lies like truth: June 2009 Archives

In his excellent article about Merce Cunningham's decision to disband his dance company following his death ("Why Dances Disappear") Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout does a brilliant job of explaining how dances are taught by choreographers to dancers and how this impacts the longevity of the pieces he or she creates. My favorite part of the article is where the writer compares the transmission of a piece of dance from choreographer to company to the transmission of a piece of classical music from its composer to an orchestra:

Dance notation is so complex and inexact that no choreographer has ever used it to create a new piece from scratch. In fact, most choreographers and dancers don't even know how to read dance notation, much less write it. Instead of sitting at a desk and writing down the steps of a new dance, a choreographer makes them up on the spot in a studio and personally teaches them to his dancers, who then perform them from memory on stage.

No other art form works this way. Imagine that instead of writing down his Fifth Symphony, Beethoven had taught it to the members of the Vienna Philharmonic by playing it on the piano over and over again until each musician knew his own part by heart. Now suppose that the Philharmonic liked the Fifth Symphony so much that it continued to perform the piece for the next two centuries, with each succeeding generation of players learning the score by rote from its predecessors. Ask yourself this: What would Beethoven's Fifth sound like today? Would it still sound the same way it did in 1808, or would it have undergone dramatic changes in the process of being transmitted by ear from musician to musician? Or might it have been forgotten altogether?

The only aspect of Teachout's story which strikes me as odd is the author's surprise at the idea that a choreographer might want to keep his company going on past his death (Cunningham is 90 years old.) "Why break up so solidly established an ensemble?" writes Teachout.

To my mind, the dissolving of performing arts companies as a result of the death or indisposition of its artistic creators is a natural thing. Companies ARE their directors in most cases. Without the charismatic visionaries at their core, they often lack the energy to continue. There's just no point.

I believe that more companies should follow Cunningham's lead. And I speak somewhat from experience: When I was in my early 20s, I worked right out of college for the London-based theatre company Cheek By Jowl. It was an eye-opening debut into the world of professional theatre. When I arrived, the company was in pretty bad shape. The relationship between the artistic directors and the executive director had turned sour, morale was low, and the artistic directors were being increasingly solicited by admiring producers to work outside Cheek By Jowl.

Instead of continuing with the charade of running their own company, they decided to close it down for a while. Eventually, Cheek By Jowl came back with the original artistic personnel (though without the original managing director) in place and went on with a renewed sense of vigor and purpose and continues to make inspired work to this day.

At the time when all the upheaval was going on, I was confused and sad. I was only 22 after all and I ignominiously lost my job after a year. But now that I look back at the artistic directors' decision, it makes a lot of sense. Sometimes you have to raze the mountainside to make it grow anew.
June 30, 2009 7:13 AM | | Comments (1)
The people that know Joe Jennings well say that he isn't given to voluminous outward displays of emotion. The few times I've spent in the company of the great American chorus conductor, interviewing him for articles about Chanticleer, the world-famous all men's a cappella ensemble he's been directing since the mid-1980s, or on more general vocal music subjects, he's remained piquantly understated to the point of terseness.

Jennings is, in fact, one of the most soft-spoken and taciturn interview subjects I've ever come across. But while his iterations are compact, they're often profound, so you have to get in close and tune in your ears to listen.

This was definitely the case during most of the past five days which I spent singing with Chanticleer and around 60 other choral music enthusiasts at the annual adult singing workshop which the ensemble holds in conjunction with Sonoma State University up in wine country.

During our daily afternoon rehearsals, Jennings, who is officially retiring this summer, cut an almost spectral presence. The choral director would shuffle into the room very quietly and painfully slowly behind the walker he now regularly uses to get around owing to an illness that is slowly but surely taking a toll on his mobility. Taking his place before the assembled choir, he would mutter a couple of words under his breath. The people sitting nearest him seemed to catch his drift and this would set off a ripple effect of communication until we all figured out what piece he wanted us to work on, at what measure he planned to start and what exactly it was that he wanted us to do with the music once we had it ready before our eyes. On occasion, though, the Chinese whisper mechanism didn't work and he'd end up repeating himself several times, each with more volume and better articulation. Then, after a couple of hours of concentrated effort, he would say something like "mmm-hmm" or "that's all" and shuffle on out of the room on his walker without further comment.

The hushed, self-effacing demeanor belies the sonic miracles that Jennings creates on stage. Chanticleer itself of course gets as close to nirvana as a choral ensemble can get. But what he managed to pull out of the workshop choir at yesterday's concert was profoundly moving -- not just because of the music which we performed, but also because of the powerful emotions that welled up and surfaced in this amazing and outwardly reserved conductor.

We had caught a glimpse of Jennings' secret superhero nature at rehearsal the day before, when he led the Moses Hogan spiritual, "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel" with such ferocity that he seemed demonically possessed. He threw his arms up in the air, he gyrated, his conducting roared. At one point, Jennings leapt carnivorously at the piano and played the entire score from memory thumping the keys on his feet like Jerry Lee Lewis going at "Great Balls of Fire."

I'm sure the members of Chanticleer, who were all present throughout the workshop, have experienced this side of Jennings on occasion before. But it was electrifying for someone like me, who'd only ever encountered him sitting before a tape recorder in an interview room or sitting statuesquely in the front row of a concert hall while watching Chanticleer perform, to see the music course through the conductor in this way.

