Tag Archives: theater

Enter stage left.

I’ve never been a professional in the world of theater arts. Plenty of ancillary experience via amateur investments of time …yielding a comparable level of skill.

In other words, I’m a dabbler, not a master.

Not even an apprentice.  The closest I’ve come to above-amateur theater involvement (with people who know what they’re doing) is painting a floor at the Warehouse Theatre in Greenville a couple years ago. Or that time my friend/actor John stepped in to fill a role abandoned by one of my actors a few days before we opened And Then There Were None. I believe John himself represented more theater experience than the entire cast, crew, and director (me) collectively. (Thus, my most stressful directing gig.)

But my dabbling took me fairly deep, way further than my lack of training warranted. Deep enough to walk the boards in Hamlet (photos to prove it), delve into Beatrice’s lines in Much Ado About Nothing (photos for that too) while directing the faculty and student cast (what was I thinking?), and develop creative settings for the three very different worlds contained within A Midsummer Night’s Dream — twice. Not to mention countless hours of teaching Shakespeare to (un)willing adolescents (always a pleasure).

Who has two thumbs and can sell a group of 6th graders on Hamlet? This chick.

"Thrift, thrift, Horatio!"
“Thrift, thrift, Horatio!”

Tartuffe taught me that unrhymed iambic pentameter beats couplets any day (yay for the RSC translation of Moliere to rescue us from 2 hours of sing-song!).  Moliere’s biting satire of religious hypocrisy also taught me that no matter how many times you explain it, not everyone will appreciate why the dirty, ugly, crass, and mean characters in literature are absolutely necessary to telling a proper story. That’s how bad we humans are, really. So don’t tell me you‘re too good to play one of those people. You are one of those people.

I loved adapting short stories for the stage. C.S. Lewis’s Narnia fables lent themselves well to some delightful scenes, as did Greek mythology and Edgar Allan Poe. I really loved it when my students had the chance to do their own adaptations for in-house class performances. Few courtroom dramas can beat Atticus Finch examining Mayella in To Kill a Mockingbird when presented as a two-person scene. And somewhere out there is a grown boy who may still have nightmares about the time his 3rd grade teacher brought him to see a couple brothers in my class act out Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”  Poor drunken sot (the character, not the 3rd grader) met a rough end. (Sorry, kid. I hope the nightmares have stopped.)

Of course, you can’t do anything without pissing off someone, not if you take any stab at real style or interpretation.

The complaint reel started early for us once we started doing theater with students:
theater is too hard,
too time-consuming,
too feminine (what?!),
too literary and not STEM,
requires after-school commitments,
forces shy kids to do something they don’t want to do,
forces non-artsy kids into what they don’t want to do,
forces athletes to work around something else in their schedule,
exposes young minds to adult themes too early,
doesn’t expose the kids to “good-enough” literature (we must be looking at you, Poe),
contains swear words,
contains characters who do “bad things” and we don’t want to talk about that.

8d97fce0e3d8f133ebc878793e97816fe31552dcfb30871a9753eb6f0f39aba2Too dark,
too serious for the second graders,
too hard of language for the elementary kids (Shakespeare),
and above all —

Despite the constant litany of complaints about why theater was a waste of time, truth is we all got so much out of it.

I miss directing sometimes. I miss getting to imagine a setting for a complex story and installing artistic signposts to lead the viewers through the tale without losing them.

I miss watching actors grow up and out into fascinating versions of people who were formerly 2D lines on a page.

I love the lessons that hit home weeks after a show closes or in rehearsal or sometimes mid-sentence in a performance when you suddenly realize why you’re saying a particular line.

Directing is like someone took project organization and cross-bred it with creativity and storytelling, with a large dose of behavioral science and management theory.

So, consider this my ode to a romanticized memory of directing, one that forgets the ridiculous amounts of work and focuses instead on all the awesome.  Hats off, theatre. I hope we get back together again someday. Forgive me while I take a brief walk down memory lane:

NF_TTH_onlineThe featured image for this post is a promotional still shot from the 2008 NCS performance of the play Nightfall with Edgar Allan Poe by Eric Coble. We shot this image inside the pitch-black gym/auditorium. I think it turned out rather well, and it made for a cool poster too after it was edited, one of a series of four. Hey, we might have been a tiny school with zero budget, but we could rock the PR machine. 


