Category Archives: Theatre

in all its forms

Audiences Await World Premieres, in Michigan

It was a special treat this week to focus again on theatregoing instead of my currently more customary filmgoing. It was also intriguing and exciting to be able to see two world premiere plays right in my (relative) backyard.

img_8280First up was a trip back out to The Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, well-known for its founder, actor Jeff Daniels, and its role as a cornerstone of the economy in Chelsea, a small yet well-settled town that is more or less the end of the metro Detroit sprawl as one heads west towards Kalamazoo, Chicago and other south/westerly points. The “Rose” makes a point of presenting new work – their fall play which I had also seen was a first-time presentation – but this time they did things particularly well with a strong script and production. In fact, I feel this play was one of the best I’ve seen in the entirety of my nearly four years living in Michigan.

Smart Love told a relatable story of a recent widow, Sandy, who at first glance appears to be doing OK at getting on with her life following the recent death of her husband. We’re introduced to her in the midst of a night spent with new boyfriend Victor at her home, said to be in the Detroit area. Just when things seem like they’re going to continue in a pleasingly domestic manner, Sandy’s son Benji appears at the door, urgently knocking and urging his mother to let him inside, even though it’s the middle of the night and they haven’t seen each other for a number of months. Benji is a scientific researcher at MIT (coincidental for me as a Massachusetts native) and chooses to come back to Michigan as he is eager to share some new creative developments related to his career and research.

And the story unspools from there, in surprising and often thought-provoking directions. Never going too far into the provocation category, the play stays in realistic gravity thanks to Kamoo, one of this area’s finest actresses IMO, who sells every moment from surprise to tenderness to anger to contemplation and beyond. The rest of the cast holds strong with the material and the twists and turns of the story. The key dramatic questions stay grounded in humane and familial realism, which was helpful to me as an audience member.

The second show of the weekend enabled a very belated first visit to Matrix Theatre Company in southwest Detroit. This group is thoroughly grounded in the tight-knit community of the city, and I’d intended to attend one of their shows on a couple times during the past few years, but didn’t make it until now. This play, Intentions, by Abbey Fenbert, looked at a small community of residents in an intentional living house outside Chicago. I wondered at times how the drama would reveal itself, and at multiple occasions the scenarios reminded me of the on-campus housing environments at my own college, where issues of green living, creating with purpose, entanglements with housemates and questions of how to conduct oneself in the outside world are often hot topics.

A mostly youthful five person ensemble cast keeps the tables turning on each other, and the script knew how to keep things fresh without falling into tropes of just two people talking or the scene going on too long. While some story elements were fairly predictable in my eyes, there was an appealing continued emphasis on nuances and the value of relationships. Several scene transitions carried the story along in its silent moments, as well.

Overall an appealing pair of newer plays, each with their own quirks and appeal, that I’ll continue to remember and appreciate for their origins right here in Michigan.

goodnight, 2016

and so a notorious year ends. It hasn’t been all bad for me personally, and if anything, I’m grateful to have turned around what could have been a bad year, more or less starting with an injury, into something more adventurous and ultimately optimistic.

It’s been particularly nice to end the year back here in “The California Homeland” of Marin County for the third consecutive year. It’s a good example of how time changes – five years ago I wouldn’t have said this winter visit would become a tradition – and maybe it sets a goal for 2017 of the past becoming the present again.

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Theatre, community and audience engagement

Community and audience engagement are intrinsically linked. The community supports audience engagement, while the audience engagement creates community and further involvement in other pursuits. In the theatre, the audience engagement sets the stage for the performance or event to be unique, distinctive and valuable to the community at large.

For me, the community and audience engagement are some of the most exciting aspects to theatrical life. There are opportunities to have great products and inside the theatre experiences, and they can be memorable, but they all have to begin with successful community and audience engagement. Crucially, those qualities generate response and create conversation, amongst audience members, staff, featured artists, and even passerby who may be unfamiliar with the company or specific show.

Community and audience engagement brings results and experiences for the theatrical venue. The qualities also create lasting memories and continued engagement for the patrons and artists. For the company itself, there is an opportunity to be more than just “that building on that street” or “that theatre I’ve never been to.” With solid community and audience engagement, the relationships become reciprocated. The venue gives back to its community and the community supports the venue in multiple ways, not just through philanthropy or attending specific productions.