When it came to yesterday's afternoon concert, the explosive outburst of the previous day's rehearsal mellowed into something quite different. During our set, Jennings face started changing. The poker expression he so often wears, with eyes blinking impassively from behind glasses, softened. His lips, which are usually pursed in an expression of vague disapproval, opened slightly. Jennings looked -- surely not, but, yes, actually, yes -- like he was on the verge of crying.

By the time we reached the last song in the set, Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria", the conductor's eyes were full of tears. They trickled down his cheeks as he moved his body to shape our singing. And all around the stage, the chorus responded to his gestures, in turn giving voice to Biebl's angelic music and the spontaneous surge of his emotions.

This was Joe Jennings' final official appearance on a podium with Chanticleer. And no one in that concert hall yesterday afternoon will forget it in a hurry.
June 29, 2009 10:15 AM | | Comments (1)
I'm off to the Chanticleer Summer Choral Workshop in Sonoma for the rest of the week. I'll be too busy singing to blog, most likely. So please find me here again next Monday.
June 24, 2009 8:03 AM | | Comments (0)
An actress friend of mine in New York who spends most of her time these days teaching voice at prestigious universities, told me a while ago that she had a fansite. She hadn't been in a stage production in some years. But a group of theatregoers were nevertheless enamoured enough with her work that they decided to dedicate a website to celebrating her career.

The idea that actors who work exclusively or at least predominantly in the theatre can have groupies used to seem a little odd to me. Theatre is such a localized medium and the people who work on stage, though admired within the performing arts community itself, don't generally make a big splash beyond its cliquish enclaves. So when my friend told me the news, my first reaction was: "I hope your so-called fans don't know your home address."

But since then, I've come to realize that you don't need to be Angelina Jolie or George Clooney to inspire groupie-like behaviour in theatre-goers as an actor. I make my living (or at least part of it) as a hard-headed theatre critic. While I probably won't be buying up the URL "" any time soon, there are certain performers within this community that I practically fall over myself to go and see in action.

I was thinking about this over the weekend when I went to see Aurora Theatre Company's production of Bob Glaudini's Jack Goes Boating. The main reason I went to see the show was because of the cast. Three of the four actors in Joy Carlin's whipcracker of a production -- Beth Wilmurt, Gabriel Marin and Danny Wolohan -- are local performers whose work I follow like a hungry dog sniffs out a bone. Amanda Duarte, the fourth actor in the production, is someone whose acting I had not seen before Jack Goes Boating. But I'm quickly becoming a fan.

It's not that I am in raptures about every single thing these actors do on stage. But there's just something about their approach to characterization and the way they throw themselves at their work that keeps me coming back for more.

This seems obvious I guess. After all, casting is something I always think about when I go to a movie -- I tend to choose films more on the basis of the actors appearing in them than on any other factor (e.g. director, theme etc.).

But somehow when it comes to theatre, I don't tend to make my decisions about what to see in terms of actors as much. I guess directors, playwrights, designers and themes play as great a role in determining my attenance of a live theatre event as the people performing in the show do. Also, when I've been to see productions on the basis of actors -- usually A-list starry types, the most recent example being Janet McTeer in Mary Stuart on Broadway (a dull effort) -- I tend to come away disappointed.

The thing about the cast members in Jack Goes Boating is that even when they appear in work that isn't great, they always manage to bring the level up a notch. And when they do perform in terrific productions (such as Carlin's slick and creative take on this tempestuous-sweet Glaudini play) the magic they manage to create on stage is palpable.

June 23, 2009 7:18 AM | | Comments (0)
After performing amazing music by the Milanese Benedictine nun Sister Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602-c1678) with my early music vocal ensemble, San Francisco Renaissance Voices, in Berkeley yesterday afternoon, I toddled off in the sunshine to the Julia Morgan-designed Chapel of the Chimes columbarium in Oakland to experience a musical event which I will not forget in a hurry.

Organized by the innovative Berkeley-based concert pianist and radio broadcaster Sarah Cahill, the Garden of Memory is a yearly event which invites members of the public to stroll through the crazy-beautiful maze of Morgan's home for human ashes and happen upon dozens of miniature live concerts by contemporary musicians and composers of all stripes.

I spent a few happy hours listening and wandering around and could have stayed all night, had the event gone on past 9 pm.

Though I relished the the performances by the likes of Kitka, The Paul Dresher Ensemble, Amy X Neuberg, Pamela Z and Cahill that I made an actual bee-line to hear and see, one of the most enchanting aspects of Garden of Memory is the opportunity the event affords to chance upon music rather than plan to hear it.

The map provided by the event's organizer's is fairly useless, which in a way is a good thing. At first, I tried to make my way to specific rooms in the Chapel. But then I gave up trying to read the tiny writing on the map, stuck it in my back pocket and took off in a random direction to see what I could find.

Many rooms in the columbarium offered up sonic surprises. In one space, a clarinet quartet played long, throbbing notes while a guy sitting in the back with a doctored trumpet attached with two very long tubes that snaked all the way around the room made voluminous honking noises. The sound was as eerie as it was captivating. Elsewhere, a group of studious-looking individuals dressed in black sawed and scraped an electronic wire using bits of bone and other implements. In a third enclave, a solo guitarist created a luxuriously ambient soundscape.