A Hamlet for the looney bin

I love Hamlet.

Really, it’s an addiction. I’ll take Hamlet in nearly any form. I prefer good Hamlet, but I’ll even put up with a mediocre Hamlet just to hear those lines come out of the mouths of people up on their feet acting them out.   I like film Hamlets, live Hamlets outside in the park, college shows, professional shows, even classroom scene cuttings and random student “adaptations” that leave me wondering how the Dane ended up on Mars with a robot Ophelia and a dog. (I made that up, but I bet someone somewhere has done it.)

If you count the NCS production of Hamlet that led me to read the play several times, assistant direct it, learn the part of Gertrude, teach the play to 25+ students, discuss it at length during the show, and watch the play, oh, 30 times at least? during rehearsals, plus 4 performances (peeking out from the back entrance curtain) …. I’ve seen this play a lot.

So when I stumbled across the news that actor Richard Willis would play Claudius in an edgy adaptation of Hamlet at USC in April, I dropped everything, arm-twisted the husband into clearing his schedule, and fretted all weekend that they might sell out before I could rob the box office of 2 tickets to the show.

Photo by USC.  Richard Willis (right) as Claudius with Laertes.
Photo by USC. Richard Willis (right) as Claudius with Laertes.

Now, don’t misunderstand my love of Hamlet for an indiscriminate wanton willingness to love every bastardization of the Bard’s finest.  Hamlet offers such rich material that you can botch it pretty badly yet the story will survive and it’s probably still worth your time, even if you had to cringe in several places.  So after reading a little about USC’s production design, I knew this would be too controversial to remain on the fence.

Robert Richmond, who’s worked with Folger in DC and headed the Aquila Shakespeare Company, helmed this production. That’s how Richard Willis ended up on board to play Claudius, supported by a strong cast of MFA and theater undergrads at USC.

They decided to set the production in an insane asylum. Yup. It’s a crazy idea (haha) but they were hoping to let the setting itself drive home some serious questions about the play’s themes, especially Shakespeare’s shifting perceptions of madness and sanity.

If you REALLY care, check out this mini-preview of the production (if you watch just the first minute, you’ll see a good preview of a scene with Willis)

We “met” Willis in the Warehouse Theater production of The Tempest last fall, which is one of the finest Shakespeare live productions I’ve ever seen.   I’m sure USC was pulling out the marketing machine to get the word out, but honestly the only reason I knew this show was even happening came because Richard Willis posted photos of himself as Claudius on his Facebook page, which I stalk follow.

Photos like this one:

Photo by USC
Photo by USC

Boom. I was hooked.

The Columbia Free Times put up a great review that hooked me in too — you can read a really detailed overview of the production there if you care for like, actual facts.  I’m just rocking the opinions here, with a large dose of memories and nostalgia and Bard-love.

The insane asylum Hamlet production had potential. It really did.  Claudius rocked it, as I expected.  Willis owns the stage and brings all the creepy murderousness that I like to see in Claudius. None of this mamsy-pansy, weak-villain, 1970s-bad-movie-plot, antihero bullshit.

And I gotta give a shout out to the cast, including James Costello as Hamlet, because there were a lot of strong performances. Ophelia went suitably crazy(er); even the dudes who see the ghost in Act 1 Scene 1 kept my attention.   Rosencrantz showed up as a doctor giving Hamlet a physical, which actually worked REALLY WELL.  And they had two guys playing the Ghost, which meant Old Hamlet could totally freak you out by showing up on the other side of the stage supernaturally FAST.

The Ghost spoke through Hamlet, leaving you to wonder whether the whole ghost-dad-thing was a psychosis or a reality. (Old idea but they sold it well.)  Polonius was a lot more sinister than you usually see, implying that he was jealous himself for Ophelia’s sexual attention.  Ok, so that’s creepy and troubled but it’s theater. Everybody has to “do it new”…

But I am troubled.

As a production, USC’s Hamlet delivered some great thrills and chills and atmosphere and  grungy-Victorian-meets-sex-shop costuming. (Corsets and more corsets! I’m surprised the guys weren’t also wearing corsets! They were into straps and belts.)

But it ironed out all the nuance.