In the theatre as a whole, community and audience engagement are the keys to continued satisfaction and enrichment on all fronts. It is important to not forget about how the audience reacts to the theatre. Most importantly, the theatre is the nexus of community and audience engagement, and all crucial developments generate from that hub.

The Cover Letter

… is not so intimidating once you actually sit down and write it.

Over the past 10+ years of theatre work experience, I have focused on positions that combine production and artistic engagement. In my current work at Wayne State, the experiences have built on each other in a satisfying and enriching way. My first year of the Theatre Management focused on building skills (in areas such as box office and house management along with general marketing and publicity) which then transitioned into leadership tasks in the second year. In the current third and final year, those duties have gone a step further to include mentoring of younger students and colleagues along with a more involved role in audience engagement, artistic and general management planning to ensure a successful season.

Some of my earlier theatre production positions centered around stage and artistic management, and as a continuing AEA member I am well aware of best practices for successful production. Those management roles occasionally branched beyond the theatrical realm, most satisfyingly in two years of involvement with a noted film festival in Marin County, California.

All of these theatrical positions stemmed from an earlier in life interest in acting and directing, and it’s clear that this position allows for a melding of many artistic engagements along those realms. The role of the theatre in its community has become increasingly important to me in recent years both as a patron and a worker, and I am particularly interested in ways that the theatre/arts organization can serve and interact with its surroundings, beyond just being a building or organization that presents material for the community and into a relationship that demonstrates genuine reciprocity and commitment.

Embracing the Unknown

I thought this would be a good excuse for a trio of posts with “unknown” in the title … because increasingly these days in the world it seems to be a contrast between an (induced?) fear of the unknown and embracing the challenges of the unknown.

I’m heading right into the unknown as it appears, consisting of a delicate balance between focusing on the nuts and bolts and processes of the last year of my MFA program … and looking ahead to The Unknown of what lies beyond that experience. As part of the challenge, I’ve begun regularly reviewing various job listings websites. The two most prominent ones for my theatre/performing arts fields are frequently updated, with the subscription-based one probably carrying a bit more cache than the open submission one.

Part of the challenge and opportunity of the unknown field of these decisions is simply within the art of embracing the challenge. That effort has become clear to me as two positions that I felt particularly interested in and well qualified for have appeared on either side of the USA. For me, seeing those jobs listed generated a positive reaction mixed with a bit of self-doubt … am I (are you) good enough for that position? That experience and choice? Going down that unknown road?

It might seem a little obvious to declare that it IS worth that effort and experience to apply, take the interview, step out of the comfort zone and so on … but I think part of this particular moment and process is embracing and striding forward into that unknown.

Albee from Dubuque

I’m disappointed that Edward Albee’s play The Lady from Dubuque, which he very specifically wrote about mortality, appears to be getting overlooked in the tributes following his death on Friday.

Oddly, on Friday evening, before learning of his passing, I told someone about the memory of seeing Maggie Smith perform in that very play in London at the end of March, 2007. Smith hasn’t appeared on stage since, so I’m especially grateful to have seen the production and met her afterwards, which I briefly chronicled in a LiveJournal post the following day, excerpted below.

After the show I was feeling adventurous, and we decided to go to the stage door to see if we could get Maggie Smith to sign our program. Surprisingly, we were the only fans there. We didn’t have too long to wait before she appeared. I decided to play the “USA tourist” role (partially owing to a slight nervousness of meeting a theatrical legend!) and said to her, “We’ve travelled all the way from the USA to see you tonight and would love it if you could sign our program!” She smiled graciously and said “Of course” with considerable genuineness. She really did seem to be just as warm and gracious as her actorly persona suggests, and said “god bless!” as she got into her waiting BMW, to which Mom replied “and God bless you, Dame Maggie!” — a fitting in-person tribute, and a true thrill to meet her as she’s probably my 2nd favourite British classical actress.

When the words capture your imagination

Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse (aka “The” Vineyard Playhouse) does many things well in its continued year-round operations, and one of the highlights to me is their summer series of Monday Night Specials, a one-off staged reading of a new script at some stage in its development. This summer I could only see one of the offerings, and so this past Monday I was in the audience for the large cast staged reading of A Month in the Country, newly adapted by playhouse artistic associate Carol Rocamora.

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One of LAST YEAR’s Monday night specials at the Playhouse

A large cast of at least 12 actors in a wide range of ages gave life to the story. The Playhouse often brings back actors who have been seen in fully staged productions for their readings, so not only did I know 5 of the featured actors, I had seen a few more of them in other projects, and there were a few that looked familiar from one thing or another.