At one point towards the end of the evening, I found a little nook overlooking one of the Chapel's many cloisters and parked myself down on a chair. I sat there for about 10 minutes resting and listening. As the sounds of footsteps and quiet conversation mingled with with spiraling music coming at me from all sides, I felt a sense of complete and utter happiness.
June 22, 2009 8:59 AM | | Comments (0)
0.jpgDinner theatre need not be a bland mix of naff entertainment, cheap cocktails and wilted greens. Here's a YouTube clip of a Dutch performance company that takes the genre to new and apparently tasty heights...

June 19, 2009 8:37 AM | | Comments (0)
Arts organizations are forever commissioning research papers to test the validity of their various endeavors. Quite often though, the time, money and effort that goes into producing a study fails to be put to good use. The research is published, journalists sometimes write articles about the findings and then, the organization which funded the research might use the results in grant applications. But then, more often than not, the information quietly gathers dust in a filing cabinet or on a hard-drive somewhere.

When I heard about Theatre Bay Area's new study aimed at measuring the impact of the Free Night of Theater (FNOT) -- a now-national, annual event offering free theatre tickets to many shows in the region between designated dates in October and which the Bay Area was the first metropolitan area to pilot several years ago -- I was anxious to find out why TBA had commissioned the research and what the local performing arts umbrella organization hoped to gain by it.

Commissioned by TBA, the "Assessing the Intrinsic Impacts of the Bay Area Free Night of Theatre Program" study results, which were released on June 9, sets out an ambitious goal -- to "measure and demonstrate the inherent value of the arts."

Based on the study results, TBA concludes:

1. Regardless of ticket price, patrons who make it through the doors of the theatre and are captivated by the live performance do exhibit measurable signs of intrinsic impact from that art. The most notable of these signs include increased intellectual and emotional engagement, social bonding and aesthetic growth.

2. The FNOT program serves to create social accessibility by providing an opportunity for theatergoers with unsupportive social networks to attend the theatre. The data reveals that the lack of a social network can be a major barrier to theater attendance. However, by lowering the perceived cost (offering performances for free), theatre companies can generate large numbers of new patrons and foster new social networks - with a high number of patrons promising to return and pay due to the inherent and social impacts of the experience.

All well and good. The study results backing up these claims are published on TBA's website here. But what does TBA hope to gain by all this work? I asked the organization's marketing director, Clay Lord, for his thoughts:

"This first round was really just a pilot study to refine the survey and develop what we're calling the "dashboard," which is a dissemination device designed to be read by non-researcher-types. We're now in the last few days of writing a proposal for phase 2, which would run over the next 2 years in 5 cities across the country and would be used to both gather more data and build the infrastructure for us at Theatre Bay Area to take the data processing and analysis out of the hands of our consultants and make it accessible for a much cheaper price to just about any theatre company in the country. This scaling up is vital to the data actually being useful. We've gotten interest from a variety of foundations both locally and nationally, and assuming the funding comes through, Round 2 would kick off in the Bay Area, LA, Chicago, New York and one other city TBD this fall.

In a larger sense (which you may have been actually asking about), the question "What is this data good for?" is foremost in our minds. We do not believe this is just data for data's sake. As part of phase 2, we'll also be developing with our consultants a pre- and post-survey discussion process with the participating companies to help them understand the usefulness of the information, set goals and expectations on the work, and then look at where the goals and reality matched up (and didn't) post-study. As part of this, we'll be developing a series of potential strategies (and small test projects) to address what we think are going to be some of the issues that emerge from the results based on our consultant's prior work - issues like how to increase captivation/involvement of audiences following the show, which seems to be pretty correlated to audience retention rates, or how to minimize the number of impediments to captivation in the theatre (everything from ushers being friendly to making sure there aren't lights glaring in audiences' eyes to giving out a free glass of wine). By taking these intrinsic impact measurements and beginning to pair them with certain concrete actions, we move from abstract data into actionable steps.

Over time (following this study period), we hope to use a centralized database (to be built as part of this proposal) to be able to see trends, thereby hypothetically helping companies anticipate what types of shows will have what types of impacts (and of course, what outside-theatre impacts are the most affecting on audience engagement).

From my perspective as a marketing director, I can't wait for this data to be more widely gathered and used. To be able to actually see on paper if marketing materials are increasing anticipation, or if certain perks instituted in the venue are actually helping captivation - it would be a whole new way of working with audiences."

Like any study, it will be a while before the research can actually be put to positive use. At least Clay and his colleagues are thinking beyond the limits of the the data.
June 18, 2009 7:30 AM | | Comments (0)
Anna Netrebko's turn as Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata at San Francisco Opera is a big deal. The great Russian-Austrian soprano launched her American career at SF Opera in 1995, when, as the age of 24, she made her US debut as Lyudmila in Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila. Audiences in the Bay Area feel proud to have played a part in nurturing the singer's formidable talent. So, unsurprisingly, every performance of La Traviata in which Netrebko is appearing, is sold out.

By the third act of the company's performance of Verdi's opera last night, however, quite a few seats in the orchestra had been vacated. There are always a bunch of strange individuals who would rather avoid the after-performance traffic than stay for the denouement. But I regrettably couldn't blame the premature departures on this occasion and think that the seats may have been vacated for reasons other than congestion on the roads.

