! Kevin, several other guests, me –we’re all unable to stem the flow of this tsunami of bad taste..

And Jay can’t let go; -but what’s happened? What’s finally cracked the guy to grab the machete? Did I tell him he was uncoordinated, and he’s decided to prove me wrong? But felt he should wait till I was under the sink? Did he hate the pants I was wearing? Was I wearing pants? Maybe he was just disgusted with seeing my junk hanging out under the sink, and he wanted to teach me a lesson. What do you think?

I couldn’t think; no one could think. We couldn’t stop laughing.

-and then he’d be up and gone!

Two mornings of the four days we were all in Great Barrington, Jay had to drive to Pittsfield, and use a remote studio to do his radio show for Sirius.

I’d like to think our breakfasts geared him up; can’t be sure though.

You don’t prime a force of nature.

[An earlier version of a Jay classic, on Letterman.]