(Maybe you can’t have whips, restraints, and insanity AND expect nuance?)

Photo by USC.  Hamlet comes up behind Claudius as he's "confessing."
Photo by USC. Hamlet comes up behind Claudius as he’s “confessing.”

Claudius was super bad, like ALL THE TIME.  He was bad-ass bad, Irish-gang-tattoo, “I’m gonna eat your face off” kind of bad.  It was amazing during the king’s confession scene, where his thoughts ever “remained below.”

Hamlet’s soliloquies got faster and faster. By the end of “rogue and peasant slave,” I wasn’t sure whether they’d cut the lines down or he’d zipped through it so fast that I’d missed some of my favorites.  The entire second half was like a speed-round.  We couldn’t stop and wonder whether Polonius had it coming or got murdered by a hothead.  We didn’t really think much about how Hamlet took away everything Ophelia cared about, regardless of his intentions.  If you missed the one Elizabethan line about R&G getting axed, you probably missed the question of whether Hamlet wears their blood on his hands too.

By the final scene, the duel (which was a good modernization of the duel, the first I’ve seen…. guns just don’t make sense in that scene at all; Richmond turned it into a knife fight) raced by. Laertes took the cowardly cut to Hamlet’s back (not in the script but nobody ever seems to give Laertes balls in casting or action). The lines explaining Claudius’ poisoned pearl had been cut, so I don’t know how the audience was supposed to follow that Gertrude was drinking poison.

In fact, THAT IS MY BEEF with this production.  If you didn’t already know the story, YOU WERE SCREWED.   The asylum setting offered some cool costume & setting perks, but at the cost to the audience. I bet the actors dug out some amazing character insights (and some of those sparkled through during the production).

But the audience was left to unpack not only 2.5 hours of dense text, and all the deep ideas and universal themes of Shakespeare’s words, they had to figure it out without any context clues for who’s who and how they’re related and what the hell is even. going. on.

The final scene of the show closed with the players returning to the stage (the acting troupe from Act 3) dressed in their comic horror-movie clown attire and drinking the dregs of the poisoned cup while Horatio raced through a couple lines. Hamlet in one breath finished his course on stage — “oh i die horatio this potent poison quite o’er-crows my spirit the rest is silence.”  The psycho clowns fell over dead. Horatio looked …sad.  Lights dark.  Applause.

It was like getting hit in the head with a hammer.

But hey. It was Hamlet.

[Wanna see pics from our 2007 Hamlet? Album here]


A Dark and Stormy Tempest (Theater Review)

You know what you need to be doing this coming weekend?

Seeing The Tempest at The Warehouse Theatre in Greenville.

Let me be honest about two things. 1) I love Shakespeare. I really do.  I’m not an expert or even a qualified nerd, but if you put good Shakespeare within reach of me, I’ll go.

2) That said, The Tempest has never been my favorite. I’d seen it live oh, three or four times before this. And while I’d learned to laugh at the fool who gets all tangled up with the weird savage under the blanket, and to wait with delight for “Oh brave new world, to have such people in it!” from the mouth of Miranda, The Tempest never drew me in.

Till now.

Credit: The Warehouse Theatre/Cox Photography
Credit: The Warehouse Theatre/Cox Photography

See, our world is full of technology and wizardry, and we’ve begun to believe that some stories just can’t be told without the power of CGI or at least a big budget Broadway experience.  Shakespeare’s Tempest brings fairies and visions and a magician who doesn’t quite fit our concept of wizard or charlatan. There are foreign kingdoms, people with two or three names, and other difficulties common to the Bard.  But really, when it came down to it, I always got bored somewhere in the middle.

Till now.

Richard Willis as Propsero at the Warehouse Theatre production of The Tempest
Richard Willis as Propsero at the Warehouse Theatre production of The Tempest

As soon as Richard Willis (who plays Propsero & Caliban) opened his mouth on stage and golden, gorgeous words began flowing out (slightly tinged with the sound of a native speaker of the Queen’s English) …. as I saw him begin to stir emotions that run deep and thick inside the heart of Prospero, a father shipwrecked on an island for twelve long years and left to marinate in his own lust for revenge …. I knew this would be a performance to remember.