Set in the 1920s, Marta Domingo's production (originally created for Los Angeles Opera) is undeniably beautiful to look at. The Roaring Twenties set designs are among the most elegant I've ever seen on an opera stage. And, like many stage and screen productions coming out in the current recession, the luxurious sheen of the setting perfectly (if somewhat obviously at this point) presages the Great Depression and personal doom in Violetta's life.

But the diva did not seem on form last night. Despite the soaring clarity of her tone throughout, some of Netrebko's long held notes had cracks in them. She occasionally swooped up to make a high entrance rather than hitting the required note head on. Worst of all, was Netrebko's approach to depicting Violetta's illness. Although the character devotes quite a bit of time in the first two acts to explaining that her days are numbered, you wouldn't really guess that there is anything wrong with the character at all from Netrebko's lusty performance. All warning signs seem completely obliterated from her body language.

When Netrebko's Violetta faints at the end of act 2, she appears to do it more out of fear and shame as a result of being spurned by her lover than because she's expiring from consumption. As a result, the performer's sudden transformation into a dying swan in the final act seems completely unbelievable.

Perhaps Netrebko was just having an off-night. The house felt positively chilly when she appeared on stage at the start of the performance. By rights, the moment when the singer emerges from the back of a glamorous white Bentley like a movie-star should have aroused waves of applause from the audience. People in this city show their appreciation for a lot less. But Netrebko's arrival on stage didn't so much as elicit an appreciative "ah!" The dynamics of a theatre are strange.
June 17, 2009 7:57 AM | | Comments (1)
The chapel at San Quentin State Prison doesn't look like it would make a very effective place to stage a play by Shakespeare -- or any work for the stage outside of the morality play cannon for that matter. The dumpy modern room is equipped with a huge wooden crucifix on the back wall. A prisoner-artist's garish painting depicting a bloody, crucified Christ hangs to the right of the Crucifix. To the left hangs a more New Agey painting of a shadowy, God-like figure presiding over the Earth and other spinning planets in our galaxy. The walls also display plaques with Biblical axioms like "Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself." Though the room is bright, the atmosphere is sterile. There are copies of the Bible sitting in pockets at the back of the institutional wooden pews.

I wasn't sure what to expect as I took my seat for the prisoners' production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The only way to tell that the room would soon become the site of a theatrical event was by looking to the front, where the Crucifix had been partially covered with a painting of a forest dotted with tiny Victorian picture postcard fairies. To the left of the backdrop stood a makeshift cardboard archway (through which the actors would make some of their entrances). The rest of the set comprised of six chairs, center stage.

The prisoner-actors in the production, which was directed by Suraya Susana Keating, the leader of San Quentin's Shakespeare Program, had been rehearsing for this one-off performance for nine months. After several failed attempts to get the work up on stage infront of an audience (the latest of which, I blogged about here last week), the company was finally ready to go. The anticipation was palpable as I took my seat in a pew.

Being in San Quentin watching the inmates perform Shakepeare's comedy was startling. I'm still unpacking the thoughts and emotions I experienced yesterday. Over the course of a few hours I went from embarrassment (the result of turning up at the compound wearing "non-regulation" clothes and was given a pair of ugly green scrubs to put over my white linen trousers at the prison gate) to elation at the actors' comedic flair, energy and creative approach to characterization, to disconcertment at the bold interpretation of certain scenes (which took on new and strange meanings as performed within the gaol walls) and finally deep gratitude at having been given the opportunity not only to witness the actors' performances, but also to hear their thoughts about how working on the play is transforming their lives in a talk-back session after the show.

For me, the most affecting scene was the one in which Titania seduces the ass-headed Bottom. Normally, the scene is played as pure romantic comedy, with Bottom being entirely enthusiastic about receiving a pampering from a bunch of fairies and finding himself the object of desire of their bewitchingly beautiful Queen. But in this case, Bottom (played with great aplomb by Ronin Holmes, a San Quentin Shakespeare Company stalwart and charismatic presence on stage) was completely reluctant. Forced to comply with Titania's whims against his will, Bottom cut a distraught figure, trapped, like a prisoner, in a sinister and menacing fairy world and unable to set himself free. The strong reading of the scene brought out other aspects of Shakespeare's play in which characters, such as the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, are forced to do things against their wills. And because the play was performed by the inmates in a state penitentiary, the theme of entrapment seemed all the more potent.

At the end of the production, one of the actors talked about how he feels like he's not in prison when he's working on the play. It provides him with a wonderful outlet for escape. The program is obviously doing a great deal for the people who are involved in it and should be supported. The prisoners' engagement with Keating's Shakespeare classes ought to be taken into consideration by parole boards in deciding the fate of inmates.

At the same time, I couldn't help feeling emotional about what was being said in the talk-back and at the thought of the actors having to return to their cells after curtain. As Bottom so palpably demonstrated, even in the fairy kingdom, it's possible to feel entrapped.
June 16, 2009 10:27 AM | | Comments (1)
The Gershwins' folk opera Porgy and Bess has a long and contentious history in the US. Originally produced on Broadway in 1935 with a cast of classically-trained African-American performers, the work remained untouched by an American opera company until 1976, when the Houston Opera staged Gershwin's full score. The company chose not to include the cuts the composer had made prior to the Broadway opening, thus allowing audiences to experience the opera as Gershwin originally intended it to be heard.