In a staged reading, sometimes the presence of the script and accompanying music stand can serve as a distraction to the audience, along with the additional actors sitting and reading along. That was not the case with this evening. A subtle attention to detail and character moments, coupled with some quick thinking on account of the actors, ensured that I (and hopefully other audience members) quickly left the “real” setting behind and felt instantly transported into the character’s world.

In the second act, it became even more clear that the actors were comfortable with going the extra mile, as the play included not one but TWO rather passionate kisses between characters, along with implied other entanglements. Relate-ability was key here too, as it was clear that the actors were having fun with those big moments! (as opposed to possibly getting swept up in the heightened drama within a fully staged production.)

The Monday night specials continue to well represent some of the hallmarks of creative live theatre and dynamic in the moment adventuring that often leads to the most rewards.

Inspecting…

It’s good to be sitting in the dark here in the Hilberry Theatre instead of sitting in the quiet at my house while the acting company puts the finishing touches on our current production, Inspecting Carol, before it enjoys Opening Night and a (total) three week run beginning Friday night.

This is somewhat keeping me away from focusing on end of the semester writing assignments, but that’s clearly par for the course at this point. If anything, it is pleasing to note that the tail end of the semester seems to be delivering more focus for me than at other times so far during this academic year. Perhaps there is something to be said for working under pressure and deadlines in a collaborative environment.

Continuing with my recent theme of “focusing in on the minutiae” I’d like to note an odd, but fun experience while driving into work this morning. As opposed to the aggression of eight days ago, which I noted in a corresponding blog post, this time I was much more “go with the flow”, although I had decided that today would be my weekly stop at the Tim Horton’s on the way into work. (I’ve come to treat it as a game of sorts to not go there every day.)

Not long after departing the Tim Horton’s (which was having a clusterfuck parking lot moment, so I’d parked in the adjacent lot), I flipped radio channels to my semi-regular station 93.9 and the song I’d thought and hoped might be playing was right there on the station!

Of course, this is as much a commentary on the station’s possible lack of variety as it is to my own keen intuition – a Jedi Mind Trick of sorts – but it still was a nice coincidence.

Yesterday's sunset from the office window

Yesterday’s sunset from the office window

Focusing in on the Minutiae

Some blogs do a great job of focusing in on the little details, the big moments in their author’s memories that seem to stand out in their author’s memories. Or maybe they have been embellished for detail and only the author knows the truth. In any case, this is a detail that I feel like my writing is only periodically successful with, and it’s something I’d like to work on. So I present this entry in a deliberately more active style.

Today, the Monday before Thanksgiving break, had that “ehh…” feeling that most Mondays tend to have. It was likely amplified for a variety of reasons, including our impending time off from the academic calendar (which will start tomorrow night for me), the sense of just hanging around after my midday class concluded, and, broadly, Michigan’s sudden shift back into winter weather this weekend, with up to a foot of snow in some parts of the state, and a relatively mild dusting here in metro Detroit.

Two brief interactions over the course of my day (which hasn’t ended yet, so there could be more!) made me feel like I had an invisible “(YOU CAN) TALK TO ME!” stamp on my face.

A recent morning view from Tim Horton's

A recent morning view from Tim Horton’s

In the first instance, I ordered my usual beverage at my on-the-way-to-work Tim Horton’s (where I’ve just recently crossed over into being “a familiar customer”), and an older man in his 40’s or 50’s was sitting near the counter. He suddenly started talking to me about gas prices and how it is notable that Michigan prices have recently fallen to around $1.75 per gallon or higher (which completes a cycle of up then down that started at the beginning of this calendar year.) I replied with some standard conversation and seemed to surprise him when I said the lowest gas prices I remember are around 89 cents per gallon in the late 1990’s.

I’d also like to note my impressed feeling that this Tim Horton’s location is often a hangout for US-Canadian Border Patrol officers.

In the second instance, I’m in my work elevator, which is generally the usual spot for awkward silences, since it draws a mixture of faculty and students. The fellow passenger actually engaged me in conversation, and I don’t remember what it was about! I do remember a similar instance sometime last week where the elevator briefly stopped in its path and seemed to be deciding whether to actually get stuck or continue, (it did proceed) – but the next day, the power went out in the building for at least an hour, and I wondered if that was a precursor.