The director, Robert Richmond (formerly of the Aquila Theater Company and now with the Folger Shakespeare Library) brings to life an incredibly rich telling of this story that in the hands of lesser directors loses its heart in the feeble attempt to make us laugh at the fantasy.

We should know better —  Shakespeare gives us a feast in his best plays, but so many productions insist on gazing only at the sauces.

Richmond’s innovation for this performance is a risky one. Considering the madness and mental anguish that would descend on you or me if we were suddenly exiled from home through betrayal and then stranded “forever” – cut off from all human kindness  and left to raise a child – Richmond chooses to make the savage slave Caliban an alternate personality of Prospero, a Jekyll-Hyde combination that darkens Prospero into a man who can’t hide from the bad parts of his nature.  Likewise, Miranda engulfs inside herself the sprite Ariel.

Perhaps Caliban and Ariel really did exist, and Prospero enchanted them into himself and Miranda through dark magic.

Or perhaps the ragged edges of their sanity tore loose years before anyone else would land on the island to save them. Either way, it’s a much more convincing use of the fantastical.

While the play rolls through a tightly edited (and nimble) telling of the plot twists that result in reconciliation and true love, it is the masterful acting of Willis that grounds this show.  The moment of the “turn” – when Prospero decides that love is a greater power than revenge – set off a powerful wave of choices and emotions to round out the story.

It was an ending packed with a stinger … I was all ready to bounce up with smiles at the curtain call but instead the touching final moments kicked me in the stomach and I had to blink back tears instead. I couldn’t say anything for several moments.  I had to feel my way through the ending before I could process it.

That was Saturday, and I’m *still* thinking about the story, the fulness of its meaning, the depth of Shakespeare’s insight into human nature, the incredible beauty of an actor at his peak and in his element.

For the love of all that is Story, PLEASE buy a ticket RIGHT NOW and see this production.  It’s worth twice what you will pay for it.

Warehouse Theatre offers a dark-hued ‘Tempest’ | The Greenville News | greenvilleonline.com.

This photo was posted to Richard’s Facebook page….. apparently he fell during rehearsal and gashed his arm. The solution was to work his bandage into the costume. I spent most of two hours admiring that rugged detail — a tattered and frayed metaphor for Prospero’s sanity.  Ha! Nope. Just an artistic band aid. 🙂

Richard Willis
Richard Willis

On All Things Directorial

...Musings on theater, life, and directing…. seasoned with a bit of “after midnight.” And written in the crucible of preparing the Advanced Drama students for their production of And Then There Were None.

I don’t “do theater” for a living. (See, the proof is in the fact that I generally spell “theater” the American way instead of the fancy-schmancy artistic old British spelling with the -re ending.)

I do find myself “doing theater” — as I have for the past 6 years — as an interesting side path to my work teaching English to middle and high schoolers. What started in 2005 as a 7th grade unit on dramatic literature (culminating in some in-house performances that simultaneously brought a measure of healing and comradeship to an otherwise brutally-fractured class) has grown into a foundational stone for the upper school at NCS. Who would have foreseen it? This spring finds us doing two major shows (unwisely, probably, but that’s how it turned out). So my soul has belonged to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, knowing that January 27th is breathing down my neck. (Opening night.)

That's me working to letter the big "Ten Little Indians" poem that ties the play together.
That’s me working to letter the big “Ten Little Indians” poem that ties the play together.

Tonight I finally made it to my couch weary of body and exhausted in mind sometime around 9pm. It’s been a long week, coming on the heels of horrific schedule headaches from the big snowstorm and before that, several illnesses in my cast members. Coart likes to say “Anything worth doing is hard.”  I’m not sure that the converse of the statement is necessarily true (isn’t that a logical fallacy anyway? lol) but it’s certainly one of the pithy aphorisms that’s pulling me through the long days. “Anything hard must be worth doing” … right?

Working with students always teaches me far more than I teach them. I was struck today by the wonderful good-naturedness of this group of 7 students who have survived auditions, reading rehearsals, blocking, hours of work memorizing lines, illness, losing a cast member at the last minute, and now long “full runs” … all stacked on top of their normal school day and wedged into “free hours” they have before tackling homework.