The idea of a non-Black composer creating an artwork about a black community was unpalatable to many Americans throughout the middle of the 20th century. Commentators such as Duke Ellington found the Gershwins' portrayal of black life degrading: "The times are here to debunk Gershwin's lampblack Negroisms," Ellington is quoted as saying in Rodney Greenberg's book George Gershwin. Even today, many more people are familiar with musical versions of the work, which are considerably shorter and omit many of the original's recitatives. Since the 1935 production, Porgy and Bess has been revived on Broadway six times, most recently in 1983.

Francesca Zambello's 2007 operatic production of Porgy and Bess, which just opened in San Francisco with Eric Owens and Laquita Mitchell in the title roles, reminds audiences that the work indeed engages as an opera. The spiraling, blue and jazz-inflected arias, the characters' powerful emotions, the classic love triangle story line and the intricate orchestrations have the same devastating-elevating effect on the operagoer as the most dramatic efforts of Puccini and Verdi.

I experienced so many highs and lows in the space of three hours at the War Memorial Opera House over the weekend that I was emotionally and physically exhausted by the end of the performance.

The commitment of the ensemble (what a great piece in which to be a chorus member -- there's so much to do!) and lead artists to the material together with the artistry of the work's original creators prove once and for all that arguments about whether Porgy and Bess is really an opera or a musical are a waste of time. As I watched Owens' bearish yet vulnerable Porgy delicately cradle Mitchell's feisty, fiery-tressed Bess in his arms, all I could think of was one thing: Porgy and Bess is pure theatre.
June 15, 2009 9:32 AM | | Comments (1)
Tonight, the third of five pilot broadcasts of VoiceBox, my new public radio show about the art of singing on NPR affiliate KALW 91.7 FM, airs. At this just-over-halfway point in the series, I have to say that producing and presenting the show is one of the most satisfying experiences of my life to date.

Here's what I'm diggin':

1. Education. Broadening my knowledge of the vocal music landscape by listening to lots and lots of music and making the acquaintance of many great Bay Area, national and international vocal artists.

2. Championing. Having the opportunity to highlight great work and engage listeners and on-air guests in thrilling discussions about art.

3. Performing. I get a real buzz from being on air.

4. Writing. It's hard work, but I enjoy developing my ideas in script form and figuring out what language sounds best over the radio.

5. Technology. Getting to grips with all manner of software (e.g. audiohijack) and starting to get a handle on soundboard operation. One day I'll be brave enough to delve into ProTools.

6. Camaraderie. The people I work with at KALW, such as Matt Martin, Bill Helgeson, JoAnn Marr and Eric Jansen, are brilliant at what they do and extremely lovely and patient with rookie radio DJs. I feel honored to be in such esteemed company.

7. Unpredictability. There's nothing quite like live radio to make you feel like you're flying by the seat of your pants. For some reason, I quite like the sensation.

8. Philosophy. Singing is something that few of us really think about but that makes many of us really happy. I don't think I'm alone in believing that vocal music, especially when sung as a group, can be a broker for harmony and well-being beyond the songs that people sing. As such, I consider VoiceBox to be important work. I'm on a mission to expand people's listening and singing horizons.
June 12, 2009 9:34 AM | | Comments (0)
It's easy to begrudge Robert Lepage's big budgets. After last night's performance of the Canadian theatrical auteur's production The Blue Dragon, staged at Zellerbach Playhouse under the auspices of Berkeley University's Cal Performances, I overheard a few audience members grumbling about Lepage's expensive-looking hydraulic scenery and stage gadgetry.

"Why does he spend all this money on tiny little details when he could suggest them just as easily without going to all the expense?" one theater-goer wondered. "I could have staged that scene as imaginatively without the hooplah," said another.

In a way, the dissenters have a point. Like many of his other technology-heavy productions, Lepage's dreamlike stage poem about friendship, geopolitics and the relationship between ancient and new artforms is packed with what might be construed as gratuitous effects. A couple of times, for instance, a tiny, perfectly-constructed electric model train with bright yellow pinpoints of light in each window scuttles across the length of the stage while the actors cycle along on specially modified bikes. The effect creates a wonderful sense of perspective, with the actors on bikes seeming close to us and the train in the far distance. But the scene scantly contributes to the story-telling or our understanding of the characters.

On the other hand, I have to admit that I'm delighted by Lepage's use of his obviously ample resources. With so few theatre-makers having access to anything near enough cash to allow them to explore their creative vision to the full, it's rather wonderful to see someone with as much imagination as Lepage not only attracting the funding he needs to make the productions he wants, but also using the money in such an intelligent, engaging and emotionally provocative way.

A few Broadway and West End productions as well as Cirque du Soleil can claim sizeable design budgets. But in most cases, the clunky offerings we see in the commercial theatre come across as a waste of money. With Lepage, however, it seems like every cent is well spent.