Maple Theatre

Visiting the Bloomfield Great Lakes Coffee (inside the Maple Theatre), January 2015

A detailed blog post could be written about the venue where I am writing at this moment, known as the Great Lakes Coffee Company. It is a small chain of fair trade coffee shops in the metro Detroit region, and this location also has a beer and wine license. In the past I have enjoyed another of their locations adjacent to The Maple Theatre in Bloomfield Hills, where I took the picture displayed here at one of their very classy jazz evenings, but it is no longer as convenient a trip for me in my current living arrangement.

Nonetheless, this location on Woodward Avenue in Detroit could easily be seen as a hipster capital of Detroit, and I once heard it referred to as “capital of the New Detroit” (though I forget who or what said that) – meaning that the people who have flocked to Detroit within the past 5 years are more likely to turn up here than long-time residents. A friend says that the venue once served as a music club, and it’s easy to see its roots with exposed brick walls and rough hardwood floors. For a time I felt like I was watching the place change, as it instituted an awkward reserved seating policy involving hosts and table service, and seemed to want to deliberately elevate itself to a fast-casual type of place. I also felt like I didn’t particularly want to associate with that “new Detroit” energy (although I admit I could be seen as part of that same crowd) coming here and being seen, just because.

But … things seem more relaxed this time around, and it’s only the second or third time I’ve been here since returning to Detroit for the school year. I can’t tell if this is a permanent relaxation or increased comfort among the venue itself, but I think it does warrant a return visit sometime down the road.

Blogging is an Art

One of my cousins started a blog. And it’s not simply a commentary blog, it’s a detailed personal blog about life in the Big Apple. I’m not sure I would want to do the same thing for life in Detroit and surroundings, but it does remind me of what I call “the old days” of blogging, first when a long update on life via LiveJournal – sometimes several times per week – was the norm, later in a more public blog off and on for a few years, then morphing into Twitter updates that continue through to this day, and finally embracing the increasingly verbose and visually sophisticated art of Facebook status updates, which now IMO are currently more about the art of the “share” from another source, and less about the actual written status of the friend.

All of which to say is that this blog was originally intended as a way to “go back” to the habit of a more detailed description of daily life, and since its creation in 2009, I’ve come back to that objective periodically. But recently, for one reason or another – starting with no internet in the place I lived over the summer, and then going into a new residence from there and choosing not to have internet – this blog has felt more distant. It’s time to correct that!

SO, this weekend I spent a good deal of time in Canada, which I generally like to do, since it is literally right down the street and there are many subtle, fun cultural differences in going just over the border. At some point I became aware that the artistic culture is different as well, and I also learned that the Canadian film culture is occasionally ahead of the game from its US counterparts, as in a film is released earlier or simply comes to the area but doesn’t come to southeastern Michigan. And this fact is the most apparent when the Windsor Film Festival rolls around for another year, as it did this past week.

On the final day yesterday, the festival director excitedly noted that 17,000 tickets were sold during the five day event, a new record for their offerings. Three of those tickets were from me for three distinct films.

45 years posterFirst up on Friday night was 45 Years, a buzz-building drama expected to be rolled out in the US around Christmas. Star Charlotte Rampling is also expected to factor in the end of year awards season conversation for her role in this film. She plays Kate, a retired schoolteacher living in rural Norfolk, England, with her husband, Geoff. The couple is mere days away from their 45th wedding anniversary as the film opens, and due to some health problems they experienced five years before, they’ve decided to host a large scale celebration this time. The drama gets going when Geoff receives an unexpected reminder of his past, and the narrative moves forward from there.

I notice that the synopsis sounds more like a mystery or horror film, and 45 Years very much treads in that realm at times during its 95 or so minute running time. A crucial choice made by director Andrew Haigh involves leaving many details to the viewer’s imagination and almost nothing spelled out in the narrative. That is something that I greatly approve of in film storytelling, and is yet all too rarely seen!

It’s not a surprise that Rampling (whom I had the pleasure of seeing perform onstage in 2004, sort-of met after the show, and owe my appreciation of her work to this Avengers episode) ably carries the film on her veteran shoulders. But it was refreshing to see her drop a certain steely demeanor she’s become known for IMO in some of her recent roles over the past 5-10 years – she was believable as a person who enjoys the more relaxed side of life, and life in retirement phase. But when her husband’s surprising news affects her as well, there are many questions and she conveys the lonely confusion and disarray that envelops the character’s life.

As for the other two films, I’ll have to do a separate entry.