I’m not sure I would be so charitable were I in their shoes, but these older, more experienced students chose this play as their semester project and they are still very excited about putting on a good show.  They’re so excited that most of them volunteered themselves to go paint the set tomorrow because they want it to look better. This is righteousness outworked (not just thinking, not just critiquing… but doing.)

The kids came in to paint the set.
The kids came in to paint the set.

I love projects that blend faculty (or adults in general) with students. We sharpen each other — the young’uns bring enthusiasm and energy and a strong impetus against the stodgy inertia that seems to overtake adults, while the adults anchor the cast with seasoned calm and a rich flow of life experience with which to flesh out characters.

In fact, I’d say the student-faculty partnership that pervades NCS culture is more important than anything else we do. Should we not perceive Paul’s inspired wisdom when he directed the Cretan church under Titus to value mentoring relationships as the backbone of Christian discipleship?

People generally don’t understand exactly why Coart & I bother “doing plays” at NCS.  ….It’s not because we love doing theater. (It’s not that we dislike it either; but neither of us were trained in this and sometimes the learning curve slaps us around pretty hard.)   I don’t try to correct the crowds who assume I “love” acting, directing, or performance in general. Actually, I have to fight against every fiber of emotional control built into my personality just to begin thinking about playing a role.

It’s also not because doing theater is easy, or a cop-out for teaching — anyone who chooses a 60+ hour workweek without better cause is probably insane.

And I have no desire to shut out music or art or dance or any of the other creative arts from the lives of students (though life quickly teaches all of us that we have only so many hours to spend). Lucky or unlucky, our students “benefit” from the package of gifts endowed to Coart and me, which lie more with speaking than art or music. So. Theater it is.

Rather, I pull myself out of bed and through an over-full day of teaching (this week: Norse mythology, Latin noun plurals, American Realist literature, Hamlet Act 2, poetry, and basic script analysis) and into a long afternoon of rehearsal by remembering that my greatest joy as a teacher is to see a young person grow from shy un-confidence (is that a word?) into a fearless, friendly soul: a person who has learned the art of observing human nature and recreating it; of one who soaks up the Story in the hopes that some bit of Heaven-Redemption finds its way to earth whenever Story Truth strikes the heart of the performer (first) and the audience.

I really don’t have a clue what a director is supposed to do.  Well, some details are obvious project management — find a performance space, select a script, make the casting decisions after auditions, develop a plan for studying and interpreting the text and then bringing that text to life by creating a “safe” space where actors can take themselves through a journey of discovery within the story and setting and characters. It’s all quite nebulous, really…  “The best in this kind are but shadows,” Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Theseus in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I find play directing immensely energizing (the creative output required delights my right-brain) yet intensely discouraging.

A play doesn’t succeed at NCS because the director did a “good job.”  We tell stories well when I succeed in getting the students to understand first and then internalize and finally transmit the soul of a tale.  Unfortunately my cast members lack buttons, knobs, or efficient input devices.  Most rehearsal days simply serve as a reminder of everything I haven’t accomplished.  I think I’ve bandaged my ego 12 times this week. 

For us, the “product” isn’t so much the point as the “process.” This is education, not theater business (though I still have a budget and it needles me). I want our shows to be qualitatively good: an engaging experience for the audience and worthy of their time. But that has to take second seat to my deeper goal of raising up men and women who understand Kingdom living.

These goals have to work together. The kids must learn to invest great labor in a project whose outcome is out of their control (and mine, to a large extent).  We are only as strong as our weakest cast member, yet seeing students rally around a kid who’s failed them is incredible. The missteps and inexperience of students slowly mature into something beautiful. The Story begins to shine, a sum greater than the actor’s parts. And it’s magic.

These past 3 hard, frustrating, difficult, sleep-depriving weeks brought me a deep gift as compensation:  the opportunity to see the mettle of our seniors and juniors tested.  Their kindness, enthusiasm, willing hearts, hard work, joyful wit — all have lifted my spirits.

To see them grow, individually, in a skill that isn’t “natural” for most of them reminds me that we often “need” what we don’t particularly “want.”   I love my job in all of its exhausting, stressful avenues.  And I love my students.

We offer to you the work of our hands because God created Story-lovers.
Nothing would thrill us more than for you to share in our joy.