Some of the design elements of last night's show will stay in my memory for a very long time. I don't think I'll forget the sight of actress Marie Michaud (who co-wrote and co-stars in the production alongside Lepage) returning to her friend's minimalist Shanghai home from a heavy night out on the town against a projected "wallpaper" background of fierce TV-style static in a hurry. The visual representation of a hangover completely conveys the character's inner feelings. Lepage's images are pure stage poetry -- and right on the money as far as I'm concerned.
June 11, 2009 10:35 AM | | Comments (1)
Even the most intelligent and bold stage auteurs can fall into the trap of cliche. Having caught the talented Bay Area writer-director Mark Jackson's expressionistic adaptation of Goethe's Faust at Shotgun Players at the weekend, I've come to the conclusion that the image of a young woman with red paint smeared below the waistline on the front of her dress may be in dire need of retirement.

Often used to suggest insanity and/or loss of innocence, a bloodstain on the nether-regions of an actress' clothes seems to crop up time and time again in plays and some films. One memorable example is Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia in Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 movie version of Hamlet opposite Mel Gibson. The image is extremely powerful and visceral. But it's been so over-used by directors that it's overstepped the line between engaging theatre-savvy audiences and boring them.

In Jackson's Faust Part 1, actress Blythe Foster as Gretchen finds herself in this unfortunate predicament before she -- surprise, surprise -- slits her throat with a knife.

There's part of me that wonders whether Jackson is trying to exploit the cliches of expressionism in this scene for artistic effect. Not only does Gretchen wear the bloodied dress, but she's also got botched makeup smeared haphazardly all over her face. She wears her lipstick on her cheek and her eyes look like bruises thanks to the puffs of blue-green makeup all over them.

Jackson exploits the archetype of feminine madness and disintegration so strongly that it's possible that he might be asking us to look beyond these cliches and see some deeper significance in them. But if that's the case, the meaning of this visual image in an otherwise thoughtful production was lost on me.
June 10, 2009 8:17 AM | | Comments (2)
Dozens of journalists, including myself, gathered at San Quentin State Prison on Monday morning hoping to experience a highly anticipated performance of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream by inmates which was scheduled to take place at 10am in the maximum security facility.

We had all gone through a a rigorous security clearance process and were about to enter the prison gates to see the show when a prison spokesperson explained that the performance had been canceled. Representing the Warden's Office, Samuel Robinson told the assembled crowd that the facility had gone into lockdown mode. A lockdown prevents visitors from entering and prisoners are rounded up and confined to their cells. According to a piece in today's Examiner, the lockdown was caused by a piece of missing equipment, which the spokesperson was not at liberty to discuss. Apparently the offending article was located at ten minutes to ten, but by then it was far too late to revoke the lockdown mode.

San Quentin's Director of the Arts in Corrections Program, Steve Emrick, said that this year represents the first time that cast members in a prison production are allowed to use props. In the past, the actors have had to conjure objects using their imaginations -- and the imaginations of their audiences. I wonder if the missing article that caused the security breach was a donkey's head?

The performance will be rescheduled at a later date. In the meantime, check out this great article about last year's San Quentin production of Much Ado About Nothing by's Denise Battista.
June 9, 2009 10:18 AM | | Comments (2)
San Francisco Opera mounted its annual simulcast of an opera production on Friday evening at AT&T ballpark. This year's event, which broadcast the company's production of Tosca starring Adrianne Pieczonka, Carlo Ventre and Lado Ataneli not only to patrons at the War Memorial opera house, but also to tens of thousands of people sitting under the stars at the San Francisco Giants' home across town, hit a home run as squarely as last year's production of Lucia di Lammermoor, starring Nathalie Dessay.

Here's a link to my description of the 2008 experience.

This year, I wish to add that I can't think of a better way to introduce large numbers of people to opera than this. Here's why:

1. The event is free. Anyone can attend.

2. The event is slickly and warmly managed with a legion of opera helpers clad in special "Opera at the Ballpark" baseball shirts on hand to answer questions and guide people to where they want to go.

3. You can bring a picnic or buy concessions at the park and eat and drink all the way through the performance.

4. If you have to get up to use to bathroom or need to leave for any other reason, you don't risk disturbing anyone else to any great degree.

5. You can wear what you like (though warm clothes are pretty necessary as it gets quite cold by the time intermission comes along.)

5. There's plenty of room for kids to run around.

6. The opera supplies free printed plot synopses and information about the cast and main production personnel. Also, the plot details are screened just before the start of the first and second half of the opera.

6. Video presentations before the opera begins and during intermission provide interesting information about many different facets of the opera, eg interviews with the head of the wig and costume shops, as well as an overview of productions past and present.

7. The opera partners with local classical music radio station, KDFC, to provide live commentary as the event unfolds. This year's commentators weren't completely on top of their game. But hopefully the use of a teleprompter will help to make things flow better next year.

8. Finally, the experience of sitting in the park as night falls watching a great opera performed by some of the world's most engaging opera artists with around twenty thousand other people is absolutely unrivaled. It's much more fun, in my opinion, than sitting in the opera house itself.

I can't wait for September 19 when SF opera presents a live screening of Verdi's Il Trovatore at the home of the Giants.
June 8, 2009 7:28 AM | | Comments (5)
A trip to see California Shakespeare Theater's production of Romeo and Julietdirected by Jonathan Moscone a couple of evenings ago prompted a conversation between myself and a friend about the challenges involved in scenes requiring theatre companies to create the illusion of crowds convincingly.