Cast Photo. New Covenant School production of And Then There Were None, January 2011. Not pictured: John Ellis
Cast Photo. New Covenant School production of And Then There Were None, January 2011. Not pictured: John Ellis

Notes on “Notes from Underground”

I thought about titling this note “Notes Squared.” lol

I don’t usually get to see the same play 4 times unless I’m in it, directing it, managing it, or somehow in charge of worrying about something connected to it (which tends to destroy my appreciation). Thus, such a refreshing change to simply enjoy seeing Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground staged at NCS this past weekend.  John & the Devil’s Advocate Players brought a wonderful show to our town.  I’m just sorry that so few people (relatively) ended up in the audience. [Sometimes I swear Anderson is a cultural wasteland. But even in this, God ordains our steps. *shrugs*  We tried.]

Anyway, I needed to see all 4 shows to really wrap my head around Dostoevsky’s words.  Their general gist made sense at the first run, mostly because the actors did their job. And the second half was so striking that it gripped my imagination, making further contemplation somewhat simpler.  We don’t usually get to see someone who’s that much of a jerk be so honest about his depravity.  Unless, of course, you’re reading Flannery. Then you get the thieving Bible salesman, the drifter who abandons a mentally handicapped girl in a diner, the self-righteous racist old lady.  Those folks would loathe Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and shift over a few seats in the coffee shop if he happened to walk in and start his tirade…. but he merely “has the courage to act out what they only conceive in their hearts.”

Anyway, as I sorted through the lines more smoothly each night, I noticed that Notes, unlike other plays I’ve watched multiple times, seemed to fly by much faster each time.  The ideas were so thick, they really did slow you down during your first hearing. Once the lightbulb clicked on and the words grew familiar, they soared. (Or plummeted, since this wasn’t exactly a happy show.)

It’s been funny to watch people’s reactions to Notes from Underground. The play is disturbing. If you understand what Dostoevsky is saying, you will be disgusted and angry that his assessment of the human condition is accurate. We want preachers to confront the “world” with its sin.  But as a Christian culture, we can’t stand to have anyone talk about OUR sin. Um, no…. that’s icky. And inappropriate. (The irony is amazing.)

Americans, of all people, don’t need to hunger after more ‘escapist’ storytelling. We have enough money, sex, and pleasure to dull our senses past all feeling.  “We must first be offended by the Gospel before we can ever bow the knee to King Jesus,” says my friend (and John’s pastor) Brad.


Current thoughts positioning themselves in my mind for followup & reflection:

  • How do I ignore or downplay my own sin nature when evaluating myself?  Am I more likely to seek salvation through self-loathing or self-righteousness? (Honestly, I think I sample both approaches in some kind of twisted buffet of bad thinking.)  The Gospel is bigger than the Fall. Shout it from the roof!
  • What would the Underground Man do if he ran into someone as absolutely mean & evil as himself? would it be some kind of cosmic battle of Evil vs Evil? What if Leza had fought back?
  • Irony is a powerful device in storytelling. To me, it is the most powerful. I think that’s why “Apropos of the Falling Snow” struck me so hard the first night.
  • It’s hard to get adults to buy tickets for shows that demand mental effort. Maybe it’s because parents are always so busy investing time and money in making their kids think. Maybe it’s just the bum economy. But it’s tough to get people to put down money for anything that won’t be “entertainment.”  [Don’t read my words too harshly — this is a brutal time of year, and I myself often miss really good shows because I can’t afford the money for tickets or the time out of my schedule. I’m just noting a general trend over the past few years, in my experience.]
  • What place should cold honesty have in our cultural expressions?  I don’t want to be a (neo)Platonist … but there is something to the idea that you learn to appreciate the good/true/beautiful by being exposed to the good/true/beautiful. What’s the balance? What about in the classroom?
  • John’s sweater looked really hot. [That’s “one-T hot” … as in “I hate wearing sweaters when it’s actually cold outside. Wearing one during a performance would be hell.”‘] LOL
  •  Perception and insight aren’t connected to age. And great stories speak to all ages. What other hard-but-good ideas should be brought to the stage so more people have access to them?

Am also thinking about the multiple roles of fathers and mothers as they image God to their children … my own interests in the arts of various kinds… lots of graphic design stuff for Curious Savage …. the high interest level that new friendship brings to conversation … and why our church’s coffee always seems to be so bleh. lol