It's very hard to give theatre-goers a real feeling of a packed and throbbing space when there are only a handful of actors on stage. Different directors approach the problem in a multitude of ways some more successful than others.

The Cal Shakes cast put a lot of energy into staging the masqued ball scene in Romeo and Juliet. A quirky, loose-limbed choreographed dance routine to Rihanna's "Shut Up and Drive" was a lot of fun. The constantly flailing bodies created a jungle-like effect which made it believably tricky for Alex Morf's Romeo to physically make contact with Sarah Nealis' Juliet for the first time having spotted his heart's desire across the room. But despite the energy of the scene, the stage still felt underpopulated and both my friend and I found it hard to suspend our sense of disbelief and feel like we were really experiencing Verona's Party of the Century.

So what techniques have directors used successfully to make crowd scenes feel dense? Big budgets, of course, allow a lot of extra people to appear on stage. Crowd scenes in operas mounted by major companies usually feel busy because of the sheer numbers of supernumaries thrust in front of the footlights.

But what if you only have the money and/or artistic desire to create a crowd scene with three actors? My friend has a solution: He says he once saw a play in which a director created the feeling of a sweaty dance club by cramming the members of his small cast in a tight, see-through box in the middle of the stage. The close quarters apparently created a visceral feeling of compression, of bodies tightly entwined in space. He was won over by the illusion at any rate.

I've seen a similar effect achieved through the judicious use of lighting -- the partygoers stood close together in one part of the stage, which was strongly lit by patterned, club-style lights, and the rest of the stage was dark.

Any more ideas for staging crowd scenes? What works and what doesn't? Drop me a line.
June 5, 2009 7:52 AM | | Comments (0)
I spent last Saturday morning exploring parts of Salem, Massachusetts' wonderful Peabody Essex Museum. The museum stands out in the twee, witch-and-warlock-ified town of Salem for the cool, modern sophistication of its architecture, its gobsmacking collection of artifacts brought back from the Far East during the great age of seafaring by mariners and offbeat special exhibits. It also happens to be America's oldest continuously operating museum and boasts the only complete Qing Dynasty house located outside China.

The museum was full of surprises for me that day. In between mistaking an extremely finely-wrought sample of 19th century Chinese embroidery for a display of ink calligraphy, and thinking I was looking at early 20th century photographs of surfers instead of images captured over the last couple of years by photographer Joni Sternbach utilizing 19th century tintype photographic techniques, I met a toddler with a prodigious fascination for Oriental ceramics.

My friend and I were pottering around one of the Far Eastern galleries when a small boy who was in his father's arms looked at us and asked us for our ages. We told him how old we were. He told us his age. We exchanged names, though I sadly can't remember his. He then went on to talk extremely lucidly about his favorite bits of the Peabody collection and said a few words in Japanese.

His father, a pleasant, middle-manager-looking white guy in regulation kahki pants and polo shirt, told us that his son visits the museum several times a week. He can't get enough of it apparently. When a museum warden showed up, a huge smile spread across the boy's face. "It's Duck Man!" he declared delightedly. The warden grinned at the boy and made loud Daffy Duck quacking noises. The boy laughed and clapped his hands.

Perhaps one day, he'll be running this museum.
June 4, 2009 8:48 AM | | Comments (0)
I've lost count of the number of sub-par touring productions I've seen of classic plays by British theatre companies in the US over which American audiences go ga-ga irrespective of their quality.

With the possible exception of Tim Supple's Indian A Midsummer Night's Dream and Cheek By Jowl's Twelfth Night, I can't think of any British production I've seen in recent years on US stages that have actually been worth the price of admission.

Yet the adulation with which shows like Peter Hall's Theatre Royal, Bath production of As You Like It and -- the prompt for writing this blog post -- Phyllida Lloyd's take on Schiller's Mary Stuart for the Donmar Warehouse (which I saw in New York last week) have been received stateside give me pause for thought. Are people simply won over by the accents? Do theatregoers see names like Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter on the marquee and autmatically think to themselves "there are famous British actresses in this production therefore it MUST be superb"? Why do new world audiences lose all sense of critical judgment when it comes to experiencing productions from the old world?

A few weeks before I went to New York, I asked as many people in the know as I could for theatre recommendations. The one show that came up in almost every exchange was Mary Stuart. Which is why I decided to go and see the show. Admittedly, a couple of people who had not yet experienced the production for themselves recommended it to me, most likely on the basis of McTeer's well-received turn on Broadway as Nora in A Doll's House a few years ago.

But far from representing the best of British theatre, Lloyd's lifeless production is packed with the worst of its cliches. Though Walter, as a terse Elizabeth I gave a slightly nuanced performance, McTeer, as Mary, Queen of Scots, hit one melodramatic note throughout. Peter Oswald's adaptation killed all the poetry in Schiller's original. The whole thing felt stagey, pompous and tired.

I understand that by the time UK productions reach the US, they have often been running for a couple of years or more. This could explain the lack of freshness. But what I can't get my head around is the thunderous applause and critical hurrahs that the production is receiving on Broadway. "It's hard not to be at least a little in love with -- and more than a little in awe of -- the very leading ladies in Phyllida Lloyd's crackling revival (first seen at the Donmar Warehouse in London) of this 1800 tragedy of double-dealing politics," wrote Ben Brantley in the New York Times.

When, oh when, is the US going to get over its automatic deference to British theatre?
June 3, 2009 7:54 AM | | Comments (0)
Just read ArtsJournal colleague Jon Perreault's extensive and erudite blog entry about the Francis Bacon retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The opening paragraph sums up Jon's thoughts about the artist:

When it comes to Francis Bacon (1909-1992), less is more. The current "Centenary Retrospective" at the Metropolitan, on view through Aug. 16, is ample proof. One picture at a time can be quite effective, but seeing any Bacon that once might have taken your fancy (perhaps out of some deep-seated perversity) along with others of the same or far too similar ilk destroys any credence he might once have had as a major artist.

Perhaps I'm a sick soul. But since having experienced by first Bacon retrospective in London as a teenager (albeit I was slightly older than 13, when Jon wrote that he saw a reproduction of Bacon's famous Painting, 1946, at the Museum of Modern Art) I can't seem to get enough of this artist's work. Contrary to what Jon thinks, I believe that "when it comes to Francis Bacon (1909-1992), more is more."

My thoughts about Bacon were confirmed by a visit to see the exhibition at the Met last week. The cumulative effect of experiencing all those canvases together was overwhelming in a good way, like a great performance of the Verdi Requiem. It was also strangely life-affirming.

As I moved through the galleries from the artist's screaming early works through his pining reflections following the death of the love of his life George Dyer and finally to more introspective and almost detached pictures of sundry boyfriends and acquaintances in his final years, I felt like I was watching the evolution of a soul at close quarters. I liked the fact that the exhibition didn't simply dwell on the iconic paintings of the 1950s and 60s -- the ones depicting sinister popes and nightmarish monsters -- and instead only lingered for a while before moving on to show different stages of the artist's career and preoccupations. The progression allowed me to transcend the cliches that one thinks of when conjuring the work of Bacon (the fanged, moist-lipped mouths, the shapeless-fleshy abattoir forms) and thus appreciate the quality of Bacon's draftsmanship, his fragility and his malign sense of humor. I'd spend the night wandering those galleries if I could.
June 2, 2009 7:14 AM | | Comments (0)
When actor and performer Michael Laurence asked the Samuel Beckett Estate for the rights to include a passage from Krapp's Last Tape, in his own dramatic riff based on the Irish bard's 1958 bittersweet meditation on memory, he was, unsurprisingly turned down. The Beckett Estate basically doesn't allow anyone to do anything with Beckett's work except observe it to the letter. So a New York theatre-maker's desire to take the basic premise of Krapp -- a drama about a man who meticulously documents his life on tape and then goes back many years later to play back the recordings and use them as a jumping off point for further analysis, documentation and no small amount of despair -- and turn it into a meditation on his own life, was never likely to get the go ahead from Beckett's famously uptight lawyers.

Not that the non-cooperation of Beckett's Estate matters at all. For Krapp, 39, Laurence's 21st century homage to Beckett and attempt to purge a personal obsession with Krapp's Last Tape, doesn't need the words of the original author to resonate. Beckett's play ends with a disavowal: "I wouldn't want them back. Not with the fire in me now" and Laurence's play makes us feel the flickering flames of our lives to a degree that we too don't need to hear Beckett's words.

Krapp, 39, is a rambling, hyper-self-indulgent work that spirals between many different time periods as the shabbily-dressed, 39-year-old narrator (Laurence, playing himself or at any rate a version of himself) looks back at his meticulously documented past and wonders about his future. But solipsism is a clever tool in Laurence's work, which he exploits in such an over-the-top way that the self is as much present center-stage as it disappears from view completely.

In Beckett's play, the 69-year-old protagonist looks back at his 39-year-old self, who in turn comments, on tape, about an even earlier version of himself. If Beckett's play feels like a set of mirror reflections, Laurence's feels even denser. There are so many time periods and layers of personal history and egotistical mood swings in the piece that one comes close to losing oneself as a viewer as well as the "self" that's talking to us on stage. Fragments of past are like shards of glass that get under the skin and cause pain.

In some ways, Laurence's play differs from Beckett's in the sense of being like a splinter you can't remove. While Beckett's protagonist looks back at his life during its twilight moments and comes to a degree of self-recognition about his past, Laurence's character, more tragically, is at the turning point of his life. Beckett marks 39 as the age when one is at "the crest of a wave", and in Laurence's play we see a character fully aware of the meaning of what it is to be 39 and yet powerless to negotiate the turning sea.

But for all that, Krapp 39, is as funny and and oddly life-affirming as the play upon which it is based. Laurence is a generous, cheeky presence on stage at the tiny Soho Playhouse in lower Manhattan where I happily caught his performance last week. Sitting there among the debris of his life -- old and dusty knick-knacks of a bygone age like books, toys and photographs nudging the shiny newness of video screens, camcorders and laptops -- with his dusty, ill-fitting suit, deranged hair and bananas, he looks like he's a happy hermit crab.

It's no wonder that Krapp, 39 has been enjoying such a long run in New York. I hope audiences in other parts of the country get to experience Laurence's homage to Beckett too.
June 1, 2009 8:06 AM | | Comments (0)

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